Call to end delays around corruption in PNG

8:29 pm on 25 April 2019

A long-touted Independent Commission Against Corruption could be finally about to fly in Papua New Guinea, but the government's critics remain sceptical.

Papua New Guinea's MP for Esa'ala, Davis Steven.

Papua New Guinea's MP for Esa'ala, Davis Steven. Photo: Post Courier

Last week, PNG's Justice Minister and Attorney General, Davis Steven, announced that a bill to establish an ICAC would be tabled when parliament sits next month.

Despite resigning from cabinet two days later, Mr Steven maintained that the government was committed to fighting corruption.

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has been signalling government intent to create a Commission Against Corruption for several years.

After losing its way within the bureaucracy in recent years, the ICAC bill is now being prepared by officials, according to Mr Steven.

He said it was one of the last instructions he gave as minister to the Secretary of Justice, Dr Eric Kwa.

"The final draft must now go to parliament. We can't just continue to pussy-foot round," the MP said in an exasperated tone.

"It's taken decades for someone in Waigani - whether technocrats or whoever - to do their bit. I think the time has come for this bill to go to parliament."

PNG civil society groups had objected to an earlier draft of the ICAC bill where it appeared to remove powers of arrest and prosecution proposed in earlier versions. They are watching closely for what sort of bill emerges now.

Lawrence Stephens of Transparency International PNG.

Lawrence Stephens of Transparency International PNG. Photo: Loop PNG

"We'd be really happy to see legislation come forward," said Lawrence Stephens, a member of Transparency International PNG which has been involved in consultations around the ICAC bill.

"We would also be watching carefully to see that the legislation was the legislation that we were pushing for, with all the strengths that an ICAC requires."

PNG's law enforcement agencies have been poorly-resourced for years, undermining the fight against systemic and systematic corruption in the country.

Lawrence Stephens said that for an ICAC to work, it had to be backed up by support for existing institutions whose work relates to the commission.

"It's always been our position that we need to be sure that introducing ICAC goes hand in hand with support for the existing institutions, the police, courts, ombudsman and so on.

"We're watching for that. We're insisting that that be part of this process," Mr Stephen said.

But the opposition MP, Kerenga Kua, doubts that the government will make good on its latest promise to create an ICAC.

Mr Kua formerly served as Attorney-General and Justice Minister in the O'Neill government from 2012 to 2014.

He was sacked by Mr O'Neill after the prime minister disbanded the anti-corruption investigative unit Taskforce Sweep, which was established under Mr Kua's ministry.

At the time, a Taskforce Sweep investigation into alleged illegal state payments to a law firm had resulted in an arrest warrant for Mr O'Neill.

Kerenga Kua

Kerenga Kua Photo: Loop PNG

With Taskforce Sweep swept to the margins, the government began talking more about establishing an ICAC. In 2017 the government even announced it had appointed an Australian judge to head an interim commission against corruption.

However, the commission never got off the ground. As early as 2015, opposition MPs criticised the government for taking too long to create the commission.

According to Mr Kua, a true Independent Commission Against Corruption works against the accrued interests of this government.

"It's not in their personal interests to introduce this bill," Mr Kua said.

"Either they will not table it, or if they do table it then it will be a completely watered down, useless version of the ICAC, which will serve no purpose at all, with no wide-ranging powers to do the things that it's supposed or intended to be doing."

Concerned that the ICAC would not be truly independent, the anti-corruption group Act Now has warned against moves to put the Prime Minister in charge of appointing the commissioners.

However, Mr Steven denied that the prime minister would have any say.

"It's not the prime minister. It's a committee, and the composition of the committee is not entirely political. It's the ombudsman and a few others who are obviously independent from politics," he explained.

Davis Steven resigned from cabinet last week, citing a need for a new approach to government, warning that the rule of law was at stake.

Still a member of government, the Esa'ala MP said the establishment of an ICAC was a matter of great public interest. But he admitted that bills such as this too often lose momentum in the system.

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