Ministerial appointment raises questions

Editorial

It is entirely the prime minister’s prerogative to appoint his Cabinet but at least one of the appointments made soon after the election victory in the Parliament last Wednesday has and will raise many questions.
A few short months ago, re-appointed State Enterprises Minister William Duma and his then Defence colleague Fabian Pok were sidelined by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to make way for a commission of inquiry – later downgraded to an administrative inquiry – into the acquisition of land at Manumanu in Central Province for the relocation of PNG Defence Force establishments from Port Moresby.
Whether the inquiry had the time to complete the task then and how far it had progressed since, the public was not told.
The national election pushed the matter to the back of the public’s mind but soon after the formation of government last week, Duma was appointed caretaker minister of the very ministry that he was sidelined from because of allegations related to the Manumanu land deal.
As the prime minister would himself have expected, the appointment has been questioned already.
Duma’s United Resources Party happens to be a major coalition partner in the new government and would have changed the outcome of last Wednesday’s election in the House.
The serious allegations against Duma and Pok are still there and one cannot simply will them away.
Although appointing Duma in the caretaker Cabinet might have been politically expedient, given that he is the leader of a major coalition partner, it would have been prudent to have put off any such appointment until Duma was cleared of any Manumanu land deal allegation.
The prime minister admitted after the national election that the previous government, which he led, had made some mistakes and the public would be expecting his new government to correct them, or in the least, avoid a repeat.
The Manumanu land deal has neither been dealt with administratively nor through the justice system.
Questions surrounding the legitimacy of the whole process of land acquisition, the parties and the large amount of public money involved remain to be answered.
And those questions would be best dealt with through the administrative inquiry.
When the land deal was made public, O’Neill acted quickly and sidelined the ministers along with the senior public servants in the departments concerned and announced the inquiry.
Without the benefit of the findings from any inquiry, the prime minister has proceeded to re-appoint one of the main players implicated.
It is a generally accepted principle that until those implicated have been cleared and allowed to prove their innocence beyond reasonable doubt, they should not be engaged in any public office.  This is not only to safeguard the integrity of the public institutions concerned but also to benefit the individuals concerned themselves because their conduct would be made a lot more transparent thereafter.
Re-elected Member of Karuku-Hiri Peter Isoaimo and Transparency International PNG have questioned Duma’s appointment.
Isoaima said that if the spending of government money in such manner is not questioned it would become accepted government behaviour.
His other concern is land-grabbing. National Alliance party leader Patrick Pruaitch says it must stop and, most importantly, the Member for Hagen open must not take any portfolio of consequence in the government until the investigation is complete and the findings made public.
Pruaitch has vowed to assist the Central landowners to seek legal representation on the matter.
Transparency International PNG, on the other hand, is calling on O’Neill to keep his promise to the people, and revoke the appointment of the Hagen MP.
In a statement, TIPNG said the prime minister was on public record as making a clear commitment that the estimated K2 million administrative inquiry will examine the details of the land deal.
It said Papua New Guineans expect leaders to be cleared of all alleged serious wrongdoings before being entrusted to make decisions that will affect the people.
Duma’s appointment simply brings into question O’Neill’s own commitment in this matter and his public statements on his government’s stand against corruption.
It does not send a healthy signal to the public.
On the contrary, it may cause public mistrust in the government’s efforts to instil transparency and accountability in state institutions.
That certainly is not what a popular government would want.

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