By FRANK SENGE KOLMA
THE effectiveness of the Provincial Government system was already in question in the first decade after Independence.
Despite early signs of success in some provinces such as East New Britain, North Solomons, Manus, Morobe and Western Highlands the system became heavily politicised and goods and services delivery stagnated as demarcation lines became blurred as to which functions were national and which were provincial and who was to do what.
Weak administrative capacity, lack of trained manpower, lack of financial and managerial knowledge and skills and unstable and weak political leadership paved the way for numerous instances of mismanagement and corruption.
These issues fomented political jealousies and undermined any positive gains or innovations made in the system. The local government system introduced in Morobe, the per head tax collection imposed at that level and the change to a popular vote where the Premier was directly elected by the people in Morobe and on Manus were cases in point which might have led to further improvement had they been promoted in more places.
Sadly, these developments were few and far in between and failed to gain traction when pitted against the mounting errors so prevalent everywhere else.
Indeed, as we shall see in a future discussion when we examine the Morobe case closely, politics and political intervention ruined the entire show.
One after the other, in domino fashion, provincial governments fell under the hammer of suspension.
By 1995, when the Organic Law on Provincial Government was repealed in its entirety and replaced by the Organic Law on Provincial and Local Level Governments (OLPLLG) all except five provincial governments had been suspended. The reasons given were varying but the most popular crimes which warranted suspension were gross financial mismanagement and corruption and these verdicts were everywhere handed out.
Hundreds of millions of kina went down the tube on a system of government which stated purposes – to bring government closer to the people, to empower the people to have a say in the furtherance of their own welfare and for effective delivery of goods and services – had spectacularly missed the target.
That the people wanted decentralised government was blatantly obvious. They resented the distance between themselves and the national government in Waigani and had made their views known repeatedly.
During the extensive national consultation process carried out by the Constitutional Planning Committee between May 1972 and August 1974 and a similar one carried out in 1994 by the Micah Committee prior to terminating the entire Provincial Government arrangement in its earlier form, the people’s views were abundantly clear that a system of government closer to the people was preferred.
Just what sort of a government and how was it going to be structured to achieve the desires of the people has remained elusive to date.
As we discuss this a third proposal is before Parliament from the Constitution and Law Reform Commission, also following nationwide consultation across two years starting in 2018, proposing a repeal of the OLPLLG to make way for a gradative decentralisation process.
As discussed previously, this particular recourse had been proposed by the Somare executive government back in 1975 but was never taken up.
Curiously, the 1995 amendments to the National Constitution to provide for the new provincial and local level governments actually provides for a gradative decentralisation process for both levels of government at Section 187G.
187G. Gradations of Provincial Governments and Local-Level Governments.
“Nothing in any law is inconsistent with this part so far as it provides for the full status, powers and functions of Provincial Governments and Local-Level Governments to be acquired by a Provincial Government and Local-Level Government in stages as provides for gradation of Provincial Governments and Local-Level Governments and for Interim Provincial Governments.”
How it is that PNG has arrived back at the starting block via a hugely expensive-46-year circulatory path must stand as an example of extremely bad law and policy making that requires careful analysis if only to never visit it again.
Now before we examine some of the underlying reasons why the provincial government system appears to have failed, let us change the angle slightly and ask ourselves whether or not the provincial government system as forced upon PNG is the correct one.
Closer studies have been conducted and far more have been said about inter-government relations, the legal and fiscal arrangements and the effectiveness of their delivery across the years by scholars like Conyers, Levant, May, Regan, and by institutions dedicated to the task such as the National Economic and Fiscal Commission and the National Research Institute, which are compulsory reading for all politicians and those engaged in the business of government because taken together the discourses carry much that are instructive in plotting a way forward as PNG’s 50th anniversary of Independence looms in 2025.
My own take from the most cursory readings and observations as a media man across the years is that no system adopted or imposed anywhere is ever really wrong.
The emphasis must always be upon its purpose: What job is it meant to deliver and how best can that job can be done applying the political structure proposed?
Working that out should then set the task easier for all but that working-out process, as we have said before, never even entered discussion stage.
The entire provincial government system was dropped as being too unwieldy when the Constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly and when it was introduced, the entire dropped section was just reinserted with not a word raised in debate as to its effectiveness or whether or not any province was ready for it.
The purpose for the provincial government system, in the words of the ‘father of decentralisation’, Dr John Momis is this: “One of the most important recommendations by the Constitutional Planning Committee was to set up Provincial Governments throughout the country and give them a measure of autonomy thereby enabling the people to take control of their local affairs.
Empowering people through decentralisation would make the people become important and responsible stakeholders in the national effort to create a new nation out of a conglomeration of tribes. We had to get rid of the highly centralised and bureaucratised government of Konedobu which systematically and consistently disempowered the people and make them into passive recipients of goods and services.”
Nothing wrong there except that instead, in practice, the provincial government system created 19, now 22, separate Konedobus in each provincial headquarters, complete with centralisation of powers and resources and heavy bureaucracy with the one stark difference that this time provincial governments removed the ‘goods and services’ from the people as well.
It turned out that way because the provincial governments were a complete reproduction of the national government arrangement.
The political structure for the provincial government was the same as the national government. There was a provincial assembly of elected provincial members, complete with speaker and clerks at the table. There were provisions for nominated special personages.
A premier was elected by the provincial assembly as Parliament does the Prime Minister and both named their own cabinet of ministers. Three provinces, North Solomons, Manus and Morobe passed laws to elect the premiers by popular vote but others held on to the parliamentary practice.
The provincial assembly could pass laws and raise certain classes of taxes within the province. The provincial ministers ran their own ministries, got allocated funds under the provincial budget and ran little projects and programmes, often directing the provincial department divisions in each sector to do their bidding.
Where national functions and funding started or stopped and provincial responsibilities began was never really clear. A strong manager worked the system effectively in one place and a slack one let things go to rot in another.
Decentralised functions were operated ad-hoc from year to year on availability of funds and staff and good management.
The secretary of the province was the head of the public service in each province. He reported to the national minister for provincial affairs and his secretary of the department but was answerable too to the provincial government as much of his work was in the province.
The provincial secretary had divisional heads who were charged with decentralised functions which came under provincial functions.
A six-person secretariat was to provide for the provincial government but how that functioned was never really clear.
Divisional heads and national public servants seized the relaxed atmosphere and lack of proper line of command to play politics and neglect their duties. Flow of goods and services to the people suffered big time.
Political alliances were conveniently forged at this level which impacted national politics at the one end and local government level politics at the other end. Local government councillors were seen forging ties with national MPs who felt threatened by the provincial politician. The provincial politician felt threatened by the councillors and all these fear emanated from the perception of who was closest to the voter, the most important person that each politician was in office to serve and who could, by a flick of the wrist at elections, send each member into oblivion.
Timing is always everything. PNG tried to do too much all at once when it was clear right from the start that the people were not in the least prepared for or agreeable on Independence or the timing for it or even the system of government adopted to go with it.
The national government, with its three independent but complimentary arms and their workings and the National Constitution which breathed life into them needed to be sold first to the people. And that is something the best and brightest brains beat their heads across four years at the university to acquire and get accepted into the exclusive club of law-breathing legal eagles. To sell it to a population which majority had not seen the insides of a formal classroom was impossible and it was not attempted.
What the coloniser had done when faced with this dilemma was to ignore us, treat us with contempt and beat into our heads only those things that, with repeated whacking tended to get some messages through, enough to do what the ‘masta’ wanted and that was sufficient for him.
When we removed the ‘masta’ and his stick at Independence we did not replace him with anything. That the need was recognised is clear, which is why Integral Human Development, is the number one National Goal, but we never devised adult education which is what was required at the time and still is at the present time.
The village-based Local Government Council system was most familiar with the people and indeed that was the structure the people wanted to see introduced and formalised in the Constitution. In fact, it never entered the legal framework of the system of government proposed in any serious format.
That system had developed under the village constable in Papua and luluai and tutul practices in New Guinea from before the First World War which took more permanent form after the Native Local Government Councils Ordinance of 1949 and so the people were very familiar with its workings.
By 1960 there were 36 LLGs covering 250,000 people which increased five years later to 114 covering over one million people.
The 1949 ordinance was replaced in 1963 by a Local Government Ordinance. This law extended the powers of local government councils and they were now to maintain law and order, build, maintain and manage roads and bridges, parks and gardens, aid posts, ambulance services and public toilets, housing schemes, markets, water, light and power supplies.
Indeed they could plan and make land reclamation and engage in agricultural, pastoral, horticultural and forestry industries. They built and maintained airstrips and bus services and could make rules regulating public health, building, town planning, the control of livestock, and school attendance; the provision of agency functions and collect taxes and engage in business.
This might have been the form of government, it could have been the only form, the people had in mind when they insisted upon a government close to the people.
Instead they got given an exact replica of the foreign system that was being handed to them at the national level, again at the provincial level.
It was a double dose and it is little wonder the people have been drunk on it since the very beginning.
Had they been given the local government council system, now fully underscored and protected by the National Constitution, PNG’s fortunes might have been completely different.
You gave the people something which was very familiar to them so acceptance would have been universal and immediate.
They already had their clearly demarcated powers and functions, also familiar and widely understood.
Financing was already organised and in all instances they were allowed to collect per head taxation and impose community work days and start own business.
Many successful businesses emerged from local government council funds which continue to operate today. In Western Highlands Wamp Nga Group of Companies is one of them.
The hugely successful Wahgi Mek Plantations was the business of the North and South Wahgi Councils before it was messed up by local politics.
We next look at the Fiscal and Funding arrangements of the previous Provincial Government System and if space allows the Good Years and Bad Years of Morobe under that system to show us how it really worked and failed in one province.