Power returned to the people

Normal, Weekender

The resurrection of the local level governments will usher in a dynamic and progressive era for PNG society at large, writes JOHN FOWKE

RURAL councils, without the means to collect any but a derisory level of income from within their constituencies are toothless tigers. Rural councillors live much as faithful old dogs do; lying in the shade, only stirring to snarl and snap when something threatens the wellbeing of the community. And yet these men command great community respect, for they have been chosen on this basis alone; on the basis of respect and not in any expectation of pork-barrelling or clan-related favours for votes.
Community support for the councils as institutions also remains high, for their potential is well-understood. By their very nature the councils, through the various wards, are in touch with the whole community, 24/7.
This cannot, by any means, be said of the MPs, or of the national or provincial public service. Councillors within their wards mimic the function and influence of old-time traditional leaders within the circle of a group of closely-related clans, but in addition, they constitute a potential direct link with the seat of power. A link which if activated, would connect the grass roots with the highest authority in the land.
The majority of PNG’s growing population are rural subsistence-farmers. Most live within existing, established council wards. Many wards maintain on their own initiative, community youth groups. This is a reflection of the concern with which a great many mature citizens view the rise of a social, even hard-line anti-social sentiment among young and virile rural males.
Boys, who see before them a pointless life of idleness and frustration, deprived of education and opportunity, and at the same time, deprived of the purpose and sense of worth derived in the past by young initiated warriors, valued by all, entrusted with each clan’s physical security in time of trouble.
Under the LLGs, despite the lack of support from national entities, youths are in touch with their councillor and vice-versa. This is but one example of the huge social-development-related networking potential which the existing, constitutionally-established web of LLGs represents.
The LLGs provide this society with a potentially reliable, very valuable socio-political building block. A foundation upon which a thoughtful and well-prepared national reform group could build a new, fair and happy Papua New Guinea.
But any resurrection of the LLGs within such a set of plans would restore them in a very different image to that which they presented in the past. Today, there will be no tip-trucks; no quarries; no road-building or building-maintenance teams; no council workshops or savings-bank agencies or post-office and telephone services. The supply of civic services will continue to be handled by the relevant government authorities.
The newly-revived LLGs will carry out a different but far more important range of duties, for they, the councillors, the presidents and their clerks with their records of meetings and transactions and correspondence, these will become quality-controllers for state-funded service-delivery, for public infrastructure maintenance and renewal, and for the proper function of rural schools, health centres, policing and village court activities. All these services are currently in a state of decay due to neglect and lack of leadership.
Each rural LLG will be provided with one suitable, reliable vehicle complete with driver, fuel and all repair and maintenance costs met from the funds controlled by the relevant MP. Under strict LLG control the vehicle will be available to convey Health Department officials and materials, school inspectors, magistrates inspecting village court records and performance, and as and when urgently needed, to transport the ill and injured to the nearest hospital.
Where visits from departmental executives or inspectors are perceived to be needed by councillors, the LLG will request these, officially, and negative responses citing lack of transport will be forcefully rejected with reference to availability of the LLG’s vehicle.
During the course of each month, the LLG vehicle will be available to carry groups of councillors on official, regularly-scheduled inspections of the various wards with special reference to roads, bridges, schools, medical aid posts, village courts and any rural police-posts or other Government institutions present which provide services within the LLG area.
Prior to each monthly council meeting, each councillor will prepare a summary report of affairs, needs and problems within his ward and these will be tabled for discussion and action. The MP representing the council area or his delegate must also be present to note matters raised each month.
Before the end of each quarter the council president must cause a summary of needs, problems and matters for attention by Government departments and agencies to be made, and discuss this summary with the area’s MP who must then accompany the president and others to meet the governor to present the summary and to negotiate solutions and rectification of shortcomings.
Where it is impossible to resolve matters at provincial level the MP will take the relevant matter with supporting background documents to Waigani where he will do his best to ensure that satisfactory outcomes are procured.
Made newly-relevant in society and enjoying increased prestige, the councillors will play an essential part in leading a renewal of the services which rural people are entitled to expect from Government. They will play a very important role in the restoration of fairness and full equity in society and national wealth for the mass of the nation’s people.
The people will become empowered in a way they have never known. An overly-large, costly and often-recalcitrant public service will be forced to perform to expectation. For his part, the wise MP will see that times are changing irrevocably, and that to retain his seat and associated privileges, it will be essential to fulfil to expectation the role as newly designed for him.
The penalty for reluctance being that his term in Parliament will be limited; cut short at the next election. Compliance and fulfilment of expectations, however, will ensure his return regardless of adherence to one or another political party.
The number of parties will fall and those which remain will do so because they represent valid points affecting sections of the community as well as broad ideals in respect of the progress of the nation. Whilst Parliament and cabinet as such will continue to rule and direct the nation as empowered, the resurrection of the LLGs as pictured here will usher in a dynamic and progressive era for PNG society at large.


* John Fowke has spent most of the past 50 years living and working in rural Papua New Guinea.