The sleeping secret

Normal, Weekender

Local-level governments are the key to real, long-term change for the better, writes JOHN FOWKE

LAST week, I spoke of a possible return to a policy of “thinking small”; of a sympathetic, socially-conscious “structured-to-fill-real-needs sort of public policy regime;” of policies which would see to it that a better standard of living becomes a reality.
I made particular mention of the Local Level Government system and its history. I intimated that from the re-engagement of this grassroots matrix may flow a more energetic and honestly administered public sector. I suggested that the present relationship between MPs and their constituents tends to be driven by the MP’s own concerns about security in office rather than the needs of the constituency. I suggested that a much more productive era for society at large might be cemented with the acceptance of the LLGs into the politico-administrative arena as a partner. As an overseer of services and development, not as an implementer or service-provider itself, but as a vocal quality control and disciplinary agency.
When the Australian administration initiated the formation of the first of the Local Government Councils, it envisaged, very naturally, a rather Australian sort of rural council as the model of what would arise. Although councils would work in the traditional Melanesian sense of “kivung”, where a community’s appointed leaders deliberate and adjudicate on matters of concern, there was also to be a very Australian “Mr Fixit” element; one which would take care of the roads and bridges and other public facilities within the council area; schools and aid-post buildings and the like.
Over time, many of the councils acquired tip-trucks and loaders, and sent their own works foreman appointees off to attend the Public Works Department Road-building and Construction Course at Popondetta. The councils employed small teams of carpenters, plumbers and galvanised water-tank makers; repaired and maintained both council-owned and government property; property such as market enclosures, school and aid-post buildings, health centres, bridges and culverts.
All well and good, but the fact was that the capital, project and management costs of this work was far beyond the means of the people to support. Subsidisation was essential, and in effect the LGCs became a many-armed and thus a most inefficient branch of the PWD. For many years now government support has not been forthcoming. Public works and maintenance in rural areas has reverted to the national and provincial departments responsible. The rural LLGs are more or less moribund. And yet the councilors still command great community respect, for they have been chosen on this basis alone; on the basis of respect; not in anticipation of a material return, a payoff in return for a vote. Community support for the councils as institutions also remains high. The rural LLGs are, by their very nature, in touch with the ordinary people on a 24/7 basis. The networking potential offered to central government by the nationwide community of rural LLGs is immense and entirely unexploited. It’s time now for the resurrection of the rural LLGs, the neglected foundation for a modern and progressive nation state. But it will be a resurrection in shape and function, not in the same model as of old. The rule for today’s rural LLGs must be as follows:
* No tip-trucks; no loaders;  
* No gravel-pits; no council workshops; 
* No tool-kits, no carpenters, no tank-menders or painters;
* No savings bank agencies or post office and telephone facilities.
None of this. The role of the resurrected rural LLGs will be very different.
Each rural LLG will be provided with one new general-purpose 4WD vehicle, together with driver’s wages and costs, fuel and servicing, all budgeted and covered by the central government or via the local MP’s District Services Improvement Programme (DSIP). These vehicles, very strictly supervised and only driven by their appointed drivers, will convey small groups of councillors on required regular monthly tours of their respective wards. This for the purpose of checking the function and condition of government-provided and funded facilities; schools and health centres, aid-posts, village courts, rural police stations, didiman centres and the like.
Any ongoing government-funded projects of repair or maintenance or construction within the relevant ward or wards will also be inspected and evaluated for a report to the controlling department and its provincial secretary. A list of needed road-repairs and upgrading will be maintained and constantly updated.
Thus, made newly relevant in society as social quality control officers with an overview of services which are expected but which so often fail the rural populace, LLGs and the councillors will acquire increasing respect and will renew the entitlement to full social equity which is the birthright of all citizens.
The monthly inspections will be covered by written assessments made following the visits. These will be tabled at each monthly LLG meeting for discussion and resolutions as required. Here the local MP or his representative must be present to make notes. Then at the end of each quarter, and at a time when the local MP is present in the district, the LLG president and his clerk, together with a written report and a copy of relevant minutes, will meet the province’s governor and his departmental secretaries for a full airing of all matters needing attention, for resolution on the spot. The MP concerned will be present in support of his LLG team; a strong voice for the constituents of the council and their needs; and one who, if necessary, may carry concerns further; carry them all the way to Waigani as and when necessary. Now we have real, working rural democracy where both the people and their chosen representatives are empowered by having a single voice in all matters of concern. A type of relationship which we have yet to see in PNG, but a relationship, once established, will be long lasting and satisfactory to all parties.
In this way, without major reshuffling and redrawing and the calling for costly planning seminars; without controversy or conflict, the ordinary citizen will once again know that he or she has a voice in the destiny of his/her “asples” – the home district – and although less directly, in the overall destiny of the nation as a whole, through his/her homely, familiar and trusted representative, the ward councillor.
MPs will pass from being “conmen” in the eyes and words of many of their constituents, acquiring a new level of respect and appreciation when it becomes plain that they are responsible facilitators of positive change and funding agents for one-off projects as are deemed necessary by the local populace.
Somewhere out there, there is a governor smart enough and strong enough to put internal competition and jealousies aside and engage with his fellow MPs in a campaign to bring real involvement and participation back to the people of his province. Together, with the LLGs and thus the mass of the population behind them, they will be able to tame the surly, selfish, often devious creature which is the Public Service. Blow away the presence of the current “Yes, Hon. Member; yes, Governor,” syndrome – one which really means “Yes, bigman; and now I’ll go on and do exactly as I please.”
While Parliament as such continues to rule in every area of the nation’s interest, the resurrection of the LLGs in the role described will usher in a dynamic, progressive era in rural districts. Something which has been mooted and promised endlessly, but never to date achieved.


* This is the last in the series of three articles from John Fowke. Readers wishing to comment on the matters outlined should contact the writer at [email protected]. An early emailed response is guaranteed.