Today Papua New Guinea celebrates 29 years of independence. If you were to believe some commentators and sections of the media there is nothing to celebrate and an even bleaker future lies ahead. But I don’t agree.
Papua New Guinea has its problems, serious problems, but there are some indicators and opportunities that offer hope for the future of Australia’s closest - and possibly most strategically important - neighbour.
It has long been my view that Australia poorly prepared PNG for independence. One of the greatest obstacles to growth and human resource development in particular, is the atrocious state of the nation’s major roads.
But this has always been the case. When I went to PNG to work just two years after independence I was appalled at the state of the nation’s roads, especially the Highlands Highway, which was still a dirt road apart from the last 30kms leading into Lae. The nation’s capital, Port Moresby, was not connected to any other major centre by road. And rural roads, so vital to agriculture were in short supply.
Today the state of public infrastructure is still very poor. This is no longer Australia’s fault, however our legacy in a whole range of public sector areas has not been good.
Over the last 29 years, up until 5 years ago, Australia has poured billions into PNG in the form of budget support. Project aid still continues to be vital to PNG. With the Enhanced Co-operation Programme (ECP) now in place, the dollar value of our aid commitment in the current financial year exceeds $450 million, or around K1 billion. It’s a substantial commitment making Australia easily PNG's largest aid donor.
There is debate in both countries on the effectiveness of these aid programmes. And it is welcome and overdue. I believe the ECP offers the way forward, because it directly targets two of PNG’s greatest needs, capacity building in the public sector and the alarming level of crime.
But let me talk about the positives for PNG as our neighbour approaches three decades of nationhood.
Papua New Guinea remains a robust democracy, different yes, but alive and well most certainly. The last national elections were generally regarded as being fair, with a few exceptions. But there will always be exceptions in a developing country like PNG. They were certainly participatory with almost 70 per cent of eligible voters casting their vote in what is still a voluntary voting system.
In the 2002 national elections about 80 per cent of sitting MP’s lost their seats, including some Ministers. The electorate unceremoniously dumped most of the Morauta Cabinet.
Political stability is not as strong as it needs to be, but the parliamentary system does work. The strengthening of political parties, vital to securing stability, is a “work in progress” and like many things in Papua New Guinea it's often a case of two steps forward and one and a half backwards.
The macro economic position has improved remarkably under the current Government. However there are serious fiscal problems that require attention, with consensus on solutions politically difficult to achieve, and even harder to implement.
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