By JOSH DOWSE in Sydney Morning Herald
March 19, 2012
Belden Namah's alleged shenanigans at the Star casino tempt the observation that $800,000 is a lot of money for a minister of an impoverished nation to have ''on account'' at our ''ask no questions'' casino.
Papua New Guinea should not be anywhere near as destitute as it has become. It has remarkable natural assets, a rich and powerful neighbour, and an already significant income that is about to double through its nation-changing natural gas project.
Yet its entrenched and indefensible corruption leaves its national coffers as good as empty. In short meetings with PNG ministers, I have witnessed that culture first hand and seen some of its effects: such as one-year-old roads that have been washed away because the selected tenderer didn't bother much with the roadbase or drainage.
Australians should give a toss about this corruption. PNG was of course an Australian protectorate until its independence in 1975, and in part its troubles are our legacy, though it is long past the time PNG politicians can avoid their responsibilities.
More important, Australia is PNG's biggest donor, and they our biggest recipient. Last year, we spent $482.3 million on PNG aid.
This funds a healthy bureaucracy in Port Moresby, an array of 4WDs and some small successes. But it doesn't go far because Port Moresby is chronically expensive to live in, cars cost more than $10,000 to insure between thefts and trashings, and little gets out to the regions where it is needed.
PNG is our nearest neighbour, yet we neglect its troubles to engage in global sorties that are more ''strategic'' for our alliances and more ''exciting'' for our policy-makers. We need to engage more deeply than via our quick self-esteeming trips up the Kokoda Track.
There is a lot that can and should be done, but I would like to wave the flag for one idea that would increase awareness of PNG's plight in Australia, shine a torch on and improve PNG's governance and, at the same time, invigorate a nation.
Australia should use a small part of its $482 million annual aid budget to fund a PNG team in our National Rugby League. Let our teams, and the media, see Port Moresby once a fortnight and let Moresby see them.
The more there are well-governed institutions to look up to in PNG, the better. Under the NRL, a PNG-based team would join others such as NasFund, the national superannuation fund, as examples sorely needed to counterbalance the mire of PNG politics. Unlike most other PNG institutions, though, this would be one that the PNG people would care deeply about. Rugby league is their national sport, the game kids play in every park and yard, the posters they have on their walls. When an Australian team tours there, it is a national event. When one of their own pulls on an NRL jersey, a nation follows that team. Nonetheless, the PNG Rugby League is a transient body that last went broke in 2004. It gets some help from the NRL but not enough to become a worthy opponent in rugby league's underwhelming ''Four Nations'' tournament.
There are some good people supporting PNG's NRL bid - Phil Gould in particular - but it is not a commercial proposition for the same reason the Pacific island nations are sadly excluded from rugby union's Super XV competition - there aren't enough Foxtel subscribers.
|"There are some good people supporting PNG’s NRL bid - Phil Gould (pictured) in particular."|
With a clear public benefit, and no commercial case, government should step in. The NRL would administer the funds more effectively than AusAID, while remaining accountable to the Australian government. It wouldn't be the first time the federal government invested in NRL: as a minister, Joe Hockey funded Souths Cares, for example, a foundation aimed at creating jobs in Redfern and other social projects.
Obviously, the team should have no ties to PNG's government, but its administration should include PNG nationals. These roles would be highly prized in PNG's ''big man'' culture, but the NRL should resist allocating them on the basis of local seniority.
It's time we heard stories from PNG other than the ones of relentless environmental damage, power struggles, corruption and violence. Having a PNG team in our NRL would be an engagement from which many other good things may flow.
In fact, though a simple idea, it may have more promise than all of our manifest policy failures there over the past 30 years.
Josh Dowse is an adviser on sustainable business and related public issues.