Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Prospect of politics without Somare

POLITICAL scrimmaging in Papua New Guinea without Michael Somare is a prospect that might not be too far off. The Grand Chief of PNG and the Pacific’s elder statesman is well and truly in the sunset years of his political life. He’s been at it continuously since 1968. Rank and file members of his ruling National Alliance Party opening talk about Sir Michael’s eventual departure from active politics and all agree that his departure and the subsequent succession of leadership within his party must be smooth. No real time line has been set for the Grand Chief’s departure. But there are those within his party that claim Sir Michael may call it quits a year before the next scheduled national general election in 2012. That’s a likely scenario if what strategists and schemers are working on to force and earlier departure does not materialise. It will be a sad day for PNG and the many Somare loyalists if the outcome was a forced departure rather than a voluntary handover of the leadership baton by the Grand Chief to his successor with all his blessings. Judging by how things have been shaping up behind the scene and from hints spilled here, there and all over it would appear that an elaborate exit strategy is in the pipeline to retire PNG’s longest serving parliamentarian from active politics or optionally to make him a life member of the PNG parliament with the status of “Senior Minister” similar to the role Singapore’s founding father and first prime minister Lee Kwan Yu plays. Should such an option come into play earlier than the expiry of the present five-year term of parliament then the prime ministerial and National Alliance leadership succession  will be spirited four-way or even five-way contest between the four regional party deputies and possibly Somare’s son Arthur. In the seniority pecking order, Arthur is the second most senior National Alliance MP after Sir Michael. By tradition Arthur would be the next in line to succeed but that’s not going to be served to him on a golden platter. While he’s serving his third continuous term and the rest of the party’s MPs are in their first and second terms, the four deputy party leaders consisting of a lawyer, an economist, a medical doctor and a civil engineer are also capable men, well educated and professionally experienced former public service and private sector managers. The older Somare’s departure is inevitable. And the leadership succession issue within the National Alliance Party is a popular discuss topic inside and outside of the party circles. No lesser persons than two regional deputy parliamentary leaders of the ruling National Alliance Party – Treasury and Finance Minister Patrick Pruaitch (Momase) and National Planning and Rural Development Minister Paul Tiensten (New Guinea Islands) have spoken with this scribe about the potential leadership succession within NA in the “not too distant” future. They were frank and spoke confidently about strengthening and institutionalizing their political party and its future leadership succession. Hovering somewhere in the background but in the same room were two other NA heavyweights – Forest Minister Belden Namah and Public Accounts Committee chairman Timothy Bonga – a senior prime ministerial advisor. Tiensten and Pruaitch’s message was simple and to the point. “There is no problem of leadership succession in NA now,” Tiensten said. “We have resolved some arrangements internally and at the Momase and NGI leadership levels. “You can write about the NA leadership succession. It is not a secret. Momase and New Guinea Islands have agreed to jointly put up one nominee for the party leadership after the Grand Chief chooses to retire. Arthur (Somare – Angoram MP and Minister for Public Enterprises and Development Aid) is with us and supports the Momase-NGI joint initiative. “Arthur has the greatest respects for his regional deputy leader. “As long as I am NGI region deputy leader of NA, I will make sure that NGI will support the Momase nominee for the party leadership. “On that basis and with Arthur’s support we will put up Momase deputy leader Patrick Pruaitch as the next NA parliamentary leader,” Tiensten said. Both Tiensten and Pruaitch are powerful performers in their own right within the hierarchy of National Alliance Party. They are also the chief drivers of the government’s economic and rural development policy. They are in-charge of the national purse, oversee public expenditure, monitor public investment and have been responsible for the shift of development focus to the districts. Pruaitch, Tiensten and Arthur are among a strong NA youthful and not so youthful core group of first and second term MPs sprinkled with professionally-qualified and entrepreneurially-skilled leaders of the calibre of Deputy Prime Minister Dr Puka Temu, Tourism Minister Charles Abel, Foreign Minister Sam Abel, Transport, Works and Civil Aviation Minister Don Polye, Police Minister Sane Rambi, former department heads, Phillip Kikala and Ano Pala and others also serving in the ministry, in parliamentary committees or are marking time as vice-ministers. The party’s parliamentary wing, national executive, regional and provincial branches and its foundation members know that the parliamentary leadership succession from Sir Michael to one of his four regional deputies or an entirely new person from among the party’s present parliamentary rank and file is inevitable and shall happen any time before PNG goes to the polls in 2012. Just how soon the succession takes place is anybody’s guess. Tiensten and Pruaitch are saying they are merely “positioning” their respective regions to be in a state of preparedness to contest the vacancy when it arises. They have made their respective positions abundantly clear and that is that they are not “individually or collectively” plotting the Grand Chief’s early political exit nor do they harbor any intention of forcing the issue. Speaking on behalf of Pruaitch and himself, Tiensten said: “The Grand Chief (Somare) has groomed and mentored us, given us ministerial responsibilities, accepted us as his regional deputies and has always encouraged us to be ready to take on a feature leadership role when the call came. “We regard and respect Sir Michael with the highest esteem as a father figure to us and as Father of the Nation. “We are not here to rock his boat or to steal the Grand Chief’s thunder. “We are young. Our time will come. We have the future ahead of us.”

Fine. We shall wait and see. Only time will tell. The speculation about the Grand Chief’s retirement from active politics over the last 20 or so years is a tired one. This columnist has heard similar speculations over the years about the Grand Chief giving it all away and nothing eventuated. So let me beg to differ – for the time being any way – and take this latest round of rumors with a grain of salt.  The grand old man of PNG and Pacific politics will eventually retire from active political and public service but at his own time. It’s a development – as inevitable as it has been for some time –that Papua New Guineans and friends of PNG further afield in the Asia-Pacific region will take, albeit, with great admiration for the man who has strutted PNG’s political centre-stage for over 40 continuous years. Sir Michael will leave a legacy – good or bad -- which critics can dissect for what it’s worth at their pleasure. One factor in whatever legacy he leaves behind will always stand out. The man is truly a political champion, a PNG and Pacific political icon with a name that is easily recognisable and institutionalised across the length and breadth of Papua New Guinea. But yes, serious moves towards leadership succession – sooner rather than later -- are afoot within the ruling National Alliance Party. There is no timeframe being given to the succession date yet. And such a situation may create too much uncertainty in too many places that matter. It may happen mid term of Parliament, a year before the next national general election or when the present five-year term of Parliament expire. Whatever is the case, Treasury and Finance Minister Patrick Pruaitch has already put his hand up to be groomed by the grand old man of PNG politics, Prime Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare and thereafter succeed him as National Alliance parliamentary leader. That’s the spill from at least two regional deputies of NA – Treasurer and Finance Minister Patrick Pruaitch (Momase NA Deputy) and National Planning and Rural Development Minister Paul Tiensten (New Guinea Islands NA Deputy). Both admitted to this scribe that they are positioning their regions in a state of readiness to contest the party leadership. They claimed to have the support of Sir Michael’s workaholic parliamentarian son Arthur whom many have predicted as a likely successor to his father. “Arthur Somare supports his regional deputy,” Tiensten said. Both Tiensten and Pruaitch know that Arthur Somare’s support is crucial. Arthur – already in his third term as MP -- is the next senior NA MP after his father who is serving term number nine. Pruaitch and Tiensten are mindful and acknowledge Arthur’s influence as the valued “numbers man”, strategist and the prime mover and shaker within NA. Pruaitch on the other hand is respected as the emerging leader of youthful professionals who form the “core group” at present within the NA ranks. This is the group that will become entrenched and on who’s back NA will become the strongest, biggest and most institutionalised political party in Papua New Guinea. Although not on good terms with a certain media organisation Pruaitch is also a respected politician who is impatient with incompetents and who does not entertain bureaucratic red-tape. He is credited within NA as the man who has stubbornly committed himself to rural development as a priority of government and has driven the direct development funding program for PNG’s 89 districts against the advice of bureaucrats; World Bank; International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank advisors. So far the District Support Grants – which are monies appropriated directly from the National Budget to the districts – to each district this year was K10 million. Pruaitch appropriated a further K4 million apiece to each district under the 2009 National Budget. This is the first time PNG’s 89 districts are receiving development money directly from Waigani. Pruaitch, Tiensten, Arthur Somare and the rest of the members of the National Economic Planning Committee have to rise up a few more notches and not limit their role to merely dishing out money to the districts but allocated skilled workforce that can run with the money and make development happen – be it roads, schools, health centres or whatever. That’s what being good leaders is all about – service to the people first before self.  The NA leadership succession scheme has interesting dimensions. Pruaitch will be nominated for the leadership job – should the position become available -- jointly by Momase and NGI branches of NA. Pruaitch, Arthur Somare and Tiensten have already discussed agreed on “how-to” strategy. The renewed interest in the NA leadership succession has been fueled by inside stories about how Sir Michael Somare – now 70-something years old --  is understood to have confided in people closest to him that he is “a little tired” and that time is near for him to hand over the leadership and eventually exit from politics. Momase and New Guinea Islands are not the only regional branches putting their hands up for the job. There are the Highlands and the Papuan blocs to be considered. Both regions will not allow the opportunity to go by uncontested. The Highlands branch has been rather passive for some time especially since fire-brand deputy leader Don Polye got himself “snowed under” with the weight of his election dispute court case. It has been a taxing time for him and understandably that case has taken up much of his time and attention. And the Papuans believe the will not outdone or overlooked. Two Thursdays ago the main speech by Deputy Prime Minister Dr Puka Temu at the fundraising dinner of Southern region branch of the party hinted about how NA can be institutionalised in the region and how the party shall continue in government beyond 2012 on the back of Southern region numbers. That’s a statement that spoke volumes. It was a statement that put Momase, NGI and the Highlands on notice to also deliver the numbers in 2012. It was a statement that implied that NA leadership might need to be considered on the basis of which regional deputy delivered the most elected party candidates from a national general election. Dr Temu is no dreamer. He has got a foot in the door already as DPM and he has been singing all the right hymns from the NA hymn book. Dr Temu believes that PNG can be developed into the greatest and richest black nation in the world. He foresees PNG becoming a happy, healthy and wealthy nation on the back of Papua’s abundant natural wealth. The two multi-billion kina liquefied natural gas project developed respectively the ExxonMobil and Oil Search Limited group and by the InterOil-led consortium are the starters of an exciting era in the Southern region. PNG will rise and shine from the doldrums, says Dr Temu. All it requires is the political will to mobilize the people, the right type of leader to lead the masses by good example and mentoring qualities. The Grand Chief was in attendance at the dinner and heard what was said.  Southern region at present has 12 NA MPs. Dr Temu wants to build the numerical strength by capturing all 24 Papuan seats by 2012. That will make him – with his current ranking as Deputy Prime Minister – the strongest contender to succeed Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare as NA leader.  Let’s wait and see. And when the music stops we shall know who will be sitting in which chair.

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