Weekly Commentaries

This is Sunday Chronicle's weekly commentaries on various issues of interest affecting the country. All individual commentators are done by elite Papua New Guineans from diverse educational backgrounds.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Political autonomy vs financial autonomy


WHEN the National Government granted autonomous powers to the Bougainville government in 2001, few other provinces have also put their hands up. Notable among them are East New Britain followed by New Ireland. Morobe has made an indication to be autonomous but there have not been any serious follow-ups.

When these old flames of self determination through autonomy were rekindled again in 2007, Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare laid down the ground rules: Autonomy for Bougainville is a special case and the National Government will not entertain any more quest for autonomy brought to government by aspiring provinces. 

At the time of the Prime Minister making the public statement, East New Britain was well ahead of its preparation towards the attainment of autonomy. In fact, its bid for autonomy received full backing from East New Britain leaders in Cabinet at that time. But the government's stance on the issue has put their quest for autonomy on hold.

Until this month, New Ireland Governor and former Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan is back again with the issue. This newspaper reported in its last edition that New Ireland wants "the highest form of autonomy, no less than Bougainville."

So what's different between the autonomous arrangements granted to Bougainville and the autonomous arrangements East New Britain and New Ireland provinces are pursuing?
Bougainville (political) Autonomy

The Bougainville autonomy is part of a peace-package to quell a decade long secessionist conflict. At the height of that conflict, former PNGDF Commander, Brigadier General Jerry Singirok argued then that the Bougainville conflict is political issue and must be dealt with politically and not through the barrel of the gun. Bougainville autonomy is an answer to that argument when on the 26th of Jan 2001, the national government then, signed documents with Bougainville leaders paving way for autonomy with independence as an option after 10 to 15 years.

The immediate consideration for this political autonomy is the weapons disposal program.  The National Government wants to see Bougainvillians dispose of all weapons prior to the referendum of self determination to ensure the masses are not threatened or intimidated to vote for independence. It has to be an act of free choice.

Under Bougainville's autonomous arrangements, political, judicial, police and other powers have been devolved. All other political and administrative powers are slowly being devolved to the autonomous Bougainville Government depending on its manpower and resource capacity to accommodate these functions at their level.

Bougainville leaders have openly admitted that they lack the resource and manpower capacity to implement autonomous functions being devolved. But more importantly, they lack financial capacity to fund these functions.

In a bid to fund its autonomous functions, the Autonomous Bougainville Government is considering to re-open the Panguna Copper Mine as its sole means of income generation to fund these functions. But to date, the talk of opening the Panguna Copper Mine are still left hanging while the Autonomous Bougainville Government scratches around Waigani to fund its functions. To date, most of the functions already devolved are funded by Waigani until such time Bougainville can be able to sustain its government.  And from developments this far, that may not come immediately within the time frame given before the referendum for independence takes places - which is some five years time.
East New Britain and New Ireland's quest for (financial) autonomy 

New Ireland Governor, Sir Julius Chan has publicly told his people that his province needs "the highest form of autonomy." Whatever that highest form of autonomy the former Prime Minister wants for his people entails is yet to be spelt out.  But from his speech as reported in this paper, the Governor is not happy with the central government because revenues derived from the two mines operating in the provinces have not gone back to redevelop New Ireland.

These are same sentiments being expressed by East New Britain autonomy committee. East New Britain contends that it has the capacity to raise internal revenues and expand these revenues within the province to develop basic services.  However, they cannot do so under current laws on the Provincial and Local Level Government.

According to the current arrangements, all revenues raised in the provinces are remitted to the national coffers. From there, the national government disburses these revenues back to the provinces under four main areas. They include (a) Development Grants, (b) Staffing Development Grants (c) Economic Grants (e) Economic Services Grants.

But East New Britain says, since the mid 1990s, the central government has miserably failed to remit to it its fair share of these grants. Most of the times, these constitutional grants do not come in full nor on time making it very difficult for East New Britain to fulfill its obligations.  Even where there are financial powers devolved to provincial administrators to make financial decisions, approval has to be again sought from the central government and its agencies. This, East New Britain autonomy committee says, is very cumbersome and frustrating. 

The objectives and principles of increased autonomy for East New Britain is to have the power, scope and resources to maneuver and innovate for positive economic development as well to improve our government system at the provincial and community level as we deem suitable.  This objective will be achieve through a high degree of self reliance which is a directive principle of the National Constitution which in the long run will eliminate heavy dependency on the central government and other institutions.

Unlike Bougainville, the proposed East New Britain autonomy is sought within the framework of the national constitution.  This means, while autonomously administering the affairs of their province, East New Britain will still remain an integral part of PNG but with its own constitution and regional parliament.

Development wise, they have the resources and capacity to administer an autonomous government. They have proven in the previous provincial government system and would like to return to that system in 2012 where they want a premier to rule them instead of governor.

This proposal now has been placed on hold with the Prime Minister's instructions that Bougainville autonomy is the only autonomy the national government has considered and will not entertain any others.
But East New Britain autonomy committee is begging the national government to treat their case as a one off case.

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