Development agenda in jeopardy?

AS the PNG LNG Project forges ahead to meet its 2014 export deadline, the nation's hopes that the O'Neill Government will nurture a controversy-free period of economic growth are fading rapidly. By Wantok

This is ironic given the recently passed K13 billion budget, which was given unprecedented impetus with a decision to borrow some K2.5 billion to fund what was to be a transformation of the nation's infrastructure and to lift public service delivery.

Free education up to Year 12 and free services for basic health services are among the plans being implemented.

Despite the big injection of budget spending, implementation of education programs and policies are in a mess. Late last year, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill announced the current Objective Based Education system was to be scrapped forthwith. It soon became clear it would be impossible to replace at such short notice.

Now a task force has been given the impossible task of carrying out this plan by 2014. In that time the entire syllabus, teacher preparation and other facilities will have to be totally planned out, not to mention the publication of relevant books and other materials.

The main thing wrong about the previous OBE system was that it was badly underfunded, with much to be desired in administration at all levels. With the time constraint, it is unlikely the new system will do any better for several years.

Meantime, no politician or bureaucrat seems to be giving any thought to the latest statistics that suggest just 51% of primary age students are in school. Even in urban areas, more than one third of students are not in school.

Other controversies that have gained the media spotlight since the 2012 national election include reports that some K59 million have been embezzled from the coffers of parliament in 2010-12. Most of those same politicians want the time during which the government of the day cannot be toppled to be extended from 24 months to 30 months.

As it is, no challenge can be mounted in the final 12 months. So any incoming government would only face a possible no confidence vote during an 18-month window.

The latest controversy hitting the headlines is about two Vietnamese brothers with diplomatic passports issued by the Vanuatu government who are fugitives from justice in their adopted country.

They landed last Thursday in Port Moresby in a chartered Boeing 737 aircraft for meetings with Vanuatu Foreign Minister Albert Carlot, who in turn said he was visiting PNG at the invitation of the PNG Government.

Opposition Leader Belden Namah says he saw PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato and Public Enterprise Minister Ben Micah meet the Vanuatu Minister at Jackson's airport. Micah claimed Namah was lying, and Namah has responded by saying he must have seen Micah's ghost.

Prime Minister O'Neill was quick to jump to the defence of his two ministers, denying his government had invited the Vanuatu minister.

Even before the dust could settle on the Vanuatu issue, another has popped up in the shape of Indonesian billionaire fugitive Djoko Tjandra, who has submitted a plan to build a 26-storey building in the government precinct of Port Moresby.

The plan was submitted by Public Service Minister Dr Puka Temu and Transport Minister Ano Pala, both of whom previously backed a plan by Tjandra for an ambitious rice-growing project in Central Province. Tjandra was mysteriously given PNG citizenship last year, although O'Neill has ordered it to be revoked pending an investigation.

The rice-growing plan failed because of public opposition to the idea that it would require protection from imports. The Indonesian billionaire, who is on the run from the long arm of the law in his country, some years ago had also promoted an ambitious but economically naive cocoa project that would have resulted in imposition of a tariff on exports in order to nurture cocoa processing.

When the O'Neill government passed its 2013 budget in November, it indicated that because of the record pace of borrowing over the next few years the government would amend legislation passed by the previous Somare government called the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

The Act had been passed because of the profligate spending by previous governments that had taken the public debt burden to 72% of gross domestic product by 2002. Under the Act future governments were restricted to keeping the debt to GDP ratio below 30% and to ensuring that during a five-year term in office overall government revenue and expenditure were in balance.

Borrowing by the O'Neill government will see the 30% ratio breached within the next couple of years. O'Neill has said he makes no apologies for an acceleration in government expenditure because vast sums are needed to build an adequate infrastructure and to provide better public services.

As the government lurches from one controversy to the next, the development agenda and especially the recurrent tendency for cost blowouts will be watched with great interest by PNG's development partners and others.

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