PNG's political guru

PAPUA New Guinea’s most prominent political blogger has finally revealed his true identity. In the end PNG’s copy-and-paste press contingent helped force him into the public view.
PNG's political guru PNG's political guru PNG's political guru PNG's political guru PNG's political guru

Published in the December 2012 PNG Report magazine

Arguments for and against the use of anonymous commentators, such as our very own Inside Track, emerge quite easily although it should be noted that those most fervently against them usually have a specific interest in plugging a leak.

Yet something else to consider, especially if an anonymous blogger or columnist is hitting the mark with insights and news, is that many people love the great mystery of who penned them.

Just one of the mysteries of the mid-year election was how one blogger managed to front-run the PNG Electoral Commission website with accurate results, seat by seat, each day over the weeks it took to get all the vote-counting outcomes.

The blogger was known as Tavurvur on Twitter or as the Garamut on his blog and it seemed he had sources all over PNG at the time.

With a growing profile which included being quoted in The Economist, New York Times and in the Australian and New Zealand press, the blogger unveiled his real identity in late October.

It ended one of the greatest guessing games in the brief history of PNG's social media scene - and he wasn't a senior government bureaucrat after all.

It turns out that Tavurvur is Deni ToKunai, a 26-year-old from the Duke of York Island in East New Britain.

The first Papua New Guinean to become a student representative council president at a New Zealand university, he has held university-related board roles in this country since completing business and law degrees.

A lot of people have already congratulated ToKunai for being the best source of election results information. He didn't shrug off praise in this regard either.

"I was miles ahead of the PNGEC website to the extent that the observation was made that I was beating a multimillion-kina funded operation and I was doing it on a voluntary basis and off a next to nothing budget," he told PNG Report.

"It would be fair to state that I was a one-man army in regard to my political coverage.

"I was able to cover the election as effectively as I did for three key reasons: one, I was on the ground covering the election out of my own self-interest for almost all of its duration; two, I utilised technology and social media to help cover those areas I wasn't able to be in person; and three, probably most importantly, I crunched the numbers.

"I ended up developing a method of analysing the data coming from PNGEC counting tables which allowed me to effectively predict an election outcome based on our limited preferential voting electoral system.

"So for some of the results I reported on, counting was actually still officially in progress but mathematically the result was already concluded. It was just a matter of sorting through the numbers and reporting on it.

"Naturally this raised a lot of eyebrows as sometimes I was one week ahead of the PNGEC in declaring an unofficial result. But my method never failed me - I was right 100 per cent of the time."

ToKunai explained how he met the workload required.

"In terms of hours it was a full-time exercise. I actually took time off work to concentrate on PNG Election 2012 but I thoroughly enjoyed it as PNG politics is something I'm passionate about. It was a bonus that others enjoyed my coverage too."

Every PNG election has some thrilling upsets. ToKunai discussed the results he didn't expect.

"Honourable Julie Soso's win in the East Highlands Provincial Regional seat was probably the biggest surprise for me," he said.

"I dubbed that seat as the hardest seat in the nation to win due to the sheer number of candidates and the voting power a good proportion of them carried. To see her go neck and neck and beat well established names and millionaires was an exceptional outcome. The fact that she was also our seventh female MP ever compounded that achievement.

"Other top surprises included Arthur Somare's defeat in Angoram Open to Honourable Ludwig Schulz and Bart Philemon's defeat in Lae Open to Honourable Loujaya Toni."

Yet the final make-up of Parliament remains subject to change. The Court of Disputed Returns will be busy well into next year.

The victory of People's Progress Party candidate Ezekiel Anisi in the Ambunti-Dreikikir Open seat was the first declared void, giving the prize to National Alliance Party's Tony Aimo.

"In terms of upcoming election petitions, there will be a handful more of successful challenges to go along with that of Aimo's," ToKunai said.

"I think we'll see most of these originate from closely contested seats, where the successful candidate won by less than 100 votes and there exist discrepancies supported by evidence.

"I counted four of these. Perhaps the most interesting of these will be current Health Minister Michael Malabag who won Moresby North-West by just 17 votes.

"In addition, I think there are several more candidates who will be under pressure to defend their wins due to what I call electoral anomalies.

"Treasurer Don Polye is one of these - the election petition lodged against him will be one to watch."

Another surprise outcome from the election was Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare's decision to rally behind the coalition led by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill - a move which made the dramatic Supreme Court action between the two leaders over the past months redundant.

"This was an incredible development and one which was next to impossible to pick," ToKunai said.

"Perhaps political survival was the catalyst but whatever its cause, the outcome was positive and was very much in the nation's interest.

"Sir Michael's experience as a politician will be invaluable in keeping O'Neill's coalition together.

"Burying the hatchet and moving on as a team was a wonderful result to what had been a difficult and hurtful period between the two leaders. PNG is stronger as a result of their reconciliation."

O'Neill's deputy under his previous government Belden Namah was dumped post-election and has become Opposition Leader.

ToKunai believes Namah's brash leadership style appeals to a significant number of Papua New Guineans and he also views most Papua New Guineans as "nationalists to some degree".

"He is a passionate leader with strong opinions and is unorthodox," ToKunai said.

"The real challenge for Namah is to channel this passion toward the national good while following due process.

"In order for this to happen, Namah needs the political support around him to advise, coach and to some degree manage him if we want the best out of him for the country.

"I liken Namah to being a strong CEO needing the guidance and strategic direction of a stronger board."

While the blogger said O'Neill meant business and had a genuine concern for the people of PNG, he knew the PM only had so much time to get results.

"The true test of this government will be on its ability to deliver its policies and plans, particularly those which are priority areas. O'Neill effectively has five years to deliver and the key to that is starting early and O'Neill has indeed started early.

"My observations indicate that O'Neill was working on his comprehensive checklist long before the election.

"He planned to hit the ground hard and early and he has achieved both. If there are no tangible results after two years then O'Neill will be in hot water. His credibility will be questioned and I don't think we'll see him back as PM come 2017."

It's still early days but the blogger's biggest concerns for the new government so far is its speed in decision making - especially when it concludes discussions "prematurely without relevant consultation" to make sure any safeguards are in place.

"A good example of this is the K6 billion Export-Import Bank of China bank loan," he said.

"The idea itself is not bad and I am supportive of it but all indications so far from the government is that members of parliament have allocated its expenditure prior to negotiating the terms and conditions, while next to zero detail has been made transparent.

"The fragmentation created by the stampede to allocate projects to be financed by the loan suggests that the cart is leading the horse. There are other examples too of this behaviour occurring in government ranks and this is a worry."

As EXIM bank is an export credit agency, the funds must provide work to Chinese companies yet the first surprise outcome of the loan was news that the PNG government awarded a $US76 million contract for a biometric identification system, presumably to be used for the next election, to Chinese mobile phone manufacturer Huawei Technologies.

The deal shocked local player SkyCo System which had already designed and tested a biometric system in PNG with its US partner Cogent, while the Opposition said Huawei had not even presented a case to the government to win the contract.

It is believed some of the Chinese funds will be used for PNG government spending in the InterOil-led Gulf LNG project, partly because the government generally says the Chinese funds are for "infrastructure".

But in the months before the election it was suggested that O'Neill's government was pursuing Chinese finance more specifically for road projects, including the deteriorating Highlands Highway.

ToKunai also ventures into commenting on other issues and while he knows the mining, petroleum, forestry, agriculture and manufacturing scenes are integral to PNG's economic survival, he is concerned with how some companies in these industries operate in the country.

"To some degree, this is a reflection of the state's inability to provide tangible outcomes from the wealth multinationals have generated in these sectors over the years. But it is also a reflection of corporate values and attitudes manifested in how they deal with our people," he said.

A case in point was PNG LNG operator Esso Highlands' reaction to the landslide in the Southern Highlands, which killed at least 25 people early this year.

While Esso rushed in to provide a considerable amount of aid to affected communities, it was also quite fast in developing a new road over the fallen earth which buried an unknown amount of people.

"I think how Esso dealt with Tumbi [landslide] was a disaster lesson in corporate social responsibility. It goes to show that multinationals in PNG still have a way to go in truly understanding how to do business in PNG," ToKunai said.

"With weak government scope and strong social networks as part and parcel of PNG, multinationals in these sectors need to be proactive and sincere in their dealings with locals.

"Yes, it may take longer but the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term gains.

"Papua New Guineans are not opposed to economic activity. Industry and trade have been part of our cultural systems for centuries. The importance here is on how business is conducted, from government down to subcontractors."

One of the challenges for any multinational in PNG is navigating the Wantok system and ToKunai is both a defender and critic of its influence.

"The Wantok system in its purist form should not be done away with and it will be here for a long time to come, pending the inevitable effects of the acid of modernisation," he said.

"But there are characteristics of the Wantok system that should be expunged and the ugly nepotistic aspect of the Wantok system which expresses itself most prominently in the professional or formal capacity is number one on that list.

"This is not just a PNG problem. I liken it to the old boys network that plagued and still plagues developed economies.

"Philosophically, the nepotism we do see as a manifestation of a modernised Wantok system is actually un-Melanesian. The idea of democracy has been practiced in PNG far longer than in other modern democratic states. By this I mean that our ‘Big Man' leadership system really epitomises what democracy means - leadership by merit by the people for the people.

"The nepotism we see today in formal environments is an abusive extension of what the Wantok system really is. This aspect needs to be stopped and it can be stopped given time, education and a holistic perspective on nation-building, or on what is best for PNG."

Since starting his blog in 2008 out of his "sheer frustration" of the events in PNG at the time, ToKunai has clocked up two separate threats over stories he has produced.

"Now that I've gone public, they will know who I am. But this doesn't concern me too much. I pride myself in writing objective pieces based on facts which allow readers to make up their own minds on what to think of an issue. In addition, my success with the Garamut has become a bit of a shield. One Tweet is all it takes."

He also explained the difficulties posed by revealing his identity - after all, he had no idea where his blog would end up taking him.

"As the prominence of my blog grew, I faced the challenge of external pressure to reveal who I was.

What complicated matters were professional commitments which were not in favour of me publicly writing using my real name about certain issues which may implicate them by association.

"It was only after I moved on from these commitments where I felt the time was right to go public. By this stage, my blog had become PNG's leading political blog and the reaction to me going public was significant.

"In terms of the development of my blog, I think it is only fair that my readers know who I am and that I do put a name to my writing."

Yet an incident in which a PNG newspaper broadly copied chunks of his written election coverage without attribution also gave him a reason to start using a real byline.

"There are benefits too - for example, I can now sue the next newspaper which plagiarises my work," he said.

The son of a New Zealand-born nurse and a Duke of York-born teacher who met in East Sepik province during the 1960s, ToKunai has captured a large international and domestic following.

But he expects there is much more to come from PNG's social media scene.

"There has been some success in using social media to bring change to PNG and, given time, I think we'll see this outcome increase in capacity," he said.

"The power of social media is clear and PNG is only waking up to what this really means."

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