1998 WAS A TOUGH YEAR : PRIME MINISTER BILL SKATE

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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (December 28, 1998 - Post-Courier)---The year 1998, had been a tough one where natural disasters and general down turn in the economy had placed enormous challenges for Papua New Guineans, Prime Minister Bill Skate has said.

He said the drought and its effects stayed with the people for many months and the nation suffered as a result.

And that misery in life was shattered further by the Aitape tidal wave, which claimed thousands of lives and left hundreds homeless, besides destruction to villages and property along the Sissano Lagoon area in Aitape, West Sepik Province.

"Only our strong community spirit and generosity of our overseas neighbors prevented a real disaster and loss of life from occurring in our home,'' he said.

Skate said the tidal wave was the worst in living memory.

"A giant wall of water destroyed whole communities and killed so many Papua New Guineans,'' he said.

Mr. Skate, in his Christmas message to the nation, said he visited the areas devastated by the tsunami and he would not forget the terrible things he saw for the rest of his life.

He said following the disaster, both the PNG citizens and the international community came to the aid of the disaster victims to help build their shattered lives.

The Prime Minister explained that apart from the disasters, 1998 had also seen the start of a global economic crisis in South East Asia and as a result the PNG experienced a fall in the price of commodities including oil and copper, resulting in less money coming into the country. This, he said had posed great difficulties on the part of the Government.

The Government has managed to see the tough year through and the economy is coming good. "I am not going to tell you that everything is now alright, because we still have many problems, but I do believe that we have been through the worst of our problems,'' he said.

"We will need to tighten our belts even further in 1999 and I am leading the way for us to do this.''Mr Skate urged all citizens to take stock of the situation and look to the future of the country as 1999 approaches.

He highlighted that PNG was established on constitutional democracy, supported by its magnificent heritage and culture which forms the basis on which PNG can plan and build its future.

The Prime Minister said PNG's problems are largely in the urban areas where social pressures are causing an increase in crime, but social problems are happening worldwide where all levels of society are a working to tackle the problem.

Mr. Skate said the other major problem which damaged the country is corruption, where people have been stealing and abusing the system of government, by taking improper benefits or giving improper benefits to others.

"Corruption damages this nation and in the end we all pay for other peoples' corrupt activities. ``Everyone of us has a role to play in stamping out corruption,'' he said. Mr. Skate appealed to the people working within the government system to report those who commit corrupt acts.

Mr. Skate said his government will continue to place high priority on law and order and give equal consideration to Bougainville, education, health and other key areas that be receiving special attention. "In 1999, we will continue to address the key areas and take this nation closer to the land prosperity where Papua New Guineans should rightly be,'' he said.

For additional reports from The Post-Courier, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Post-Courier (Papua New Guinea).

GOVERNMENT CHARTS NEW COURSE

By NEVILLE TOGAREWA

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (December 31, 1998 - The National)---Prime Minister Bill Skate and his Government spent the first 12 months to July 22 this year setting a course - in very choppy seas - for the country until the next general election in 2002 and the last six months of 1998 consolidating his position to ensure he serves his full term.

Politically - in terms of numbers - the first Papuan Prime Minister from Pari village has done remarkably well, enjoying probably the biggest majority of any prime minister since independence in 1975.

However, in almost all other aspects of governance, 1998 has been a painful year for the four million Papua New Guineans, especially for the 85 per cent of the population who live in the rural areas.

Mr. Skate himself reminded all of us in his Christmas message that 1998

has indeed been a very tough year for everyone.

But whatever the Opposition and other critics may argue, the Prime Minister had no qualms about making decisions; sticking by those decisions; getting endorsement from his Cabinet; and directing his senior bureaucrats to implement them or face the consequences.

Most of his critics will see 1998 as probably the worst year of any government but Mr. Skate will argue that he and his Cabinet have duly considered and taken decisions "in the best interest of the nation".

It is too early yet to argue the merits or demerits of many of those decisions and history is the best judge of all.

In the meantime, the performance of the Government can be gauged by the goals and objectives the Prime Minister and his regime have set for themselves and the nation.

The Government's principal goal is development and opportunity for the people. Its objectives are national unity and stability, especially the resolution of the Bougainville conflict; law and order; education and health; and infrastructure rehabilitation.

These are noble objectives and goals, especially for a government made up of a first-time chief executive and initially, young, inexperienced first-termers.

But they were a very committed group of independents who had a vision and wanted to see a change from the old-guard leadership and to put the country on the right road towards prosperity.

They included Mr Skate himself, Fr Robert Lak, Dr Fabian Pok, Peti Lafanama, Peter Waieng, Peter Arul, Philip Taku, Ludger Mond, Sam Akoitai, Mao Zeming, Tommy Tomscoll, Peter Ipatas, Anderson Agiru and others.

But after the initial euphoria, there is a nagging feeling that the initial commitment and vision may have faded somewhat and they may have become like any other PNG politician of past eras - so-called people's representatives preoccupied with propping themselves to stay in power and enjoy the perks and privileges that go with the office no matter what happens to the national electorate.

But to do justice, an objective assessment of the Government's performance in the last 12 months should be made against a backdrop of what has been a traumatic year for everyone.

The year started with the carryover effects of the drought caused by the El Nino phenomenon - closure of major mines resulting in lost production and revenue, downturn in agricultural production and decline in forestry exports.

The impact on the economy is still being felt and will continue to be felt into the new year.

This has been exacerbated by the Asian financial crisis and a downturn in major global economies, continuous political instability and major uncertainties in economic fundamentals for sound economic and budget management, the Aitape tidal wave disaster and the decline in the value of the kina, among others.

The situation has improved somewhat, as the Prime Minister was able to report in his Christmas message.

"Overall, we have been through a tough year but our economy is coming good ... We still have many problems but I believe we have been through the worst of our problems. We will need to tighten our belts even further in 1999 and I am leading the way for us to do this," he told the nation.

In retrospect, very few Papua New Guineans can comfortably argue that they have been provided "development and opportunity" in the last 12 months, although the Government can argue, quite convincingly if it has to, that it has provided the foundation for this to happen in the medium to long-term.

One of the thorniest issues the Government has had to tackle this year is the Bougainville conflict which has been going on for 10 years. Compared to previous governments, the Skate regime has done remarkably well.

They were able to negotiate a permanent cease fire; Bougainvilleans are now enjoying their basic constitutional rights - freedom of movement and speech and access to basic education and health and participating in economic activity.

The peace process has been given international endorsement and support by the United Nations Security Council, European Union, the Commonwealth and the South Pacific Forum.

But the Government's primary objective of finding a permanent political solution within the framework of the national constitution has been derailed somewhat by the failure of the Opposition to provide the numbers to pass a constitutional amendment bill to install an interim reconciliation government by tomorrow, Jan 1, 1999.

The Government has not given up hope and Cabinet was meeting yesterday in an attempt to find an 11th hour solution to the problem caused by the Opposition.

On law and order, the Government has put in place several measures and even boasts about "a general decline in reported criminal activity throughout the nation, especially in the National Capital District".

Police statistics may indicate a decline in criminal activity but the fact is that the majority of people in urban areas live in daily fear of criminal attacks and daily armed robberies, rapes and general lawlessness in rural areas throughout the country is evident.

The same can be said of education, health and infrastructure.

Many children are still being denied their right to basic education, thousands of parents are still finding it practically impossible to pay school fees for their children and basic health care and services are still beyond the reach of the thousands of babies, children and mothers throughout the country, especially in the rural villages.

On infrastructure rehabilitation, the Highlands Highway is a testimony to what previous government as well as the Skate government have failed to do.

And there are hundreds of other highways in the Momase, New Guinea Islands and the Papuan regions which must be rehabilitated to give the people the chance to participate in "development and opportunity".

On the political front, Mr Skate appears to be in an impregnable position with 63 MPs behind him.

Twice in less than a year he sacked his two deputies and their parties -Chris Haiveta and Pangu Pati and Michael Nali and People's Progress Party - to consolidate his position.

But on his fight against corruption, he failed to get the Opposition to support the Government to introduce an Organic Law to establish an Independent Commission Against Corruption.

And this is where the Government's weakness is - it does not have the numbers to independently push through constitutional bills.

What of the future?

The Prime Minister himself answered this question in his Christmas message: "In 1999 we will continue to address the key areas and take this nation to the land of prosperity where Papua New Guinea should rightly be."

Papua New Guineans are willing to help the Prime Minister and his Government achieve their dream of prosperity for everyone. But in order for this dream to become a reality our leaders - both in government and Opposition - must unite, cooperate and work together, not for themselves but in the collective interest, welfare and benefit of every Papua New Guinean man, woman and child.

THE For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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