PAPUA NEW GUINEA PRIME MINISTER SIR MEKERE STILL STRONG

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By Mary Louise O’Callaghan South Pacific correspondent

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 3, 2001 - The Australian)---Grief has its own language. So when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta took a thin and grieving old man, Kil Wangale, in his arms two days ago and they silently embraced, no one doubted the thoughts and emotions coursing through the two men.

Like Kil Wangale, Sir Mekere knows what it is to lose a son, to suddenly discover that the unique mix of future hopes and dreams past that is your own child, has been wrenched away from you.

It is almost two years since Stephen Morauta, 23, a gifted but troubled Australian National University student, died at the Canberra campus in unexpected circumstances just a month after Sir Mekere assumed office, inheriting a nation on the verge of bankruptcy and a people anxious for relief.

For Mr. Wangale, a wiry, grey-haired man from PNG’s Western Highlands province, the pain is much more recent. For his son, also Stephen, was one of the four students shot dead last week on Port Moresby’s University of Papua New Guinea campus, allegedly by police, in circumstances that remain unclear. For both men, and indeed, for their nation, these deaths represent an immutable turning point in their lives.

The death of Mr. Wangale’s son is a devastating blow not just to the aspirations and future prosperity of his parents or even the Wangale family, but to his entire Highlands clan, who between them will have supported financially, emotionally and in many other ways the enormous effort required to get "Seeven," a third-year business student at UPNG, as far as they did.

For 25 years after independence, there are still provinces in PNG where less than 50 percent of primary school-aged children have access to education, and more secondary students fall out of an already overstretched system than can be accommodated by it. So that only a tiny percentage of school leavers have a chance of ever making it to a tertiary institution.

It is little wonder then that Mr. Wangale and the family of one of the other students, Simon Noki, have asked for compensation from the national government and also from the UPNG Student Representative Council, which organized the anti-government protests that preceded the confrontation which led to young men’s deaths.

In a petition presented to the Prime Minister they are demanding 500,000 kina (US$ 151,000) from each of the institutions for each of the four students slain, a total of K4 million (US$ 1,208,000).

For Sir Mekere, the students’ deaths -- no matter whether they followed legitimate police actions or something more sinister -- are a cruel blow after months of slogging away at tough political, economic and regional reforms. As he told the dead students’ parents on Sunday: "Last Tuesday (the day of the deaths) is the blackest day in our nation’s history.

"And for me personally, being Prime Minister. . . my feelings are inexpressible.

"Having lost a son myself not so long ago, I can feel the pain; and the mark that is in your heart, time, nothing, can take it away, can rub it away.

"It is even worse when I know that what I am trying to do -- the policies that I have set in place -- are the right ones and the only ones that can save this nation.

"And to be doing that and experiencing this and having death occur in my time as Prime Minister will leave a mark in my heart for a very long time."

Certainly the deaths, the first to ever occur during a civil disturbance in PNG, were a blow that could have knocked a lesser man off his feet. And out of office.

For the simple truth behind last week’s events is not simple at all. Student leaders and some of PNG’s trade unionists have urged the international community to believe that the deaths were the culmination of their opposition to a huge international conspiracy prosecuted by PNG’s major aid donors -- the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and that ever-present scapegoat, their old colonial masters, Australia -- to foist, among other things, privatization of public utilities upon the nation.

In reality it is Sir Mekere who has for two years juggled with a small band of competent ministers and officers, and a shrinking margin of public support, what must be one of the most difficult jobs in the world: reforming PNG.

Economic reform is one of the most difficult political actions to pull off even in the most sophisticated of electorates, let alone in a volatile political environment where your own Deputy Prime Minister, or ministers, can not be trusted to support you. But Sir Mekere has not just persuaded the international donors to once again support PNG, convinced a jaundiced Australian government to back him, and repaired and built a fresh relationship with countries such as China, but he has also done what no other dared to do.

Determinedly, patiently and with finesse, Sir Mekere has brought before the PNG Parliament tough new political reforms that it is hoped will finally entrench a party system and therefore the discipline of party politics upon PNG. More recently, he has somehow found the time to find the right man in his Minister for Bougainville Affairs, Moi Avei, to bring the delicate Bougainville crisis to a negotiated settlement, which the Cabinet is due to consider tomorrow. He has even announced a plan to ban the "pokies" next year.

At first glance, Sir Mekere seems an unlikely revolutionary. The grey-haired, softly spoken former central banker has all the hallmarks of the bureaucrat he once was. In reality, Sir Mekere, for all his respectability and genuine humility, is probably the most visionary prime minister the country has had since the man who led PNG to independence, Sir Michael Somare.

Like any leader, Sir Mekere is a product of his times. When he assumed office in a skin-of-the teeth ascendancy in July 1999, PNG was not just broke, its public service was broken, its people angry and disillusioned, mostly with their leaders.

In this context, as much as his steadying hand on PNG’s fiscal spending and processes was desperately needed, it is the political reforms which have half a chance of actually making PNG politicians accountable to their voters that may be Sir Mekere’s lasting legacy to the nation.

The reforms which require registration of parties, of party members and of candidates; and which prohibit members from leaving the party under which they contested their seat are untested, and will not take effect until next year’s general election.

But those close to Sir Mekere in part blame them for the political jockeying that has so rocked the government in the past few months. That and the fact that there are 21 days in which a vote of no-confidence is still possible," said one member of Sir Mekere's inner circle this week.

"What we are seeing is the last, desperate attempt of these guys to grab power before the reforms come down on them next year. They tried with the army mutiny in March; now they’ve tried to have another go."

There have of course been mistakes, back-downs and ill-advised attempts to go beyond what the body politic could cope with, such as the decision to halve the minimum wage earlier this year, and wide-ranging defense reforms that were pushed too far too fast on an already disillusioned force.

Each time these have provided Sir Mekere’s opponents a chance to chip away at the government. Each time Sir Mekere, no doubt with the help of one of PNG’s wiliest politicians, former Prime Minister Paias Wingti, has managed to outmaneuver them.

But as the elections approach, the stakes are getting higher, the players more daring, as the events of last week show.

"As a nation we have learnt a lesson," he said on Sunday. "In the end we have lost four people but what have we gained? Nothing but shame."

For additional reports from The Australian, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Australian.

Provided by Vikki John ( VIKKI@law.uts.edu.au

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