PNG PUBLIC NEEDS STRONG WATCHDOG

Editorial

The National

THE PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (May 6, 2010) – THE peaceful protest by hundreds of people in Port Moresby against what has come to be known as the Maladina amendments to the Constitution stems from one burning desire: That is to ensure there is a strong, independent and well-resourced body that can protect the integrity of our leaders.

There needs to be a strong watchdog to protect our leaders from themselves.

Political leaders are at great pains to ensure the Ombudsman Commission never comes near the millions of kina that they have elected for themselves under the guise of the district services improvement programme (DSIP).

A record K16 million has been disbursed to each member since 2007 under this programme. This is money such as never before enjoyed by Members of Parliament. The most leaders ever got was some K7.5 million over the full five-year term of one Parliament.

Because the Ombudsman Commission can and did have the power to stop payment of any DSIP, or other sectoral funds to MPs if it suspects the money might be put to unlawful use, members have all rushed to support the Maladina amendments to keep the Ombudsman Commission well away from their nest egg.

At K16 million, this amounts to K1.424 billion in public funds.

It is this money which needs greater scrutiny because it is public funds that is being disbursed under the laxest of guidelines with virtually nil capacity to monitor spending.

We have learnt that hundreds of millions of kina has been disappearing from the public purse through trust accounts.

These would appear to have been happening over the last eight years, according to the auditor-general and the parliamentary public accounts committee.

The system of trust accounts and the trust accounting by the government of PNG has failed both in its function and effectiveness.

The government has lost control and command of the public service and, in particular, trustees and trust accounts.

This state of affairs has distorted the constitutional scheme of government to a point where the executive government has lost almost all control over public monies, trust accounts and fiscal accounting.

In doing so, it has ceded power to unaccountable and unelected public servants who treat public money today as their own.

The number of government trust accounts is unknown and the balances in those trust accounts, which are known, are uncertain at the best of times.

Into such a field enters the DSIP and various other funds which are drawn on almost exclusively by MPs such as the RESI education funds, the national agriculture development programme funds and several transport programme funds.

If trust accounts, which have trust instruments and trust deeds and trustees, can be abused so much, there is virtually no check and balance on DSIP and other political funds.

Members are given these funds in cheque form carte blanche. There are virtually no strings attached, except for some guidelines which do not seem to have force of law.

It is uncertain, for instance, whether the guidelines are actually taken from the Public Finances Management Act or whether there are regulations.

Otherwise, all these millions of kina are left to the discretion and honesty of an MP alone.

It is also unclear how the cheque is processed. The correct procedure is for the cheques to be deposited into the district treasury accounts of each electorate from where they are drawn and paid straight to service providers.

We do know, however, that certain cheques have been cashed straight at the bank.

The auditor-general was so under-resourced that it had not completed audits into local level governments. Audit into the DSIP is at a very preliminary stage and it is uncertain when it might be completed if at all.

The Planning and Implementation Department and the Office of Rural Development are also under-resourced to effectively monitor the use of this money.

Although this is public funds, there has been no report made to Parliament, or to any other oversight agency or department, on the full use of this money so far.

It is this that an agency like the Ombudsman Commission, by its very existence, keeps in check.

Even though it too is under-staffed and lacks funds, the fact that it exists and might select one or more electorates to investigate keeps people, including our MPs, honest.

This is the whole reason why we, the people, want the Ombudsman Commission to retain all its powers and functions.

Why are the MPs so intent on removing its powers?

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