In a democracy, power resides with the people. But how do democracies ensure that their elected representatives and public officials do their job properly? How can they make sure that power is not abused, that ill-gotten gains do not accrue in the bank accounts of unprincipled leaders?
One of Papua New Guinea’s answers to this question is through the office of an Ombudsman. Twenty years ago, as part of its Independence Constitution, PNG set up its own Ombudsman Commission with the highest powers to act as public watch-dog. Ombudsmen elsewhere have the main function of taking up the cases of individuals with complaints against the system, and, if the case is upheld, of seeking redress without delay. But PNG required more than this of its Ombudsman, adding a whole new, and possibly unique, function: that of monitoring the actions of its most senior representatives and officials according to a “Leadership Code”. The Code itself, and the list of post-holders to whom it was to apply, was also specified.
At present approximately 3,500 persons are subject to the requirements of the code and therefore have to be monitored, while about 2,000 cases a year might be brought to the Ombudsman under the complaints procedure with cases ranging from unfair dismissal to theft.
Papua New Guinea has enjoyed an enviable reputation for many years as being relatively free of the kind of corruption that is routine in many other nations, some of whom are neighbours. In fact PNG, after 20 years’ experience, is now ready to assist other Pacific territories in setting up Ombudsmen on similar lines. But it is a continual battle to keep standards high.
The complicated financial opportunities made possible by electronic bank transfer of funds, together with the global reach of many industries, has meant that public life in PNG is harder to penetrate. But while that might make the day-to-day work of the Ombudsman more difficult, the moral position remains as clear as it was on the day that it was formed, that is: to safeguard society from abuse by those elected or appointed to serve it.