For two years before Independence Josephine Abaijah led a highly visible and vocal Papuan separatist movement. Bougainville had just seen the opening of its huge copper mine and some saw an opportunity to fund an independent future for the North Solomons. While PNG opted for a unitary state with political and bureaucratic power centralised in Port Moresby, there were some even on the Constitutional Planning Committee who favoured a more decentralised system. It was Bougainville which forced Prime Minister Somare’s hand. In order to keep them and their revenue in PNG, he had to write Provincial government into the Constitution.
Provincial Government was effective in North Solomons and, as it turned out, in several other provinces but, looking back over the last 15 years, it was in the main a chaotic failure. The big problem was financial mismanagement. A typical case was Sandaun. In 1984 the Auditor-General’s office began to go through the files in the provincial headquarters at Vanimo. They found total disorder: three sets of figures for end-of-year cash balances, illegal loans, a deposit bag for K1,000 which had 31 toea in it and many other serious breaches of financial discipline. The Provincial Government was suspended forthwith.
The provincial governments began to fall like skittles: Enga, Manus, Simbu, Fly, Western Highlands, Central. Then in 1987 Sandaun suspended again for gross financial mismanagement. Morobe suspended in 1989 following a breakdown of law and order. The catalogue of suspensions and re-instatements continued. It became clear that in many cases the Provincial level of government was at best incompetent, at worst fraudulent and that rural communities in particular were suffering for it.
Looking back commentators suggest that some of the blame can be laid at the door of the Australian Administration pre-Independence. There was a dearth of trained administrators. Those that were trained were used to a centralised system not one where power was devolved into 19 separate, provincial administrations. The country’s public service was simply not ready.
With some foresight the Constitutional Committee suggested that the system be reviewed after 15 years. And so it was that the present government set up a bipartisan committee to make its revue and come up with some recommendations. It concluded that there had been a lack of proper channelling of financial resources, manpower, facilities and a lack of politically- set priorities. They recommended that the system be changed. In March 1995 Premier Sir Julius Chan stood before Parliament and requested a change in the Organic Law of the Constitution. The identity of the second tier government would remain but the new law would give dual emphasis to both Provincial and local-level governments enabling the collective management of provincial affairs. Did Sir Julius know that he was in for a rough few months, as cabinet ministers and student activists vigorously opposed the reforms? In the end the government won the day.
Premiers stood down or became Deputy Governors. Governors were appointed, some famous names amongst them, (Sir Michael Somare became Governor of East Sepik). The public service got ready for a shake up. There would be a move to shift qualified professionals to rural areas where they could be closer to the people. Some Provinces quickly implemented reformed structures and set about the business of government. Others were less sure. For all the talk about returns going more directly to the people could not this mean more control by central government, especially over emotive issues like mining rights and mineral resources?
Sir Julius Chan was reassuring. In his opening speech he said, “These reforms, Mr. Speaker, strike a necessary and healthy balance between central and local power. They spell out a bright and bold future for Papua New Guinea.”