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Fighting corruption in PNG

Sam Koim on the front line

By Grant Walton*. Islands Business

For those on the front line, fighting corruption in Papua New Guinea can be a dangerous occupation. It wasn’t that long ago that a former Ombudsman Commissioner was shot. Sam Koim, chairman of PNG’s anti-corruption coordinating body, Taskforce Sweep, knows all about the dangers that come with the job

In February this year, his office was ransacked. In a video footage of the aftermath, Koim looks down the camera lens in defiance; he asserts that the incident will not deter him or his team. The office of Taskforce Sweep was targeted because of its success. It has registered over 200 cases of corruption, and recovered over 68 million Kina (around A$32 million). This has meant Koim has become somewhat of a celebrity, sought by the media, researchers and policy makers. Despite his busy schedule, I managed to catch up with him while he was in Geelong for a symposium on PNG at Deakin University.

This blog post, based on our conversation, reports on Koim’s perceptions about corruption, the taskforce, new anti-corruption organisations, the challenges facing anti-corruption organisations, solutions and the road ahead.

Taskforce Sweep is a multi-agency taskforce that was established by the national government of PNG in August 2011. Initially set up to investigate allegations aimed at the Department of National Planning, the taskforce’s mandate was subsequently extended to cover other government departments. Koim told me the government recently agreed to support Taskforce Sweep until arrangements for a new anti-corruption institution are decided.

As outlined in PNG’s National Anti-Corruption Strategy 2010-2030, this new institution is likely to be an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Establishing an ICAC in PNG is not a new idea. In the late 1990s, a proposed Organic Law on the Independent Commission Against Corruption failed to win parliamentary support.

There is still concern about creating an ICAC in PNG: some fear it would suck resources from established anti-corruption organisations, such as the highly regarded but poorly resourced Ombudsman Commission. Koim was aware of these concerns, and acknowledged that any new anti-corruption institution could potentially ‘divert government attention away from existing agencies, or cause territorial conflicts [between agencies]’.

However, he was adamant that an ICAC could be effective if it was ‘appropriate for PNG’. This meant that any new institution should integrate into existing government systems and reflect local values. Koim warned against importing an ICAC model—such as those from New South Wales or Hong Kong—without considering the local context. To account for local complexities, he said that moves to install a new anti-corruption organisation must slowly evolve.

Asked to reflect on the initial achievements of Taskforce Sweep, he was modest, saying that he would leave it up to others to judge. But he was satisfied with the ‘amount of deterrents that are being created’. He noted that, ‘in the past, people would do anything and steal [with impunity]; but now they know that somebody’s looking over their shoulders’.

While Taskforce Sweep has recovered stolen money and has helped with the arrest of suspects, its conviction record is yet to be established. On this front, Koim hopes that he and others can learn from Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK). Until recently the KPK had an impressive 100% conviction rate for corruption cases.

Australian media has quoted Koim as saying that half of PNG’s 7.6 billion kina development budget was lost to corruption between 2009 and 2011.

Even with the difficulties of measuring corruption (corruption is conducted in secret, making the extent of the problem difficult to gauge), this estimate is astounding. Why has corruption become a problem in PNG? In response, Koim linked corruption to inequality. Seeing, reading and hearing about money in the midst of poverty brings about ‘frustration’, that means many Papua New Guineans don’t feel compelled to play by the rules, he said.

He added that, as an ‘inclusive society’, many people benefit from corruption, which means they are less inclined to speak out against it. He was particularly concerned about the pressure on government workers to provide for their wantoks—literally ‘one talk’, a system of obligation between kin—means many public servants look for ways to augment their salary.

The Australian press also heavily publicised Koim’s concerns that Australia had become the preferred destination for money gained corruptly—in October 2012, he called Australia the Cayman Islands of PNG. Koim didn’t back away from these comments. But he did say he’s been happy with the way Australian officials have worked with him and his team since his speech.

While wary about revealing details, he suggested that Australia is now doing a better job of identifying suspicious transactions from PNG and monitoring those accused of corruption. This is perhaps evidenced by the recent seizure of businessman Eremas Wartoto’s Queensland property by Australian authorities, and the cancelling of his 457 visa. Wartoto is accused of misappropriating more than A$30 million from the PNG government.

No discussion about corruption in the country would be complete without exploring PNG’s multi-billion kina question: what is to be done?

Koim believes that corruption can be curtailed in PNG through three interlinked strategies. First, there needs to be greater focus on training honest public servants about the principles of good governance. Second, he wants to see government departments better coordinate their anti-corruption responses. And finally, he would like to see legislative reform. As outlined in his speech during Deakin’s symposium on PNG, he believes that laws need to be revised to better reflect PNG’s diverse cultures.

He would also like to see a stricter enforcement of the country’s Proceeds of Crime Act 2005—an act that was considered ineffective by 2011 report by the World Bank and the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering. But all this, he suggests, will require political will, resources and incentives. In PNG, government departments and politicians need to actively support anti-corruption reform . He called for Australia to provide more money for anti-corruption initiatives. He also suggested that Australia conditions its aid by allocating money to PNG based on the PNG government’s willingness to tackle corruption.

There’s not doubt that Koim and his team have achieved much despite the dangers associated with anti-corruption work in the country. Onlookers wait to see if these efforts translate into convictions and what role Australia and other donors will play in supporting anti-corruption efforts in the future.

As he suggests, if PNG does decide to establish an ICAC, it is critical that support for this new institution, through donors and the government, does not undermine existing anti-corruption efforts. It is also important that this organisation be free from political interference and be able to reel in the big fish—those at the top of the corruption food chain—no matter who they are.

In the meantime, Koim and his team continue their fight against corruption. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

*Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Development Policy Centre.

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  1. pkay
    July 17, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    Good, easy-read article by Grant. May be a supplement to this would be a researched account of why oversight bodies/agencies aren’t functioning; or if they are, why we aren’t seeing desired results and outcomes. IF ICAC does become a reality, it will probabaly be the first real anti-corruption body with fully-fledged legislation (hopefully) to investigate and prosecute corruption and enforce whatever penalties should be commensurate with the crime of corruption.

    The Ombudsman Commission is dying from euthanasia, a self-inflicted malaise that is killing the institution slowly. Unless it rediscovers and remakes itself the Commission will just be an ant-hill that’ll no longer be serving any real useful purpose other than just existing as an achronism in the constitution and organic laws like the ant-hill on the landscape. The Commission should put an embargo on the expensive overseas travels of the Chief Ombudsman and his colleagues and may be use the funds to commission a research on just why oversight bodies like itself have not performed. Funding is not the primary issue or reason I wouldn’t think.

    THE ONLY THING MORE DANGETOUS THAN CHANGE IS STANDING STLL. This aptly applies to the Ombudsman Commission and it should be reminded that PNG is not the same place anymore. It is time to change tacts, revive its jurisdiction, its modus operandi and even the size of the institution.

    Sam Koim is a determined individual. With the right professional support (not necessarily just funds) he can get onto prosecuting some of the clear and self-evident cases from the long list his organisation has amassed and strung together. The real measure of success is only when the charges against those arrested and charged will stick when they are prosecuted through the courts.

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