Papua New Guinea’s former Prime Minister, Sir Mekere Morauta, passed away last month after a long illness. Paul Barker considers the lasting legacy of PNG’s ‘main reformist prime minister’.
When Papua New Guinea gained Independence from Australia in 1975, it had a remarkably talented team of young Papua New Guinean professional economists heading its financial institutions, namely Henry ToRobert at the Central Bank and Mekere Morauta, who headed the Department of Finance (a combination of the current Finance and Treasury Departments) as its first Secretary in 1975.
Sir Mekere, who by then had several years’ experience as an economist in the public and private sectors, quickly established his technical capacity and authority over the Department.
After seven years as Secretary for Finance, Sir Mekere was appointed Managing Director of the PNG Banking Corporation, the country’s largest retail bank, from 1983 until 1992. In 1993, he was appointed Governor of the Bank of PNG, a position he held only for 14 months, before focusing upon developing his private business in fisheries and other activities.
‘He was PNG’s main reformist prime minister, ready to single-mindedly focus on driving change to address outstanding problems.’
He stood as an MP in 1997, holding the portfolio of fisheries until gaining the position of Prime Minister in 1999 by 100 votes to five.
By then, after several years of political and economic upheaval, the government and the country were in dire economic straits. PNG desperately needed firm and capable leadership and, in a surprise move, the Parliament more or less turned to Sir Mekere as an economic saviour.
Not a typical politician
Sir Mekere was good at politics – building up and sustaining a coalition – and always remained a professional to the core. For him, gaining office for the sake of it and hanging in by whatever means was never on his agenda. He understood the economics, governance and development issues and challenges, focusing on clear options and strategies to achieve his stated objectives.
He was PNG’s main reformist prime minister, ready to single-mindedly focus on driving change to address outstanding problems. In 1999, PNG had serious economic and governance challenges and Sir Mekere set about addressing them and didn’t mind some unpopularity in pursuing what he considered the right path.
By 2002, he had achieved considerable progress and, with assistance from development partners, had rescued and started reviving the economy and its institutions, but only just started addressing wider needed reforms when the next election swept him from office again in 2002.
‘It was a period when PNG’s international reputation and credibility as a partner and international player was being restored and built up.’
During his term as PM, he developed a structural reform program, helped revive drained public funds, and restore economic confidence and activity.
His reform program covered economic and fiscal management, governance, restoration of institutional credibility and sustainability in many areas such as public finance, superannuation fund management, forest and marine resource governance and management of state-owned enterprises and assets.
Where necessary, there was privatisation to bring in private capital and greater accountability, as well as trying to address the underlying causes of political instability that in turn lead to corruption and abuse of the political process.
During his three-year term, which provided the platform for the subsequent economic recovery during the 2000s and coincided with improved commodity prices and reduced debt, Sir Mekere used the Structural Adjustment Program effectively to drive reform and sustain political cohesion. It was a period when PNG’s international reputation and credibility as a partner and international player was being restored and built up.
If Sir Mekere had had a longer term at the helm, he’d no doubt have progressed the governance reforms further, restoring needed confidence for investment, strengthening natural resource planning, accountability and benefits to PNG, and addressing the poor performance and lack of accountability that had become the hallmark of PNG’s SOEs.
Unfortunately, he only spent a short period thereafter as Minister for State Enterprises and, despite his widely recognised knowledge and capacity, he was sidelined for further ministerial office, even while providing valued advice and inputs.
Sir Mekere was widely respected, a leader who didn’t seek out fame or attention, but simply wanted to get things done the right way for the people of PNG.
‘Some recent Government actions, inspired by Sir Mekere, his former colleague Sir Anthony and various civil society players, are now providing mechanism to address corruption.’
Some of his mechanisms were subsequently in part sidelined by constitutional rulings, while others, such as SOE reform, natural resource governance and privatisation were largely brought to a halt. Others, such as superannuation, and banking and monetary reforms made solid progress, providing an enormous impact to the lives of ordinary Papua New Guineans after years of institutional abuse.
Corruption in and outside government grew apace since his term as PM and became even more damaging to PNG, its institutions and the economy. Some recent Government actions, inspired by Sir Mekere, his former colleague Sir Anthony and various civil society players, are now providing mechanism to address this scourge, which Sir Mek called systemic and systematic 20 years ago.
Sir Mekere’s passing leaves an enormous gap in PNG’s professional and public leadership. He stood head and shoulders out from most of his colleagues and gained a level of public trust and respect rarely achieved. He had his critics, who questioned some of his past actions and choices, but few would deny that he pursued his objectives with clear determination, understanding and authority and that he was one of PNG’s most outstanding professionals and leaders, committed whole heartedly to PNG’s best interests. He will be sorely missed.
Paul Barker is the Executive Director of the industry-funded think tank, the Institute of National Affairs.
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