Money speaks in politics. That is certainly true in Papua New Guinea’s remarkably resilient democracy. As this year’s elections shift to the laborious counting phase, more than 4000 candidates wait with bated breath. Will they be one of the 109 chosen to represent their area? Will they — instantly — become one of the modern era’s bigmen, respected, powerful and rich?
The surge in candidates has been widely seen as an effort to get elected before the $15 billion ExxonMobil LNG pipeline comes on line in 2014, when serious royalties start to flow into government coffers — or siphoned off into private accounts or apartments in Cairns. The party system is weak, while local loyalties based on blood and lineages remain strong. Around half of PNG’s parliamentarians are turfed out after each five-year cycle. With limited preferential voting, candidates have won with as little as 7 per cent of the vote. The effective village system — where bigmen would throw huge feasts with dozens of pigs slaughtered and beer flowing freely in return for support — has been scaled up to level for the national elections. Many voters expect to be bought beforehand, for they will see little afterwards.
Papua New Guinea’s challenges are well known. Since independence from Australian rule in 1975, the world’s most diverse nation has struggled to maintain a viable state. Many of the colonial-era aid posts, roads and schools have disintegrated. The country is enormously wealthy in gold and gas and copper, but little has trickled down. The population is growing fast, recently tipping seven million. But 97 per cent of the land is traditionally owned.
Where do the fourth sons or daughters go, if there is not enough land for them? There is only one option — the cities, where they arrive in their thousands, hoping for a job and a better life. But life in Port Moresby and Lae is expensive and hard. The internal migrants end up in squatter camps — living on someone else’s land — and working in the informal economy, driving PMV mini buses or selling betel nut. Many turn to crime, making the two largest cities among the most dangerous in the world.
The nation’s issues are at their most acute in Port Moresby, the home of money politics. Inequality is worsening, leading to crime rates that keep expatriates inside compounds. So who to elect as the National Capital District’s governor? How do Papua New Guineans choose, when a parliamentary seat is widely seen as a ticket to riches? One solution may be to vote for someone already rich.
On an open election forum, many are behind a home-grown millionaire, Robert Agarobe. Why? "Robert Agarobe is my choice," writes one supporter. "He has a personal wealth exceeding 300 million and doesn’t need NCD money … He has houses, helicopters, cars, you name it."
Agarobe is one of the few local entrepreneurs to break into the main game in town — mining. His company, Helifix, flies mining workers to LNG pipeline sites on a daily basis. Agarobe’s luxurious office is positioned above the airstrip at Jacksons International Airport. From his desk, he can look out over his incoming Bell helicopters and his maintenance workshop. Wind ripples the grass like waves. His office is awash in thick red carpet and expensive leather couches. You must take your shoes off at the door. There is a well stocked bar and a Guitar Hero drum kit.
Agarobe shakes my hand. He is broad-shouldered, with a face set with smile lines, and short-cropped hair. He won’t detail how much he’s worth, but claims he’s not after more money. In fact, he’s keen to retire. "I am content with what I have," he says. "What would I do with more?"
Agarobe’s main opponent is the current governor Powes Parkop, a lawyer. Parkop is an adroit operator who has mounted a popular beautification drive and worked the media well. But for Agarobe, beautification is just window-dressing. The problems of Port Moresby run much deeper. The real issue, he says, is land. On his election website, Agarobe writes that the situation is dire. "Port Moresby today is by-and-large a city of substandard structures, badly deteriorated infrastructure, deplorable levels of social and health services, exploding settlements, limited employment opportunities and increasing jobless mobs clogging the city byways preying incessantly on a fed-up minority employed populace … Port Moresby is a seething mass of acute frustration and resentment; creating a potentially volatile situation for all."
Why is this? "80 per cent of the land in the city is still customary owned," he says. He points out the window to the bare hills running through the nation’s capital. "The government can’t build on it. You can’t work it. The land that is developed was bought in the 1940s and 50s. So the city is becoming very congested. Now, the majority of people who live in the squatter camps here – around 80 per cent – are all highlanders. They are an aggressive breed of people. You have to know how to handle them. I would say 80 per cent of the frustrations you see on the streets are caused by them. The solution is that you have to open up the customary land to empower the frustrated people."
Land is vitally important to Papua New Guineans. "Unless you got your blood, unless you are indigenous to that area, you can’t talk about land. They won’t listen to you, they won’t trust you. They regard you as an outsider who has no right to talk about land," Agarobe says. That’s where he comes in. His mother is a highlander, from Chimbu province, and his father is coastal, from the Motu-Koitabu and Koiari peoples who own much of the land in the capital district. "By my birthright, I have inherited this unique problem and can be the only solution to it," he writes on his election website. "I am not interested in politics and do not mean to change that now … [the city]needs to be urgently cleaned-up and repaired by a technician, not a politician."
Agarobe’s pitch is that he is a living bridge between the original inhabitants of Moresby — his father’s people — and the Highlanders who migrate, seeking their fortunes and rarely finding it. His solution is radical: to negotiate with his father’s people to lease their land to the government, to private business, and — most important — to the squatters who fuel most of the criminal raskol gangs in the city. He would create three new satellite cities — two agricultural and one commercial — around the capital. The plan is long-term. It is aimed squarely at the disaffected youth, who can find no jobs whether qualified or not.
"I don’t want to waste my time with the older generation," he says. "I want to make the future good for the kids. I want to improve the living standard of everyone in Port Moresby. To do that, we need land." His campaign was unorthodox, aimed at the new generation growing up with mobile phones and the net. Agarobe employed six young people to run his campaign, using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, using pamphlets and forums at universities.
In Port Moresby’s growing younger generation — often educated and worldly — he sees hope. The capital is the most outward looking place in PNG. Residents follow the news keenly. "I thought if PNG was ready for change, then this is where it would happen," he says. "I’ve been speaking at universities for three years, trying to get young people into politics. In PNG, there’s a lot of corruption. But you read it in the papers one day, and the next, people don’t worry about it. In the villages, when people had a meeting, it was the bigmen. The women weren’t there — they were in the kitchen. When the kids came in, they were chased away. So it’s built into us that when a bigman says it’s okay, then it’s okay. That’s why corruption is getting out of hand. We need to build up a generation of kids who will stand up and say that it’s wrong."
When he was a teenager, Agarobe collected bottles to sell to a recycling depot. That helped fund school. "I have done what most street kids do to survive … I am street wise and understand the frustrations of the youths," he writes in his election material. He dabbled in petty crime, but stopped after a few nights in jail. In Year 10, he dropped out. But someone spotted his drive and sent him to a technical school. He trained as an aircraft mechanic and became one of the first PNG nationals to graduate. He had drive. But what made him determined was racism.
In 1985, he was working on helicopters in Lae. But there was an accident and he nearly let an engine block crash to the ground. His white boss told him the engine was worth more than his life. That slur changed something. "When I started Helifix, it was never about money. It was about proving a point — being a national in a technical industry. In the early days, there were many times when I fixed a helicopter but the expats didn’t jump into it. They couldn’t trust me as a black person." Now, he employs nearly 60 white expatriates and 80 nationals.
Will he win? He lifts his shoulders high and drops them. "You never know in PNG politics. I’m not raising my hopes too high." Agarobe has seen many blatant attempts to manipulate the election for the NCD seat: widespread double-voting, attempted bribing of election officials, efforts to slip phony ballot boxes into protected compounds, the selling of preferences, cronies offering cash-for-votes outside the polling place, policemen paid to smuggle in dodgy boxes, and men walking around with copies of the electoral roll voting under other people’s names. "That’s how bad it is," he says. "I was amazed. I didn’t think it was that bad. The process has been totally corrupted." Remarkably, he laughs. "But I did this for the fun — to go out there and kick some ass. I wanted to say the things nobody was saying."
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