Subject: The mean streets of Dili are now avenues of hope

The Australian

The mean streets of Dili are now avenues of hope

Steve Bracks | June 16, 2008

THOUSANDS gathered in the square in front of the main Government buildings in Dili, the Palacio do Governo, last month to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

There were fireworks, traditional dancing and a band. The highlight of the night was a spontaneous song by the Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao.

For many in the audience this was a night of firsts.

The first time they'd seen fireworks, the first time they'd heard their Prime Minister sing, and most importantly, the first time they'd gathered en masse outside the Government buildings without fear, anger and resentment and without violence since the chaos of 2006.

The AMP Coalition Government of Gusmao is only nine months old and yet in that short period I have witnessed a remarkable transition.

When I visited Dili in September last year in my new role as special adviser to the Prime Minister it was only four weeks since his cabinet of 13 ministers had been appointed.

At that time the new East Timor Government was in the midst of putting together a transitional budget led by the indefatigable Minister for Finance, Emilia Pires.

In an extraordinary effort that would have made Kevin Rudd proud, the new Government methodically went about determining its spending priorities in a series of late-night and weekend budget meetings and then delivered the transitional budget in October last year, quickly followed by a calendar-year budget in December.

The challenges facing the new Government at the time were enormous. The former prime minister and Fretilin Party leader Mari Alkatiri was disputing the constitutionality of Gusmao's majority AMP Coalition Government, while Alfredo Reinado and hundreds of armed disaffected former police and army officers were holed up in the mountains and had been since April 2006.

Thousands of families were living in "internally displaced persons" camps in central Dili, too scared to go back to their villages. And then there were the longer-term challenges in a country recovering from a 24-year guerilla war and occupation, and from the destruction in 1999 of public roads, water facilities, hospitals and other public infrastructure.

This is a country with one of the highest birth rates in the world -- women have an average 7.7 children -- and a population of just over one million, of which 50 per cent are under 18. It is a country with two "official" languages, Tetum and Portuguese and two "working" languages, English and Indonesian. This is a country building a public service from scratch.

It was public service reform that the Prime Minister asked me to concentrate on at our first meeting.

Gusmao was acutely aware that if East Timor was going to be able to rebuild and become a successful democracy it needed a strong, independent public service.

It was extraordinary that he was able to step back from all the other highly visible and fraught issues facing his Government and focus on the relatively mundane area of public-service reform.

On my most recent visit last month, Gusmao hosted the 2008 Year of Administrative Reform Conference. He personally welcomed every delegate at the entrance to the auditorium and then delivered the opening address in which he detailed the establishment of an independent Civil Service Commission that will report to the parliament and be responsible for ensuring merit-based appointments and setting fair and equitable salaries.

In his speech, the Prime Minister made the point that you can have excellent policies, and the budget capacity, but if you don't have a competent public service capable of implementing those policies, very little will be delivered.

He also made it clear that the public service needs to be independent so that if the government changes, the bureaucracy doesn't.

Gusmao also announced that the establishment of an independent civil service would be complemented by an independent financial auditor reporting to the national parliament and a national anti-corruption strategy, the final form of which is currently the subject of public consultation.

As money from the Petroleum Fund starts to flow into the East Timor economy, these initiatives will provide the checks and balances necessary to ensure it is spent on the Government's budget priorities and not squandered as has been the case in some other suddenly resource-rich developing nations.

Sitting in the audience at the conference, listening to Gusmao deliver a passionate answer to a question from the floor that suggested the Civil Service Commission should report to the Government and not the parliament, I found it hard to believe that less than three months ago East Timor had been on the brink of chaos as a result of the failed assassination attempts on the life of President Jose Ramos-Horta. Yet here was the Prime Minister before me, thumping the table to emphasise a point before breaking into a wide grin and winking at his spellbound audience.

But instead of chaos, the assassination attempts showed the world and more importantly, the citizens of East Timor, that the Gusmao Government could manage a crisis.

The UN didn't need to take over, the streets of Dili didn't erupt into violence and, miraculously, no one other than the leader of the assassination attempt, Reinado was killed.

Since then, all members of Reinado's group have surrendered peacefully. The petitioners, some 700 of them, have returned to Dili and have reached a settlement with the Government, and after more than two years hundreds of families who have been living in IDP camps in Dili are returning home.

I've been to East Timor five times since September last year and each time I have returned I have seen concrete evidence of progress, whether it's a reduction in the number of tents in the IDP camps or the extensive paving work around Dili streets.

I've also sensed from my meetings with the PM and his ministers, and from the people on the streets of Dili, an increasing optimism.

Change is happening, and while it is going to take a long time to address the myriad challenges facing East Timor, the Government is heading in the right direction. What better proof than the sound of singing and laughter echoing from the square outside the Palacio do Governo?

Steve Bracks is special adviser to Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

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