Interview: The Most Powerful Woman in PNG Winnie Kiap, Secretary to the National Executive Council of PNG


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01 January 2007

Interview: The Most Powerful Woman in PNG Winnie Kiap, Secretary to the National Executive Council of PNG

As custodian of state information and secrets she is the most powerful woman in Papua New Guinea. Yet she is a very private person. A pioneer in her field of expertise, Winnie Kiap has moved with ease into an enviable position of status and authority.

As Secretary to the National Executive Council of Papua New Guinea, she has the ear of the Prime Minister.

She is the first woman to have served in this office in PNG and one of only a handful in the Commonwealth. In anyone’s books, that position would yield the highest accolade. But she states, that is a privilege “no-one can put a price on”.

Kiap is from Baluan Island in Manus Province. She completed primary education on her home island and after Grade 7, won a government scholarship to study in Australia in 1963. The education system in Manus was of very high standard at that time and produced many outstanding Manusians. Scholarships in those days were highly competitive and only a handful each year were selected across the country.

She attended two private secondary schools in New South Wales, Australia: Mt St Mary’s College in Katoomba and St Vincent’s College, Potts Point, Sydney.

She made the grade and continued to university, attending Queensland University, Brisbane, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Her first job was across the seas with the Tongan civil service where she was appointed Senior Executive Officer in the Prime Minister’s Department.

She then served as Assistant Secretary in the Tongan Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries. In the civil service structure at the time, this was a very high office as there was no other level between the assistant secretary and director who was the head of the department.

She also served as assistant secretary for Commerce in the Tongan Department of Labour, Commerce and Industries. Whereas in the Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries, she was the only assistant secretary; at the Department of Labour, Commerce and Industry, she was one of three, each responsible for a function of the department, all reporting directly to the departmental head.

She left Tonga and worked in the PNG Consulate-General in Sydney from 1988 in the migration section as a locally-engaged-staff (LES), a term used for staff who are not Papua New Guinean public servants and employed in the host city.

From there, she moved to PNG in 1992 with her first job with the public service as Information Officer for the Department of Trade and Industry. Later, she became assistant secretary for Planning and Information with the Department of Trade and Industry. She commenced in mid-ranks and beneath where she left off in the Tongan civil service.

She joined the Investment Promotion Authority (IPA) in 1994 as Director/Management Services. She had opportunities to act as Managing Director of IPA on a few occasions. Whilst there, she was appointed as Secretary to the National Executive Council in 1998. She has been in this position now for 10 years.

Here’s what she told ISLANDS BUSINESS:

Explain what you do as secretary to the National Executive Council (NEC)?

“The National Executive consists of the Head of State and the National Executive Council (NEC). The functions and responsibilities of the Head of State are performed by the Governor-General. The NEC consists of the Prime Minister and Ministers who will be no less than 6 in number, and no more than 27 (one-third of the members of the Parliament). The Prime Minister is the Chairman of the NEC. I am the Secretary. My roles include:

• Setting, in consultation with the Prime Minister, the annual meeting schedule of the NEC, including an annual meeting in the province of the Prime Minister’s choice.
• Determining the agenda for each meeting.
• Vetting submissions for compliance with NEC procedures and legal requirements.
• Managing the decision-making process of the NEC which includes scrutiny of submissions at bureaucratic level for technical advice, and at political level through ministerial committees.
• Ensuring that decisions of the NEC are provided to relevant implementing departments and agencies on a timely manner.
• Managing the relationship between the Executive Government and the office of the Head of State (Governor-General).
Co-ordinating ministerial committees and providing secretarial services to some including the Budget, Economic, Appointment, and Tourism committees.
• Managing the process of bringing into operation laws passed by the Parliament and certified by the Speaker.
• Providing advice to the Prime Minister and Ministers when necessary or required.
• Providing advice to Departmental Heads on the processes and requirements of the NEC.
• Coordinating and providing secretarial services to several constitutional committees chaired by the Prime Minister and consisting of prominent persons such as the Chief Justice, Leader of the Opposition, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Appointments, Chief Ombudsman/Chairman of the Public Services Commission.”

How long have you been in this office? How many governments have you served?

“I have been Secretary to the NEC for exactly 10 years and have served three governments and three prime ministers: the late Sir William Skate, Sir Mekere Morauta, and Grand Chief the Sir Michael Somare. This is the beginning of my fourth government but under the same Prime Minister (Somare). I am the first woman to have served in this office in PNG and one of only a handful in the Commonwealth.”

How do you deal with the ministers in government?

“With a lot of respect. And from a very neutral position. My dealings with the ministers are frank and professional. I think they appreciate this as I have been fortunate to have the confidence of all the ministers I have had the honour of working with in these 10 years.”

You are only one of two women departmental heads in PNG. What is it that makes it difficult for PNG women to get to where you are, or be appointed as heads of department?

“The other woman is Margaret Elias, Secretary for the Department of Personnel Management. Elias has served a few years longer than I have, so it can be said that we are the longest serving officers at this level in the public service. This tells you that women can perform and once appointed will merit confidence at the higher level. The difficulty PNG women confront in reaching higher positions is threefold, as I see it. The first is that the decision-makers are men beginning from department or agency level to the political level. If the woman is not promoted easily and on merit through the ranks in the department/agency, she is not likely to reach the position of visibility. The second difficulty women face is related to the first. If you know you merit promotion but tend to be continuously overlooked, then you either conform to the idea that you do not deserve promotion, or you lose interest in the job and your performance deteriorates. The third relates to the culture of marriage in PNG. A working husband will require his wife to put him and children above her own self development. Man is the common denominator in the failure of women to hold high office. Like minority groups elsewhere, women have to strive hardest and jump many hurdles in order to attract the attention of liberal-minded men in decision-making positions.”

Anti-corruption stances, good governance and transparency are being touted as the panacea for successful governments and national prosperity. Do you think more women in high places will contribute to that?

“Being in this position means I have a 360-degree view of the public service. I am made aware of many things. However, I cannot disclose anything. In general terms, I would have to say that women are likely to be more in pursuit of good governance and transparency. In my view, women are more focused, and are less inclined to distractions. Apart from work and home, they rarely have other goals and pursuits that will tempt them to ideas and opportunities likely to result in corruption. Even if they have inclinations toward self-aggrandisement, they are more likely to pursue these inclinations within the law or accepted norms. Women are more protective of their reputation. Having found it difficult to rise that high, they will be less likely to jeopardise their achievements once they reach the top.”

What do you find are the advantages of a woman in the position of secretary to the NEC?

“The advantages are mostly on my side. Not so much in PNG, but in other countries, I meet with respect and awe when introduced as Cabinet Secretary. And a woman Cabinet Secretary in the Commonwealth is a rare species. So the intrinsic satisfaction is enormous—humbling as well. It is not a job that has gender significance. I do not think I am doing it better than the men who have preceded me. I have been described as non-threatening to the ministers and perhaps this statement has some significance. In my case, I have no political aspirations and no affiliation with those with political ambition so I will not appear a threat. The Secretary to the NEC as custodian of state information and secrets can easily be suspected of political aspirations or of assisting politicians for favours.”

What is the most interesting and challenging aspect of the job?

“The most interesting aspect is that the secretary to the NEC has the ear of the prime minister and ministers. The most challenging aspect is that the secretary must speak with authority. In giving advice to the prime minister or ministers, or cabinet, the secretary’s advice must be respected and must instill confidence.

Do you ever think of being elsewhere other than being secretary to NEC?

“Yes, many times. Mostly because I don’t have a social life, and time is passing by. Because when I do attempt to see the casual side of life, I still have to be on guard as to whom I speak to, what I say, and how my behaviour may be interpreted. Because, I do not get to have proper holidays as provided for by my contract. I envy my colleague departmental heads going off for a good rest. I am lucky if I get two weeks a year out of the six weeks allowed. I do not get to see my daughters and their children as often as I want because I have met some great people including expatriates with whom I would have loved to make friends, but I have to be on guard always as to what I say. The line between the private me and the official me is not readily discernable. Because I know that elsewhere, I will enjoy better salaries and perks. While I am now serving the current term, I cannot negotiate for better terms and conditions as is possible outside of government. However, all the above “because” pale into insignificance against having the ear of the prime minister. In this office, I can pick up the telephone and speak with the Chief Justice, with the Leader of the Opposition. My office serves as a link between the executive government and the Governor-General; some of the many privileges I will not enjoy elsewhere.”

Your last word?

“I know I am in a privileged position. I have the ear of the Prime Minister, the highest office in the land. Nothing beats that. You cannot put a price on that.”

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