Both the Post Courier and National newspapers published prominent articles last week (22/1/16) that the Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, had been bestowed with the "prestigious" fellow membership award of the Institute of Certified Management Accountants (ICMA) of Australia.

The Post Courier ran the headline "O’Neill bestowed with prestigious award" while the National published "O'Neill awarded for economic input".

The story originated from a press statement released by the Prime Minister's office announcing ICMA to be a well-recognised institute which is associated with the Jubilee University of Papua New Guinea.

O'Neill was presented the award after being nominated by former Finance Secretary Thaddeus Kambanei the now head of Jubilee University. Mr Kambanei nominated Mr. O'Neill in recognition of "…the valuable work he has done furthering the economy of PNG and for his support to the accounting profession through higher education programs."

The award was formally presented by the CEO of ICMA-Australian Professor Janek Ratnatunga.

With PNG's economy about to take a nose dive on the back of record debt, a cash crisis, and three years of mismanagement, the timing of this award begs the question whether it was nothing more than a publicity stunt to distort the public's view of O'Neill's mishandling of the economy.

So was it a prestigious award and what do we know about the Institute of Certified Management Accountants?

From my research I've uncovered it was only recently registered in 1996 as an association under the name "Institute of Certified Management Accountants" (ICMA). It currently operates out of a small office in North Victoria in Australia. Its affairs are managed by a committee of seven people and Prof. Ratnatunga acts as the association secretary.
It's not an academic institution but an association that operates on Membership basis, where persons who have a qualification in the field of accountancy may apply to join, conditional to paying a membership fee.

It offers 12 categories of memberships, including an Honorary Fellow membership which O'Neill was awarded. According to its own constitution an "Honorary Fellow membership is by award of the Institute for persons of high esteem who have contributed to the development of the profession."

So what has O'Neill actually contributed to the profession? It was reported he received the award in recognition of the valuable work he has done furthering the economy of PNG and for his support to the accounting profession through higher education programs.

This is misleading. Having a degree in the profession myself and having worked in one of the world’s top four accounting firms, the economy has nothing to do with furthering the accountancy profession nor has O'Neill done anything to develop it.

So the question is, why would ICMA present O'Neill, a Prime Minister of another Country, their highest award outside the requirements provided by its own constitution? Perhaps they saw the opportunity to attract publicity by having a picture of a head of state (Prime Minister) on its wall. While O'Neill saw the opportunity for mislead the public view of his handling of the economy.

So back to the issue – whether ICMA is a prestigious or well-recognised Institution in Australia.

There are three legally recognised local professional accounting bodies in Australia: CPA Australia (Certified Practising Accountants) one of largest global accounting bodies with 150,000 members; the Institute of Public Accountants (IPA), established in 1923 with 35,000 members; and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Australia (ICAA). ICMA is certainly not one of them nor is it a recognised academic institution or university.

O'Neill received the reward after being nominated by Mr. Kambanei head of Jubilee University. Kambanei was reported saying that O’Neill’s being bestowed the award is an inspiration for himself and many who are in the accounting profession."

So what do we know about Mr. Kambanei and Jubilee University of PNG?

Jubliee University (PNG) is listed on the ICAM website as an overseas provider of its programs. It operates out of a small office, Suite 2 in Malagan Haus, Boroko National Capital District, hardly facilities you expect a university to operate from. If you click on the link it takes you to a Japanese evangelical ministry website..???  An IPA search confirms it is not even registered in PNG.

Most readers would have never heard of the University. I certainly hadn't. It first started in 2005 as Jubilee College, an Assemblies of God church-backed institution. However it failed to obtain an accreditation or legal status as an established university or tertiary institution.

In 2009. the Director of the Office of Higher Education wrote to the National Superintendent of the Assemblies of God Church, the sponsor of Jubilee College, regarding the specific use of the term ‘college’, that the institution had not satisfied the requirements to be conducting itself as an Higher Education Institution and it was misleading for it to be publicly calling itself a university.

At the time Thaddeus Kambanei was the Secretary of Finance as well as the chancellor of Jubilee University. In 2009, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare ordered a formal commission of inquiry into the Finance Department over public concerns regarding fraudulent payments, including those made to Paraka Lawyers.

The Commission uncovered that Thaddeus Kambanei was closely associated to Paraka Lawyers and responsible for endorsing millions in bogus payments to the firm. Interestingly enough, Prime Minister O'Neill is also facing criminal prosecution over similar allegations for directing Finance Department in 2012 to settle K71.8 million in bogus payments to Paraka Lawyers.

The Commission of Inquiry also uncovered that Thaddeus Kambanei abused his position as Secretary of Finance for illegally accessing K4.5 million from the East Sepik Highway Trust Fund and diverting it to the Jubilee University. When very senior executives of the AOG church, including the General Superintendent Reverend Phillip T. Dalaka, were called to give evidence, they testified they knew nothing as to where all the money, supposedly given to the AOG University, had gone. The Commission found the payments were fraudulently made and recommended that Kambanei be referred to Police to be investigated. However before the Report could be released, Paraka Lawyers obtained a stay from National Court, preventing its publication. It was only five years later that former Attorney General Kerenga Kua pursued the matter and had the stay removed. He was later removed as Attorney General by Peter O'Neill before he could table the report in Parliament.

So in summary, with the deteriorating state of PNG's economy, the Prime Minister's Office released a press statement announcing O'Neill was awarded a prestigious award in recognition of his handling of the economy purportedly from a well recognised institution.

O'Neill was nominated for the award by Thaddeus Kambanei, former Secretary of Finance and chancellor of Jubilee University, which has no legitimate status as an institution in PNG. Both Kambenei and O'Neill have been implicated over their part in allegedly facilitating illegal payments out of the Finance Department to Paraka Lawyers.
The fact the ICMA associates itself with such individuals, leads to serious reservations over its own reputation as a well-recognised institute in Australia.

A lesson to be learnt: when it comes to Peter O'Neill nothing is ever what it seems.

NB: Thaddeus Kambanei may have made a calculated mistake by coming to O'Neill's aid. By putting himself in the public's eye, once O'Neill is removed from office, and criminal investigations are underway, Kambanei can be assured to expect a knock at the door regarding his involvement.

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