There's been an instructive discussion
about the PNG constitution on Emmanuel Narokobi’s Masalai blog focussing on whether it is a workable document.
The five participants in the dialogue [Australian Paul Oates and four Papua New Guineans] sought to better understand whether the behaviour of PNG's politicians, in their disregard of constitutional principles, is wilful, venal or a straightforward articulation of PNG culture.
It was observed that traditional PNG bigmen [clan chiefs] were
implementers as well as leaders and that the present political leadership seems to be perpetuating this dual role.
But difficulties arise when, to
obtain and retain power, leaders feel compelled to provide material goods to
supporters; the main source of which is public money that should otherwise be
allocated to infrastructure and services.
Here’s a précis of the Masalai dialogue.
David: Get a president and hold him accountable to the constitution. We
can play on our existing big man culture by introducing a president who will be
our collective bigman. Then we can bring in Western ideals of accountability
and hold him accountable to his mandate. I'd like to see a solution that is
practical and encapsulates PNG's realities rather than trying to use ideals
drawn from cultural backgrounds that are distinctly different to ours.
In most cases [the PNG constitution] is reduced to
being just a mission statement. The mechanisms for accountability are in place,
it is up to the people to judge whether they want change bad enough to demand
There is no doubt PNG has departed significantly
from her [constitution] since 1975. The leadership is too compromised and too
weak to fix it under the current circumstances. On the question of who should
fix it, I nominate the head of state who I see as the lesser of the bad apples.
But in all reality, he won't. Our GGs have mainly been lame duck puppets and I
can't see this changing. So to break the vicious cycle, we must part with the
Queen and the people must elect our own president and hold him accountable to
Disposing of the GG in favour of a republic will
not solve compromised or weak leadership. PNG is complicated - there is a need
to resurrect a national identity in every Papua New Guinean. It is only when we
all understand that we have the power to determine who will be good for the
country as opposed to who will be good for me as an individual that we will see
quality candidates sitting in the Haus Tabaran. Education is key, too.
[This is] more like a long term solution. But
something must happen in the interim to save the constitution. There is
frustration about the status quo among a lot of Papua New Guineans and I fear
we might wake up one morning and regret that we no longer have a constitution.
The problem with the current arrangement
is that the GG is appointed by parliament and so there is inherent limitation on
his independence. It is Catch 22. To break this vicious cycle, the head of
state must be appointed directly by the people. In this way, we can hold that
individual accountable to our constitution. The closest proxy currently is the
PM. But he does not care what people think about the way he governs the nation.
I can't understand how things have gone so far off
track. If the basic legitimacy of the central government is flawed, no amount
of plans, reorganisations and smoke and mirrors can or will correct the
situation. The government has become a law unto itself.
In the long run PNG's future rests in education. As
Tavurur said, we must see ourselves as a nation and only education can help us
to do that. The solutions to the problems lie in a marrying the traditional and
the modern. Why do we have tribal fights or resort to tribalism? Because the
current system of government has failed to afford us the security of the tribe.
Why are we trying to hold fast to a system that has
clearly not worked for us? Our current system of governance was essentially a greenfield concept. It was
forced upon us and never tried and tested in PNG before then. But now we have
some experience behind us, we must not be afraid to change it to accurately
reflect the realities. The last 34 years have been a journey of self discovery,
and I think we've come to know ourselves well enough now to change things to
suit our own circumstances. We must find our own solutions to our problems that
reflect those cultural aspects.
Clearly there isn't either the knowledge or the
will to use the system to fix the problem. The mechanisms are in place, it's
just that no one is using them. So what would be different if a presidential
system of government were to be introduced to PNG?
Obviously you believe that the current system is not
working because someone is not making it work. I think the system is not
working because it does not suit us. One aspect of that is that politics in PNG
has evolved in such a way so politicians are seen as implementers rather than
as policymakers. This perfectly mirrors our culture where the bigman is
expected to be the deliverer and not just a decision maker. His decision-making
ability was actually a function of how well he could deliver. The person who
delivered best won the right to be the decision-maker.
I sometimes feel sorry for our
politicians because they are caught between the old and the new. Oftentimes,
they choose to be implementers rather than playing their role as policymakers
due to the overwhelming weight of expectations on them. This clouds their
judgement and leads to muck up after muck up!
Sure my proposition about a presidential
system may not be the best solution for us. But I can see how, by using this,
we can marry the old and new as Justin suggested and come up with a workable
compromise. The big man culture is real and deeply ingrained in our national
psyche. The current system, unfortunately, has been one big attempt to try and
kill that system, which existed in PNG for centuries, in just under 34 years.
My proposal for the president to be
directly elected by the people is an attempt to both circumvent and play on the
big man culture. You circumvent it because whoever runs for president can never
afford to be seen as the deliverer through the length and breadth of PNG. Too
expensive and impractical.
While PNG is still emerging from an
enclosed, clan based social and political structure, we are being asked to
adopt a system that has its roots in similar settings but which had already
passed this stage of its evolution. It is a grossly unfair ask. I have great
respect for the authors of our constitution, but how could they miss such a
vital link in our evolution process?
The authors of the constitution obviously did their
best given the constraints and available knowledge at the time. The acid test
was how to provide effective and accountable leadership. Therein lay the
dilemma. Some people have recently suggested by
giving more power to local government, the current fiasco will right itself. I
disagree. Leadership, by its very nature, must come from the top.