Reflections on Bougainville’s 7 years of autonomy
Will an election restore a ‘disorderly democracy’?

Could PNG create a truly Melanesian parliament?


OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS there have been some energetic discussions about the form of government Papua New Guinea was bequeathed at independence.

From a PNG perspective, many people lament a perceived lack of traditional Melanesian customs and culture in the current Westminster style national parliament.

The principle of a majority government and a minority opposition does not sit well with the PNG psyche. Calls to end the impasse between Somare and the O’Neill/Namah groups using traditional Melanesian custom have been increasing.

One notable MP voicing this request is the member for Kandep, Don Polye, leader of the THE Party.

In traditional Melanesian debate the denigration of others was not welcomed. Making negative remarks about one another could well give offence and was assiduously avoided.

Grand theatre was the accepted norm and everyone enjoyed the spectacle without anyone feeling slighted and upset. Social cohesion was achieved by gift-giving and reciprocity.

When opposition leader in a previous parliament, Peter O’Neill openly considered joining then prime minister Michael Somare in a government of national unity. He clearly saw nothing wrong with the idea that the PNG parliament would have no opposition to debate government actions.

Some see the continuation of Melanesian kastom (custom) in the current PNG political process as creating a fertile garden where the weeds of corruption are allowed to flourish. Majority decisions reached on the floor of parliament are increasingly expected to be law as soon as they are made. The ability to distribute largesse and material goods was the traditional PNG benchmark denoting status and wealth.

Many still remember then deputy prime minister Iambakey Okuk handing out 96,000 bottles of beer to his electorate just before an election. The voters drank the beer but subsequently elected John Nilkare, a former magistrate and Liquor Licensing Commissioner. Yet while PNG should be moving away from the concept of a ‘big man’, old habits die hard.

So what aspects of the PNG parliament are foreign or ‘unMelanesian’? Let us peel back some of the layers of ‘unMelanesian’ thinking and examine how traditional decision making in PNG took place.

The concept of a government and an opposition is one that developed elsewhere and often provided a forum for vested interests. It is foreign to PNG.

Traditional village life and decision making in PNG involved a clear delineation of gender roles and responsibilities. Men hunted, built houses and defended the family or clan against attack. Women bore children and tended the gardens to produce food.

Each gender had clearly defined roles yet when it came time for important decisions to be made, those decisions might be overtly made by the men but often only after covertly seeking the women’s opinion. This quite possibly was because the ability to produce wealth and power depended on the labours of the women.

Women tended the gardens and looked after the pigs that produced the food necessary to give away to obtain the status of the men. So in a very real way, women were just as important in the traditional PNG village as men. They were an essential part of the local culture.

Attempts to introduce a set number of parliamentary seats exclusively reserved for women was raised a number times in parliament but could not obtain a majority of MP’s approval to enact this legislation.

Could it be that the male members of parliament felt that their male dominated domain was not the place for women members? Might that view just be a reflection of traditional PNG custom? Might PNG women be valued and yet their contribution be still viewed in a more compartmentalised way? In other words, gender equity but in a separate and divisible way?

Traditional Melanesian culture on the other hand, favoured a more egalitarian approach since everyone was a collective land owner and lived in the same village. 

Western political leadership has a history of individual challenge and accomplishment. Individualism was not something promoted in the PNG village where a more harmonious attitude was encouraged. People had to work together to produce their food and provide for their families. Conflict and tension were to be avoided at all cost unless the clan was under attack.

The role of the Speaker in the PNG Parliament has become one of power and control. This is not in line with most traditional PNG customs. A truly Melanesian view would not allow any one single person to dominate debate or decision making.

The Westminster system provides for the party with the majority of members to provide an independent Speaker. An independent Speaker then is required to ensure a level playing field on the floor of parliament so that all can be heard and important issues not overlooked.

Recent events in PNG where the Speaker of the House has determined what will be debated and who is the prime minister have decidedly indicated this arrangement is in dire need of change.

The implications about the Speaker being an understudy for the Governor General has been recently brought into question.

Clearly there is a need to have an independent chairperson ensure parliamentary debate is conducted in an appropriate manner and in line with established procedures. That should really be the total responsibility of the Speaker who should not be able to close down parliament or dictate what decisions should or should not be passed.

When the current PNG parliament was created along Westminster lines, several important aspects were overlooked. These aspects were associated with the traditional manner in which Melanesian people had for millennia been used to conduct debates and make important decisions in an inclusive and not exclusive way.

Firstly, not until everyone had been allowed to have their say would a decision be accepted.

Secondly, women’s views would be sought.

Thirdly, no one person would be allowed to dominate discussion or to make unilateral decisions.

So how could these traditional Melanesian values and customs be incorporated into the parliament?

In the proposed dual house system above, a number of changes have been suggested.

Firstly, that the role of the Speaker be amended to one primarily of ensuring the established procedures of debate in the House are followed.

Secondly, that there be no official government and opposition but merely a House of Parliament where members can freely associate and debate ideas without the constraints of any party or factional membership dictating what might or might not be debated or agreed.

In other words, create a truly egalitarian Melanesian council of fellow leaders. Draft legislation would require the approval of a majority of members as is now.

The role of the prime minister, the national executive council and government ministers would remain the same. The PM would be elected from the floor of parliament by popular vote. Ministers could be chosen on ability and experience rather than adherence to a factional political party but with no clear majority from any one province or region.

Draft legislation approved in the lower house would then have to be first discussed in a House of Review made up of equal male and female members from each province before going back to the NEC and then to the governor general for royal assent and becoming law.

A House of Review would not actually have the power to reject legislation but could return it to the other House for more discussion and reconsideration, but possibly for only a set number of times.

This would ensure no knee jerk, reactive legislation passed by the PNG Parliament were in future to be bulldozed into immediate law. It would also allow women members not to be dominated in discussions.

In line with the proposal for providing a parliamentary Speaker, a truly independent incumbent for each House be appointed by the governor general on a limited contract, perhaps after a publically run independent selection process. This would preclude the need to provide an elected member as Speaker and allow all members to engage in debate and decision making without any one Member dominating discussion.

When PNG set up a national parliament for her people, some important and traditional Melanesian customs were unfortunately overlooked.

The first omission was the Melanesian custom of non-confrontational leadership that helped promote harmony and prevent discord in society. The adoption of a political system where there is a government and an opposition turned away from a more relaxed customary forum that Melanesian people feel more comfortable with?

Secondly, a return to the balance that women provided in traditional Melanesian society decision making could be very beneficial. A dual house system involving a House of Review with an equal number of male and female members could well provide the answer to the current unicameral practice of enacting spur of the moment legislation and allow some necessary review and discussion to be conducted.

Finally, the role of the Speaker in any House of Parliament must be depoliticised as soon as possible.

Perhaps the any PNG Parliamentary Committee considering Constitutional Reform should consider these proposals that are in line with traditional Melanesian customs when providing advice to future governments?

As a nation, PNG could well benefit from having a more balanced and less confrontational approach to government.

It might also allow PNG to possibly lead the way in our Pacific community.


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Mrs Barbara Short

Yes, Paul, it just amazes me that the Sepiks, who live in the East Sepik Province, would want to vote for Somare again when they can see all the things that he has not done for his people of his province and how he seems to have grown so wealthy.

Also the fact that he "looks after his own heath" in a top Singapore hospital while the local people get their treatment in the run-down Wewak hospital, doesn't seem to have caused their support for him to wane.

I know some Sepiks in Moresby who have quite different views.

Sepiks who are educated and have travelled the world, can see the problems. But they are in the minority.

Paul Oates

Barbara, you've just highlighted the link that's missing between corrupt politicians diverting funds for their own benefit and the very people who are missing out of the services that should be funded but not realising what's happening and how they are being short changed.

It's as if there is a mental block that seems to be in place at the grass roots that inhibits clear thinking. That block seems to both ways as well. The voters can't see anything wrong in practice when they get the hand out of 'goodies' and the MP's just won't see why it's wrong because they can get away with it. (Mind you, PNG is not alone in that situation is it?)

Education is the answer but that takes time, resources and dedication. As Phil rightly points out, the time is fast running out before the inevitable implosion.

It's sorta like the Arabian sheiks of a few decades ago spending mega bucks to shoot the last native antelope before the animal became extinct. Then there's the American buffalo shooters who wondered why the more buffaloes they shot the less there were around? A local here was overheard saying "What ever happened to those little coloured birds we used to shoot when we were kids?"

Look at the situation before the French revolution. The aristocratic classes who were living a life of luxury while the poor starved. The nobility couldn't believe it could all come to an end. Just let it go on a little bit longer until after I'm dead was the thinking. What did the second last French king reportedly say (rough translation into English: 'After me the flood')

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Mrs Barbara Short

I feel a lot of the problems that PNG has faced e.g. no money getting through for maintaining hospitals, providing supplies for schools and hospitals etc. policeman's houses, no clean water and electricity, collapse of roads etc etc, is due to the members of parliament arranging "other ways" of using the government funds.

These "other ways" seem to involve getting the money into the hands of their wantoks so they and their wantoks can set up businesses so they can make huge profits and buy houses in Cairns etc etc

Simply, Members of Parliament have been able to acquire large amounts of government money to use the way they see fit.

Surely the constitution sets out the way the government income can be used.

We have recently seen a Queensland man take a case to the High Court re the way Government Funds have been allocated for school chaplains. He won his case. The government had been going against the constitution.

Would it then be possible for a PNG man/woman to take a case to the PNG High Court complaining about this way the PNG government now handles its allocation of income.

It will be very good when PNG finally gets an ICAC but maybe there is some well educated man/woman who can take a case to the PNG High Court to appeal against the way the whole parliament of PNG has been "giving" out government monies to its members. These monies should have been allocated to the various government departments.

I have been reading the various comments of the candidates in the Post Courier. I feel O'Neill knows who the worst culprits are, when it comes to getting their hands on these government funds, but often the population in the electorate of these members think so highly of their member because they have been able to use these "illegal" monies to win votes, and in this way just prolong PNG agony.

Sadly, when the government has called for an investigation into this illegal handling of money, the men/women asked to do the job have been intimidated into ignoring the problem.

When it has been taken to the courts the parliament has worked out ways to stop the court's findings being heard and acted on.

Many of the politicians seem to lack in the way of education but are full of cunning and self-preservation and are causing these massive problems. Surely the honest educated people of PNG have a way of correcting the situation.

Paul Oates

Phil. What you are suggesting about properly run political parties makes sense if they are truly national in scope and nature. Debate about important issues then takes place at the party meetings and conferences well before it is accepted as party policy. That in itself is democracy at work.

The issue is how do you equate that to the PNG experience? Travel is difficult, dangerous and expensive. Education and literacy have lagged behind for years. Communications are improving but not yet able to involve everyone around the country.

Overlap that with regional concerns and ethnic solidarity and try to come up with a political party of national proportions. How often do the voters see their local member and sit down to discuss the important issues with him while they sit around the camp fire at night? Probably that's why many reportedly take a visible cheque book around as protection as well as status?

Emmanuel Narokobi, as detailed on his Masalai web site, tried to get a public forum going in the local media where prospective candidates could discuss and debate what policies they had in mind and would take to this election. (Tanim Graun)

Guess what? No real interest from either the politicians or sponsors?

Great idea. So why didn't it work?

Phil Fitzpatrick

If you recall the days running up to self government and independence, there were two main political parties in the PNG House of Assembly, Pangu and the United Pati.

Pangu represented a 'progressive' ideology, something akin to socialism but with a PNG flavour. Many of its members were young, educated 'firebrands' of the sort I suspect people are expecting to emerge after the current election.

The United Pati was more staid and conservative with older members and less education.

Both parties worked effectively as 'government' and 'opposition' and the formulation of the constitution took it as a given that this would continue into the future. In that sense it was framed in the belief that it would be servicing a party system of government.

As we now know this hasn't happened and there has been a plethora of parties which seem to increase as the years go by.

They are not parties in the sense of either the constitution or the Westminster system but rather a hotch potch of individual interests predicated on greed more than anything else.

They are a bit like Indigenous Land Groups (ILGs) which proliferate whenever a honeypot comes into view. There has been some attempt to rein in ILGs but none to rein in political parties. Perhaps PNG needs to reconsider getting back to basics with both.

A political party should have a clearly enunciated set of ideals and a sound policy base. It could include, for instance, ideolgy based on the theory of the Melanesian Way. If it doesn't have either, it shouldn't be registered. Members who don't toe the party line should be expelled.

There is plenty of room in any parliament for a limited cadre of independent mavericks but they shouldn't be allowed to run the show as they do now. Most importantly politicians should not be allowed to party hop. They must be members of a party or an independent but not both.

PNG needs to go back and look at its constitution. That's where the wisdom lies. When something is not clear they should seek advice but not direction from the courts.

Believe it or not, a properly constituted party system is the road to national unity, much more so than some airy-fairy theory of cultural homogeneity. In fact, if you look at countries like the USA diversity is a big plus.

Before any of this happens corruption has to be stamped out. Reducing the attraction of the honeypot might also help. Instead of an opportunity to line his or her pockets the attraction of political office should be the hard work of servicing the community.

Australia didn't leave PNG with an unworkable political system. It was a perfectly logical and workable model. Papua New Guineans have simply stuffed it up by their greed and avarice.

PNG is well on the way to anarchy and its getting very late in the day.

Paul Oates

Suddenly there doesn't seem to be a common 'Melanesian Way'? So what was Somare going on about when he suggested the country at Indpendence needed to change in that direction?

Phil. Maybe what you are suggesting is in fact what will develop: i.e. The Ultimate 'Big Man'. Yet that will only be established at the expense of the regional aspirations from all the many points of view still in PNG.

Will that mean that 'might will be right' and a dictator emerges from the most powerful faction? Will that mean the Highlands will 'bury' their differences and takeover the nambis? Will that mean the Islands will try to go it alone?

Yuambari Haihuie enunciates what PNG is not but exactly what is today's PNG like and what will it be like tomorrow? If the current system isn't working, can it be made to work or will it have to be radically changed?

All we have heard for years is a rehash after rehash of the problems. When is someone going to stand up and sort the the problems out? Hyperbole at election times is clearly not enough. Most PNG politicians are all saying the same thing.

If indeed there are 700 or 800 points of view, how can these ever be welded into a nation? If indeed the Polynesians and Micronesians feel different to the Melanesians, how will there ever be a conhesive PNG nation?

If the suggestions I raise are unworkable, please tell me what system will work? Then tell me who might bring this system in and how, after the general election is over? All I see is more of the same.

Phil Fitzpatrick

A few random thoughts to toss into the mix Paul.

In many ways what you propose is already happening in parliament and is the primary cause of its dysfunction. There is not really a government and an opposition in PNG, rather there are fluid voting blocs with membership dependent upon individual interests and whims.

With the Supreme Court sinking the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates in 2010 the way is clear for this to continue after the election. The Supreme Court's decision, in fact, paved the way for the O'Namah takeover. Reinstating this law might be all that's needed to get the system back on track.

A party-less parliament with a prime minister popularly elected from the floor (the ultimate bigman - hey Belden!) poses some interesting questions.

What would the prime minister actually be leading? How do you allocate portfolios? To the highest bidder perhaps? How do you coordinate and guarantee consistency in government business?

Aristotle, Hegel and Marx may not be popular now but their historical or materialistic determinism, where thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis is still a very useful model for any government. In a party-less PNG parliament you could end up with 111 thesis's and 111 synthesis's or any combination thereof, which wouldn't do anyone any good.

And if you allowed everyone to have a say, maybe several times over, nothing would ever get done. In my experience getting someone to stand up and take responisbility for a decision in the village is well nigh impossible, at least in the short term. A house of review might just prolong the indecision.

I'm also a bit unsure about the idea that women have a strong traditional power. From what I know their position is still more in line with being a commodity, just like pigs and land. Their only real bargaining power has been their sexuality but this seems to have gone now with the breakdown in law and order (both traditional and legal) and the prevalence of rape and violence.

Outside the cities, where educated women wield some power, nothing has changed much in rural areas. Look at the Paga Hill business; if the cameras hadn't been there those cops would have thumped Dame Kidu, whether she was black or white, without a moments thought.

I agree that the speaker has to be nobbled asap.

I also think that Yuambari Haihuie is dead right. Melanesia is an invention of western colonialists, geographers and anthropologists obsessed with categorising things.

It was used to distinguish thicker set, curly haired and darker people from skinnier, straight-haired, lighter people equally mis-categorised as Polynesian and in no way intimates any sort of homogeneous culture at any level whatsoever. In PNG its most latest manifestation has been in the constitution, as an ideal, not a fact. In that sense those who argue for the Melanesian way are talking about a theory, not a reality.

PNG needs a strong party system with distinctive and enumerated ideals and policies, preferably articulated at the LLG level. Tory versus Whig is a good place to start.

Yuambari Haihuie

The idea that there is some kind of uniformity within the cultures that form a Melanesian conception of the modern state of Papua New Guinea strikes me as nationalistic hyperbole.

I had always assumed that the category of Melanesia was only created to make colonial administration and anthropological study easier. Surely in a group of islands with at least 700 distinct cultures, there are at least 700 distinct Melanesias.

Are we really to believe that the social norms contained within traditional kastom in Kandep, Kimbe or Kiriwina are fundamentally the same?

Is our Melanesian identity than just another remnant of colonialism and if so should we approach it as such rather than conjure some wonderfully golden period of uniform Melanesian rule before the introduction of the Westminster system.

It is fine to say that the common heritage of the at least 700 distinct melanesias is that of a shared colonial rule and a continuing unity based on the government proceeding those former colonies.

However to pretend that a Melanesia existed before colonisation is to do a disservice to ourselves and to these individually distinct Melanesias.

Paul Oates

Laurie. If we could only have a general election in Australia at the moment I think there is more of a chance of fixing our problems than PNG has of fixing their's after the current election.

As far as good governance is concerned, we've all been writing about that for years and in effect achieved very little.

Perhaps those who preach a more direct line of action are right? Those in power clearly can't see that they are but sweeping the dust under the mat and will end up tripping over it in the future. But then that doesn't apply just to PNG does it?

The problem is that when you let the cat out of the bag, you can't get it back in very easily.

Paul Oates

Hi Barbara. The issue is not that the PNG people have been divorced from the political process and therefore aren't able to have some say in how their country is run. The issue is really that they were never actually included in the first place.

The current system was designed by those who tried to please everyone and you know what happens when that takes place? You end up pleasing only some, according to dear old Abe Lincoln.

To echo David Kitchnoge's point, PNG people need to start thinking about what they can actually do about the problem rather than complaining about what they don't like.

I hope my suggestions might get the positive thoughts going rather than just generate more negative ones.

Laurie Meintjes

Paul, I wonder whether a fair summary of your piece would be that governance in PNG is failing the general population because it has become divorced from that population?

When it comes to decision-making, Waigani has the first go, and then the various provincial governments fiddle with the crumbs. The general populace is isolated from the process.

Is a return to meaninful and genuinely responsible local government a significant element in any solution to PNG's governance problem?

Mrs Barbara Short

Good thinking, Paul. I hope Carol Kidu will be soon publishing more of her own thoughts on this matter. She's had first hand experience.

Suu Kyi passed a few comments about Burma's Constitution last night. Would be good to read what she actually said.

It would be wonderful if PNG came up with a form of parliament that worked better.

We could do with some help in Australia, for sure.

Let's hope the next PNG parliament will give the matter some thought.

Paul Oates

Harry, you're absolutely correct. Any political system is only as good as the people who operate it.

The point I make is that PNG had an imposed system at Independence and one the majority of voters had no idea how it worked. It is no surprise to find out that eventually it didn't.

What I'm suggesting is that with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps a better and more appropriate system might help restore some of the balance currently missing.

Tasol, husat isavi? Em samting blo ol wantok laga?

Harry Topham

Paul - Lateral thinking perhaps may bring about changes in governance in PNG but I think in essence the problem does not lie with the vehicle itself.

It lies with the drivers who, as past records show, have not only shown themselves to be incompetent but also quite dangerous.

They refuse to follow the road rules in particular the fact that some of the drivers have also been driving under the influence of power mania.

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