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.