Ruggedness: The Power of Hope
PNG drugs crisis - how many will die before morality prevails?

Strengthening democracy in a fragmented, parochial & corrupt polity


An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Essay & Journalism Award

PRE-COLONIAL Papua New Guinean societies had their own political systems. Leadership in such culturally and ethnically heterogeneous societies was provided in several ways.

In the Highlands, leaders were known as ‘bigmen’ who earned their status by demonstrating their skills in warfare, oratory, trading, gardening, or sorcery. Those who accumulated and distributed wealth and built up networks of relationship through marriage and trade also earned leadership status.

European colonization began around the 17th century which forced a fusion of fragmented traditional politics with the introduced systems. The German luluais in New Guinea and the British village constables in Papua are examples.

These systems survived the transfer by both colonizers to Australia who later introduced the local government councils. Introduced at the village level in the 1950s and 1960s as a lower form of government to stimulate the participation of the people, the new system symbolized the beginning of democracy in PNG.

The introduced legislative councils accommodated the views of local residents; this was a contrast to the initial conquest which was consolidated by a non-consultative, hierarchical, administration that emphasized law and order, slowly the number of locals increased in the council, this was strengthened by the Foot report in 1962.

The report demanded that the pace of political advancement be increased dramatically. It called on Australia to establish a new legislative assembly selected through elections and consisting of a majority of indigenous Papua New Guineans.

The change was inevitable moving PNG into a new era. The founding fathers with their experience viewed Westminster Parliamentary Democracy as the way forward for the newly independent nation-state.

PNG adapted a democratic constitution which emphasized the rights of man to liberty, equality, and justice. The constitution incorporated the doctrine separation of powers to define the composition of the government and the separation of powers between the three tiers of government.

The judiciary was in charge of administering the laws and held those who broke the laws accountable for their actions. The adapted court system enforced the state’s power by sanctioning citizens as a form of punishment for their crime.

The role of the legislative branch was in a way linked to the judiciary because the legislature was entrusted with the sole responsibility of making and amending laws for the welfare of the state.

The executive branch known as the National Executive Council manages the state’s affairs in accordance with the laws to ensure equal distribution of resources and services.   

The composition of the legislative and the executive arms of government consist of elected members. PNG adapted the democratic process of electing citizens to hold public office for five years through the vote of eligible citizens.

The Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC) tasked with the responsibility of setting up the national constitution took into consideration multi-ethnic and geographical barriers, including the development of nationalist sentiments in Bougainville and the Gazelle Peninsular of East New Britain.

After discussions with the people they discovered discontent with the former system of government where many decisions that could be made locally were being made at Konedobu.

The CPC proposed a unitary decentralized system of government with devolving powers aimed at promoting development.

The 1976 Organic Law on Provincial Governments (OLPG) separated the functions of the provincial government from the national government; the law legitimized the provincial governments’ use of power and provision of services, the provinces had power to make policies and determine priorities over a range of matters, this provided the amended constitutional provisions Section 187 (A to J) where the provincial governments further sub-delegate their powers to the local level government.

In the old provincial government system, the legislative branch or the provincial house of assembly had the speaker as its head. The executive branch or the Provincial Executive Council (PEC) was headed by the Premier and consisted of provincial members elected through the same electoral process according to the respective provincial government’s constitution.

There were two separate elections for the national and provincial tiers respectively. This system collapsed due to blatant mismanagement. The autonomous powers of the various provincial governments were seized in 1995 after the Micah Commission of inquiry.

This eventful change in PNG politics stipulated in the 1995 Organic Law on Provincial Government (OLPG)amended the structure of the provincial government granting the national government a greater piece of the pie. The national government became the central authority responsible for providing services and policy making. PNG returned to the colonial system where this time not Konedobu but Waigani was in charge of decision making.

In reference to the Organic Law on Provincial Governments and Local-Level Governments (OLPG&LLG), the national government through the provincial governor implements its laws and policies applying to the province with the assistance of the deputy governor and the chairman of various permanent committees who make up the executive arm of the provincial government.

The provincial governor is the chairman of the PEC (executive arm) and the provincial legislature (Provincial Assembly) made up of all the national members of parliament representing various electorates in the province including the heads of rural LLGs (Council Presidents), a representative of urban LLGs (Lord Mayor) and other representatives.

The reform removed the provincial government system; as a result, according to the Organic Law on National and Local – Level Government Elections (OLNLLGE) the conduct of national elections is for the purpose of electing the 109 national members and members of the LLG.

Unlike other Third World democracies it is fascinating to see that democracy has endured the test of time and is still vibrantly practiced in principle. Truly the theme ‘Unity in Diversity’ characterizes PNG’s democracy.

But the aim of adapting the Westminster Parliamentary Democracy was to walk on a path towards achieving the kind of development that was evident in the West; better housing, clean water, better health care, electricity and other vital necessities. 

After 39 years PNG’s democracy has faced numerous challenges from the Bougainville crisis to the reform of the provincial government system. Not forgetting the chronic threat of political instability and corruption. These challenges have either indirectly or directly contributed to the slow pace of development.

Since independence, local and regional loyalties have remained strong in PNG. This has interfered with establishing a national identity and maintaining a stable parliamentary democracy.

During the election period tribal warfare and violence are normal practices up in the highlands of PNG. Citizens are very keen in electing their preferred candidate but when their representatives get into the national parliament they are back doing their daily businesses ignoring what happens at the national level. That same aggression by the citizens is rarely seen in national politics. Therefore, PNG politics remains fragmented, parochial and insular.

Is it because of the isolated nature of the traditional societies prior to European colonialism? Is it because of the fusion of traditional political systems with the introduced Westminster system?

Corruption has become part of PNG’s culture feeding off fragmentation, parochialism and insularity to promote nepotism or ‘wantok system’. Thishas led to the mismanagement and misappropriation of public funds by bureaucrats and politicians. As well, the ‘bigman’ ideology has encouraged bribery. 

The root cause of the rot is the fusion, this is evident in the use of bribery to entice voters and display the candidate’s wealth in order to be labeled as a ‘bigman’. The use of violence and force especially up in the highlands of PNG to intimidate voters and disrupt the notion of free and fair election is an epitome of the fusion.

Will PNG’s democracy survive in the face of mounting systematic corruption endemic in all levels of society? This daunting question relates back to the failure of the provincial government system, mismanagement or corruption was the main reason why the provincial government system was abandoned. The threat of corruption is still eminent, democracy as an ideology will survive but the aim of using it as a path towards the development of society is at stake.

Political and bureaucratic crimes are evidence of how corruption occurs, and why good governance is continually weakened. These ‘white-collar’ crimes are different from common street crimes such as rape, armed robbery, carjacking, petty theft and so on, as they are mainly one-off crimes committed by disgruntle people who make their own opportunities.

The lack of transparent and accountable political leadership has permitted the threat of corruption to flourish; these corrupt practices have hindered the rise of true leaders who are keen in really serving the people and breeding self-centered leaders.

The challenge for PNG is to breed a new generation of leaders with political will and drive to decisively fight corruption. A carefully formulated long term policy approach and stable leadership is needed to address problems that are associated with corruption, not a ‘knee jerk’ reaction or a ‘band aid’ solution.

From a traditional political system made up of chiefs and ‘bigmen’, colonization transformed the system into one which is Western oriented. As time went by carefully PNG fitted the pieces into the jigsaw puzzle, PNG came up with a complete system where the existence of the parliament, the constitution with its emphasis on freedom and rights of man including the process of elections and representation all signified the smooth transition to Democracy.

Unlike other third world nations, democracy in PNG has endured the test of time, since independence the reforms and amendments have helped maintain the stance of PNG style democracy into the 21st century but the foreseeable threat of corruption looms.


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Bernard Yegiora

Thank you all for the insightful comments.

Robin Lillicrapp

Mostly, the covey of contributors from the era of the Kiap, are imbued with a notion of sensibility drawn from the veins of Common Law attachment applied to governance and jurisprudence.

The decades following that era have seen the top tier nations promote the UN and its many arms as desirable means to an end that includes the resetting (DAVOS) of the world as we know it.

This isn't something new.

Examine the Cecil Rhodes legacy and discover the One-World aspirations that speak to establishing a mantle of control and management over world affairs.
As we see our Aussie pollies unabashedly promote the dismantling of traditional economic structures - selling off the farm as it were - what hope has little PNG to ward off similar challenges to national sovereignty and integrity when the big players, Banks and Business, offer no respite toward the easy maintenance of what PNGeans deem a desirable goal for social, economic, and political independence?

Mrs Barbara Short

Well said, Paul and Chris.

Since I started getting involved in the renovation of high schools in PNG I have been involved in trying to work out why, in PNG, often money just disappears!

That is the rot! That is why the present Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Miss Julie Bishop, says that Australia won't be giving money to PNG anymore if it is just going to disappear and schools and hospitals and roads etc etc etc are just left to rot.

Come on wantoks, we didn't train you to want to come down and live with us in Cairns. We trained you so you could live like us up in PNG!

Thank you, Bernard. You are so right. You have to learn how to stop the corruption. You have to learn how to say "no" to gifts or else put them into the National Museum, like Somare used to!

I've just discovered one of my old students, who rose to the top in PNG, and who shall remain nameless, even got upset when he was bribed with a lovely vase of flowers.

It has to be in the blood, in the brain, ... you are not in the Public Service to get rich... you are in the Public Service to Serve the Public.

Chris Overland

Prior to independence, PNG was effectively "ruled" by a very small group of Australian Patrol Officers (Kiaps).

The Kiaps represented the colonial administration (the Gavman) to the vast majority of the population, who mostly did not see, hear about or have any experience of the rest of the infrastructure that underpinned the colonial system.

Kiaps did not simply preside over a designated patrol post area. Very often, they fought hard to secure much needed services and infrastructure for "their" area, as part of their role in trying to foster social, economic and political development.

They were supported in this role by others, including Agricultural Officers (Didiman), Surveyors (Mastamark) and Teachers (Tisa).

These people were not wantoks and thus not susceptible to the pressures that go with being a wantok. Their decisions, whether good or bad, were essentially taken on a disinterested basis, where no personal benefit accrued to them or their relatives.

The distinct advantages of a system of mutual obligation and reciprocity in traditional Melanesian society were recognised as being fundamentally incompatible with a modern, liberal democratic, capitalist system where the rights of individuals were given primacy above everything else.

In the lead up to independence, many Kiaps and others with first hand experience of traditional cultures in PNG, expressed repeated concerns that the introduction of a Westminster style system of governance, while highly desirable, carried with it the grave risk of being seriously if not fatally undermined by the impact of the traditional system of mutual obligation and reciprocity.

Put bluntly, the moral pressure and incentives for legislative representatives to pursue the interests of both the legislator and his or her wantoks were so great that they seemed likely to prevail over the common good.

Nearly 40 years later, as Bernard relates, a version of the Westminster system remains in place but it has indeed been seriously compromised by the inability and unwillingness of the PNG political and bureaucratic elite to overcome the problems inherent in the traditional Melanesian wantok system.

The present "winner takes all" approach to politics represents an abject betrayal of the vast majority of Papua New Guineans. The tragedy is that this seems to be accepted as the way it is and will be into the future.

There is no chance at all that PNG can or will achieve its significant potential unless and until it can devise and implement a new "Melanesian Way", whereby the worst excesses of the wantok system are rooted out of the body politic and replaced with a very strong focus on "the greater good".

This is the great task confronting task of modern, educated Papua New Guineans.

Paul Oates

Hi Bernard, an excellent treat'ise of how the current PNG political system evolved.

The challenge is now as you rightly point out for PNG to come up with a new set of leadership codes that a new set of leaders can and will abide by the agreed code of ethics.

There is lies the problem. There have been and now are some very good potential leaders who do have not only the ability but also the personal qualities to lead PNG along the right road. That they are currently being stymied by those who want to use the system for their own benefit and those who allow this situation to happen due to fear of retribution or the hope of getting some crumbs from the table of those who now feast on their country's ill informed misfortune.

The structure is already there for PNG to advance into a modern, vibrant and wealthy nation. Those who are currently setting up stumbling blocks and trashing their own heritage need to be weeded out and replaced.

The Ombudsman, Police Commissioner, Public Prosecutor, are now being challenged by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Transparency International and many others. The question must surely be asked by all PNG people: Why is this so?

That is the crux of the real issue.

Ol Wantok. Husat inap lo stanap na halivim ol pipol abrisim displa traipla ston istap long rot bilo ol kantri? Motaka iredi lo walkabaut pinis ya!

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