Brown Collar Crime
Creative Nation 7: Writers of the 2014 Crocodile Prize, N - R

Political instability in PNG: Culture, leadership or self-interest


LONG before Papua New Guinea became an independent nation in 1975, people lived according to their own traditional structures, norms and values.

The decision to establish PNG as an independent nation-state was an external initiative, derived from the 1946 Trusteeship Agreement between Australia and the United Nations and stimulated by the worldwide decolonisation movement of the time.

At independence, PNG was given responsibility to govern its own people and was provided with a Westminster system of parliamentary government.

The social spectrum of PNG now ranges from traditional village-based life to modern urban living. These interlocking systems of traditional and modern governance impact greatly on the developing national culture of today’s PNG.

In national government the key players, the leaders of factions and alliances and their close supporters, have systematically manipulated the process of political legitimation.

Observing our current political state, one would have to conclude that instability continues to breed instability.

We have consistently suffered instability under mediocre leadership and governance. In fact, the existing political conditions at a national level are rather poor when compared to our traditional systems.

PNG constantly struggles, even after four decades of nationhood, to adapt to a realistic awareness of the western political system on which its own governance is based.

Of course, to accept and adopt ideas which are alien is a difficult mountain to climb in a nation that is multicultural and in which people have different needs, perception and beliefs.

This is the complex cultural mix through which Papua New Guinea is manifested.

Represented in government, we have members of parliament from different cultural groups who are there to speak for their own people.

They try to negotiate their peoples’ needs using western components such as political ideologies, political parties and voluminous legislation.

For us this has become tumultuous: regular challenges to legitimacy and authority occur in government, government structures and policies are ever changing, political instability continues.

Our leaders, when taking office, swear an oath to lead on our behalf. There are no foreigners in charge of the government. These are our own people whom we trust to run our country.

Yet we hear them quarrel among themselves and see them fail their responsibilities and observe them run down their public office.

How have our state institutions become so corrupted?

Even though the legislature, executives and judiciary are mandated by our Constitution as independent bodies with clearly defined and distinct powers, they interfere with each other seemingly without thought for good governance.

Does this mean our cultural values are inadequate or is it our leaders’ inability to adapt to western style governance?

Why is our rule of law so frail? Is it clashing cultural systems that weaken the rule of law, or is it our abuse or misunderstanding of western elements that weaken it?

I think that perhaps the problem has nothing to do with western culture; rather it lies with our inability to learn, adapt and assimilate our own cultural structures and values within western norms and principles.

In one respect, I see this as more a problem of leadership.

Explicitly, those who are involved in serving the public interest are conflicted.

They compromise civic values with their personal values. In short, despite their roles and responsibilities, they demonstrate self-interest ahead of public interest.

These two visions of the house which is the nation are destroying the purpose of the house, which is national unity.


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Noel Baraka

Well said Felix, our political leaders should uphold the traditional type of leadership as that of the past.

The current political and government system is a Westminster type of government where leaders are elected through free election, which is not too bad.

But the bad part of it is that leadership values and morals are diminished.

Lindsay F Bond

Well stated, Felix. A wisdom appears prevalent among those with will, wit and wiles to win election to a representation office, that is, much is of wiping out chance in opponents and then in office, much less in wiping away ills of national society.

For the latter, in respect of aspirational nationhood, is on-the-job learning sufficiently resourced and, can such be enhanced?

BTW, like the word 'ethic', the word 'leadership' ought not be left unclothed.

John Kaupa Kamasua


Very good "food for thought."

The result of the interplay between 'culture', self-interest and bad leadership is a dangerous concoction, which is suffocating, malignant, and corrosive: they do nothing good for progress, national development or simply inspiring and building the next generation.

There is nothing good in twisted cultural values played out at the expense of the majority, with self interest and topping off with bad leadership.

Yet there are pillars of good leadership in the government machinery, civil society and private organizations.

One challenge is how to replicate them.

Martinez Wasuak

In a country like Papua New Guinea, culture and self-interest have a say in the unscrupulous leadership demonstrated by some of the leaders of the public service that contributes to political instability.

To the future leaders of our developing nations, whenever you are in authority make decisions that will benefit everyone.

Also don't forget to consider public opinion about any decision that will affect the population and the country as a whole.

Nice piece, Mr Baraka.

Felix Baraka

Thanks Leonard. I think we must do this for our nation, region and global recognition.

Phil Fitzpatrick

It's amazing how inconsistent and poor leadership impacts so many things. Apart from government it occurs in just about every facet of public and private life. It must be terribly frustrating for those few good leaders who are inevitably overwhelmed by their incompetent peers.

Perhaps the ideal of consensus portrayed in the so-called Melanesian Way is to blame. Maybe if PNG had had a traditional chiefly system everywhere rather than in just a few places like the Trobriands things would have run better.

I don't know how you manufacture competent leaders from a consensus-orientated society. My only guess would be through education but that obviously doesn't work.

The colonial system worked well because Australia imported it's own leaders to fill the gap. Businesses run by expatriates work well in PNG because the bosses come from hierarchical societies ingrained with the leadership ethos from babyhood but that can't go on forever. The jealousies that are engendered eventually become destructive and end in things like the burning and looting of Asian shops.

You have to be hardnosed, pragmatic and ruthless to be a good leader. That doesn't seem to exist in your average Papua New Guinean.

The only thing that Papua New Guineans in leadership roles seem to have picked up from the west is personal greed.

Michael Dom

Agreed, Felix, and well done in articulating what some of us have expressed in other writings for some time.

PNG's fundamental problems are that of consistently poor leadership.

It depends on the right people making individual decisions for our collective benefit.

Every other development challenge presents soluble problems, mere difficulties compared to building up tenable and effective leadership.

Even having individual leaders of quality is not enough because it takes 111 MP's to run PNG.

Good governance depends on group dynamics.

Leonard Roka

Being my junior in PNG Studies and International Relations at DWU, I would say, Felix Baraka, you really a bullet, fresh from the barrel of the gun on all the issues you are exploring.

Keep up the good work for PNG as I do for my Solomon island of Bougainville.

Felix Baraka

Thanks Phil. I believe these are the underlying dilemmas.

Phil Fitzpatrick

This is a very good and succinct appraisal Felix.

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