Another stint in the police cell … it can really change a man
The double standard

Are western democracy and the Melanesian Way the same thing?


Some people like to make a big deal about the political system that Australia bequeathed to Papua New Guinea on the eve of independence in 1975.SOME people lik

They argue that it is a western system that is incompatible with the so-called Melanesian Way of consensus and its emphasis on the community rather than the individual.

The system they object to is commonly referred to as Western Democracy.

Democracy is a Greek word that roughly translates as the ‘rule of the people’ and refers to a system of governance developed in Greece.

There are various definitions of democracy but the Oxford English Dictionary probably sums it up accurately saying it is ‘a system of government in which all the people of a state or polity… are involved in making decisions about its affairs, typically by voting to elect representatives to a parliament or similar assembly’.

The appellation ‘western’ simply refers to democracy’s place of origin and original application i.e. Greece.

To my mind the above definition also aptly describes what people purport to call the Melanesian Way.

Consensus means the involvement of everyone in the community or society, which is the case of both democracy and the Melanesian Way.

The idea that democracy in the west is about the individual is wrong. Individualism is a feature of capitalism, an economic system, not democracy. You can have a capitalist economic system within both democracy and the Melanesian Way, just as it can exist within communism and monarchism.

The Melanesian Way, if you are seeking a definition, could therefore aptly be summed up as a democracy. There is no difference between the two

For practical reasons democracy usually, but not necessarily, involves the election of representatives of a community or society. If you wanted to extend the concept of the Melanesian Way to a point where it could apply to a large nation state an election of representatives to a parliament would be the most logical thing to do.

So the Melanesian Way in its modern context is no different to Western Democracy.

Where the perceived differences lie, I think, is in the application.

In a perfect democracy the elected representatives would have nothing but the interests of the people they represent at heart. Off the top of my head I can’t think of anywhere in the world where that actually happens.

In most cases the representatives either represent a particular constituency in their electorate or worse no one at all but themselves.

In Australia most politicians are influenced by powerful lobby groups that provide them with, among other things, funds.

The Liberals get bribes from big business and Labor gets bribes from the union movement.

Once a politician starts accepting these bribes they become captive to the ideology of the donors. Tony Abbott was in the pockets of big business and so is Malcolm Turnbull.  The union movement pulls Bill Shorten’s strings. The only honest politicians in the Australia parliament are a couple of independents and maybe the Greens.

In Papua New Guinea big business exerts the same sort of pressure on the politicians, albeit more blatantly so than in Australia.

Without an effective party system with defined ideologies the bribes go directly into the politicians pockets. This is so deeply entrenched that it is accepted as the ways things are done.

Does anyone actually know what Peter O’Neill’s Peoples National Congress Party or Don Polye’s Triumph Heritage Empowerment Party actually stand for? Not to mention the 40+ other micro parties in parliament.

What is missing, in both Australia and especially Papua New Guinea is the original idea that in a democracy the politicians represent the people.

In this sense it wouldn’t be unfair to say that neither Australia nor Papua New Guinea are truly democratic nations.

And I think that further weakens the arguments about the distinctions between democracy and the Melanesian Way.

Democracy may exist at the grass roots level in Australia and its counterpart, the Melanesian Way, may exist at the grassroots level in Papua New Guinea but neither exists at the national level.

In Australia we are run by greedy big business and the unions and in Papua New Guinea the nation is run by greedy big business, mostly from overseas, and individual and greedy politicians.

The system of democracy in either country does not need fixing or changing. All that is required is the honest application of its original intent and principles.


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Michael Dom

I believe the idea of democracy is a natural state for the human animal, usually an inherent part of our social groupings no matter how small or large, even if understated or inhibited.

Our defining property - intellect - demands this of each of us; we all have something to say.

Some people may talk too much while others talk less or remain silent, hence the technique of blind voting at the ballot box to facilitate for 'all voices to be heard'.

Whereas other modes of polity (theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorial etc.) are a reflection of unique and specific realities found in individual geo-social-environs where the rubber hits the road.

History is replete with examples because people have been trying all kinds of 'Ways' since time immemorial.

These modes of polity may be influenced by status, wealth, power (religious, martial, strategic etc), numbers, geography, history, philosophy and other factors which become defining characteristics of particular societies.

As the world mixes, so do our politics merge and the modes with which we choose to govern ourselves blends throughout the homogenous blob of humanity.

The fundamentals remain the same, we just give them different names because we have different ways of achieving the objective of government.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Democracy in its purest form is about "everyone" having a say on an issue that concerns them. And it doesn't necessarily have to involve elections; that's a later innovation. As such it is a dead ringer for the Melanesian Way.

Paul Oates

Harking back to the original subject matter that started this discussion, is democracy and the Melanesian Way the same thing? I suggest it is not.

Democracy is about (some) having a vote on who might be elected to a elected position. Melanesian Way concepts centre on the need for discussion and consensus prior to any important decision being made about future planned clan action.

Speaking of planning, a recent article in the PNG media drew my attention to what has become a national disease.

Mr Joshua Sam, the waste management manager for the NCD told a recent seminar on waste management that the problems of NCD waste collection were created by a ‘ripple effect’ or chain reaction and that no one aspect could be blamed.

I applaud Mr Sam’s erudite enunciation of the problem.

“Principles, strategies and targets to achieve the long-term plans are there,” Mr Sam said.

But then came the punch line:

“The challenge is the implementation part.”

Mr Sam’s final point should be printed out and pasted on each of the government minister’s and their departmental office doors.

All the plans in the world are useless unless they go together with the ability to make them happen.

Phil Fitzpatrick

For anyone interested there is a conference going on this weekend at Melbourne University called "Democracy in Transition".

The organisers recognise that democracy everywhere in the world has been broken and subverted by vested interests. This has happened in Australia but is most brutally obvious in PNG. Politicians who initially look good quickly become captive to this subversion. In Australia Malcolm Turnbull is the latest example - he has simply sold out.

To check out the conference go to:

Their findings should be very interesting, especially to people like Gary Juffa.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I suppose in Australia we have a fair idea of what the main political parties are going to do if they get into power - the Liberals will try to privatise everything and Labor will try to socialise everything.

There is also the saving grace that they both realise that looking after the less fortunate in society is a given. Their approaches in this endeavour usually boils down to one of degree.

The only thing anyone can be sure of in PNG is that whatever the party the members will attempt to rort and corrupt government.

There are a few politicians who don't fit this pattern but they are ineffectual, like voices crying in the wilderness.

In this sense I think what PNG needs is political parties that can articulate how they plan to govern well before they are elected. As you suggest Paul, aspiring politicians should be working on this ready for 2017. I doubt very much whether this is happening.

Remember the Robert Redford film, 'The Candidate' about a politician who gives his all to get elected and then can't work out what he's going to do when he wins? That's what seems to happen in PNG.

How you get political parties to plan and articulate their policies in PNG and then stick to their promises is beyond me.

Both major Australian political parties, in their orthodox form (the Abbott/Hockey junta was not orthodox), are virtually identical in terms of ideology and policy. Abbott/Hockey was unorthodox in its grotesque favouritism of big business over the needs of poorer Australians and its almost mystical denial of rational political and economic behaviour. Since the Hawke/Keating era, both major parties have tended to opt for regressive and frequently inhumane policies – and this mindset continues under Turnbull. As for PNG, Gov Gary Juffa is pursuing a systematic and clever program to try to win the balance of power in the 2017 elections. But PNG will continue to fail politically until the presently uncohesive and managerially inept middle class understands that it must organise more intelligently and energetically to politically educate the people to put the nation, not clan or self, first as a guiding principle for a fair and successful PNG - KJ

Paul Oates

Chris, you say: "The problem with autocracy is that, eventually, it literally sinks under the weight of its hopelessly irreconcilable internal contradictions" and that is true. While this axiom presents a problem for those few in control, the real problem is that in order to overthrow an increasingly dictatorial regime is that the more threatened the regime becomes, the more it tries to tighten control. This creates a spiral of tension that usually ends up in civil war, death and misery for most of the regime's population.

To a certain extent, Gorbachev helped prevent total civil war in the breakup of the old USSR and its satellites. The problem was for Russia that he couldn't put in place a stable regime in his own country after the breakup given the extensive history of repression and totalitarian political control. Democracy was not something the people were used to or in fact fully understood at the time. Look at how the country is run today.

America's dilemma as the so called free world leader is that it has (and perhaps always was), so insular in culture that most US people cannot accept that anyone wouldn't opt for their systems of government if given the chance. (‘Have a Coca Cola, man’). War after war has ended up with some sort of bewilderment when the US (and allies) end the war only to discover that may have flattened the place but the survivors aren't necessary friendly or understanding why?

The Brits were in a similar mode when they flattened Delhi after the Indian Mutiny (read Indian First War of Independence), which is why the capital of India (read Barat) is now called New Delhi. All three powers, Britain, Russia and the US have failed to understand what the Afghans want or at least might work for them after they withdrew from trying to pacify the place. Today it's Syria, tomorrow, who knows?

The dilemma for PNG is one that the people have found themselves in without the hundreds of years of trial and error that appears necessary to allow a system of national government to evolve and stabilize.

What can be learnt from human history is that the longer it takes to overthrow an oligarchy, such as the one that is developing in PNG, the more brutal the methods and actions required. If only PNG's leaders would recognize that the more those in power resist, the greater the effort needed to overthrow the resisting, reactionary forces.

The essence of the issue is one of forward planning. PNG is fortunate to have a five year general election period as does Britain. Australia is trying to think about extending the current three year period. Those wishing to be elected in the next PNG government should start laying out their draft plans for their country’s future.

I haven’t seen any long term planning or even short term planning being discussed or set out for the nation’s people to comment about. All that I see are the country’s leaders continually talking about what should happen rather than how to make it happen. Perhaps they are afraid that they might be held accountable if they are in fact not able to do anything except produce more ‘maus wara’?

Chris Overland

I think that it fair to say that democracies are very hard work for both the political class and the electorate.

The organic law or constitution typically contains a few somewhat vague and ill defined principles and goals, as well as outlining the "rules of the game" for national governance.

The latter usually allocate different roles and functions to the various arms of government to achieve the "separation of powers" that is explicitly designed to prevent the emergence of an unaccountable autocracy or oligarchy.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the actual business of government in a democracy is the endless task of reconciling a huge array of sometimes conflicting interests.

The current US Presidential race shows that those conflicting interests can range from overwhelmingly white, gun crazed, ultra-nationalists through to the profoundly disadvantaged, mostly Hispanic non-citizens, who make up the country's "hidden" under class.

So frustrating is the democratic process that some people can be seduced into believing that an autocratic government system such as practised in China, in Saudi Arabia and to some extent in Russia, offers a more efficient, stable and orderly way to run a country.

Modern autocrats tend to reinforce this belief by their ready willingness to adopt the appearance and rhetoric of rational and civilised technocrats, even as their Secret Services busily suppress opposition on a "whatever it takes" basis.

The problem with autocracy is that, eventually, it literally sinks under the weight of its hopelessly irreconcilable internal contradictions.

This is what sank the Soviet Union and will, in due course, dispose of the Peoples Republics of North Korea and China, probably in that order.

Democracy, fraught as it is with rent seekers, carpetbaggers and influence peddlers has, thus far at least, managed to be a self correcting system.

This is the case because the political class know that, as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time".

In a PNG context, there will come a time when enough of the people wake up to how they are being conned.

History suggests that once that occurs, either the PNG governance system will self correct in a mostly peaceful way or it will correct via the agency of a revolution of some form.

This is merely a question of time.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Phil, PNG haus tambaran has alot of Clive Palmers roaming and coercing timid first time MPs.

Four-fifths of the current MPs are mere political eunuchs who have no idea about democracy and governance.

PNG, it seems, will not go anyway because both the Melanesian culture and the Western Democracy are an abyss that nobody can make head and tail of.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I'll concede that there are some good people in the Australian political system and that they exert a modicum of sensible influence Chris but I'm not convinced that the influence of vested interests doesn't prevail.

As an example take the mining industry and especially the coal miners. Common sense tells us that we need to quickly decarbonise our energy yet these people persist in their short-sighted grab for profit and in the process jeopardise the future of our planet. And most of our politicians seem to go along with them. You have to wonder why they are so stupid and the answer, of course, is they are being paid to be stupid.

I'll also concede that the waning influence of the trade unions on the Labor Party is nowhere as great as big business on the Liberals.

When I vote these days I tick the Greens first and Labor second knowing that in my redneck electorate it doesn't matter anyway.

I think a Labor/Greens coalition would be a great Australian government. The Liberals are in coalition with the Nationals so why not Labor and Greens?

But in PNG they haven't even got to the point of setting up proper political parties with defined policies and agendas. I'm surprised there isn't a Rip Off the System party or a Stupid Christian Party among the 40 odd no-issues parties.

Chris Overland

While I agree with Phil that the Melanesian Way and Western Democracy appear to be one in the same thing, I think that his analysis of Australia's Federal system of governance is only partially correct.

It is certainly true that big business wields considerable influence. This is the case with respect to both major political parties, but more so with the Liberal and National Parties than with the Labour Party.

It is also true that the union movement as a whole exerts effective control over the Labour Party which, after all, originally was conceived and created to be the party of the broader labour movement.

That said, it is by no means the case that either the business community as a whole or the union movement can, in pursuit of their political objectives, afford to ignore public opinion.

There exist within the Australian polity groups of educated, informed, articulate and increasingly connected people who can and do mobilise to pursue certain common political objectives.

In a sense, the current Greens Party is an example of what was once a small, single issue group that has now become more "mainstream", with a broader policy agenda.

A big chunk of what was once the Labour Left has migrated to the Greens, attracted by its distinctly socialistic policy agenda.

Also, there is a scattering of independents, with not less than 18 sitting on the cross benches in the Senate, who can wield real influence in some circumstances.

My own state of South Australia elected independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who garnered a rather astonishing 24.9% of the total vote, almost as much as the major parties.

Superimpose on this the ability of individual State and Territory governments to put sometimes enormous pressure on the Federal government, and it would be accurate to characterise the governance of Australia as "a strife of interests".

So, I would argue that Australia's political system is vigorously, sometimes even annoyingly, democratic, with no one group able to secure and maintain the upper hand all the time.

However, there is enough party discipline and broad policy consensus most of the time, to allow governments of whatever persuasion to govern, mostly in the wider public interest.

It is not perfect by any means and crises occur from time to time, but it does seem to work reasonably well.

The occasional unexpected loss of a few Prime Ministers along the way is powerful testimony to how the great and the good can never, ever afford to take their political pre-eminence for granted.

If only PNG could generate the same sort of unease in its political leaders, it might be better off.

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