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Navigating tricky waters: where is the place of Melanesian ways?

The socio-political status of PNG: no painless pathway ahead


PHIL Fitzpatrick's recent article, The apathy and ennui of the Papua New Guinean people, resonated very strongly with me for a number of reasons.

I have come to believe that liberal democracy as we know it is not an end point in the development of human societies. Its recent triumphs over fascism and communism are not evidence of the end of history.

Rather, liberal democracy is yet another stage in a range of complex social, political and economic processes that have been happening for several millennia.

These have been characterised by the ebb and flow of "civilisation" (being the urge to establish an orderly, highly structured society governed by known laws) and "barbarism" (being the explicit rejection of such a society in preference for an essentially anarchical and highly fragmented collection of loosely affiliated communities of interest).

Thus there is a constant tension between the state, in whatever form it takes, and the desire of individuals to pursue their own interests largely unfettered by others.

Liberal democracy is an attempt to reconcile these competing forces and overall, so far at least, it has worked pretty well.

However, it is not the one right way to do this because liberal democracy is culture dependent. Basically, it is a product of European, and especially British, historic experience.

At the moment, places like Russia and China have adopted aspects of liberal democracy even while maintaining quite oppressive quasi-autocratic state structures designed to maintain the power and influence of the relative handful of people who constitute the political and business elites.

In places like Australia, the state is less oppressive and more responsive to public opinion but there are still powerful elites who dominate the political and economic processes.

So, what has this to do with contemporary Papua New Guinea?

It is my belief that PNG has thus far failed to truly transition from a state of “barbarism” to that of “civilisation”. Thus, while PNG now has many of the formal structures and processes associated with civilisation, its peoples are still instinctively drawn to the more familiar and culturally comfortable barbaric state.

This, in turn, makes it very hard for them to comprehend that their social and material aspirations cannot be achieved without fully embracing the rules of civilisation, not just its forms.

In short, the PNG state is little more than a mask behind which the political and business elites can pursue their individual interests in a largely unaccountable way. As each successive generation of politicians fails to meet the expectations of the people, it is replaced with another which, in turn, pursues its own interests in preference to the public interest.

Thus a cycle of perpetual exploitation and despoliation continues despite a supposedly democratic political process being in place.

There are now a few people appearing, and Gary Juffa is one, who understand how this dynamic works and are trying to break out of it. The difficulties attached to this cannot be underrated.

Nothing in history suggests that there is a peaceful and painless path to creating a genuine democracy. In fact, all the evidence points to the opposite.


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Bernard Corden

Gore Vidal stated that the USA was the only country to go from barbarism to decadence and bypass civilization!

Lindsay F Bond

Chris, Let’s chew a while on chicory, dichotomy and stuff. Would it not still prevail that the so-called barbaric, is viewed but decried by cohort A seeking of others (cohorts B, C…), to exclude and even to extinguish, but for why? Expediency for A may be political, economic, or other. Thus, broadly, can we agree on expediency?

Any hunter skilled in catching brightly-plumed birds, would have been valued by more than just one cohort, and would have benefitted from tolerance among many. Rule, highly structured, if ‘not penned’.
Can not barbarism have been such?

 Lindsay F Bond

Depose mar(k)s dour predictions
barbs ‘snatcher-all’ elections
forcing might in varied words

measures mean, some yoked buy-stealth
pares off stated common-wealth,
sleight in force disguising swords

scarcely joined with sundry brogues
kept poor, spoked by well-housed rogues
deigning big-nuff to rule swards

pleasures garnered little dealt
fares fading that too few felt,
feints are strewn after forewords.

Instead yore and yester-lingers
yearn life ahead, seek harbingers
scoping love more than rewards

treasures meant to bring all wealth
shares in learning, law, and health,
weight in riches, love’s best hoards

assumes nation’s more than dream
borders, trade, art and esteem
facing plight at all its wards

admeasures with planned-for tracks
paucity without attacks
reigned by genuine stewards.

Reassurance works as treats
bares hopeful views less of threats
moves respectful love forwards.

Chris Overland

Just as a point of clarification, I wasn't trying to make a point about the fitness or otherwise of a Westminster type system of governance for PNG.

While members of parliament are clearly elected through a democratic process, the governments formed since independence have been structured mostly around particular individuals.

Importantly, based upon their behaviour, there have been no readily apparent, consistent and binding philosophical ideas apparent within PNG political parties.

So, for example, there is no clearly identifiable social democratic party of the type commonly found across the world, nor is there any equivalent to the various conservative parties like the present Coalition government in Australia.

For this reason governments have been formed based on extensive "back room" negotiations with and between individual members whose motivations have been, to put it mildly, highly variable, but dominated by self interest.

So, I think Phil is right to say that while the constitutional arrangements were plainly intended to create and nurture a Westminster style of governance, this has never actually happened.

The "founding fathers", both in Port Moresby and Canberra, simply assumed that this style of governance was necessarily the best fit for a newly independent PNG.

Basically, Whitlam's predetermined exit strategy for Australia did not allow time for anything other than the adoption of the British governance model, nor would it have occurred to the planners to do otherwise.

Unless and until a coherent party system emerges I just cannot see how the current situation can change much.

In essence, a proper, functioning party system is a necessary precondition to dealing with the myriad of other matters that require wholesale reform in PNG.

Effective political leaders, be they democrats or authoritarians, need a disciplined party to support them.

Failing that, as Frank Bainimarama demonstrated in Fiji, they need an army prepared to do whatever it takes to enforce stability and at least some version of the rule of law.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I take your point about the Westminster system with a government and opposition Paul.

At village level democracy where a consensus was sought there was usually at least two opposing points of view; so the concept is not so difficult to grasp as one might think.

I would also point out that it was only prior to independence and only shortly thereafter that a government and an effective opposition existed.

Very early in the process a plethora of 'parties' appeared. Most of them were mainly formed to push the limited aspirations of a few politicians.

In that sense, democracy and the Westminster system never really survived independence. Instead a peculiar PNG style of governance emerged.

So I stand by my assertion that PNG has never had an effective democracy.

This is why I suggested in another post that what needs to happen before 2017 is the formation of a true opposition party with strict rules and policies.

I'm hoping Gary Juffa and his supporters are thinking along these lines too.

Also, like you, I would love to see a bit of comment from Papua New Guineans on this issue and the whole governance issue.

Now is the time to start planning for 2017. PNG can't afford another of its last minute rushes to do something even if this is what all the corrupt politicians are hoping.

Get off your collective backside PNG and start planning.

Rashmii Bell

I gave Chris' article much thought after having seen it earlier in the Comments thread in response to the same article by Phil Fitzpatrick.

Based on my observations, I felt the civilisation and barbarism comparison a plausible explantion for the way things are happening in PNG. I'll go away and consider/ read up more on all points raised presently.

But what stands out right now and what I agree Paul's reference to; you can't force a square peg through a round hole without resorting to force. I agree. So what I think is that this 'force' (whatever method it is) that is directed, managed and accounted for in a responsible manner is one that needs to be decided upon and enforced by, and only by the marginalised majority if there ever is to be positive change.

Paul Oates

Phil, I think it's important to draw a distinction between democracy in its many forms and the Westminster system of government.

I agree that many PNG societies practised some form of democracy. Installing a Westminster system consisting of a government and opposition was not in keeping with the traditional PNG concept of achieving consensus in decision making after extensive discussion in the village. Sometimes as we well know, agreement was never achieved.

Olsem. Husat wantok ilaik mekim liklik toksave lo displa tingting nau a?

Phil Fitzpatrick

I'm afraid that I don't buy the argument that western democracy is unsuited to Papua New Guinea; or for that matter to other de-colonised states, including those in Africa.

I also don't think it is something that takes aeons to create in a given state. As I've argued elsewhere, the so-called Melanesian Way or, or more correctly, traditional Papua New Guinean patterns of social organisation, is analogous to democracy anyway and it is a short step from there to its western form.

There are two main reasons why I think this unsuitability argument is wrong.

The first is I don't think the early post-independence leaders, including Michael Somare, actually understood what western democracy actually meant. Whether this was Australia's fault or the fault of the leaders is irrelevant now.

What those leaders tried to implement was their take on western democracy and it was wrong. It was simply a facile mask that they called democracy when it patently wasn't.

Secondly, and this point follows from the first, real western democracy has not been tried in Papua New Guinea; or Africa for that matter. All that has been applied is a misconstrued version of it.

What currently passes for democracy in Papua New Guinea is a homemade affair with all the bells and whistles but no substance - a bit like those radio shacks and airstrips the cargo cultists used to build.

Since 1975 this aberration has been gradually modified to suit the needs of the elites and the corrupt politicians and business people.

It short, Papua New Guinea is not a failed democracy, or otherwise, because democracy simply hasn't been tried yet.

There are enough smart people in Papua New Guinea who now understand what constitutes a real democracy. It is now up to them to ditch the aberration and apply the real thing come 2017.

Paul Oates

Your arguments seem to make perfect sense to me Chris. I can easily relate to those conceptual ideas given the benefit of hindsight.

It doesn’t take much to remember examples of how appearances can be totally deceiving. The ability to manage people can seem to very easy to those who don’t have that responsibility or experience. (e.g. being able to wear long socks that you can stick a pen down the side of doesn’t qualify you). The expertise to manage a country can seem easy if you haven’t had the experience and training to do so (e.g. two years after Independence Michael Somare mused that maybe he needed to bring back the Kiaps). To wear the trappings of state doesn’t qualify a person to be a good leader. You only have to look at some African dictators and the gaudy uniforms they wear (e.g. Robert Mugabe).

Training and good advice is often simply not enough to allow ‘the wisdom of the elders’ to be passed on to the younger generation. Any father in our society can relate to that. That’s why many tribal societies had stringent rules and taboos to enforce the laws and customs of the clan and tribe.

The nexus of PNG’s problem today is a simple one. Put bluntly, you can’t force a square peg into a round hole without resorting to force. The problem is that the necessary ‘force’ has to be correctly directed and managed in a responsible and accountable manner.

I suggest that with the benefit of hindsight, a country as diverse as PNG cannot be managed using the Westminster system. In 1975 there were few examples to go on where this system of government had been ‘bequeathed’ to some African nations like Nigeria and Kenya. Today there are many other examples where a democratic system has been proven not to work in a tribal or feudal society and especially one that is made up of 800 ethnic groups.

Can PNG make the quantum leap from her current state to be a successful Parliamentary democracy without progressing through the many years (read centuries), of incremental stages? It does not currently seem possible unless there are sufficient elected politicians who are able to manage that transition. That in itself is not a bad thing if those politicians then just discuss and make the laws and leave qualified managers to run the country. I can't see that happening anytime soon. The temptation to be a 'Big Man' and personally dole out the monies is just too great.

The disconnection seems to be between those PNG leaders who are qualified and suited to manage and run the country and those voters who have no idea as to who must be elected to save their country. Only when and if an effective leader can bridge that gap by communicating and influencing with enough voters outside his or her own ethnic grouping to be elected and then lead enough supporters to win and hold government will any change be possible.

The worry is that the longer it takes to bring PNG back from the brink will increase the ‘force’ required to do so. Newton’s third law says: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. Those with their proverbial ‘snouts in the trough’ will diametrically resist any change at all.

To put the equation more bluntly, anyone who tries to get PNG ‘back on the rails’ is going to have an uphill battle. However the longer it takes to start the process the bigger the task ahead.

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