Strong turnout for ASOPA – but support still needed
Getting rid of O’Neill only the start of a very long road

Democracy in disarray: PNG’s malaise as a sign of the times


THERE seems to be growing evidence that there is something wrong within the world's democracies. Exhibit A - the rise and rise of Donald Trump.

Despite the best efforts of the political apparatchiks within the Republican Party, the Donald's ability to tap into the anger, resentment and fear of so many (mostly white) Americans has enabled him to secure the Republican nomination for the Presidency.

Opposed to him, as seems likely, will be the archetype representative of the professional political class which so many people in the USA clearly detest, Hilary Clinton.

Despite being widely distrusted and disliked by many within the Democrat party, notably younger Americans, Clinton seems likely to claw her way to the nomination.

In doing so, she will have to inally shake off a doggedly persistent Senator Bernie Sanders who, despite being a self declared democratic socialist in a country that traditionally equates this with communism, has drawn unexpectedly high levels of support.

Exhibit B is the ineptitude of the leadership of the European Union as it attempts to grapple with multiple crises, notably the continuing economic disaster that is Greece and the flood of mostly economic refugees seeking a new life within the decidedly more comfortable and secure Euro-zone.

Public confidence in Europe’s political and bureaucratic institutions has been deeply shaken. This at least partly explains a very significant shift towards the political right now evident across much of Europe. What this leads to over time is unclear but the broad centre-left consensus of the past seems unlikely to reappear anytime soon.

Exhibit C is much closer to home.

In Australia, the rise of a recognisable political class and the associated semi-politicised and managerialist leadership of the public service has helped undermine public confidence in some of the country's important democratic and government institutions.

The major political parties are increasingly perceived as being advocates for specific interest groups rather than being more broadly representative.

One result of this has been a marked diminution in the number of rusted on supporters for the major parties and a corresponding increase in the number of so-called swinging voters. Former Australian prime minister John Howard believes that this latter group now constitutes as much as 40% of the electorate.

In an effort to understand the needs and wants of this large group of uncommitted voters, the political class utilises a raft of marketing techniques, such as constant polling and extensive use of focus groups, to help formulate policy responses that will resonate with them.

This has led to the increasing pursuit of what is popular with different market segments within the electorate (basically, traditional pork barrelling in another guise) rather than what is necessarily good for the wider community.

An incidental effect of treating politics as essentially a marketing exercise has been to dumb down political discourse to little more than shouting slogans while misrepresenting and disparaging opponents in any way possible.

While this version of retail politics can frequently be a successful electoral tactic, it can also backfire quite spectacularly. Former prime minister Tony Abbott's proposal for an extravagantly expensive and poorly targeted maternity leave scheme proved to be a political albatross because it was widely perceived to be an obvious ploy to solve his infamous problem with women. His party displayed very obvious relief when finally, under enormous duress, he recanted from his unbreakable pledge to introduce the scheme.

In their different ways, each of these trans-continental examples demonstrates that there has been, over time, a slow but significant change in the relationship between political parties and the electorate within the world's democracies.

This corresponds with the rise of an identifiable political class and, I think, with the concurrent rise of an identifiable managerial class.

The latter group presides over the increasingly powerful multinational corporations that control a large segment of the world's economic, financial and industrial activity.  These business entities, controlled largely by very wealthy men, wield extraordinary power and influence.

For example, it is no exaggeration to say that Microsoft Corporation effectively controls or at the very least significantly influences the world market in computer software because of its ubiquitous Windows products.

Consequently, management decisions taken within Microsoft can have significant impacts on billions of people. Governments and consumers alike have insufficient legislative, personal or even market power to greatly influence those decisions.

Similarly, Google and Facebook completely dominate their particular segments of the world market because of their capacity to collect, store and analyse stupendous quantities of data about us, the world's consumers. In a consumption based world economy, such information is like gold.

These and many other multinational corporations are able to individually and collectively wield enormous economic and financial power. The political class can neither control nor ignore them.

Increasingly, the public now understands this and greatly resents that corporations can seemingly behave with impunity about whether or not they pay tax or comply with various health, safety and environmental regulations.

We live in a world dominated by the neo-conservative narrative about how the world's economic and financial systems must be allowed to operate with minimal or, preferably, no government interference.

Consequently, the world's political landscape now looks more like it did in the 18th and 19th centuries, when huge trading corporations like the British East India Company effectively ruled large parts of the world.

Governments of that era spent most of their time reacting to what these corporations wanted or did and mostly exercised little control over them. The wider public interest rarely figured in the policy calculus.

The traditional political enemies of neo-conservatism come from the left of the political spectrum.  For many years communism or social democracy in their various forms were put forward by the left as rational, fairer and sustainable alternatives to unfettered capitalism.

The ability to credibly argue this way was almost entirely lost when communism collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions. Several generations of leftist political thinking was effectively swept away in the ensuing avalanche of economic and political reform.

Subsequently, the notion of social democracy - sometimes characterised as ‘communism lite’ – proved both hard to explain and justify to a sceptical and disaffected electorate. This has left the proponents of our current form of capitalism, based as it is on a notionally free market and rampant consumerism, triumphantly occupying a wide swathe of the political middle ground.

Unhappily for the overall health of democracy, those on the left of politics now seem unable or unwilling to devise a coherent political and economic response to the apparent neo-conservative consensus. They seek to ameliorate the worst aspects of the current system rather than putting forward a genuine alternative.

Those on the left also tend to be fixated on single issues (environment, homelessness, racial inequality, industrial health and safety, etc) without a coherent philosophical or political framework being evident, leaving no plausible narrative to compete with that of the neo-conservatives.

I think it is fair to say that the implicit social contract between rulers and the ruled is under increasing strain everywhere. In some cases, this has led to explosive results, such as the civil wars now raging in Syria, Libya, Iraq and the Yemen.

In the established democracies, this is now producing demonstrable changes in the political ecology, where Donald Trump and similar populists can find a large and receptive audience.

Social cohesion that was once based upon shared ethnicity, language and culture is progressively being broken down by a whole range of forces including large scale immigration (both legal and otherwise), rising economic inequality within and between countries and, perhaps most importantly, the destructive impact of capital moving around the world in its never ending quest to maximise profit, mostly without regard to the personal, social and environmental costs involved.

Neo-conservatives believe that the creative destruction of obsolete, inefficient and unprofitable economic activity is the engine of long term economic growth and prosperity. Their raison d'etre is to generate more and bigger profits. For them, the role of government is to create an environment conducive to the activities of business and to pick up the pieces left behind by creative destruction.

In this way, Adam Smith's famous invisible hand will ensure that society as a whole inevitably benefits. Of course, those who are left in the wake of creative destruction are, not surprisingly, rarely able to see their plight in the same optimistic light.

The situation in Papua New Guinea is complicated by its particular cultural, political and economic dynamics. It has many of the characteristics of a functional democracy but the absence of a parties based upon a coherent and shared philosophical outlook means that its politicians have even more scope for dissembling, evasion and lies than is usually the case. What unites PNG parliamentarians is self-interest, not the public interest.

They essentially are unaccountable to other than their electors and so, not surprisingly, focus all their efforts on keeping them happy. The wider public interest is in many respects either not understood or simply ignored. In that sense, these politicians fit the pattern that has appeared elsewhere in the world, although not entirely for the same reasons.

Add to this an apparently hazy understanding of concepts like the rule of law, the separation of powers and the proper role of executive government and you have a recipe for the high levels of corruption and dysfunction now on vivid display.

This is why Peter O'Neill can get away with behaviour that would have long since brought about his demise in virtually any established democracy.

What political party in the USA, Europe, Britain, Canada or Australia would have allowed its leader to effectively thumb his nose at the judicial process without rapidly deciding that he had to go for the sake of its own credibility and political survival?

So, to my mind, PNG is caught up not only in the larger global forces tending to degrade the credibility and stability of the world's democracies, but has the added handicap of its local peculiarities as well.

It therefore is desperately vulnerable to the capitalist predators who abound in much of the world, for whom bribery, corruption and influence peddling are merely tools of trade.

None of this bodes well for the future, either in PNG or in much of the world. The usual suspects running the world's authoritarian regimes are becoming progressively more emboldened by democracy's apparent weaknesses and the accompanying current lack of clear, decisive direction and leadership. In part at least, this explains the behaviour of Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine and China in the South China Sea.

History has shown that PNG (like Australia) can rapidly be caught up in events entirely beyond its control. Right now, both countries need intelligent, honest, efficient, clear sighted, careful and diligent government. Sadly, it is these qualities that seem so conspicuously lacking under the current leadership of the PNG government and to a lesser degree in Australia.

Thus, to my mind, Mr O'Neill, as prime minister, is merely an exemplar of a wider malaise: he is not the sole cause of it in PNG, although he gives it a distinctive Melanesian character.

Only the passive or active support of many others allows him to carry on in office even as it becomes obvious that he no longer enjoys popular support.

Thus, he is indistinguishable from the long list of others who have come to regard power as theirs by right, not as the gift of the people they are supposed to serve.


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Paul Oates

It's not only the political left that can't enunciate their message. The standard of political debate is virtually useless to the average person.

That's why we get hit again and again by stupid mottos and jingoisms that are supposed to provide leadership but instead only provide a defence for those who can't articulate how they can manage when it is obvious they can't.

Check out the following link on Hilary Clinton. This is why Trump is gaining ground.

What's the answer? Well first we must agree on the problem.

I suggest there comes a time when the business of government and factors like world finance becomes too complex for everyone to understand let alone manage. That then allows the corrupt and criminal minds to take over without most people knowing what is actually happening.

Maybe we are all heading irrevocably for a world meltdown?

Mathias Kin

Mr Overland, this yet another very good write from you, not that I have anything to add, you're good at what you do, what you write.

So PNG's governance problems are simply another small bundle of pitpit thrown onto an already bigger pile?

Although the world might not raise a voice or wink, PNG as it is now contributes to this instabilities of the world's democracies. Yes PNG really is that small and wont make a ripple in world affairs.

Its just that we must do our little things well, handle our problems properly, allow fair scrutiny and audit of performance by its citizens like you do in Australia and else where, and hopefully in the end our citizen may take a fair share home to their families of their day's hard work on this land, their fatherland PNG.

Philip Fitzpatrick

A very nice summary Chris. You obviously understand very much more than the average Joe in the street.

How you get the message to poor old Joe is a real dilemma. Joe is too busy enmeshed in his own battle for survival or too tied up in reality TV to care.

Your comment about the lack of narrative on the left side of politics is also apposite. I must admit that it often puzzles me. I tend to fall back on orthodoxies like Marx but while they might offer explanations of what is happening they don't provide any solutions.

What indeed should be the leftist narrative?

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