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Papua New Guinea and democracy – it was never going to work


TUMBY BAY - The Papua New Guinea that I knew in the 1960s and 1970s bears little resemblance to the Papua New Guinea of today.

Outwardly the physical appearance has not greatly changed, the towns are bigger and busier as the world over, but the rural areas are still remarkably familiar. So too are the ordinary people.

Where the real difference lies is the way the country runs, the way it operates, the way it gets things done or in many cases not done.

That’s a simplistic summary, it’s much more complicated than that, but one conclusion many people make is that the time before was much better than the time now.

Of course, older people around the world refer to “the good old days” or something similar.

It’s a product of human nature, just like we don’t remember pain we tend to forget the bad times and remember only the good.

However, in the case of Papua New Guinea, I think there is more than a grain of truth in the comparison.

Which brings me to my point.

Deep in expatriates’ heart of hearts, I think most of us knew that democracy in Papua New Guinea just wasn’t going to work.

Or at least not in the way everyone expected it should.

And I think we also knew that the timing of independence had very little to do with it. Be it in 1975 or 1985 or even 1995, it wasn’t going to work.

We felt that democracy and the people of Papua New Guinea were never going to come together successfully. We felt each was incompatible with the other.

As a kiap I was in a position to have a direct insight into this situation and had deep misgivings about the whole process.

I wasn’t alone. Among the expatriate community it was a common belief. Those in power also shared these misgivings.

So why did the leaders proceed as they did?

I suppose they had little choice, they were under pressure from an ignorant government in Canberra and a vocal Papua New Guinean intelligentsia in Port Moresby.

But more than that though, I think they still had hope. They hoped it would work and on that basis they were prepared to take the gamble.

Unfortunately for Papua New Guinea they lost.

Papua New Guinea is not now the emulation of western democracy that it was supposed to become.

I don’t know what PNG is now. Kleptocracy springs to mind, as does autocracy and other unflattering descriptions. Maybe there isn’t a word to describe it.

Some say PNG is broken and needs to be fixed but I don’t really think that, as a nation state, it has ever been unbroken.

It is what it has always been, a loose collection of warring tribes (to which have been added elite fiefdoms) scrabbling to survive in a predatory and uncaring world. That’s not something from which a democracy can be easily built.

Perhaps if we had recognised that way back then we could have plotted a more pragmatic course into the future for the country and its people.

Perhaps that’s what Papua New Guinea’s so-called leaders should really be thinking about too.


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Chris Overland

Representative democracy is, as Winston Churchill famously said, the worst possible form of government except for all the others that have been tried.

Autocracy can work provided the leader is highly intelligent, largely altruistically motivated and committed to the rule of law independent of the political leadership and associated structures.

All other forms of autocracy (or oligarchy) inevitably fail because, eventually, the privileged decided that they not only know better but deserve better than the rest of the citizenry.

Lies, dissembling, terror, intimidation and murder will only get you so far before either the AK47's come out or the perverted governance structures collapse under the weight of their hopeless contradictions.

Democracy is hard work requiring a lot of self discipline, cooperation and consensus building amongst both the leadership and the led. This seems to have been forgotten by many of the current crop of politicians, who too often now promote conflict and self interest as tools by which to achieve and maintain power.

Making democracy work properly is time consuming and tedious much of the time. Efficiency necessarily takes second place to the winning of hearts and minds. Politics frequently is a tough gig in a democracy like Australia's because of this fact.

The pay off is that when consensus is finally achieved, remarkable things can be done for the greater good.

All too often, authoritarian regimes like to contrast the apparent orderliness, discipline, stability and unity of their system with the apparent chaos and instability of a vibrant democracy.

However, the truth is that these qualities are merely superficial in authoritarian societies and, very frequently, are routinely subverted by disgruntled citizens who become experts at seeming to toe the line to the extent that they need to in order to survive.

Put enough stress on such societies and they tend to disintegrate with amazing suddenness, e.g. the USSR, Romania under Ceausescu, Russia under the Romanovs and so on.

PNG is just the latest in a long line of countries that have or are failing to create effective democratic structures under pinned by the rule of law.

To my mind, such countries lack a culture or tradition that is truly consistent with democratic values. Just think about the painful and slow development of British Parliamentary democracy and its associated legal structures. It only took about 800 years of bloodshed to get to where we are now.

So, given this historic context, none of us with a lived experience of PNG before independence are greatly surprised at how things have worked out.

The real question remains: are there enough motivated, capable and determined Papua New Guineans willing and able to do the hard and probably thankless work of turning the situation around?

Paul Oates

There's nothing wrong with autocracy if it is responsible and accountable. In essence, that's what the rule of the Kiap was all about.

The problem was that those who had stars in their eyes on either side of the Torres Strait couldn't see what we could see and what we heard from the people we were in daily contact with. The vast majority of the people wanted the continuation of the Kiap system with a gradual change over as local Kiaps were fully trained and appointed.

The problem was that this was never going to happen while ever vested interests didn't care about anything else but themselves.

That in essence is still the main problem. Those who are elected are maintaining their control to suit themselves and not the people they represent. They are clearly maintaining control for their own purposes and not for the good of the people who they are supposed to represent.

There is no perfect system of government that has ever been invented that isn't subject to fault and corruption. The fine line between effective democracy and the rest is only paper thin and can only be maintained while there is clear responsibility for actions taken and those responsible held accountable. Clearly that hasn't happened in PNG. We sure can't be too complacent in Australia at the moment as well.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm hedging in this article of course.

What I really meant to say was that a lot of expatriates in PNG prior to 1975 didn't think the PNG people would ever be able to run their own country the way we envisaged and hoped.

Rather than come out and say that I opted for something a bit more politically correct and called it democracy.

It's related to my belief that PNG needs an alternative to western style democracy.

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