PNG bishop confirms reinstatement of ‘playful’ Australian priest
Rebuilding a great repository of PNG’s culture & heritage

PNG’s electoral system: Did the founding fathers stuff it up?

We don't want to be pushed
Many Papua New Guineans, especially in the highlands, did not want independence to be hurried


“One of the most pointed, confronting, unapologetic and stimulating emails,” writes Bal Kama, a leading commentator on Papua New Guinea affairs. He had received the communication from a professor of politics, an expert on the PNG government system, who agreed that it be shared. “It’s healthy to hear the minds of radical thinkers from beyond our shores, however unsettling,” commented Bal Kama.

IT REALLY is a curious question. Where did Papua New Guinea’s majoritarian unicameral idea come from? There was simply no plausible model.

It was created in PNG in 1964 at the same time the former Legislative Council dominated by Australian members was abolished. Why?

When granting self-government to the Australasian colonies, the legislative councils were retained. If we had had a Labor government in 1964, this might have been explainable for it was Labor policy to abolish state upper houses. But Australia was very non-Labor in 1964.

It appears the PNG design was invented out of whole cloth. The same design was adopted in the Northern Territory in 1974. (Because Queensland was such a·success?) Also in the Solomons in 1976 and in Vanuatu in 1980.

I do not know what the explanation is. It cannot be a matter of thoughtlessness for committees have to sit around and design electoral boundaries.

Whatever the explanation, it was a colossal blunder and the people have been paying the price. At the sub-national level the governments have a federal check but at the national level it spells doom.

We have seen 40 years of research and bandaid ‘governance’·activity during which everything has gone backwards, 40 years of humanitarian disaster and ever-deepening exploitation of the people by their politicians.

Asking people to have faith in a new generation of leaders has not a  shred of scholarly credibility. It also defies common sense.

The main reason almost no one agrees that the political structure is the problem is because they already have a long-standing, comfortable and complete explanation of why Pacific policies fail their culture.

It does not dawn on them that the problem is not the translation of the faulty culture into the parliament but rather the imposition of a faulty parliament on the culture.

The authors just assume the parliament - their own culture - is faultless.

There is nothing wrong with Melanesian culture, but if there were, does it make sense to foist a political structure on them which has never worked with any culture?

Pacific academics and bureaucrats constitute a fairly small group of people, mainly Canberra based. They attend the same seminars and read each other's writings and the ‘culture-is-a-problem thesis’ is something they agree on; a taken-for-granted truth.

The reason no counter-argument penetrates is not only because it requires admission of error and an inversion of thinking but because it would be breaking ranks.

This culture prejudice misunderstands that the very purpose of a political system is to deal with the culture. That is what it is there for: if men were angels no government would be necessary (Madison).

If the system isn’t working, it is not the victims' fault. If the design isn't working, it is not a satisfactory design.

PNG (along with the Solomons and Vanuatu)  is afflicted with a political design that never works, that cannot deal with any culture.

As to having faith in leaders, I am unaware of any scholar who postulated that modern institutional change occurs because politicians are selfless, f ar-sighted and wise.

I have concluded their overall findings are: (a) that political actors seek change if they think they will be better off under the new system and (b) that what actually happens depends on the preceding circumstances These are rather weak findings.

So perhaps a starting point to reform discussions could be discussion of PNG 's dubious beginning.

When the PNG House of Assembly was formed in 1964, independence was far away.  A few years later Australian attitudes reversed. In June 1972, under Australian pressure to prepare for independence, the Assembly under Chief Minister Somare created the Constitutional Planning Committee. Australia (Minister f or External Territories Andrew Peacock) refused to supply any Australian officials to participate in or advise the Committee.

The Committee set up 500 discussion groups, toured the country, held 110 public meetings, received 2,000 submissions and tabled its report in the House  of Assembly in August 1974.

A run-down of the events leading up to independence can be found here.

The Whitlam government was in a hurry to be rid of the colony.

Whether or not the country’s dubious start is a lever to get a debate moving, somehow the notion of proportional representation’s introduction has to get legs and be pushed until it is introduced.

Is it time to revisit the suggestion of Sir John Guise that PNG needs a presidential system? Now is the time to ask the hard questions about the integrity and viability of the systems that were established in the beginning. Is the Westminster unicameral system suitable for PNG?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Paul Oates

Thanks Dave, I wasn't suggesting Duncan Kerr was in the Australian government at the time the PNG Constitution was drafted. My understanding is he was involved in the preparation of the draft when he worked in Moresby together with his friends at the Uni I believe.

KJ might know more about this aspect.

Dave Ekins

Duncan Kerr did not enter Federal politics until 1987 when he rolled Michael Hodgman for the Tasmanian seat of Denison. He was not part of the Whitlam government.

Paul Oates

There's one other very important aspect in Australian politics at the time in the mid 1970's that may also have been prominent in Duncan Kerr's thinking.

His Labor government was being restrained by a seemingly hostile Senate controlled by conservatives. The debate over whether that was good or bad depends on one's political perspective.

It is a fact however that just a few months after Gough Whitlam boasted afterwards, 'It was I comrade, who liberated PNG', Senate obstruction over the budget eventually led to his dismissal by the Australian Head of State, the Governor General.

One can but therefore wonder what could have transpired in contemporary PNG if such a dramatic situation could or should have happened in recent PNG politics? Surely it was close to happening when there were in effect two PM's and whoever controlled the PNG GG had apparently a legal standpoint.

So a bicameral 'House of Review' is and should be just that, merely able to review but not govern. The similarity between Australia's founding fathers and PNG's is that the Australian model with an upper house allows for the potential for an unequal distribution distribution of resources to be countered or ameliorated by each state having the same number of Senators.

In the light of the current debate in Australia over GST distribution, perhaps that notion of fairness has now been superceded by party politics and States rights?

The whole imbroglio is academic anyway since PNG now has to cope with the parliamentary system it now has. As Phil correctly points out, a local solution should be worked out by local people.

No system of government ever lasts longer than it's use by date however.

Paul Oates

Ah William, you may recall that's what the newspaper headlines said of Peacock when he first clashed with fellow avian Hawke. 'All feathers, no meat.'

William Dunlop

Beare in mind that 'Peacock'was known as the show pony.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This relates to my argument in another article that democracy in PNG doesn't work and has never worked because it is incompatible with the PNG people (or culture as the professor says).

It also relates to my argument that most Australians at the coal face in the lead up to independence strongly felt that democracy in PNG would not work but given the pressure on them decided to take the gamble anyway.

If you take this pessimistic view into account it is not beyond the realms of possibility that those same people then thought that to give democracy its best shot in PNG something simple was required i.e. a unicameral system.

Of course that view was counter-intuitive and did not take into account the cultural context into which it would be introduced.

Traditional Melanesian politics, as we know, is based on consensus coupled with the bigman system. That is, everyone discusses an issue, comes to a conclusion and then presents it to their leaders for their approval - in short a bicameral process.

I don't agree with Dr Guise's idea of a presidential system (can you imagine President O'Neill at work for instance?) but a bicameral system where there is a check on what the lower houses proposes would work well, particularly since the idea of an opposition in the PNG parliament has never properly developed.

Paul Oates

‘Where did Papua New Guinea’s majoritarian unicameral idea come from? There was simply no plausible model.’

Well in default of there being an historical document that answers that question, here is my hypothesis.

One of the major architects on the eleventh hour race to divest Australia of her colony by Gough Whitlam’s Labor governments was the Tasmanian Labor politician Duncan Kerr who at the time was conversant with Port Moresby reflections.

Nearly 40 years after Independence, he was to be the last stumbling block put up to delay any recognition by Australia of the work Kiaps did for PNG after many years of hard work by Chris Viner-Smith and others.

Many commentators, myself included, have suggested better political systems could and should have been introduced to and set up in PNG prior to self-government and independence.

A unicameral system is fraught with danger with the circumstances that existed in PNG in the 1970’s. The existing circumstances, we who were there at the time still vividly remember.

There was an obvious and gross discrepancy in the standard of development throughout PNG prior to independence. This was due to there being insufficient attention given to the development of PNG by conservative governments in Canberra in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

This was partially based on the concept of the long serving Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, who fervently believed PNG needed to develop slowly so that there would be a firm base to build the eventual independent nation upon.

There was also the pressing need for scarce resources to develop Australia after the Second World War when it had been made very clear that we needed to be more independent in the future.

Many of the essential parameters that helped protect PNG people from initial exploitation were due to Hasluck’s guiding hand.

That Hasluck wasn’t given the resources needed to properly develop PNG by his conservative governments is also possibly due to ignorance and the belief that PNG needed a long time to bring all its disparate peoples up to a common level of development.

When in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it was suddenly realised that there wasn’t going to be a long period of self government and stability, the rush was on to set up anything that looked good on paper and would appease mostly African representatives in the United Nations and local members of the elite.

In 1972 the slogan that Whitlam rose to power on was, ‘It’s time for change.’ There was a huge pressure from many parts of the Australian electorate to get rid of the stodgy old conservatives like Billy McMahon and the newer and younger generation like the Territories Minister Andrew Peacock were swept aside in the change of government.

To my knowledge, Peacock did have a rapport with many PNGians and was listening to those who did have some practical knowledge of what it was like at the ‘kunai’ roots.

That wealth of practical knowledge was all thrown out in the desperate rush of Whitlam to be seen to bask in the glory of anti-colonial spirit then in vogue with ‘developing’ countries.

Those countries were then demanding to be heard in the corridors of power however those same corridors of power were also being actively fostered by the Communist powers as parts of the Cold War stand-off with what is known as the ‘Western Powers’.

Those at the kunai roots and who were in daily contact with the PNG people knew that while some areas were ready to progress forward, many other areas were not.

It would require the proverbial ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ to be able to juggle exactly when the time was right for a unified PNG nation to move forward. Unfortunately, even if there had been a Solomon hardy, he would not have been listened to.

As has been noted, as Queensland Labor got rid of their Upper House some decades ago, the substitute Committee system is a poor alternative brake on the existing Lower House.

Decisions under a later the Bjelke-Peterson conservative government may well have caused some Labor supporters to wish they hadn’t got rid of their previous Upper House.

The essence of the issue for PNG is that when those in power want to preserve themselves in power, they then set about creating the organs of government to assist this. No better example of this was demonstrated in the just held PNG General Election.

Could there have been a better system set up subsequently in PNG? I have previously argued that the Regional and Provincial seats should be excised from the Lower House and be formed as a bicameral Upper House of Review.

That would then provide a better system and allow regional concerns to be voiced and to be considered before government decisions were enacted and became law.

The historical record shows that Whitlam and Peacock (and their respective parties) were totally aligned on the question of the timing and nature of PNG independence - KJ

William Dunlop

The buck stops in your own ball court.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)