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Paradox of political survival: real service v tongue service

Kerowagi-Airstrip under repair
Not all constituents approved the new MP's decision to reconstruct Kerowagi airstrip - they wanted cash


PORT MORESBY - The early missionaries came to sow the word of God among native tribes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea but first they had to distribute salt, laplaps and steel axes to win the favour of the aggressive natives who chose not to accept the bible at first contact.

After handing out the goodies, the missionaries were at liberty to build cathedrals, schools, hospitals and transform the highlands of PNG however they liked.

Today, highlands members of parliament do as the missionaries did and some have done it for many years as a political convenience.

If people resist developments that come into their communities, give them cash and grog as an appetiser. The appetisers sieve out opposition and give MPs freedom to implement their aspirations.

The Bari people, of which the newly-elected Member for Kerowagi is a clan member, are sandwiched between the Kundiawa-Gembogl, Gumine and Kerowagi districts.

Back in pre-independence times, the tribal groups were at the whim of the colonial masters and the Bari people, without any consultation, were subsumed into Kerowagi District.

The Bari people’s traditional allies were the Dom, Yuri and the Erula Nauro tribes, but they were partitioned into the Gumine and Kundiawa-Gembogl districts.

From that time, the Bari people had to bridge and bond with the new tribes they had to play politics with. But this didn’t come to fruition quickly and, when consecutive MPs delivered government services only to allies, the Bari people were left unattended.

They became a forgotten people and were left in the mercy of the Catholic Church for health and education.

For the first time in 2017, a son of the forgotten people won an election and, as typical of Simbu culture, the Bari slaughtered countless pigs to celebrate the victory.

But when the excitement subsided, a treacherous pressure the new MP had never experienced in his lifetime was mounted: a pressure to service the tongue and ignore service delivery.

Returning home for this festive season, allies asking me when the new MP would ‘come and see them’. They thought that, as I had come up from Port Moresby, I would have some information about the MP’s itinerary.

‘Come and see them’ is something of a metaphor for when the new MP will appear with cash in return for supporting his campaign over the last four elections he contested.

To be safe when entering other tribal lands, I needed to say “erm rawa tenapkra kana” [the MP is only five months in office; he will give].

While a few people proudly say they had grown ‘calf muscles’ [prestige] after the win and that was all they wanted and anything else would be a bonus, the majority have an acute thirst for cash and, if unserved, the thirst will evoke tribal animosity.

The new MP knew that the Bari people have never seen one of their own win the Kerowagi seat and he knew that service delivery had been almost non-existent in their corner of the world. So, in search of election victory, he promised to deliver services and increase opportunities for the people.

The MP also wanted to service the entire electorate and not only the people from his tribe, thus leaving a legacy for future MPs to emulate. And the new MP did indeed collect votes from all the tribes and, upon victory, he renovated the old airstrip at the heart of Kerowagi station to reflect that mindset.

But not all the people were excited about the redevelopment of the old airstrip and other developments that the MP planned. A few people ranted on social media that the MP should compensate landowners for recouping the state land to redevelop the airstrip.

Others thought service delivery is part of the MPs duty and their right so they do not need to thank the MP or be excited about developments.

But beyond that, the people’s thirst for a stash of cash as a reciprocal gesture for their votes and material support to the MP’s election is overwhelming.

To quell the pressure, the MP will need to have a regular income (‘private money’) apart from his remuneration as an MP to judiciously service the tongue.

Around K5 million a year for tongue service added to the K10 million for official service delivery will do the new MP a lot of good.

History shows that not all MPs who delivered services to the people were re-elected. People tended to vote back most MPs who handed out cash and threw boozy parties for influential people in the villages.

Therefore, the new MP has to find a balance between service delivery and tongue service. Tongue service requires he find the money somewhere.

That is how politics is baked in the mountains of PNG, and it is a pain in the backside for the new MP to juggle these expectations.


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James Kiangua

Thank you Sil for this article. I travelled to a place in PNG and saw people in the morning in family units facing the sun.

I asked my personal assistant, and he told me, "They are waiting for the cargo ship promised by their leader to come and introduce a golden era."

Similarly, in the Highlands the cargo ship is the office of the MP. People perceive that the MP will introduce a golden era. But, in reality, never.

In terms of change, I see two major requirements to solve this cargo cult mentality.

1. We all need to pull together to kill the seed of ignorance. How? Everyone who is educated has an obligation to school his or her tribesman and women the arithmetic of service delivery.

2. We all need to pull together to kill the seed of greed at all levels.

Otherwise, mouth service will gain momentum and real service will be far from the reality.

Paul Oates

The recent film 'The Post' underscores the essential need for a free press in order to keep political leaders accountable.

Does PNG now have a 'free press' and an unencumbered media?

Bomai D Witne

There are three groups of people that follow MPs. The first group expects money and grog for free from the MP. The second group obtains loans to host parties using the MP's name. And the third group are mostly unsuccessful tribesmen who hang around the streets of Port Moresby and provide paper consultancies for ghost projects. The future of the district is at stake!

JK Domyal

Thanks Sil. What you mentioned of early missionaries' techniques to bring the Bible/Christianity to the natives now become a modern day political realism of tongue service -the paradox.

The natives passed on expectations that the missionaries bring goodies from generation to generation ending up with the modern systems of politics.

However, that technique of taming natives with goodies to accept Bible/Christianity has turned into tongue service in modern PNG highlands politics. That is the political reality today.

The case of Kerowagi electorate and the people's expectations of their MP between development service and tongue service is a trend that once thought to work for the natives in the early days by missionaries now turned into a development paradox in modern day politics.

It might change after the current generation but there is no guarantee that expectations from local people of their MPs will change.

Paul Oates

Phil, the essence of the problem as I see it is one of disconnection. People know what's happening but prefer to turn a blind eye if there is a chance they personally will obtain some benefit.

It took a long time to get to the political situation where our corrupt politicians are sometimes caught red handed and publicly denounced. When this happens, the usual public statement of contrition is 'I am sorry!' Yep. Sorry he/she was caught.

PNG's problem is one extending right down from the top through to the lower levels of power. No real accountability and essentially a muzzled local press and an indifferent overseas media.

Emmanuel Narakobi wanted to get his 'Tanin graun' program going before the last general election but had a hard time getting the media interested.

Given the laws on now registering your PNG SIM card, it seems ever closer to a political takeover of any effective social media that might allow information about political and public corruption to spread.

The drivers for change appear to be ever more distant and slip sliding away......

Philip Fitzpatrick

Education is the key, Paul.

Imagine this.

A national television and social media campaign showing a fat politician in a fine suit standing in front of a poverty stricken family in a rural or squatter settlement setting. The children, obviously undernourished have their hands out begging for help.

Switch to rear view of the politician, who appears to be studying the situation. A hand comes in from off screen and slips a wad of kina notes into the politician's hands which are behind his back.

He considers the scene before him a moment longer, puts a hand in his pocket and takes out some small change in coins. He throws it down in front of the children and then walks off putting the wad of kina notes in his pocket.

A caption appears on the screen: 'Corruption is destroying PNG'.

Paul Oates

Well said, Philip. However for what seems like a very long time, I’ve read excellent dissertations from PNG people on what should be done but no real plan on how to make it happen.

Until the nexus between the people’s wants and needs is determined and identified, nothing much will happen. The article above effectively identifies the problem.

PNG politics is clan based and until the majority of the people start thinking and voting in terms of national identity and national needs, nothing much will change.

The only thing that must change in order to recalibrate the majority’s views are the emergence of energetic and community minded leaders who can and will explain what needs to be done and convince voters before an election on how they should vote to ensure this will happen.

This needs an effective political party machine to enforce party discipline and that stated objectives before an election are in fact fulfilled after the election.

This shift in public opinion will not occur until enough people at the kunai roots are educated sufficiently to understand what the problem is.

This is not a new issue and requires a quantum leap in political leadership and leaders. Normally this leap only happens in or after dire circumstances when the nation is in severe peril, whether this be of internal or external in nature.

Clearly one of two drivers has not yet happened. Firstly Australia left before any real nationalistic revolution happened. Had the ‘elite’ realised this they perhaps might have wanted Australia to stick around a bit longer to help them enhance their political notoriety and encourage a true national spirit.

Secondly, the Bougainville war was not either popular, nor allowed a true national spirit to develop. The film ‘Mr Pip’ effectively portrays the nexus between mainland PNG soldiers and the local Bougainville people. Keeping the nation together and recognising the local people’s sovereignty are currently at odds.

As I suggested in my earlier analogy, you can’t have your cake and eat it as well. You can’t complain about a lack of government services when you simply require personal gain from those one elects.

Voters must start thinking in terms of national objectives and not personal ones otherwise PNG will continually elect those who only think of themselves by those who only think of themselves.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Some people are corrupt but many people in the community are ignorant of exactly what this means.

Knowledgeable stakeholders have a task to school people on how good governance works.

Besides, politicians have to stand on their principles and not bend to parochial political demands.

Philip Kai Morre

Development has to be people oriented and it has to come from people's own initiative,

Our mode of production is kin based whether be political, economic, social, spiritual or environmental.

Sustainable development will be seen when people take ownership of development and take pride in it. we cannot impose our ideas on the people that it will work, they won't be interested and projects will fail.

Before bringing any development projects to the rural population find out what the people need and not what they want.

Awareness education and baseline survey must be done and people must be aware of what going and let them be part of this development process.

In most cases the MPs and government bureaucrats are paternalistic and regard the people as ignorant and those who don't know. This paternalistic approach must stop and we must apply dialogue and base our work on what the people really need.

Poverty is very high and any development must aim at eradicating poverty and promote sustainable human development which is a means to an end.

Paul Oates

Sil, it's rather like a person taking a ride in a government bus and scratching graffiti on the back of the chair in front the words 'Taxation is theft'.

Paul Oates

Political objectives in PNG have now obviously become fixated on how much of material value a politician's supporters can get out of electing him/her.

The problem is to recognise this indisputable fact and celebrate the theatrical groans and mutterings that continue to be heard that nothing else works.

Clearly nothing else works because the public funds and resources were in fact already earmarked at election time to be given away to supporters in a simple 'pork barreling' exercise.

So the political system in PNG is alive and well recognised but the real issue is why no one will publically recognise it for what it is and stop banging on about how nothing else works.

Or is that just the continuation of the village theatre of yesteryear?

Why therefore complain about the lack of services not provided by the government? Money trees like most PNG trees are increasingly becoming scarce these days anyway.

Ai blo mi nau em op pinis ya. Tenkyu tumas wantok.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I guess we don't think a lot about the average MP and everything he or she has to balance when dealing with their constituents. And they usually only get one shot at it before the next election.

This must be doubly so for honest politicians.

In this case it looks like it's the people who are corrupt, not the politician.

Great topic for an essay Sil, how does an honest politician deal with a corrupt constituency.

A case for Inspector Metau I reckon.

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