PORT MORESBY – During the recent Australian election campaign, the Labor Party twirled haplessly around the issue of north Queensland coal mining, convincing nobody about where it actually stood on the issue.
And it went on to lose an election it was meant to win, a win which the tropical constituency might have provided had only Labor adopted a more strategic and coherent position.
It might have had a winning election strategy if it had understood the precept that, if you take something away from people without giving them something back, you’re going to end up in deep doo-doo. As Labor did.
In Australia’s deep north, in people’s minds what being taken away was jobs and the strategic reciprocal really should have been a big, job-creating renewables project. But, like Labor, this ended up nowhere to be seen.
Not for the first time was I reminded that Australia’s politicians too often lose the clarity of good strategy amongst the smoke, rubble and acrimony of election campaigns.
I remark on this because it’s not a deficiency I’ve observed so far in Papua New Guinea’s new leader, James Marape.
In fact, the opening rhetorical gambits of his recently acquired prime ministership have been most impressive.
In three major declarations – one on Facebook (‘richest black Christian nation’), one in a national broadcast (‘the reconstruction of Team PNG’) and another in a statement to public servants (‘tell me how you can lead your organisation’) – he spelled out the key strategic goals he intends to pursue as prime minister.
Now we’ve yet to see Marape perform (as that most skeptical of assemblages, the ex-kiaps, have already reminded me), but given that it’s best to know where you want to go before you start, Marape has quickly offered an intelligent and inspirational roadmap.
So far as I could determine, not a single key area requiring his attention was overlooked and it didn’t take him an excessive number of words for his vision to be enunciated – and this included his expectations of himself.
One aspect noticed and much commented upon by many Papua New Guineans was his commitment to use social media to maintain regular contact with the people.
There are about a million social media users in PNG, which, while accounting for only about 12% of the population, is an important million.
That’s because social media – which in PNG usually signifies Facebook which has 800,000 users, 10% of the population – unlike mainstream media is largely generated by the people themselves around the things they want to talk about in the way they want to talk about them.
This may not be pretty but it’s a pretty effective because it interfaces directly with the best system of communication humans ever devised – word of mouth.
We saw social media come into its own in PNG with the overthrow of Peter O’Neill. Now success is said to have a thousand fathers but in this case one man can claim greater paternity than others in O’Neill’s demise.
That is the member for Madang in PNG's parliament, Bryan Kramer.
Kramer has a Facebook site, Kramer Report, with nearly 120,000 followers and he is big time into using it for political comment, discussion and often dramatic revelation.
If ever there was short, sharp route into the public mind in PNG, it is Bryan Kramer’s Facebook site.
Week after week, month after month, he took on the O’Neill government and its shamelessness.
Single stories often attracted as many as 10,000 likes and 1,000 comments and who knows how many more through republication (‘shares’).
And what was O’Neill’s reaction – well, just a few months ago he was threatening to ban Facebook in PNG altogether.
Now, with Kramer’s verbal grenades and the huge public response they triggered feeding directly into a national word of mouth conversation, it is no surprise the new PM, far from wanting to ban Facebook, has decided he’ll jump on to the platform instead.
As I remarked to a group of journalists at a media workshop here on Tuesday, the 2022 general election looks like shaping up as a social media election and heaven help any politician who’s not on board.
The truth is that social media, for all its flaws, has become a huge force for public participation, debate and democracy in PNG.
It doesn’t replace strategy (which Marape seems on top of) and it doesn’t replace stamping out corruption (which Marape promises to do) but, in communication terms, it’s a game changer.