Put politics last: Let’s stop reversing evolution
Georgina Beier, art pioneer, dies at 82

System we gave PNG just doesn’t work

Westminster system spared Papua New Guinea nothing, not even the Speaker 's wig


CLEVELAND – It has taken me a long time to reach an understanding of what the problem was leading up to Papua New Guinea’s independence.

At the time, in the 1970s, the thought process was that the Westminster system works for us in Australia, this we can impose this obviously working system as a unifying force for a people and their many hundreds of cultures.

After control was transferred from the Australian Administration to the new PNG government in 1975, cracks began to appear.

They were addressed by the simple expedient of pointing out that, by adhering to the accepted system, the problems would right themselves.

Anyone stepping out of line should be identified and shamed into accepting the system and how it was meant to operate.

But the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy would never work when the majority of the people involved didn’t understand it and never would.

And it would never work when it stood in diametric opposition to the basic cultural beliefs of the people who it was meant to govern.

These people were the inheritors of a different form of government in which either everyone accepted a decision reached after lengthy preceding discussion, otherwise there would be no decision.

So we arrive at the situation we have today in PNG where the way parliament is run in reality is along communal village lines and the Constitution that is sovereign over it is not in step with the nation's cultural perspectives.

Where to from here? Well the fracture suggests a major political upheaval and a drastic realignment to readjust the system of government.

And that’s exactly what happened in nations that went through many decades of post-colonial 'readjustment' before the end result we can see for ourselves today.

With the best intentions, and there are still plenty of those, there is no way to fast track a unifying single system of government over many different and entrenched tribal cultures and the systems they begot.

Understanding that problem is the first step along a very long road.


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Lindsay F Bond

South from PNG's problems, across Australian pastures comes a wintery mist.

One credible assessment yields the opinion: “On any appropriate definition of corruption, this is an instance of it; and it should be called out as such.”


Is this what Paul recalls of "shamed into accepting the system"?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Human beings have an inate ability to corrupt.

I think George Orwell was talking about communism, which is quite different to socialism.

However, there is very little semblance between the idea of socialism and the way it's actually practised.

Even authoritarian regimes become corrupted, viz China. (I'm not sure what sort of system China now practises).

No matter how good a system of governance might be devised for PNG there will be individuals who will corrupt it to their own advantage.

The Westminster system is now corrupt in most countries that use it, as is the presidential system and, for that matter, democracy.

That's what immediately sprang to mind when Stephen Charteris suggested turning governance on its head and letting the grass roots have a say.

In my social mapping forays, which were conducted at the grass roots level, there was inevitably some local spiv who would arrive and start manipulating everyone.

Lindsay F Bond

In any system there may be rules and ruled, rolls and rolled, rights and wrought, tweaked and twisted.


Pardon a pointer at "two sides who compete ... to achieve the best outcome." Perhaps each jurisdiction has its variance on 'best'.

Paul Oates

Regrettably, Phil, socialism, as has been practised in the past, tends to go the way portrayed by George Orwell in Animal Farm.

'Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others.'

There are any number of examples in today's world or in yesterday's for that matter.

My experience when traveling in post Communist Europe is that many people at the lower socioeconomic levels contrast their lot with what they have today.

Many say they were better off under the communist yoke than under the control of governments that are run by the mob masquerading as capitalists.

The answer may be one of perception and experience. Do you look at each individual tree or the forest as a whole?

Paul Oates

A good question Rapha. The Melanesian system has a twitch in it that allows an effective response to perceived external threat.

A so called 'Fight Leader' may be called upon, based on his experience and physical abilities, to lead the community in times of conflict.

That leader is however usually chosen by consensus and his tenure does not last after the threat goes away.

If Australia or Britain went to war in the past, governments have traditionally tried to form a wartime coalition whereby bilateral support for the war effort was or should have been achieved.

This is what should be happening in the fight against Covid. In reality, there are currently far too many factions, all trying to leverage power for themselves rather than demonstrably for the public good.

Stephen Charteris

I believe Paul’s comments show us where government effort could be more strategically focused.

I am reminded of the Matais in Samoa gathering on the oval to discuss matters of importance in their community. United under one culture and a common language.

It seems to me that PNG is a thousand different versions of Samoa living in one country. If government is to remain relevant to the many groups of men and women, who meet throughout the nation to discuss issues of importance to them, then the objective of every layer of the administration should be to connect meaningfully with those decision making groups.

I believe that would require a significant readjustment in focus from a top down model towards a more nuanced “two way street” that incorporates the wishes and inputs of the end users.

Potentially resulting in a partnership that enables them to contribute meaningfully to a shared journey with government, towards the outcomes they all desire.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's what I was getting at with my comment on Jim Moore's article Paul. A "unifying single system of government" will ultimately destroy the "many different tribal cultures and perceptions."

As you have pointed out, the Westminster system is an adversarial one and traditional Melanesian systems are based on consensus.

Capitalism fits in well with the Westminster system because they both spring from the same source. Any Melanesian system will inevitably clash with Capitalism.

This is particularly so with hyper-Capitalism as represented by Neo-Liberalism.

Melanesian systems are very similar to Socialism so maybe that might provide an answer.

Paul Oates

Let’s look at the traditional method of peaceful Melanesian decision making. Seniors, in a fairly flexible way, get together and conduct lengthy discussions where everyone is allowed to have a say depending on their perceived status and age.

If there is eventually general agreement, then the village decides to go that way and there is harmony in the community.

Under the Westminster system, there is a constant battle for the hearts and minds and support of the populace by at least two sides who compete against each other to achieve the best outcome.

This produces potential conflict and disharmony in the community before a decision is achieved and even after that when potentially majority decision is made and taken.

If you look at the classic example being enacted out in Australia today between the major political parties, between States and the Commonwealth, between the haves and the have nots, etc. there is constant disharmony which is encouraged and played up to by political leaders and the media.

Business constantly tries to create envy by promoting new products and suggesting consumers need to keep up with the latest gadget etc. or fashions. Again, this creates disharmony when people feel they are not paid enough to maintain an expected level of keeping up to date. Thrift is discouraged and class consciousness is amplified, especially with the young and impressionable.

Over the last century, the western world has promoted this society as being the best on offer. Really? The East has now out performed this rabid effort to ‘modernise’ consumers through advertising.

Can anyone see where we have lost the plot? Undoubtedly, many Melanesian's can. Could a truly traditional Melanesian parliament work? Not with the capitalistic system being currently promoted.

Ed Brumby

And what, pray, would the alternative(s) have entailed?

And what might they entail today?

Hi Ed. Paul's piece was written in the context of the lively current discussion largely featuring Michael Dom and Stephen Charteris (most recent contribution today) who are seeking to draw out an alternative, or at least the foundations of an alternative. Would appreciate your view on this - KJ

Rapha Merx

An interesting read that left me hungry for more. What are examples of successful post-colonial re-adjustments that are closest to PNG?

Isn't the Westminster system actually pretty well-suited to a society based on consensus, especially when compared to the presidential system?

Byron Shaw

Thought provoking piece.. Thanks for sharing.

Nigel Marandimari Andy

There's a fair bit of truth in this report. This may be why the patriarch is a bit reluctant to have women in parliament despite having the opportunity of reserved seats. It doesn't justify the means, but it makes sense. We have already shot ourselves in the foot by the look of things.

James R Howard

A good starting point for discussion, but solutions are a long road ahead. Wishing Papua New Guinea the best.

Donnat Waingut

What an interesting read.

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