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Can PNG's political culture be reformed?

| ConstitutionNet | IDEA International

Originally published as ‘The future of governance in Papua New Guinea: consultations begin on form and system of government

THE HAGUE - Papua New Guinea is currently undertaking consultations for potential constitutional reforms on a range of issues in relation to its form and system of government.

Key questions include the suitability of its current model of parliamentary governance and the relevance of a British monarch as the Head of State.

The role of the Head of State (currently Charles III, represented by a Governor-General) is limited to ceremonial duties, with a prime minister in charge of the affairs of the country.

A prime minister enjoys that power at the discretion of the parliament, which frequently tests the incumbent under the ‘vote of no-confidence’ scheme that opens 18 months after a general election.

This has been a major cause of political instability and uncertainty – only two of nine prime ministers since independence completed their terms – leading to various adverse implications on governance and development in the country.

After nearly 50 years of independence, these issues, together with continued failings on key socio-economic and political indicators, are leading to questions about the effectiveness of PNG’s existing institutions.

While reform proposals might lead to alternative systems that may be suitable to the country’s context, institutional reform alone would not be sufficient to address weaknesses in political governance in PNG.

The current review was initiated by the government under James Marape, who was first elected as prime minister in March 2019.

Marape has distinguished himself as a reformist leader undaunted in addressing some of the country’s contentious agendas, such as the repeal of the death penalty and attempts at constitutionalising Christianity.

Though unsettling for some, Marape’s leadership has created an atmosphere that encourages open discussion of unique proposals like the current set of reforms.

In addition to the key issue of whether the people should directly elect the prime minister – an unusual proposal in comparative constitutionalism – there are three other questions underpinning the public consultation: whether the prime minister should be limited to serving two terms; whether Papua New Guinea should have an upper house of parliament; and whether the British monarch should remain Head of State.

While these questions are currently being discussed in PNG, they are not new to the country.

In fact, these issues were part of the deliberations more than 50 years ago when the framers of the PNG Constitution, the Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC), undertook consultations between 1972 and 1975 for the country’s Independence Constitution.

A driver of those initial deliberations was Sir John Guise, the first Governor-General of PNG. Guise argued that “the Westminster system [was] not the best for the country” and proposed a “presidential-type government” in which the Head of Government would not be “insecure” nor become a political “stooge.”

However, the CPC rejected the alternative proposals as largely unnecessary and unsuitable to the context of PNG at that time. They made this assessment following an extensive consultation with over 100 public meetings and well over 2,000 submissions – a breadth of consultation that contemporary jurists described as “unparalleled in comparative constitutional law history.”

While the CPC’s extensive consultation resulted in what is often considered as a unique and creative ‘home-grown’ constitution, the Westminster system of installing government through the mechanics of parliament and political parties was adopted with minimal reforms.

The CPC’s vision was for the PNG parliament to “have a more constructive role than is usually provided for it, particularly in a Westminster-type system of government.”

Without the benefit of knowing what PNG would become, the CPC considered the questions against the backdrop of over 90 years of British and Australian colonialism in which power was unaccountable and concentrated in the colonial administrations.

The CPC’s vision for the role of the PNG parliament has not been fulfilled, and the parliament has often been subject to criticism for institutional apathy and frequent power struggles such as the 2011 constitutional impasse in which PNG had two prime ministers who claimed legitimacy for nearly seven months.

PNG has never had a strong political party system and government formations are composed of coalitions. Political parties exist solely as parliamentary factions without firm ideological premises and party discipline, and are fluid in their formations.

In the 2022 elections, for instance, 52 political parties contested, with 23 parties ultimately successful in securing seats in parliament. In 2003, a set of amendments were made to the Organic Law on Political Parties and Candidates (OLLIPAC) aimed at controlling the movement of members of parliament between political parties.

While there was some impact on political stability following the amendments, key aspects of the amendments were ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for a range of causes, including breaching the freedom of political movement.  

A prime ministerial candidate not only has to amass the support of a coalition of parties, but even after being successfully elected, remains insecure during much of the five-year term due to the lingering threat of a constructive vote of no-confidence, which can be initiated by legislators 18 months after a prime minister’s election.

While a prime minister in PNG is the most powerful political player, a weak and undisciplined parliament has proven to be its greatest enemy in terms of leadership stability and longevity.

This has led to a situation in which a prime minister has to keep the members of parliament ‘happy’ in return for their support, reducing the parliament to what the PNG Supreme Court described as a “mere rubber stamp” of the executive government, and distracting a prime minister from their foremost role of serving the interests of the people.

This context of political instability appears to be a key motivator of the reform proposal to review how the prime minister is chosen.

It seeks to ensure a prime minister, as Head of Government, is answerable directly to the people and is not immersed in the political uncertainty and power struggles that are often associated with the office.

The development outlook of the country is also a significant driver of this review.

There is increasing discontent among the people, especially at the local level, about the challenges and failings of the political processes and institutions of government.

PNG is rich in natural resources and has a relatively sophisticated political system that is expected to ensure the country’s economy and developmental aspirations are properly realised.

However, sustained failings on these fronts, together with a persistently high unemployment rate among a bulging youth population and a series of chaotic elections in which democratic rights were trampled, add to the many pressing concerns unsettling the society.

The current reform proposals aim to provide a solution by addressing shortcomings in the political institutions and/or by fostering the emergence of better leaders.

The people will draw from their lived experiences to respond to the consultations. For instance, on the question of the term of office of a prime minister, the people are likely to consider a fixed term limit not only for the prime minister, but also for legislators, many of whom have entrenched themselves in political power.

The suitability and relevance of the British monarch, and in particular the constitutionally docile nature of his representative the Governor-General, has raised concerns during times of constitutional crises and political stalemates where the Governor-General was expected to have some intervening powers.

The PNG Supreme Court and a former Governor-General have bemoaned the Governor-General as “toothless” and a “constitutional rubber stamp”.

Six of the nine countries in the Pacific Islands region who are members of the Commonwealth do not have the British monarch as their Head of State, so a departure from that arrangement, to a republic or another structure, would not be unprecedented.

The consultations are led by the country’s law reform agency, the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission (CLRC). The consultation process is being undertaken by the staff of the CLRC and includes civic education and public gatherings.

Input will be collected via oral submissions at the consultations (some of which are televised), an online questionnaire, and written submissions. The consultation process is scheduled to take place over three months. However, it is debatable whether this timeline would be sufficient to cover all the 22 provinces of PNG.

The CLRC’s findings will be deliberated upon by the government and, if supported, tabled in parliament for its consideration and voting. PNG has passed 43 amendments in the life of its nearly 48-year-old Constitution. Only a smaller portion, however, have undergone public consultations.

An assessment of some of the initial public views indicate division.

Some consider the reform proposals as a necessary step in responding to PNG’s current political context and towards ensuring government efficiency, while others argue it is a distraction from more pressing socio-economic issues and a waste of public funds.

A deeper consideration for any institutional reform would be its impact on the unity of PNG, a country of more than 6,000 clan groups, 836 languages and 22 provinces.

PNG is inherently fragmented due to its intense diversity and geographic make up, and any political system must seek to maintain and reinforce its unity.

Increasing political representation and decentralising political power have been some ways of ensuring this fragile unity, and were key rationales for PNG’s provincial government system.

The concern for unity will remain a core consideration for any proposed framework including a bicameral parliament.

While there are certain socio-cultural divides that distinguish and identify different groups, there has been greater integration among the people of PNG over the last 47 years through internal migration, intermarriages between cultures, pursuance of common political causes, affiliations to religious associations and other social integration mechanisms.

There is further clear and deeper sense of national identity from shared national interests and development concerns that are likely to overcome local political cleavages over time.

The concerns for unity in the context of this consultation are unlikely to impact parliament’s current consideration of Bougainville’s referendum result.

However, as talks of autonomy continue in some quarters and with PNG’s history of secessionism, a proper framework would be required to ensure any arrangement for the direct election of the prime minister or Head of Government would not disadvantage certain regions with a relatively smaller population.

Further, while it would be empowering for the people to directly elect their Head of Government, a majoritarian presidential-type government in a fragmented country could cause the leader to disregard the need to create networks of inclusion and obligation among a broader spectrum of leaders in the country as is currently the case.

Such an outcome could lead to the executive government working in isolation and undermine national unity and increase instability. These are just some of the many considerations in the context of PNG that the CLRC and the government will need to probe in weighing the outcome of the consultations.

This review is an opportunity for PNG to assess whether the existing institutions are compatible with its current context.

It is not clear at this stage what the outcome would be after the completion of the public consultation and submission of the CLRC’s report to the government in December 2023.

However, what is clear is that the current systems do not seem to be delivering desired expectations. Inspiration may be drawn from the CPC, which sought in 1974 to ensure constitutional arrangements were not “a mere continuation of the old colonial system” and to “build a constitutional framework uniquely suited to Papua New Guinean needs.”

There is confidence among the leaders that the country is able “to think for [itself], to structure the future” and in a way that reflects “the current circumstances of PNG”.

However, structural reforms alone might not be sufficient to address the deep political and governance issues.

There must also be changes in political culture and behaviours of politicians and bureaucrats if any reform is to have a meaningful impact for PNG.

Dr Bal Kama is a special counsel in public law legal practice and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Canberra Faculty of Business, Government and Law


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Lindsay F Bond

With more words than I can digest at one sitting, Dr Kama and Mr Overland serve some mean (err, main) course.

Then add these observations of Dr Christine Stewart.

Wider comprehension and wiser attendance to duty is "just the beginning", of which all hope.

Bal Kama

Thank you, Chris. Your reflections are indeed worth noting as the consultations are underway.

Bernard Corden

During the arrogance of youth, Boris Johnson became a journalist with the Daily Torygraph and was eventually appointed as its Brussels correspondent.

His political demise came as no surprise to his former editor, Sir Max Hastings, who in a splenetic calumny claimed Boris Johnson was…..

"Unfit for national office because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.

"He would not recognise the truth, whether it be about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade."

Chris Overland

The critical statement in Dr Kama's excellent piece is. 'There must also be changes in political culture and behaviours of politicians and bureaucrats if any reform is to have meaningful impact for PNG'.

We have seen demonstrated in well-established democracies including the USA, UK and Australia that disrespect for cultural norms and political conventions translates rapidly into rancour, division, dysfunction and even malfeasance.

It turns out that democracies work as much by relying upon people acting in accordance with unwritten conventions (customs and traditions) as by the formally defined constitutional 'rules of the game'.

If political parties or leaders decide to ignore or circumvent the unwritten rules, this can initiate a downward spiral into situations such have emerged in the USA, where the Republican Party has become captive to Trumpist ultranationalists, covert racists and religious extremists.

In Australia, the now infamous Robodebt scandal has its origins in a politically cynical, immoral and unethical decision to persecute a specific section of the population who, although largely helpless and blameless for their circumstances, were judged to be social parasites.

Worse still, despite knowing or suspecting that the methodology for calculating the supposed 'debts' of these people was illegal, the leadership of the federal bureaucracy went to considerable pains to ensure that either the government was not told this or otherwise given political 'cover'.

In the UK, the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was eventually deposed by his own party when his persistent lies and distortions become unendurable even to them.

I mention all this to emphasise that PNG's political culture will not be reformed by simply changing the governance structure of the country. In fact, it could actually be made much worse unless great care is taken.

In particular, concentrating power in too few hands has, across the world, generally proven to be unwise or even catastrophic. This style of government is a bad fit in a country as diverse as PNG.

A model whereby power is dispersed and developing and implementing public policy requires building coalitions from amongst a disparate group of political leaders, seems a better fit for PNG.

What is probably more important is then hedging those leaders in with a powerful anti-corruption body that is effectively immune from political influence. Such a body could be, for example, be an arm of Governor General's Office. This would make the Governor General much more than a figurehead.

Provided the incumbent is appointed or removed by, say, a two thirds majority of the Parliament, he or she would be able to exert a powerful influence upon political behaviour.

A possible downside of this approach would be the emergence of an over mighty Governor General, but that is a fairly unlikely scenario if, for example, a Governor General can only serve a single 5 year term.

The main thing is that people think outside of the square when looking at constitutional reform and devise a system that can accommodate the best aspects of the 'Melanesian Way', notably the search for consensus and eradicate its worst features, including the need to pay off supporters and colleagues to secure political power.

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