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Marape v Lelang debate: a lost opportunity?

James Marape and Joseph Lelang at the debate: Soft questioning failed to call the two leaders to account

| Academia Nomad | Edited

PORT MORESBY - Was it a debate? Maybe a panel discussion? Or perhaps a church gathering?

Whatever it was, the debate between Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape and opposition leader Joseph Lelang was promoted with a massive fanfare and ended in a storm of criticism.

In late March, the student representative councils of PNG’s six universities had distributed media statements telling the public they would not join a proposed public protest against the government.

Instead, the six universities organised a debate between the prime minister and opposition leader at the University of Papua New Guinea.

The thinking of the organisers was that this should be the dawn of a new and mature way for intellectuals to interact with national leaders.

Gone were the days of university-led nationwide strikes against the government which ended in loss and the destruction of properties.

The venue was UPNG’s New Lecture Theatre, with a seating capacity of 300.

In fact, on the day, about 400 students filled the auditorium and another 600 joined the event online.

After the event, there was much criticism from many people, ranging from poor organisation, the opposition leader Lelang’s weak performance, and soft and sympathetic questioning of the prime minister.

In this piece I want to rank and score the performances of the opposition leader, the prime minister, the student organisers and the event itself.

Opposition Leader Joseph Lelang - 5/10

Opposition leaders can be viewed as prime ministers in waiting; a person able to replace the prime minister when the incumbent loses the confidence of the parliament.

You’d expect an opposition leader to differentiate himself from the PM.

However, in the debate, the opposition leader agreed with half of what the PM said and with what he was doing.

If you agree with the prime minister, why are you even in the opposition? Why not join him in government.

After the debate, the prime minister found himself defending the opposition leader from the critical backlash.

We don’t expect opposition leaders to shout and pound their fists.

But we do expect them to show some prime ministerial calibre. Is Joseph Lelang a capable alternative prime minister?

Prime Minister James Marape - 8/10

This was supposed to be the toughest of audiences for Marape.

As an incumbent having to deal with high inflation, lawlessness, disruptive superpower rivalry and pitiable national development indicators, Marape was supposed to dig deep to defend his policies, or lack thereof, before a non-apologetic and critical audience.

Instead Marape, applying his usual charm and rhetoric, gave advice to the students and received applause from them.

Part of this warmth for the prime minister was shown in the questions put to him.

They didn’t even make him blink.

Students - 4/10

After the occasion, perhaps the only group impressed with it were the organisers.

You must remember the magnitude of the alternative this initiative was replacing.

In the past, ‘student-led protests’ had sometimes ended to a change of government or politicians losing their seat or being pressured to rejected legislation or constitutional amendments.

Nobody who walked out of the auditorium after the debate or who had logged into the online video stream thought Marape would change any of his policies.

You can’t blame the students for trying something new as an alternative to street marches. The problem was that, even though advertised as a debate, the event ended up as a gentlemen’s chat.

The event as a whole - 5/10

The debate was safer than protests, and for this the students should be applauded.

But no real pressure was forced on the government to reconsider its approach or to explain policies that had been overpromised and then underdelivered.

There is room for improvement in the debate model.

The first thing to improve is the format: there was no need for each student leader to present a separate position. They needed a moderator to ask the questions to prevent push-start style of discussion.

Second, the questions put to the two senior politicians hardly made them think. I’ve identified a number of possible questions the student leaders (or moderators) should have asked Marape:

‘PM you recently announced an increase of DSIP funds to MPs of K20 million per MP. Given that only 40% of MPs acquit their funds, how do you justify such an increase?’

‘Do you really think the presidential system of voting will fix the problems in this country? Isn’t the problem politicians failing to follow parliamentary conventions?’

‘How about dealing first with individuals within your coalition who have been accused of high profile corruption? [Then list some high profile issues and deals that smell of corruption, like the purchase of luxury Maseratis now wasting away in a shed, the Manumanu land deal etc etc]

‘PM you were the longest serving finance minister in PNG during your years under Somare and O’Neill. You voted for every budget, every piece of legislation and every amendment proposed by the O’Neill government. You even defended these people in parliamentary debates. Don’t you think it’s convenient to blame just O’Neill for the mess in this country now?’

Now to the opposition leader: ‘As alternative PM, what would you do differently?'

Although the model needs improvement, there is room for conversations like the one organised by UPNG.

But understand that this cannot replace peaceful protests within the limits of the law.

The two models are not the same.


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Lindsay F Bond

Mr Marape evidently feels empowered to venture for PNG a change in governance of potentially great magnitude.

Kindin Ongugo

My conclusion from the scores given by the author is the level of education in PNG has suffered over the last couple of decades.

Higher institutions are beginning to produce educated elites who would be incapable of making any significant difference to society.

The parliamentary opposition is now colluding with government to destroy the country.

It is time to change opposition leadership in order to save the country.

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