John Kasaipwalova, poet & radical, dies at 74
PNG population has exploded to 19 million

When the bigman arrived, so did capitalism


TUMBY BAY – When I first arrived in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s, the system of local government was not widespread, especially in remote areas.

Government reached the people in the form of interaction between Administration officers and clan leaders, officially appointed as luluais and tultuls in New Guinea and as village constables (mamusi) in Papua.

Luluais and tultuls (ranks of greater and lesser importance) were recognisable by the brass badges they wore. The village constables didn’t have badges but wore serge uniforms akin to the police of that time, comprising laplap and blouse.

Luluais of great experience, or who had eminent traditional authority, were designated ‘Paramount Luluais’.

In the structure of colonial government, these luluais, tultuls and village constables represented the permanence of government at the grass roots.

Their importance cannot be understated. The patrols by kiaps would come and go but these officials provided – with greater or lesser degrees of effectiveness, a crucial link between the colonial Administration and the local people.

They were appointed by the Secretary of the Department of the Administrator following recommendations channelled through the District Commissioner. Those appointed to the lesser office of tultul were chosen solely by the District Commissioner.

These men had certain powers under the Native Regulations (Papua) and the Native Administration Regulations (New Guinea), including the power of arrest.

Among their duties was the custody of a village book. This book, added to by patrols on their visits, was a valuable record of village affairs – a record of births, deaths and marriages, of the cleanliness of the village, of the state of adjacent roads and bridges, of the people’s attitudes to government, that sort of thing.

When appointed, there was some on-the-job training, usually carried out by the local kiap.

In 1970 village constables in Papua were paid six dollars a year (K185 in today’s money) while luluais and tultuls in New Guinea were paid at least 10 dollars a year (K305).

I can’t recall how many luluais, tultuls and village constables I appointed, but it was quite a few.

In theory, these men were drawn from existing traditional leaders, thus enforcing local cultural norms in their work.

This was problematic in practice, however, because, apart from places like the Trobriand Islands, chiefs did not traditionally exist in Papua New Guinea.

It has been said that bigman were chiefs but this is not true. These men might have had wealth but in terms of their authority, they had no more power than anyone else.

Similarly the power of fight leaders did not exist beyond that specific role.

Power in the villages and clans was collective and based on consensus.

By introducing the system of luluais, tultuls and village constables, the colonial Administration was introducing an entirely new concept.

This made the process of their appointment quite subjective.

The complexity of traditional village and clan politics could lead to curious appointment outcomes.

When the kiap directed that a new village official be appointed, a favourite ploy was to push forward a gormless individual who could be manipulated by people of real authority.

In such cases it took some time before it became apparent that the man officially appointed was the village idiot or a puppet whose strings could be pulled by those of real authority in the clan or village.

Despite a few problems like the ones described, the administrative authority that existed after the introduction of luluais, tultuls and village constables, worked well and led to the development of local councils.

These remain in the political hierarchy of PNG and they have great power to do good. But in many cases their value is sorely absent in PNG politics.

I believe that this system was inadvertently instrumental in creating a new bigman system that little resembles its original traditional iteration.

The wealthy bigman is often now referred to as a chief and has considerably more power than their original counterparts.

And it is these men who also predominantly occupy seats in the national parliament.

The original village officials on their modest stipends were, by and large, honourable individuals whose motivation was the welfare of their people.  

That commitment to the welfare of the ordinary people is in short supply in modern PNG politics.

Working for the public good has been transformed into working for the interests of one’s own family or clan.

What was a system of social equity has become government by the rich.

The colonial Administration did not want this and never saw it coming.


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Paul Oates

The essence of the problem can be summed up under the heading of wealth. Until the coming of Western culture and law, social wealth could only be achieved by giving to others and thereby creating 'social capital'.

There were a few exceptions like shell money but that also had customary rights.

After the introduction of money that could be accumulated and traded outside of the clan, the concept of wealth changed. People could accumulate wealth and be given wealth for favours that no one else knew anything about.

The crux of the problem was that Canberra and its power base knew very little about the role of social capital and assumed erroneously that everything was tied to how much money they could begrudgingly provide. Nothing has changed in 50 years.

No one took any notice or even thought about consulting those whose duty it was to interact at the grass roots or village level. There was the classic disconnection in perception between the two levels.

The concept of personal wealth and how to accumulate it disintegrated along with notions of land and property ownership when the culture clash happened.

Those whose responsibility it was and who actually saw it all happening, are now mostly no longer with us. Their list of honours are now hanging in some museum wall or lying in some dusty drawer.

Those who now have inherited the current dilemma and mess must find a better way forward. The problem is that if the world can't find answers to the oncoming financial collapse of world finance, what chance is there PNG can, given it is now entangled in the world wide problem?

Stephen Charteris

A very interesting article, Phil. It fills in gaps in my understanding about the roles of luluais and tultuls.

As you point out this morphed into the village councillor, village recorder, ward councillors and local level government (LLG) council system.

A community government level structure that is supposed to connect via all the dots ultimately to parliament and central agency departments.

In theory the LLG has power to influence health, education and law and order services that operate at that level. In practice it is a different matter.

The public service structures at LLG level are starved of funds. In practice they have few or no resources to support the elementary and community school teachers, community policemen and community health workers properly fulfil their roles.

The system from provincial level down is increasingly broken. For practical purposes, ward and community level services are almost absent throughout rural PNG.

By contrast those who stand for national parliament operate at a different level of the stratosphere. Money and lots of it is required to lubricate the road to power at that level. Candidates are usually well connected politically through prior business or high level public service roles.

Those that succeed can look forward to a five-year term with an annual K20 million (A$8 million) fund to play with.

I refer to the district and provincial services improvement program grant that for practical purposes is used as a personal re-election fund.

In effect, 118 elected members can expect a total of K2.3 billion (A$950 million) annually to be made available to them under their D/PSIP grants.

Naturally there are criteria around the disbursement and reporting of funds. However, history has yet to reveal the nature of the lasting benefits to reach the person on the ground.

These funds might be better channelled directly into cash starved district and LLG services.

To emphasise my point, I recall visiting an aid post that was nil stocked and without means to call or transport patients to the nearest health centre or hospital.

While I was there, an elderly man was brought to the clinic by his relatives in a wheelbarrow. The clinic could do nothing and within the hour he had passed away.

In the meantime, a helicopter passed overhead. I was informed it was the governor travelling somewhere on business.

I believe the greatest challenge facing PNG nearly five decades after independence, and the systems you so diligently established, is how does it repair the disconnect between central government and public facing servants.

How does it redirect the focus of executive government and its agencies onto the needs of the common man, woman and child on the ground.

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