EDITORIAL: By the PNG Post-Courier
“Is there a democratic Papua New Guinean nation — or is it merely an arbitrary nation built on a shaky, crumbling foundation of disparate traditional customs and the Melanesian Way?
“Has the system of government become a hybrid of concepts that fail to work on any level — a bastardisation of both democracy and custom?” Susan Merrell asked in her article, published in the PNG Echo on 13 July 2015.
Paul Oates, in another article published by PNG Attitude in July 2021, remarked that: “It has taken me a long time to reach an understanding of what the problem was leading up to Papua New Guinea’s independence.
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In that article, titled “System we gave PNG just doesn’t work”, Oates argued that “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.”
Oates, Merrell and many other critics have [concluded] that democracy has failed in PNG and, as Oates puts it, “the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy would never work when the majority of the people involved didn’t understand it and never would”.
It is true a lot of our people were illiterate at Independence on 16 September 1975, the idea of independence was a beast travelling up the Highlands Highway, gobbling everything and everyone in its way and the Westminster system of government and elections were foreign concepts that were far removed from their traditional governance systems.
Educating the populace on what democracy was about was out of the question. The high illiteracy level and the logistical nightmare would have made a massive public campaign hard.
Our founding fathers chose the democratic system of government over the other forms of government, because this system was best for a country like PNG with a population divided by varying and distinct cultural practices and ideologies. It was a concept of
a government that would unify the people.
When the national constitution was adopted in 1975, it gave birth to the Westminster system of government, a concept that, if understood clearly, should have allowed our people to choose their government through regular, free and fair election.
But that was not to be. Without knowing what democracy was and what the Westminster system of government was, our people went to the first national general election in 1978.
Since that election, and at every other later election, our people have incorporated the Melanesian Way of leadership into the new democracy we adopted and a home-grown system had flourished.
The results we have today is the price we are paying.
Compounding this is other underlying challenge like the integrity of the Electoral Roll that must be addressed.
Another issue is the weak political party system we have. A small country, PNG has 46 registered political parties to date, each with their own policy platforms. It is a nightmare for the voters, no one bothered to get to know all the political parties well.
The country’s weak political party system [has also been] the cause of the instability in the governments since 1975. In PNG, governments do not only change at the elections but on the floor of Parliament, through motions of no confidence in the prime minister.
The instability in PNG politics has forced prime ministers to spend more time and resources managing the politics rather than the government and country.
Furthermore, the “systemic and systematic” corruption, the escalating lawlessness and the decline in the economy are matters that are impacting on lives and businesses.
The challenges are huge, it will require massive legislative and structural reforms across all sectors of government to ensure PNG really meets its development goals moving into the next 50 years.
It will also take a massive change in mindset, attitudes and behaviours by our people to achieve true peace and harmony.
“That these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President, The Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863
This PNG Post-Courier editorial was published on 15 September 2023, the day before Papua New Guinea celebrated its 48th year of independence. Republished with permission.