Autonomy and mini nations


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IN all the foregoing 17 issues in this series on A New Direction in Nationalism, we have examined and discussed the experience or the practice of government and particularly of decentralised government in Papua New Guinea.
The experience is important because it is a fact or a series of facts that have happened and there are hard evidences for them. Lives have been touched in one way or another by their occurrences. There are hard evidence and memories of their passing.
But when those experiences across a four-decade time frame and through various phases of them point invariably, like some malfunctioning Geiger counter, towards failed or failing state, then the time shall have arrived to take a reluctant step back to examine our subject under a different broader light.
Are we doing this thing right? How is it done elsewhere? Does PNG’s ethnic and socio-economic circumstances and its physical and demographic features and its legal and administrative structures support what it has been attempting in its government and governance systems?
Important work on the World’s Modern Autonomy Systems – Concepts and experiences of Regional Territorial Autonomy by Tomas Benedikter for the European Union gives us excellent food for thought when we examine our own attempts under the light of others in similar situations.
Benedikter’s opening two paragraphs give us pause and food for thought: “The ideal propagated by Europe’s nation-state builders in the 19th century was ‘One nation – one state’. But in scarcely any of these states has this ideal ever been achieved. All European states, excluding the micro states, host national minorities. The overwhelming majority of European states have populations composed of several different peoples featuring a majority (titular nation or ethnic people) and from three to 45 national minorities. It is most likely that the majority of the current 192 UN member states share these fundamental characteristics.
Majorities and hegemony
“Generally speaking, most national and ethnic minorities live in their traditional homeland, but over the course of history have found themselves in a state dominated by a major titular nation, a national majority, that typically exerts a cultural hegemony by the sheer effect of demographic, economic, social and political power. Minority groups in such states are structurally disadvantaged and often excluded from power.”
The above thoughts are a mindful and warrant careful examination by us as they apply to PNG.
When PNG’s founding fathers met to found a state, they did not have a titular nation or ethnic people to start with. They had many hundreds of nations, each living autonomous tribal existences within their own territorial boundaries often marked by disputes, by the rules of their own crude socio-economic establishments including elaborate trading patterns, who educated their youth in the way of their fathers and enjoying their own forms of worship.
Papua New Guinea’s many nations shared only the colonial experience which had banded all of them together and branded them by the brand of the dominant European power which had taken possession over their territory.
In that sense at Independence, PNG did not have the one dominant nation which desired a nation State as in the case of Europe. The idea of government and the model of it came from abroad and from the same abhorrent colonial master from which PNG’s many tribal nations were trying to extricate themselves.
That is a matter of course now and one followed by colonised peoples on all continents but unless we follow this line of thinking, we cannot begin to fathom some of the problems that have beset us along the way.
Whatever ethnic minority pressures there were for self-governing and even separate Independence status were there from the start and emanated from two clear sources – Bougainville and Papua Besena. Those sentiments remain today with Bougainville having taken the active and extreme action of having voted for separation.
There were no other pressures for devolution or decentralised government at the time of Independence.
Had Parliament sat down to consider matters in their proper perspective, perhaps a decentralised form of government could have been developed for Bougainville and for those parts of southern region that were active in Papua Besena, which might have been present day Central and Milne Bay provinces.
Provinces might have been carved along ethnic lines rather than follow the colonial district rules that had nil regard for niceties like ethnic, cultural considerations.
As each of these provinces progressed with physical infrastructure and developed areas of commerce and industry and civil administration, the national government could have devolved more powers in a progressive, gradative manner as is the current proposal before Parliament.
Gradual processes

When PNG’s founding fathers met to found a state, they did not have a titular nation or ethnic people to start with.

Delegation, devolution, decentralisation, autonomy or federalism are therefore gradual processes which must operate in answer to pressures from within a unitary or centralised entity to keep the peace and to give recognition, voice and power to those minority or ethnic groups.
In the case of PNG, we answered the pressure from Bougainville by giving every part of the country that which only Bougainville desired and to a lesser extent, Papua Besena, and in the process awakening the devil in every province.
Ours might have been a different story had we taken a slower, more deliberative walk down Independence Boulevard, answering only those demands for further local powers as the desire took hold of each part of the country and devolving such powers as each place was ready for them.
By the way, that book by author Benedikter, which was recommended to me by my countryman Dr Thomas Webster, gives a quite succinct account of our own Bougainville struggle and concludes with the quite accurate prediction: “Bougainville’s identity will be shaped by PNG’s future state structure. Notwithstanding the internal divisions in Bougainville society, the desire for autonomy is deep seated.
“But it is not only ethnic nationalism that drives the upsurge for secession from PNG. Protracted violation of civilian human rights and the intervention of mercenaries has had the result that PNG government could no longer hold up the pretension to treat Bougainville as an exclusive internal matter.”
The work was published in 2007 but its relevance and the accuracy of its predictions are bearing themselves out in our time 14 years on.
Right, let’s move ahead.
Forty-six years after Independence and many shake downs later, our provincial and local level governments need yet another relook.
Such self-examination must not be of the rushed sort as happened in 1995 and 2014 when the political pressure was high to determine an outcome with expediency dictating the form or nature of the institutions.
Third reform
As a third reform is contemplated, wise counsel is required. A longer, deeper examination is necessary. International experience needs to be pitted alongside our own.
Governments and institutions must respond to and be relevant for the people for whom and at whose behest and desires such entities are grown. If they are irrelevant and answer to no such desires or demands, they ought not exist at all. Otherwise, we wake a slumbering devil to play mischief with us and then – who is to blame but ourselves.
A starting point in this direction was very conveniently put before us in February at a two-day National Conference on Decentralisation hosted by the National Research Institute by two distinguished professors working at the Constitution Transformation Network Melbourne Law School.
Professor Cheryl Saunders and Dr Dziedzic had gone to quite great lengths to dissect the matter under discussion and to put workable and different options under relevant headings for policy makers to choose from.

We will, in future conversations, refer to and quote from their keynote paper, Decentralised Governance arrangements in PNG with the kind permission of the authors and NRI. For now, space permits us to repeat eight issues raised as questions in the paper by our distinguished visitors.
Critical questions
Issues of decentralisation: A framework for discussion

Levels of government

  • How many levels of government should PNG have?
  • How should the boundaries between governments at each level be drawn?

Political institutions

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using national MPs at multiple levels of government?

Division of legislative and executive power

  • How are powers divided between the levels of government?
  • What effect do fragmented funding arrangements, including the provision of funds to MPs, have on the operation of the division of powers?
  • What are the implications of the division of powers for the quality of governance and of
    service delivery?
  • Administrative support

How can the public service and independent institutions be organised in a system of decentralisation to promote good governance and effective service delivery?

  • Revenue raising and allocation
  • To what extent can and should sub-national governments be reliant on their own financial resources?
  • What considerations apply in striking a balance between transfers for general purposes and more specific purposes
  • How are decisions best made about revenue transfers to subnational levels of government and between governments at each level, to enable them adequately to fund programs and services?

Inter-governmental relations

  • What structural intergovernmental arrangements might be useful to advance the goals of decentralisation? What purposes should they serve and how should they work?
  • What regulatory checks is it useful or appropriate for higher levels of government to have over actions by subnational governments? Do existing arrangements strike the right balance?
  • How are collaborative intergovernmental relations conducted? What purposes can they properly serve?

Legal framework for decentralisation

  • Is the framework for decentralisation appropriately distributed between the different categories of legal instruments?
  • Is the legal framework for decentralisation consistent, coherent, and clear?

Implementation in practice

  • What should be included in a plan for the implementation of decentralisation?

Excellent questions to ponder as we move forward with more detailed discussions on this issue.