Let’s think small, for a change

Normal, Weekender

Modern-day PNG may do well to consider a return to a policy of ‘Think Small – Be Practical’, writes JOHN FOWKE

TODAY’s article features a photograph of the Patrol Post at Baimuru, Gulf province, taken in 1962.The two simple sawn-timber-and-bush-material buildings, together with similar staff houses and a gaol, all built of the same materials, constituted all there was of “Gavamani” at Baimuru in those days.
And yet appearances can be deceptive. The office, the bigger building in the foreground, constituted the district’s administrative centre. It was the courthouse, post office, telegram office, savings bank agency, treasury cash office, source of all licences and permits necessary under the law, and was also the contact point for any person needing assistance with regard to an enterprise of any sort, whether it be a proposal to shoot crocodiles for their skins, to make copra for shipment to Port Moresby or to set up a village trade-store.
As officer in charge, and aided by my ever-smiling, always willing clerk, Haihavu Mama of Arehava village, I also managed the affairs, respectively and where necessary, of the Public Works Department, the Government Marine Division, Government Stores, Department of Health (wages, supplies and administration for five Government aid posts), Education (wages and supplies, transport and building maintenance for a fair-sized boarding school at Beara and another, smaller day school at Baimuru itself) as well as being the contact point for any and all who wished for assistance from the Department of Agriculture.
And then there were the usual court cases and disputes for settlement, matters relating to wartime compensation payments, lost Special Arms Permits for shotguns, runaway wives, stolen pigs, unpaid bride price. Beyond this it was the intention to keep up a regular routine of once-quarterly overnight patrol visits to each and every one of the coastal and riverine villages, being all except those on the remote Upper Purari. These I only managed to visit once. Life was busy at Baimuru. But as you can see from the picture and what it conveys, this establishment didn’t set the Government of the day back very much in money terms, either in its initial establishment, or in terms of the cost of keeping it running, month-by-month.
Besides Haihavu and myself, there was Corporal Gelai and his six RPNGC members, court interpreter Kaipu Karara, three launch crewmen, the station’s medical orderly and a couple of carpenter handymen. And, oldest of all, “Ove Ferryman”, whose job it was to carry messages to distant points in his small paddle-canoe. I still have the tiny, carved, model paddle-canoe old Ove gave me. We communicated together in Hiri Motu, in terms which were clear to all of us; we respected each other’s strengths; we knew each other’s weaknesses; and we tried as a group to serve the best interests of the 9000-plus I’ai/Koriki/Kaimare/Maipua villagers who were “our people.”
Looking at the two contrasting photographs and what may be read from them as images of past and present it occurs to me that modern-day PNG may do well to consider a return to a policy of “Think Small – Be Practical.” This, as opposed to the constantly-trumpeted “Think big – we’re very rich – it’s all going to happen soon,” mentality.
While PNG’s income stream may well increase exponentially in the decade ahead, society and the general way of life of the people needs a sympathetic, structured-to-fill-real-needs sort of public policy regime to make a better standard of life become a reality for the majority. This sort of policy regime will grow only from a grassroots matrix, regardless of the fact that like all westernised social structures, modern-day PNG has adopted an entirely “top-down” planning and implementation mentality.
The experience of World War II changed many things in PNG. All of a sudden the outside world was not a supernatural domain; white people were people, not demi-gods with feet of clay. Elsewhere too, changes were profound; the election of social-democratic Labour governments in post-war Australia and in Britain coupled with the experience of the war itself changed thinking on colonies and colonial policy for ever. Early on, in this period of rapid change, the Territory Administration began contemplation of a system of local government at village level. This would replace the existing system of interaction with the Administration where authoritarian village officials were appointed, arbitrarily, largely at the whim of the appointing officer. The new village councils would form an introduction to the basic principles of democratic government. Government in the representative, elected by majority mode adopted throughout the Western world. The councils were designed to arise from within the existing society in such a form as would be easy for the people to identify with. In this way it was hoped that the people would come to understand the value of an electoral representational system of government, and take ownership of it wholeheartedly. In the brief period between the inception of the Local Government Council system and the first National Election held in 1964, some 100 Local Government Councils were established around the country.
Now the story becomes complicated. As the era of self-government drew on, political parties arose. Principal among them were the Pangu Pati and the National Party; the former being the party of the educated, progressive citizen who had no doubts whatsoever about his country’s ability to exist and to manage its affairs alone, while the latter was in effect the conservative party, supported by a cadre of white businessmen from the Highlands and favoured by traditional leaders in that region, men who were not quite so sure of the viability of what was being proposed, and who wanted to keep a firm foot on the brake-pedal.
Thus began the day of the parties. Little needs to be said except that while there were clear differences in policy and intent between the two major groups early on, differentiation ultimately became more in terms of names and claims rather than espoused policies. We now have a huge plethora of inconsequential small parties whose only purpose is to support individuals in their efforts to enter and remain in Parliament. Because there is no historic dichotomy of wealth and disparity, of privilege and subservience in egalitarian PNG, the adversarial Westminster model of politics has failed to be effective. It is simply not the right model for PNG. Just the same, it is not going to go away overnight. As I mentioned in last week’s article, there is an inherent factor of instability within PNG’s strange, home-grown polity; instability deriving from the conflict of many personal, individual sets of ambitions which remain totally unconstrained despite the existence of the parties. This instability drives and focuses everybody in the political arena. The principle of obtaining a form of loyalty by endowing  party members and would-be coalition members with discretionary funds made easy to obtain, in contrast with similar funding available to members in opposition, will be very hard to change. Rational, professional national planning procedures allied to similar processes of implementation and financial control are absent for the obvious reason that these would be in complete conflict with the main objective. Great constraints and constant frustration are the lot of those who work within Government and who do want to see overall positive progress as opposed to spotty, scattered, generally unproductive endowments made to unplanned projects, while major mainstream daily needs are ignored, and experienced senior public servants shake their heads and walk away.
The concept of separation of powers, the binding principle of a good parliamentary system, is the rule that in a democratic state the Executive (The Prime Minister and his Ministry) the Legislature (the Parliament) and the Judiciary (the courts) must be effectively separate, with no single entity being able to exercise total power on its own. This guarantees the rule of law, freedom and justice and a voice for all citizens, and productive results from taxes gathered and spent.
The question of the separation of powers is obviously an important one for PNG as things stand. There may come a time when a strong movement for reform dawns in PNG, but to get enough friends on the right side in the House, any reformist group must be willing to pay; to pay by means of patronage via the established Electoral Development Fund route. And thus a reformist party will bind itself inevitably into the same twisted ball of string as its predecessor, even while it plans and moves to extricate itself from the morass. This is a vicious circle indeed.
What may be done about all this? What may be done in an orderly, constitutionally-valid way by citizens exercising their rights in a quiet and non-confrontational way? Well – let’s THINK SMALL FOR A CHANGE!


* This is the second in a three-part series by John Fowke, who spent four decades working in PNG’s coffee industry. The concluding part will be published next week.