Reserve regional seats for women

Former editor of The National, FRANK SENGE KOLMA, further discusses the much-debated topic about having “reserved seats for women” in Parliament

There is, to my mind, a perfect solution to our “reserved women’s seats” debate.
We turn over the 22 provincial or regional seats to them.
The regional seats is a peculiar arrangement which special purpose was already served at around the time of Independence.
The provincial seats are a vestige of the colonial era in our midst we have never realised.
At the time our political enterprise was being planned, in around 1963 and early 1964, it was decided, with much justification at the time, that the educational level of the indigenes of the land was far too low and the number of those educated far too few to expect a credible and modern legislature that could provide the foundation for a new nation.
A provincial or district seat had to be created where businessmen or persons with education and employment alone had the resources to contest.
So every province (district at the time) could have many natives of dubious educational background serving each open electorate in the House of Assembly and one headman with some formal school “save” as district or regional member.
And true to plan most regional seats were won by planters and others who at the time were well to do with formal school education.
Of the 54 elected members in the first house of assembly in 1964, 16 were of foreign extraction, almost all of whom were regional members.
There were no sunset clauses to this arrangement to terminate the provision as soon as the field was level with more educated locals entering the House and so as the districts (later provinces) multiplied so too did the provincial seats.
No thought was spared for this peculiar arrangement during the deliberations of the Constitutional Planning Committee apparently, or if it was raised it did not gain traction, and the whole package was adopted for Independent Papua New Guinea.
The discrepancy remains and in the process, rather than get rid of them, a job was created for the regional seat holder along the way – in 1995 to be exact – when regional MPs were automatically elevated to governorship of a province.
This now creates a whole lot of discrepancies and disharmony to the entire government structure in PNG.
Why must we reserve regional seats for women only?
It is because women are in a similar predicament as that which faced the first House of Assembly in 1964.
There are fewer women educated than men and fewer in leadership roles in all fields.
After four decades of Independence PNG voters, both male and female, have shown a singular disdain for electing women members of parliament.
There have been a few female MPs along the way, that is true, but theirs have been more luck than a definitive change in the tide, indicating progressive change in our male-biased attitude.
So the regional seats created for just such a predicament in 1964 for similar, do now find a similar purpose and relevance if they were reserved for women alone.
Regional seats will give women candidates province-wide exposure in elections so that people are forced to see the leadership potential of the silent but among the most positive and most productive members of our nation.
Regional seats under such an arrangement will require amendments to the Constitution and the organic laws on National Elections and Provincial and Local Government Affairs as well as affected subordinate laws.
Such changes ought carry a sunset clause providing for the entire arrangement to cease itself at the conclusion of four parliamentary terms or four national general elections.
That is a 20 good years, sufficient time for the country to be force-fed the leadership abilities of our womenfolk.
At the conclusion of 20 years, there should be far greater acceptance of female political leadership, making this special arrangement redundant.
The playing field is then returned to level.
There is no gender bias either way under the law.
Parliament shrinks in membership – by 21 members exactly (not counting Bougainville).
There are massive savings.
A win-win situation all around.
Our future woman regional members do not automatically become governors as under present arrangement.
They do not head up the provincial legislatures.
They become ordinary members of parliament. The provincial electorate candidates, being all female, will cover a wider ground than will their open electorate colleagues who are confined to districts.
Future governors will now be elected from among the members of the provincial legislature as it happened previously and this will be restricted to the presidents of local level governments within a province and nominated members of the assembly.
This mimics how Parliament elects the prime minister and introduces uniformity and simplicity to our legal arrangements.
Open MPs, while they can always be guests, shall not participate in any way or form at the provincial assemblies to keep the national and provincial legislatures separate.
The current arrangement is unwieldy with governors being elected under a presidential type electoral arrangement.
They then become ordinary members of parliament but do all their work in the provinces.
Yet they are remunerated for their efforts by the National Parliament at an above ordinary member grade and not by the provincial government as they rightfully should.
Governors then draw allowances and other perks from the provincial governments, a double dip.
It is imperative that the two levels of government are kept separate and independent of each other in law and in practice so that they are seen as two distinct political entities with distinct roles and responsibilities.
This will also bring into alignment the current aberration where we have a presidential type election of an ordinary member of the National Parliament who then assumes prime ministerial powers at the provincial government level but this is not allowed at national level where the prime minister is elected by members of the national legislature (Parliament).
Every part of a province is represented by an open electorate in any case so the concept of a provincial seat is useless and a waste of resources.
It creates duplication and confusion unless it can be found a purpose and reserving the seats for women with an inbuilt time bound expiration clause serves a golden purpose.
The provincial government and the local level government arrangements under the Constitution were replicas of the national government system in structure and arrangement with set responsibilities.
Along the way certain changes were made, in Morobe and Manus where a presidential type arrangement was introduced with the premier directly elected by the people.
This arrangement was the brainchild of the late Utula Samana of Morobe whose close comrade and advisor was New Irelander Ben Micah.
When it fell to Micah to spearhead a review and reform of the Provincial Government system in 1995 he proposed to Parliament the governor concept where the regional member, who was elected by province-wide ballot, became an ordinary member of parliament but at the same time now automatically became the governor of the province.
Micah, in my opinion, had the perfect chance to do away with the regional seats arrangement and save us a lot of money and angst, but he chose to ignore it or did not see it at all.
We now have a muddled up system where the heads of the third tier government (local level governments) and members of the first tier (National Parliament) now occupy the second tier government (provincial Governments) with one national parliamentarian occupying the role of head of the provincial government.
Which government pays for What to Whom under this arrangement is a question even the very detailed and much reviewed Public Finances Management Act might contain no provision for.
And so we have the very strange situation where a governor is paid by the National Parliament to work for the provincial government where all the governor’s work is and which by rights ought to pay him or her for it.
Each government level has very specific and defined roles.
Each must operate in its own space.
We do not allow that under our current arrangement.
It is little wonder we have too much politics and too little development.
Since each tier of government operates under its own law, such mixing of duties and responsibilities across tiers must create some disharmony, imperturbable at a glance but a closer reading and judicial inquiry will surely reveal it.
Logic and common sense reveal the truth readily enough.
And so we have in our midst a creature created out of a necessity at one time when it might have been needed, but which necessity is now obsolete.
But we might now have found a purpose to continue the arrangement with our desire to have one half of the population of this country represented in Parliament and for gender balance and for equality as directed by our National Goals and Directive Principles.
If my suggestion gains traction, and I humbly plead it ought to, there will automatically be 21 woman members, one for each province, in addition to any that might be returned in the open electorates.
This will give female representation one fifth of the current Parliament, an excellent basis to start from.
The regional seats must be reserved only for female candidates for a period of four terms of Parliament when the arrangement will cease automatically.
This proposed change should form part of the current review of the provincial and local level governments now before the Government.
It will mean the Constitution and Law Reform Commission will have a greater role in the coming months to create such a provision.
It will be a big exercise, to be sure, but the current discussions are too superficial and the current legal arrangement and structure make no sense, duplicate work and is not uniform as all as all political structures under the Constitution ought to be.
It is way too late to have this arrangement to apply in 2022 so we ought to prepare it for 2027.
The arrangement will cease by 2047.
Three years later we shall arrive in 2050, the date set by our visionary statement when we shall have achieved “developed nation” state.
Having sufficient female representation in Parliament will be a tremendous bonus in the realisation of our Vision 2050 goals.