The current state of affairs in Papua New Guinea is everyone’s doing, writes JOHN FOWKE
PAPUA New Guineans are often cynical and fatalistic about their ability to effect positive change in the relationship between the people and an often aloof, even secretive, governing elite. This is although as a nation PNG has a strong collective belief in democracy as the best sort of society to live in. How to initiate change which will return the social steering-wheel to the people? How to return fiscal and administrative discipline and equitable delivery of what is due to them, they wonder? Which individual, which party, which set of promises, which new forecasts and which plans for the future are to be believed?
The Westminster system of party-based politics was imposed directly, almost brutally, upon PNG’s traditional political culture at the inception of internal self-government. The well-established and well-understood grassroots system of Local Government Councils was totally bypassed, excluded from the new arena. Thus it eventually became redundant. These events of the mid twentieth century constituted a cultural sea-change in magnitude comparable with the changes painstakingly wrought over a full century by the missionaries who brought pagan PNG to Christianity.
Absolutely essential, in hindsight, and preferably beginning back in the 1930s, was an educational and implementing drive just as active and committed both to principle and to action, and just as penetrating and full of idealism as the Christian evangelisation of pagan PNG. This was the level of change to be accomplished within the customary socio-political arena; one as complex and as problematic as the conversion from customary religious and cosmic beliefs and supporting practices as accomplished by the pioneer churches.
Change was mooted and initiated too late and at great speed, and without a substantial supporting complex of spoken and written ideals and principles. It occurred without a socio-political Good Book; without attractive, folktale-like parables. Saying this is not to gainsay the fact that a great many of the field officers of the Australian Administration, both pre- and post-World War II, were very idealistic in a humanitarian, if not in a political way. Sadly, though, all that was generally in mind was an awareness of the un-preparedness of the people. Most thoughts centred upon guesses and estimates of the time which would pass before a condition of self-governing nation-statehood might come about.
As a young public servant stationed at Talasea in 1964, I took part as a team member, helping to conduct the House of Assembly poll in villages from Cape Gloucester back to Talasea, and then in the actual vote-count conducted at the Talasea LGC’s council chamber. Although I had already conceived of a deep affection for the country and its people, I was too immature to give the whole subject of the imposition of this party-based national political system any meaningful thought and analysis. I was, however, aware of the likelihood that one result would be the effective exclusion from the chain of government of the grassroots-based LGCs (LLGs) and I thought to myself that this was probably a mistake in the making.
This vast social and cultural re-think was addressed at the last minute, under international pressure, by the national census and creation of electorates and the preparation of the electoral rolls. The multi-tasked Patrol Officers imparted as much as was possible under the circumstances of the principle and practice of the new and, to many, frightening changes soon to come. The structure which has grown since then is an organic Papua New Guinean polity. This has grown within circumstances of enthusiasm, of apathy, and of misunderstanding. But it has grown openly and before the eyes of all Papua New Guineans, nevertheless.
All this is stated in support of the writer’s belief that the current situation where criticism and openly or obliquely-derogatory comment is levelled at policies, at politicians and at the national leadership, while understandable as the product of anger and frustration, nonetheless misses the real point.
PNG’s system of politics and governance is organic in the true meaning of the word. It is a system which has grown from a traditional cultural matrix, drawing at least as much from this source for its conventions and practice as from imported texts and ideas. Fertilised by imported ideas, but nurtured and allowed to develop from the fruit and seeds of an ancient, functioning and well-understood social system. Society at large has supported the development of PNG’s peculiar polity of patronage over three decades.
It is just as much the product of the citizenry-at-large’s expressed will, or lack of expressed will, as of the will and occasional greed of the actors upon the political and administrative stage themselves.
In a functioning democracy, the majority vote prevails. Majority opinion is in control albeit at arms length and subject to the value of the trust it invests in its elected representatives. In the words of the late, great Sir Winston Churchill,”it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms which have been tried from time to time”
A wide-awake, active and nationally-conscious unitary state – as opposed to an inward-looking, conservative multi-tribal society (for instance, Afghanistan) ñ will generally maintain a fairly honest and effective level of government over a period with only an occasional hiccup. Right next door, in Queensland, the corrupt administration of the late Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen was brought to a standstill by a free press and a righteously-enraged public, once people were made aware of the problems. While Joh himself, as Premier, wasn’t jailed, several of his ministers were, as was his Police Commissioner, the latter for 14 years.
With all its many defects, a fully democratic society’s ability to return the steering wheel to the people whenever the political bus goes off the edge of the highway is the greatest empowering asset available to humanity. In PNG’s society, the concept of statehood and nationality are only now beginning to empower the people by overcoming the inward-looking, clan-based concept of a polity where the managers and movers are self-promoting traditional bigmen; tie-and-suit-wearing bigmen, it is true, but traditional bigmen in word and in deed. Ambitious, ego-driven men for the most part, with a good, modern education, MPs now command the ability to bargain for and to distribute quite enormous amounts. This they often do in circumstances of considerable freedom, arbitrarily and unilaterally, with the object of managing relationships within supporting, surrounding kin-groups so as to secure themselves in their chosen careers.
Here again it is easy to criticise, and by no means all of the 109-strong membership of the House approve of the principle or of the practice of District Grant funding. But insecurity of tenure drives the whole political machine, from top to bottom, and patronage is the universal remedy for it. This is an organic, home-grown characteristic, one we have watched as it has grown over the years. Like any chronic condition it spreads and slowly eats up more and more of its host, namely the socio-economic body which is everyday, working, trading, living, hoping PNG.
This state of affairs, highlighted in terms of disquiet and dissatisfaction with governance, is everybody’s doing; not just the doing of the sometimes greedy political elite, or of an inefficient public service. All Papua New Guinea has watched and occasionally applauded during the 34-year-long political learning curve. Now is the time to recall, and to analyse and learn from what has gone during this journey. And while PNG at large considers these lessons and draws a picture in realistic terms of what conditions of life it would like to hand to the newly-born and yet-to-be-born individuals, should abandon feelings of victimhood, of chip-on-the-shoulder blame-games directed at others. This state of affairs is everybody’s fault. Major crime will eventually be taken care of by PNG’s judiciary, which works in spite of many handicaps. Bad policy and bad administration, misdirection of resources, these are, collectively and realistically, everyone’s fault. People at large must square their shoulders and accept their part in the history of their nation. The ball is at PNG’s feet. The eventual outcome for coming generations, win or lose, is squarely in the hands of all adult Papua New Guineans, right now.
* This is the first in a three-part series by John Fowke to be published in the Weekender. Mr Fowke spent nearly four decades working in PNG’s coffee industry.