By MIKE PEPPERDAY
Australia and New Zealand
have propped up Pacific countries since their independence. They can go
on propping up the micro-states indefinitely but Papua New Guinea, with
its 6million people and its resources wealth, is becoming independent of
our handouts. Private security companies are moving in and guns are
flooding the country. The prospect is for civil strife and takeover by
The news stories of slush funds and “big man” chicanery indicate a terrible misapprehension.
reason that the government of PNG has deteriorated since independence
is not the locals’ innate cultural defects. PNG’s problem is its
unworkable political structure.
In 1975, the Whitlam
government set up PNG with a single chamber of parliament (a
“unicameral” system) to which MPs were elected from single-member
electorates (so-called “majoritarian” representation). This design – a
single chamber composed of electorates each represented by a single
member – has never worked for any country.
Australian officials get the idea? In 1975 the only Australian instance
was Queensland. Worldwide, there were just two democratic examples. One
was New Zealand, at that time unicameral for 25 years and regretting it
even more than they had regretted the bicameral parliament they had had
for a century. The other was Northern Ireland, at that time in flames.
Other majoritarian, unicameral countries were Mauritius, then under a state of emergency, and some catastrophic African states.
joins those as a failed state. The usual “explanation” – dysfunctional
culture – misses the point that the purpose of a political system is to
deal with the culture. PNG is afflicted with a political structure that
cannot cope with any culture.
majoritarian electoral system will work provided there is a second
chamber of parliament. There are many democratic countries which have
only one chamber but they all have multi-member electoral districts –
so-called “proportional representation” or PR.
evidence for what makes viable government is unequivocal: if the MPs are
elected in single-member districts, parliament must be bicameral; if
the parliament is unicameral, elections must be multi-member PR.
are good technical reasons for this. In 1965, the economist Sir Arthur
Lewis set them out in his Politics in West Africa. No one took any
notice – with horrific consequences. A majoritarian house requires a
curb. Without it, there is corruption: cronies are rewarded, top civil
servants take bribes, ordinary lives are ruined. Though the upper houses
of Britain and Canada are grossly undemocratic (as was NZ’s) and almost
powerless, they suffice to curb the majoritarian lower houses from
turning into “elected dictatorships” – the term of former New Zealand
prime minister Geoffrey Palmer.
Having a rickety upper
house just to curb the lurching of a majoritarian lower house is not
optimal and Australia has changed nearly all its upper houses to PR: the
Senate in 1949, South Australia 1973, NSW 1978, Western Australia 1987,
Victoria 2003; unicameral ACT switched to PR in 1988. PNG, meanwhile,
has been left to stew.
A viable system of political
representation is not a guarantee of rectitude. It is the foundation for
it. No sound foundation can guarantee the superstructure will hold up,
but an unsound one guarantees the superstructure will eventually
collapse. The electoral foundation supports parliament, which shapes the
executive, which shapes the administration, which shapes management.
the Solomons, and Vanuatu have been competing to become the first
country in the world to make the unicameral, majoritarian design work.
Today, all three are basket cases. When (or if) the Regional Assistance
Mission to the Solomon Islands departs the islands, it will leave behind
an effective public administration which, like PNG’s, will immediately
fall to bits. RAMSI claims to be laying foundations for long-term
stability. The claim is fatuous for it is not touching the electoral
system and within 20 years of its departure, the civil war will reignite
and RAMSIII will be needed.
Many find it hard to
accept that the finer points of an electoral system could be responsible
for tribal violence, but in 1975 the Australian government inflicted a
curse upon the PNG people. PNG is simmering. It becomes more volatile as
its politics become more shambolic and its resources become more
Is it simplistic just to switch to PR? No.
The task of the political system is to cope with the culture and PR
usually does. Moreover, PNG’s much-discussed, so-called “big man”
culture actually consists of competitive leadership based on
entrepreneurial popularity. It would form an excellent basis for
Electoral reform is a thankless undertaking.
It has to overcome the opposition of those who are benefiting from the
current system. Moreover, because day-to-day political squabbling is
colourful and dramatic, and election rules are dull and bureaucratic,
the media and the public are not interested.
these obstacles, all those Australian houses did manage to change. It
was a creaking, groaning, whingeing business but they got there. But PNG
is far past the stage where it can do it alone. There may be a window
to act now while Australia still has influence but a tsunami of cash is
about to wash over PNG that will utterly corrupt the remnants of its
democratic politics and allow its politicians to ignore Australia.
the leaders of PNG know their land has become a mafia state. They are
patriots: if they were encouraged to adopt an honourable strategy to set
their country on a positive path, they might do it. A tragedy might be
prevented and with a viable electoral structure, PNG would have a chance
to become peaceful and prosperous.
This article was first published on the Australian Business Review on the 6th of July 2012