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Power without glory or limits: Papua New Guinea's hangover


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 colonels.

The news stories of slush funds and “big man” chicanery indicate a terrible misapprehension.

The 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.

Where did 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.

PNG 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.

Empirically, a 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.

The 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.

There 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.

PNG, 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 valuable.

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 democracy.

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.

Despite 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.

Yet 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