The land of the disappointed: why the present electoral system is not working

By John Fowke

There are two basic reasons why the present system of elected representation doesn't produce policy-driven, positive improvements in the conditions of life in PNG.

Firstly, there is the natural tendency in this most tribally-aligned of societies to vote for one's own clan-member or tribally-related candidate, simply because custom rightly tells us to expect more from someone who is related, or who speaks the same dialect, than from someone distantly-related or not related at all. In the forum provided by the Westminster Party System as we know it in PNG, this expectation is seldom met. Here there is no compulsion for the elected member to perform or to be seen to perform, nor to justify his actions or lack thereof, in public, at village- and street-level. Port Moresby is a seductive destination for the average Member, another world, a world in which there is freedom to wander in any direction at will, aligned with the party and his mates; not with the people of his electorate..

Secondly, the Westminster system of "party" representation, unthinkingly adopted as a model from very different societies, provides for representation according to "social class" or wealth or poverty of the individual; labourer or professional, rich or poor, landowner or landless..Representation by social class. This system grew over centuries to suit societies very different to ours in terms of customs and lifestyle. Countries which proceeded over the centuries from a state where powerful, rich and often corrupt provincial "Bigmen" called Lords and Barons, competed with each other to control land and people, under the eye of a "Super Bigman" called the "King" who was also super-rich, and generally super-corrupt like all his wealthy supporters. Here the small man and the poor man had no control over his destiny, and the least-empowered of all, the slaves and the landless, owned nothing, bowed their heads to all, and were the lifelong servants of the "Bigmen."

Slowly, very slowly, a representative system giving an increasing measure of political power to the ordinary person grew, ultimately reducing the influence of the "Bigmen" and the "King" and empowering the ordinary people. In England, the Mother Parliament finally gave women the right to vote in 1927, just eighty years ago.

In PNG, in our "Land of the Unexpected," the unimaginative, in fact disastrous adoption of the Westminster Party System has cut the ground from under our normal customary, localised "asples" way of social management and government, learned and established over the millennia. In complete paradox, the Party System has delivered us the very conditions which in thirteenth and fourteenth century England, gave rise to wars and pressure for more equality and fairness, pressure which produced results, finally, four hundred years later with the onset of the parliament at Westminster and the formation of the Whig - (Liberal), Tory – (Conservative) - and later the Labour Party - (poor and landless workers) - in competition with each other.

Here in present-day PNG, in a complete paradox, the Parties comprise groups of ambitious, selfish, ruthless self-made "Barons" and “Lords”, all pushing and fighting for favour for themselves under the "King" of the moment, the Prime Minister. These Parties pay scant attention to principles espoused in their manifestos and promises made at election-time.They are devoted, simply, to their own welfare and that of their hangers-on. In every House since independence there have been a few members with a desire to work effectively and honourably, but they have always been in the minority. This is the truth of it, and this is the main reason why PNG, with such promise built into it as a nation with good people, a functioning, self-sufficient society, and plentiful natural resources, has failed to lift its standard of living at all, and has seen a general fall in all aspects of human welfare over these many years. PNG is a democracy in name only. PNG is a wealthy, independent state where ordinary peoples’ lives are spoiled by the corrupt and the lazy, not subject to discipline, who hold important managerial positions, positions of trust. The so-called “Land of the Unexpected” is in fact “The Land of the Disappointed.”

Think for a moment of the older system, that in force up until 1964. Here was the legislative Council – (Legco) - which met in Port Moresby under the oversight of the Administrator. Then there were the District Advisory Committees, nineteen of them, each sending its own representative to Legco. And there were the 100 or so Local Government Ciouncils – (now LLGs )- which wre not connected formally, but from which the native members of the DAC’s tended tyo emerge.

Only the Councils were democratically elected, it is true; DAC and Legco membership was by appointment by the Administrator in Council. But here was representation by region or by province in a nationally-representative forum with roots deply-implanted in the villages, the missions and the Councils. Communal representation in an ascending, ste-by-step form well understood by all.

This was an embryo system, subject to the control of the Administrator and indirectly, by Canberra, but it was an embryo with great promise. Regional representation, not representation by an assumed but non-existent linkage of voters joined by "class" or "occupation" or "wealth" or "poverty." In PNG in those days, there was a great, overall EQUALITY. Today this feature of PNG society has gone. In the 'sixties, rights and natural wealth were shared in an equitable traditional system which worked especially well when assisted by innovations such as introduced, enforced peace and order, based on written law, western-style medical and health facilities, and the opening of opportunity through a western-style, school-based education.

This was a system with potential; one which, made democratic by application of the vote, throughout, could so well have been built upon to deliver to the people, simply because it WAS THE PEOPLE!
Representation must be seen to deliver right down the line, right to local market-place, the village, the mission school and the Admin. aid-post, for it to be accepted and respected. Citizens have a right to equity in their system of government and the management of their society. This means a fair share of the commonwealth. Yes, the Common Wealth. In a democracy, everybody is entitled to an equal share of, and an equal say in the way in which the nation’s common wealth is shared and used.

Think for a moment. Is there some truth in all this? If so, have we gone too far along the "party" road to turn back? The answer is " probably we have." But there is much which can be done and achieved by restoring Local Government to its proper place as the forum where everything gets done as and according to the peoples' wish and available resources. Local Government which is not hampered by corrupt, costly intermediary structures such as those which exist now. Local Government which deals direct through its own central co-ordinating mechanism, to and with all facilitating National Departments through their Provincial offices. A system which sends its messages to the House via representatives who are responsible to the LGCs of their own people, rather than to meaningless and widely-corrupt “parties”and who are tied to the LGCs by the necessity to return regularly to monthly meetings to bring news of what is planned, what has been secured for the benefit of the electorate, and what matters of concern are being addressed in parliament. This is democracy. The people tell their representative what they want to see, and question him regularly when, compelled to report to them, he stands among them in the communal forum provided by the LLG or LLGs in his electorate.

This is the level of control and national equity that the citizens of PNG are entitled to.



I thoroughly agree with the notion of greater control at the local level government.

It must be suggested that the national government take an immediate and more proactive role in sending trained public servants, both young and experienced - under a supervisor/mentor role - to work in the 89 districts.

In fact, Vision 2050 already alludes to the need for redeveloping the public service system.

Therefore, if it is generally agreed that the present circumstances in PNG are leading to a socio-economic catastrophy and that our public service system is completely disorganised to handle it, then this defines a kind of national crisis i.e. a state of emergency.

Here though the public servants (as 'armed forces')is required and empowered (and well paid because we're not talking about second rate bumpkins!) to go into the districts and LLG's, to recover and restablish the public service mechanisms. This can be done over a defined period, say the next 10 years, as part of the MTDS. Do we not have this option available to us or have our ministers 'tied their hands' so completely that they cannot even move to save themselves too?

Wake up. PNG is nearing a state of emergency. The welfare of the entire nation, for the next 30 to 50 years is at stake. By making this clear and bold resolution PNG can then make real progress dragging ourselves from the edge of an abysss. Act now.