Can Papua New Guinean democracy really survive without the Opposition?

Written by Bal Kama

Bal Kama and PM Peter ONeilWith a rapidly depleting Opposition, the National Capital District Governor, Powes Parkop, made a controversial remark at a public gathering in Port Moresby, that ‘PNG democracy can survive without the Opposition‘. According to Governor Parkop, the members of the O’Neill-Dion government are capable of holding the Executive accountable and democracy can flourish under this condition.

The Registrar of Political Parties, Alphonse Gelu, is concerned that the mass exodus of members of the Opposition to the coalition government is ‘very dangerous’ for Papua New Guinea’s democracy. But for Governor Parkop, it appears the Opposition is unnecessary. As evidenced by commentators [log-in necessary] on social media, the remark is controversial for three reasons.

First, it comes at a time when the Opposition is vocal and has been responsible for bringing to light the ‘Parakagate’ affair. It was the Opposition Leader, Belden Namah, who raised the issue in Parliament and tabled the alleged evidence, including the purported letters implicating the prime minister.

Namah’s deputy, Sam Basil, continues to release media statements challenging the government, while Dr Allan Marat appeared to engineer awareness on many of the complex legal issues implicating the government. Given the size of the Opposition (three out of 111 MPs), their achievements in keeping the government accountable in an era of unprecedented socio-economic development is commendable. Putting a stop to the Opposition is unimaginable.

Second, PNG’s political history has clearly indicated that the Executive should be held accountable to greater scrutiny. While members of the government, including Governor Parkop, may try to make some noise against the Executive in an attempt to demonstrate accountability, one can hardly hear them raising the most critical issues. The silence during Parakagate is an example, and Governor Parkop is a individual example of such silence. He initially threatened to challenge the Manus deal in the Supreme Court, but has remained quiet and the task now falls to the Opposition.

It is likely that the silence within government ranks on these critical issues was to maintain solidarity within the coalition government or, as the Opposition claims, it could be due to the apparent threat to withhold $4 million of District Support Improvement Project (DSIP) funds from the MPs – a charge dismissed by the government.

Whatever the reasons, the Supreme Court, in handing down its decision in the 2011-12 constitutional impasse, reinforced the need for scrutiny of the Executive. In that case, the Court criticised an abusive Executive with a tendency to exploit ‘fundamental gaps’ in the PNG constitution for ‘political convenience rather than acting in the best interest of the country’ (per Deputy Chief Justice Gibbs Salika, para 271).

The recent criticisms by members of the Executive against the decision of the Ombudsman Commission to recommend Prime Minister O’Neill to the Public Prosecutor for alleged misconduct in office further reinforce the need for scrutiny of the Executive. That cannot be achieved within the government ranks, as Governor Parkop seemed to suggest, but externally, and the Opposition is best placed to make sure it happens on the floor of Parliament.

Third, a comment coming from a learned parliamentarian raises some serious questions about the durability and relevance of the current Westminster system of government in PNG. Finance Minister James Marape dismissed fears that ‘weak opposition is bad for our country’ as mere ‘western political idealism’ but he or Governor Parkop failed to prove that the alternative can work.

The constitutional drafters were very cautious in accepting the Westminster system (CPC Report 1974) and Sir Michael Somare recently admitted that he ‘rushed many things’ in claiming PNG’s independence. Could this be one of those ‘rushed things’? Maybe it is time for PNG to reassess these systems as the country nears its 40th year of independence.  Australia may also need to reassess its objectives in dealing with that system.

But for now, a vibrant Opposition is critical for Papua New Guinea and must be encouraged.

Bal Kama is a PhD Candidate at the College of Law, Australian National University.

Bal Kama

Bal Kama began his PhD studies at the Australian National University College of Law in 2014. His dissertation seeks to examine the relationship between the judiciary and the parliament under the Papua New Guinea Constitution.

Bal was admitted as a solicitor in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) after completing his Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice at the Sydney College of Law. Bal graduated from University of Canberra in 2012 with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations and International Studies). He currently teaches at the ANU College of Law and the University of Canberra Faculty of Business, Government and Law.

Bal is also the Founder and Director of Kama Scholars Foundation (KSF), a community-based scholarship and mentoring program for village students and youths in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. In 2016 he was named the Commonwealth Pacific Young Person of the Year.

5 Comments

  • 39 years on and our founding father suddenly admits to “mistakes” from the beginning, a human rights lawyer proposes policies indirectly opposed to democracy, the PM, senior Ministers and Public servants are centre of many serious controversies and a huge K15-K17 Billion debt…let us celebrate what little time we have before 2017, because if nothing changes we might as well migrate somewhere else for shelter.

    The deaf and dumb have an excuse to be tolerant, but what about the average person out there, when our representatives are clearly oblivious to our concerns and immediate needs, when they are aloof to the attack on our democratic systems, when the executive body has ears only for major corporations and their interests…

    Happy 39th year of independence Papua New Guinea, let us celebrate how the nation has survived under ruthless crooks and we pray for the day when independence for our country is less tainted by political greed and incompetence!!

  • Thank you Paul for your comment.

    Yes, in the words of Machiavelli ‘the ends justify the means’.

    I see this as a challenge for PNG political thinkers to do more research in order to find a workable design capturing the vital elements of both traditional and contemporary political systems.

  • Bal, China has proved that the alternative can work.

    I concur with Minister Marape and Governor Parkop. Sometimes we need to think outside the box in order to find a way forward. Enough of looking at the world with a Western lens. The “A vibrant Opposition is critical for PNG” statement is Politics 101.

    China has shown the world that a one-party State can transform a nation. That does not mean that there is no opposition in China. The Communist party has factions namely; the Princelings (decedents of the Revolutionaries), the Tuanpai (members of the Chinese Communist Youth League), the Shanghai gang (followers of Jiang Zemin) and the Tsinghua Clique (Tsunghua graduates). Xi Jingping is from the Princeling faction while Li Keqiang is from the Tuanpai faction.

    In US foreign policy decision making, you have the Kissinger and Brzezinski factions. Both Harvard scholars have created schools of thought that are followed by their students.

    The various factions pursue the principles that are fundamental to their view. Thus they do disagree with each other. Likewise, the various parties in the PNG government can form factions within government to influence decision making.

    My point is factional politics can maintain the balance in the absence of an opposition. So my answer to the question is yes PNG can survive without an opposition but that will require major constitutional amendments and reforms.

    But then again, are the parliamentarians serious in pursuing this path or is this trend reflective of the forces at play in this particular term of parliament?

    • Hi Bernard,

      your point is well made and could be summed up as: ‘The end justifies the means’.

      Peter O’Neill has been determined to have a ‘government of national unity’ ever since as Opposition Leader he was prepared to join Michael Somare in much the same manner as now except with Somare as leader.

      The essence of difference between a democracy and a dictatorship has become somewhat blurred in many places. The real difference is how any government performs and then can be held accountable for their responsibilities.

      Has PNG been better off under this form of government? Has there been less corruption or more? Are many of the PNG political leaders now more accountable and do they do what the voters want? Do the voters have real choices and alternatives that are supposed to happen in a modern pluralistic society?

      If the answer is ‘No!’ then there’s your answer.

      You only have to look at the traditional PNG village to see where many PNG’s political leaders grew up and get their inspiration from. That’s where they are comfortable and so want to recreate that harmony of purpose instead of sustained argument and confrontation that the Westminster system promotes.

      The real issue is one of design. The concept of a village council in PNG has worked well where everyone knows everyone and can see what is happening and can hold their Councillors individually responsible. They live among their own people and can easily accessed and challenged.

      This village paradigm demonstrably can’t work when the people lose contact with their elected leaders and only see them every five years at election times or when they come back to hand out ‘government’ money or equipment.

      This form of government does however allow, when the opportunity presents itself, for personal gain at the expense of others. It also allows for the personal distribution of government funds and largesse as per the culture of the ‘bikman’.

      You should judge a person (read political leader, system or government) on what they do, not what they say.

    • Not responding to any comments so far on having an opposition I would like to draw your attention on the issue.

      PNG politics does not fit into any of the known and practised political systems in the world! We can say PNG practices a Westminster type but if you look at it closely and compare the fundamentals of the approaches PNG goes through from election process in choosing a leader to the way parties form governments, it seems a joke! An elected politician is a leader before and during the campaign period but once s/he gets elected s/he is nothing but a donkey dragged along by an invisible force so this so-called leader loses all thinking power and the dignity s/he has as a person and a leader.

      Who can admit the errors made in the past other than the father of the nation himself, Honourable Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare? That is our hint! PNG needs to go back to its roots and reassess the mistakes and rebuilt its foundation to be a vibrant Westminster democracy! The system at the moment is based on Melanesian ideology which is based on ‘big man’, chieftainship, Maimai, the list goes on.

      There is a talk about who should get into Parliament at the moment;
      Bigmen/women? Businessmen/women? Grassroots? Educated elites? Who?…

      Back to the present about operating a Westminster type of government without opposition by my Governor, Honourable Powes Parkop. I want to pause a question to him with due respect. So far in the current Parliament, which MP from the government ranks has the guts to speak out on sensitive issues apart from the three brave opposition MPs?

      Democracy cannot prevail without an opposition in PNG, period!

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