Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 03:19 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 03:19 | SYDNEY

PNG disciplines The Chief


Graeme Dobell

25 March 2011 14:08

No Australian Prime Minister will be forced to emulate Michael Somare and step down for failing to comply with the leadership code. Or be suspended for two weeks for failing to lodge returns on his financial dealings.

But the only reason Australia will be spared this drama is because the Commonwealth does not have a leadership law with the ambition or force of PNG (plus, the federal parliament has spared itself the independent anti-corruption commissions created by the Australian states). Perhaps this is something PNG does better than Australia.

At the very least, the PNG system is trying to enforce the highest standards against The Chief, the most powerful man in the country. The Somare clan are a fascinating feature of PNG politics. See this discussion by one of Australia's great PNG-ists, Hank Nelson.

The usual stance for an Australian discussing the political dramas and security dilemmas confronting PNG is to lay out a menu of woe and worries (and over 40 years in journalism, I've generated my share of woe-is-PNG pieces). 

PNG always has plenty of security challenges. But before turning to the problems, look at important things PNG has achieved in the key institutions of politics and law. Many of the dark predictions have not come to pass. And see these reasons to be a bit optimistic about PNG's future.

The PNG state has done better than Australia's worst fears. And to give the judgment a sharper point, PNG has done better than Australia was entitled to expect, given the hasty and limited preparations for self-government as the colonial power exited south. At the time of independence in 1975, Australia's polity worried that PNG would emulate the African decolonisation model and, rapidly descend to inevitable failure as a broken-backed dictatorship — Congo chaos on our doorstep.

PNG's health and education statistics do echo the worst of Africa, but PNG's parliamentary democracy is robust, raucous and in rude health. PNG politics calls for Melanesian 'big men' not African 'strong men', and the distinction does define some differences. 

The element of corruption is similar, but a mark of the 'big man' is how well he distributes bounty amongst 'wantoks' (one talks) and supporters. And the turnover of 'big men' can be fast. (With only 1% of Parliamentary seats held by women, the 'man' part of designation is accurate.)

A nation with more than 800 languages is too tribal ever to be efficient. Fragmentation, however, does offer checks and balances. No ethnic group can dominate, and if the PNG Defence Force ever tried to seize permanent power through a coup, it would first have to go to war with another important 'tribe' – the police.

No one political party can rule alone. All governments must be coalitions. All elections are fiercely contested and with all their flaws, election results are accepted; the losers merely resolve to cheat with more creativity and energy at the next poll.

The 'big men' are often only as corrupt as they need to be. The PNG system has produced a notable number of good leaders, as well as leaders remembered for deeply corrupt and criminal behaviour, such as Bill Skate. Equally, PNG has been well served by leaders who have been conscientious and competent, even as they fulfil the duties of 'big men'. And some of the honest prime ministers have not necessarily been the most effective.

In discussing political corruption in PNG, Australians need to keep an eye on their own record. Population size means PNG can be compared with various Australian states; and the Australian states have had their share of government ministers, even a Premier, dispatched to jail for being corrupt.

In tutting about PNG, Australians need to recall that not long ago The Economist could render the letters AWB as Australians Who Bribe, in honour of the Australian Wheat Board's payment of US$220 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, breaking UN sanctions.

Among the many things Michael Somare has done in leading PNG for 16 of its 35 years as a nation has been his demonstrated willingness to lose government by a no-confidence vote in the Parliament. 

The Chief performed a similar service in December when he obeyed the courts and stepped down as Prime Minister. Somare faced the leadership tribunal because, for decades, he disobeyed a law requiring him to file annual returns listing his assets and business dealings.

The examination of Somare's leadership followed another court-inspired remaking of the PNG Parliament's political dynamics. The Supreme Court overturned the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates. The Law stabilised PNG politics for nearly a decade by compelling MPs to remain with the party they represented when elected. By disallowing the Law, the Court has returned to MPs their constitutional right to regularly shift parliamentary allegiances and unmake governments, in search of perks and power.

PNG has an independent judiciary delivering rule of law that can have impacts as robust as its politics. Along with all its problems and manifest defects, PNG's democracy and the role of its courts are noteworthy achievements.

Photo, of Sir Michael Somare, speaking to the Lowy Institute in 2008.