R. I. P.
In remote Kodoro village, Enoch has a lighter load to carry

Left, right, centre – where does PNG’s government sit?


TUMBY BAY - In Australia and in other parts of the world there seems to be a monumental power struggle going on between the political forces of the right and the political forces of the left.

If you believe the pundits it’s an urgent existential struggle that will determine the very survival of our planet.

The terminology has been subtly changing too. We are now openly calling the political right ‘conservatives’ and the political left ‘progressives’.

In simple terms the battle that is raging is between people who not only want to preserve the status quo but take us back to what they see as the halcyon days of the past and people who are saying those ideals don’t cut it anymore and the world needs a new political and social model if it is going to survive.

This is all heady stuff and it’s hard for the average person to work out where they stand in the struggle. Or if they want a position at all. Many people seem to have given up and buried their heads in the sand.

As the constant barrage rings out on televisions, radios and websites, there is a gathering sense of impending doom. It is as if the end of days is imminent.

As respite and as a diversion, I’ve taken to watching old movies and reading books well out of print.

Last night I watched John Ford’s classic 1939 movie ‘Drums Along the Mohawk’ about the American war of independence.

The night before I was reading Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ about the impact of colonialism on Nigeria.

I’m not burying my head in the sand, I just think it’s wise to take a breather every now and again for the sake of one’s sanity.

In the process of exploring some of this old literature and drama it occurred to me that this idea of a left and right, a conservative side and a progressive side in society is by no means new or unusual.

It is a concept that has always existed at the family level, the clan and tribal level and the national level.

Those elders who resisted colonialism in places like early America, Africa and Papua New Guinea, strangely enough, had much in common with the conservatives who are reverting to isolationism and protectionism in the present time.

No one called them right wing hardliners or terms like that but that’s what they were.

In contrast, those young firebrands who enthusiastically embraced the new way of life brought by the missionaries and colonial officers had much in common with the progressives who are now calling for action on climate change, a rethink of our financial systems and rights for various minorities.

This is all pretty simplistic. The real situation is decidedly more complex.

However, if you look at it all in those terms it becomes apparent that there is merit in both sides of the political spectrum.

In Papua New Guinea we constantly hear people calling for the re-establishment of traditional values as a panacea for the woes brought by modernism.

This argument has a lot going for it, even if it is a conservative or right wing view.

At the same time there are people who are appalled by how traditions like the bigman and wantok cultures have been subverted and are calling for their abolishment and a re-education of the people.

That argument also has a lot going for it.

If you put the two together you have what is called a centrist view. A little bit of the left and a little bit of the right. People are now talking about this compromise position as the ‘sensible centre’.

So where does the current Papua New Guinean government sit? Is it right wing, left wing or centrist?

It’s not a question that’s been asked much before.

Michael Somare’s first government might have been labelled left wing by the Australian government at the time but apart from its involvement in the independence movement its policies were generally those normally associated with a centrist government.

Successive governments were also difficult to pin down but were also mostly accepted as conservative because of their preoccupations with the economy over broader social issues.

The missing element over all this time was something with which to compare it. There has never been, until now, an effective opposition with a clear political agenda.

I think the current opposition in Papua New Guinea under the leadership of people like Bryan Kramer and Gary Juffa could be accurately labelled as left wing, or at the very least centrist.

In any event it offers a fairly stark contrast to Peter O’Neill’s decidedly conservative outfit.

Perhaps through its extreme incompetence and corruption the O’Neill government has done Papua New Guinea a favour by causing an opposition to grow and mature.

Is this important or am I just playing with semantics or trying to foist a western take on what has been to date an unusual political arrangement?

I don’t think so. To me this development portends a potential maturing of politics in Papua New Guinea.

Finally, after great cost to the country as a whole, a portion of its political class seems to be growing up.

In this sense I think the present changes are highly significant.

And if they continue to develop by providing a substantial role for women in the national parliament (at present all 111 members are male), the process of maturisation will accelerate.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Barbara Short

I put my two comments on MP Allan Bird's Facebook discussion page and he replied....

"Barbara Short you nailed it. Our politics is about money and power. Going to church, quoting scripture, it's all part of maintaining the facade.

"It's all about cutting deals which ultimately benefit yourself and your little tribal group.

"There are a tiny minority of us that are bucking the trend. I honestly don't care if I lose the next election. But while I am here, I will do as much damage as I can to those who are feeding off the system.

"This week I have the Fraud Squad in the province investigating complaints from illegal land deals, rorting of teachers leave fares, stealing of school funds, etc. Basically anything and everything. I hope to bring them annually.

"As far as I know, I am the only MP that is doing this, working with the Fraud Squad. I don't care much for power. I just want things to work the way they were intended."

So I think Allan Bird has explained something. It is corruption at all levels of society that is poisoning PNG. It is probably something that could have been exposed and corrected by people willing to speak out in the press and in the churches, and in the parliament. But it has been left up to the Fraud Squad.

Facebook warriors have also played their part but they have no power to prosecute.

Paul Oates

While that's true Phil, the principle remains the same.

In the old days wealth could not be stored as it was perishable. Therefore it had to be given away to create status through reciprocity.

Now wealth can be stored and used as required to attain status and prestige.

Caring for one's people can be a tricky thing to evaluate. It all depends on your interpretation of who are one's people and how do you care for them?

Clearly our concept of caring differs from that of the current PNG government. It's not all that different from our systems these days when you think about it. Spend the right amount on pork barreling and you get the prize.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Big difference Paul - in the old bigman system a man achieved status by distributing his accumulated wealth.

In the new bigman system there's no distribution, they keep it.

In the old system bigmen acquired their wealth through socially recognised legitimate ways.

In the new system bigmen acquire their wealth through corruption and theft.

In the old bigman system the bigmen cared about their people.

In the new bigman system they don't give a shit.

Barbara Short

I think the secret is to allow other MPs to get the $$$ by acquiring land, contracts for their family businesses, etc.. then you get their vote.

I know of one famous MP who came into the government side so he could be allowed to handle all the money meant for his province.

We know of another who came so his electorate would get the funds due to it.

There are many stories but it all comes back to money in the hands of MPs, not to ideology.

Paul Oates

It's just a simple extension of PNG 'Big Man' custom. Instead of pigs and food it's now money.

Pasin bilo ol tumbuna tasol. Ol wantok isave pinis ya!

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's really interesting Barbara. I wonder whether we can tease it out a bit further.

I assumed O'Neill got the job because he was the leader of his party but perhaps he had to cough up kina to actually secure it.

If that is the case I wonder where the kina came from.

Barbara Short

One of my Sepik wantoks just summed it up....

Something I found out is that, the election and appointment of PM in PNG is not the same as that in Australia & NZ where the leader of the party with the most seats assumes the PMs role.

Why is that? Has PNG set a precedent over the years where MPs votes were bought with $$$, that they have to now see the $$$ before they make their move? And the guy with the most and best offer of $$$ is sure to secure for himself the PM's post?

Paul Oates

Ah Harry, that's brilliant. Well done mate.

Tru tumas poroman.

Harry Topham

On current and past performances, Left Right Out would probably be the best description of PNG's current government especially as applies to it citizens.

Paul Oates

Phil - Your suggestion that it is possible to place political aspirations into a convenient box of either conservative (read right) or ‘progressive’ (read left) depends on one’s own political perspective.

To some, the term ‘left’ might in some places be termed socialist and the ‘right’ termed ‘status quo’ or reactionary.

In recent human history, so called progressive ‘national socialist’ movements turned out to be emphatically reactionary.

Look at the 20th Century where the German Nazis and the Italian fascists virtually completed the full circle and connected the right and the left to further their own ends.

If the old USSR started off as a socialist left it soon brought in reactionary arrangements to keep itself in power. Japan started off leaning ‘right’ and then just kept going.

Some nations decided a long time ago that the answer was to bring the various ‘leanings’ together to sort out their differences and constructively work out a balanced way forward to suit the majority. In our case, our so-called Westminster system is just one example.

But the Westminster system depends on the rule of law and effective sanctions being imposed if the nation’s laws are broken.

The problem is then to keep the nation’s laws in step with the expectations of the majority of the nation. Clearly there will always be a certain ‘catch up’ phase where those laws have either been superseded or found to be ineffective.

In the case of PNG, clearly the nation’s laws have been found to be ineffective in maintaining what the majority of the nation want.

Or…. have they? We hear almost every day the constant claim that the political system is not providing what the people want. Yet no real changes are apparently able to be made to ensure the people receive what it is claimed the majority actually want.

Therefore, it might be argued by an independent observer that the present state of affairs is essentially what the majority of the people want; i.e. to be left alone to do what they have always done before. Surely this is a natural conservative view?

As has been quoted many times, some wag in the PNG Parliament explained about progress. ‘Yes, but Mr Speaker, you can progress forwards and progress backwards!’

Therefore Phil, I suggest PNG and her government is demonstrably ‘right’ of centre by definition.

Philip Fitzpatrick

It's easy to dismiss the idea of a left and right in PNG politics as insignificant and irrelevant but I think any development in that direction will ultimately be good for the country.

The mish-mash of politicians who dodge and weave through different alliances to maximise their own personal wealth and power will, as Peter O'Neill is demonstrating, eventually bankrupt the country.

The appearance of a small group of "progressives" more interested in principles and ideology, as we see now in Kramer et al, is therefore encouraging.

To have an effective system of government and opposition you need that difference of ideals.

Left and right seems to be a convenient way to tell them apart.

In recent years Australia has been dogged by a government and opposition that is indistinguishable. That is now changing and we are the better for it.

Barbara Short

I've also been studying the political dynamics of PNG and trying to understand what is going on.

At the moment I feel in the case of many of the MPs the actual political Left and Right wing ideals mean nothing. They are just in it for themseleves in the hope that one day they will become the Prime Minister.. the Chief of PNG.

Before the last election we had the rise of the present Opposition who fought on the anti-corruption platform. They are a very mixed group but I feel it fair to say they include many who are more highly educated than those on the present Government side.

That does not necessarity make them more popular.

I have just met up with one of my old Head Boys from my Keravat days, a highly intelligent God fearing man, with great leadership skills, from a fine family who was soon elected into the parliament. But once the corruption set in and people wanted to be bribed to vote he lost his seat in parliament.

To me the Party system in PNG makes for confusion. Somare worked hard to get all the provinces to work together and we ended up with no Opposition. But now we see a trend to try to get the MPs from each province to work together for the good of the province, whether they are in Government or Opposition. This often means people from a number of different parties have to work together.

As you can see I am not an expert on Politics but am enjoying reading all the comments on Facebook. Marape's recent comment is facinating. He says he is not after the Prime Minister's position should a Vote of No Confidence be called. He just wants to look after Hela Province.

Others see this as him saying to the PM "give me money for Hela and I'll still support you". So I feel the dynamics of PNG politics is played around money and power not ideologies.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)