Mixed outcomes & missed opportunities for PNG’s economy
A Journey Awaits

Wimping it out in Waigani – and the rest of PNG

Anti-corruption activists  2015
Anti-corruption activists, 2015 - despite the excesses against the people of PNG, there is no mass push for change that has any significant impact


TUMBY BAY - I attended my first political protest in late 1969 while home on leave from Papua New Guinea. It was an anti-Vietnam war rally.

Somehow I managed to get caught up in a group that was carted off to the city watch house by the police.

Most of my co-arrestees were either long haired, bearded types or women who made a point of not wearing a bra. They were all colourfully dressed in the hippy fashions of the time. By contrast I was short-haired, beardless and conventionally dressed.

Thus disguised I simply took advantage of the confusion and walked out the door. Luckily no one stopped me. I had no desire to answer any awkward questions when I got back to work in Papua New Guinea.

The experience nevertheless jarred something in my consciousness and it led to a lifelong interest in politics and prompted me to add a politics major to my already erratic and eclectic curriculum vitae.

Among other subjects, I studied political ideology, social policy and administration, the politics of labour, political perspectives of mining, the politics of non-violence and women’s studies.

I managed to get some reasonable marks, including a couple of high distinctions. I mention this not to brag but to establish my bona fides as a political nerd.

You can only take this sort of stuff so far however.

While I generally understand political motivations in Australia and other western democracies like the USA and the UK, my theoretical knowledge and experiences simply don’t work when it comes to places like Papua New Guinea.

Even though I think I’ve got a fair handle on what makes people tick in our nearest neighbour, their politics leave me baffled.

Papua New Guinea is not only an economic swamp but a political quagmire that seems to defy all logic.

If what has happened and is happening in Papua New Guinea occurred anywhere else in the world it would set off a chain of fairly predictable reactions, chief among them political activism.

Where you have corporate pirates with unlimited resources, money and influence, as in Papua New Guinea, the only weapon the public has is outrage expressed through activism.

Public outrage and activism eventually ended the Vietnam War for instance. If it can do that a bunch of ravenous businessmen and politicians should be chicken feed.

Outrage and activism normally arrives when the bad guys have been exposed and there is widespread awareness of their activities.

That’s when outrage explodes into life and changes begin to happen.

And yet in Papua New Guinea, where the nefarious and corrupt activities of big business and their lackeys in government have repeatedly been exposed, there has been no big bang.

What is going on?

What on earth is wrong with the people that they can’t even get organised to fight back?

There have been a few wimpy demonstrations in Port Moresby that ultimately fizzled and which the government has buried but that’s about it.

Except for a few cops demanding their cut of APEC why hasn’t parliament house been stormed?

Where are all the firebrands, the movers and shakers, the organisers and the dedicated? Where are the patriots?

Where are all the people with the guts to take on the big guys instead of just whining about them on social media?

Maybe they’ve gone fishing?

Who knows.


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Arthur Williams

Phil - As usual your post gets us thinking and blogging too.
I often find that the blogs both here on PNG Attitude and elsewhere in the internet media are sometimes more enlightening than the original item.

Some are full of erudition, personal experiences, unknown but well sourced facts; others humorous or sardonic takes on twenty first century life.

Your shortlived foray into protest before becoming a pillar of Canberra’s outreach in PNG and Jim’s mention of the Vietnam War instantly caused me to recall Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 hit – ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. So much so I had to hear it again this morning at www.youtube.com/watch?v=m57gzA2JCcM.

Having just entered my ninth decade it touches some raw emotion about those long gone but never forgotten 1960s that included some of the most important moments in my life: well until the final patrol arrives.

What I read as the central theme of your post is ‘maski’. That so often heard Pidgin word that could quite often jar one’s thoughts possibly about something you felt was very important.

Replaced in the 21st century over here with a similar conversational blank wall or full-stop when someone says to you, “Whatever!”

It is very annoying and I have had to stifle the rising bile of retaliation and as observers have told me: “Ai bilong yu I ret pinis!” ‘Too bloody right mate’, I would think.

In my recent blog on clear felling degradation of my wife’s island I tried to describe just as you have today why the Lavongais and similarly affected tribes have allowed themselves to be trod roughshod into the blood red muddy jinker trails of the once evergreen forests.

Not even a simple home-made banner of protest outside RH’s HQ in Kavieng or outside the elite local spivs’ homes. Of course not he is our cousin brother or can’t do that he’s my wife’s uncle.

I repeat my experience running the Council election in 1971 or 1972 when much to my surprise a female nominated in the Nuslik and Lukus Islands ward.

Wow what great kudos for my election report that would eventually go on its paper trail to the desk-wallahs in the District, Waigani and even Canberra. It certainly would give my superiors something to write about for what until then was just another run of the mill rural election.

Polling ended and I soon counted the hundred or so votes. The result surprised me because especially during my College years I had been a secretary for a quite large ward and managed to help elect another Williams who would go on in 2005 to be the father of the House of Commons before retiring before the blue tide of Toryism hit the UK.

Oh, the wandering mind of the aged. That momentous result for women’s lib - nil votes! Yes not one. I asked her why she hadn’t voted for herself and she replied, “Me seim long fait wantaim Ade. Emi gutpela Kaunsila.”

With hundreds I marched behind Harold Wilson helping to hold the beautifully embroidered crimson Swansea banner but that was merely a get together of the converted gathering later to listen to his flowing oration in Llandridnod.

However I have participated at a protest. Not a well-attended event as I was the only one taking part in the slow early morning perambulation of Taskul’s tiny police station carrying my banner.

It said, ‘WE (optimistically) HAVE THE RIGHT TO PUBLICLY PROTEST’. I had been so annoyed the previous evening when the PPC spoke on Radio New Ireland telling us peasants they must get his permission before holding any protest march. So that was my democratic attempt at freedom of assembly.

In the early morning sunshine I must have made six or more walks around the fibro-walled Haus Polis before the corporal in charge sent a constable out to ask me what on earth was I doing. Here’s my chance I thought hoping to at least get arrested and have my day in court with local NBC ‘Solwara Antap’ hanging on my every word.

I explained to him my motives for the public march. Just thought, can a lone person walking being classified as a march? He got me smiling then laughing and so ended my long walk to freedom for the Lavongai and New Ireland people.

I walked down to my hut near the beach and got told off my spouse too, “Gusai man! Yu wanpela longlong waitman. Painim wok?” That day democracy seemed to die in my heart.

Just a note on your braless co-protesters Phil, they at least made two points: 1 - Suppression of the masses. 2 - How the mighty have fallen.

Maski no ken harim dispel man!

Philip Fitzpatrick

All right, let's say that tribalism in those places has 'diminished' to a point where a national unity is possible.

At some point the tribalism in PNG will reach a point where its significance also diminishes enough to allow for some kind of unity and national outlook.

The more people move around and intermarry the quicker that will happen.

So with luck and maybe in a couple of hundred years PNG will reach a point where fair and free elections are possible.

In the meantime....?

Paul Oates

Sorry Phil, from a recent visit to Ireland and parts of Scotland etc. tribalism is still alive and very well nourished.

When you look past the veneer of even our multi cultured society, you can easily identify where tribalism still rules in spite of common sense and education.

Humans throughout the world are tribal. It's just how much of an influence it is allowed to have on the three arms of government e.g. Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.

The only influence that traditionally unifies human societies is the presence of a larger threat that is perceived to outweigh the everyday disunity, inherent in all human societies. Even then, only if there is an effective leader for everyone to follow, can there hopefully be unity and movement in the right direction.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Agree with you Chips except for the "and it always will be".

There are plenty of examples where tribalism died out - my father's Ireland and my mother's England for example.

Roll on the "United States (Tribes) of Papua New Guinea".

Bernard Corden

"Those who cast votes decide nothing, those who count the votes decide everything" - Joseph Stalin

Chris Overland

It is a strange irony that PNG's politicians are, at one level at least, entirely representative of those who elect them, yet apparently incapable of genuinely representing any interests but those of their immediate supporters and, of course, themselves.

The notion of the national interest seems to remain so abstract for them as to be simply incomprehensible.

Mind you, you have Parliaments full of very similar politicians in Australia, where the interests of their financial backers (and the ideology they share) remain a paramount consideration.

Ditto the USA, Britain and many other places besides, where the political classes are floundering around, unable or unwilling to understand the dire necessity to reform the prevailing neo-liberal economic model that has simultaneously brought so much good as well as grief.

This is one important reason why confidence in democracy has collapsed so precipitously over the last decade or so.

The cure for this disease lies with us, the voters. If we want something different, then we must demand it and vote accordingly.

In Australia there is some evidence that at least some of the voters have figured this out, hence the outbreak of independent MPs and Senators that so mightily vexes the established parties.

As for PNG, it certainly looks like business as usual. Worse still, there is no hint of the green shoots of genuine reform that is so obviously necessary.

Like much of the developing world, PNG remains a prisoner of its cultural norms which, in turn, means that its journey towards a truly democratic and representative government will be long, painful and, frankly, quite problematic.

The awful truth may well be that authoritarian regimes will become the preferred model of governance in such countries, where stability and the needs of the nation (as interpreted by the usual suspects) are valued above individual rights.

This is the model exhibited by China and, to some extent at least, Russia and Turkey. This method of governance always seems to work right up to the moment it doesn't but, despite this, it remains seductive to the ignorant and unwary.

The history of other post colonial states hardly encourages optimism about PNG.

We clearly are at a pivot point in history as one great power is, relatively speaking, in irreversible decline (sorry Donald) while another is arising, being a reborn Imperial China.

No-one appears to have the first clue about how things are going to play out. We can only hope for the best and try to avoid the obvious failures of the past, notably the infamous Thucydides Trap.

PNG will be a mere innocent bystander in whatever it is that is going to happen.

Paul Oates

Both Raymond and Ross have highlighted the cultural divide that existed prior the PNG Independence and still exists today between Canberra and Waigani.

Foreign Affairs didn't want to know anyone with actual grass roots experience in 1975 and still doesn't. That situation also pertains to other government departments. Practical experience is a direct threat to those who haven't got it and those who can't understand the value of it.

The sad thing about ignoring practical experience is that it suits both Canberra and Waigani. Neither wants to know or use what is still currently available.

Highlighting Phil's conjecture and underscoring Chris Overland's viewpoints, nothing short of a revolution or a real or perceived national threat will alter the status quo while ever there is enough food and water resources available for the ever increasing PNG population.

Also, 5 years between general elections is far too long a period to allow some sort of accountability at the ballot box where previous political decisions are long since forgotten in the rush to get a share of the 'spoils' before next impending voting commences.

The rules about a no confidence votes are also so complex as to make it as difficult as possible to organise and easy enough to provide enough time to 'white ant' any defections before they alter the status quo.

Chips Mackellar

Raymond, Jim and Paul are all correct Phil, and the reason for no political activism in PNG can be described in one word: Tribalism. It always has been and it always will be.

Or as Hemingway might have said of PNG if he had been asked, "The sun also rises, even in PNG, and even in PNG there is nothing new under the sun."

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's a great response Raymond and I think you are right in your conclusions.

As a political context PNG is quite different to what we expect in a western style democracy.

The Education Department probably killed off the only spark of political activism that exists in PNG.

There is a certain irony in all this when you see political commentators talking about grass roots revolutions in places like the Philippines.

In PNG the grass roots don't care.

Not yet anyway.

Ross Wilkinson

Phil has raised another interesting question that I can’t respond to without also responding to his earlier question about who stuffed up PNG.

Numerous contributors have also posed the question “how do we get rid of them?” Clearly, if an armed uprising is to be avoided, it has to be at the ballot box. But does the population as a whole understand and will the government let them?

I’ll claim some expertise here as a student, tutor, observer and participant over many years. This started as a liklik kiap running council and national elections in the villages until, in 1979, I was transferred back in to Madang from Saidor to be the provincial returning officer for the first provincial government elections.

This included managing the election of office bearers in the first elected Assembly.

As a result of this experience I was seconded to the PNG Electoral Commission as its principal training officer. My role was to travel around to those provinces that hadn’t yet held their elections and train their staff.

On return to Australia because of my employment with various local government councils over the years, I was engaged in the organisation and management of councillor elections.

I also registered with the Australian and Victorian State Electoral Commissions and managed polling places for them for 30 Years. I studied politics at university and tutored politics students at TAFE colleges.

So, as I see it, the problem lies with the compatibility of the voting system to the issues that Paul raised regarding cultural and tribal diversity.

When Australia established the democratic parliament and the system to democratically elect the representatives did it consider what was best for PNG? Did it consider these issues and how they would affect the results?

Did it consider the political sophistication of all PNG people or was it a case of the Australian government assuming that because it works well in Australia it would work well in PNG?

After a number of years of this and the ensuing confusion, the PNG government amended the voting method to first past the post and, whilst this was understood by the people, it pandered to the 'big man' with the largest village getting its preferred candidate elected.

It had to change and was replaced by a limited preferential system. However, following the results showing how easily the method could be manipulated (refer the Maladina case), the prime minister has indicated a return to the former first past the post which will significantly favour him and his cohorts. So much for electoral reform!

Raymond Sigimet

There may be different points to consider and put into perspective Papua New Guinea’s general lack of political activism.

I believe it all boils down to a general void in any political leanings in PNG society. We have the villagers and their ignorance and lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of politics. And those who are educated but lack the courage by taking the easy way out by remaining silent.

Because of illiteracy and ignorance, the majority of the people cannot talk political activism at the national level. They can talk about village politics but their comprehension and understanding of the workings of the different time-tested political ideologies and economics models is limited or vague.

Village politics mostly involve land and boundaries. When it comes to national politics, they are only interested in government service and what their political leader can provide for them.

For the majority rural based population, as long as their land and boundary is secured, they have their gardens and cash crops, they can go out hunting and fish and they have enough warriors to defend themselves; the idea of demonstrating, boycotting or calling the government to account for corruption and bad policies is a foreign concept to them.

From my limited understanding of people’s political activism in PNG, I think there were of course, a few sparks of post-independence activism like the rioting, looting and parliament march during the Sandline Crisis and the students’ boycott and demonstration against the Land Mobilisation programme.

We also had a few individuals like Francis Ona leading his people to revolt against a mining giant and the government in Bougainville.

For most of the cases, it was the involvement of students that got people motivated to take part in forcing Sir Julius Chan to step down in 1997 and the Land Mobilisation programme to be scrapped in early 2000.

The student union since independence is the only social group, representing the people, which has actively participated in political demonstrations and boycotts. The students are a major threat to government decisions and policies as seen in the examples above.

The idea of political activism within the student union got shot by the education department. It may have been a targeted one or an accidental one because of change in policy.

Firstly, political science as an elective course in the national high schools was scraped sometime in mid-1990. Secondly, the dumbing down of the education system with the introduction of OBE saw a general lack of national unity and identity in institutions of higher learning from students coming from provincial secondary schools.

The 2016 boycott from students demanding Peter O’ Neill to step down as prime minister was all a waste. There was no real coordination from student leaders.

There was no unity, plan of action and clear objective of the boycott. Political interference and a general reluctance of civil society to support the students saw a year of turmoil and waste.

The government, university academics, some political leaders and people in general, told the students how stupid and dumb of them to stage their boycott.

It's all a waste to call upon the prime minister to step aside and answer to allegations of official corruption. They should have stayed in the classroom. Activism was killed by our own people then and there.

I think politics in PNG does not really put into perspective whether someone is left leaning or right. Or whether a leader is a realist or liberal or conservative. Politics in PNG is still very much a “big man” system. The government has development plans but whether these plans have in them a political ideology is anyone’s guess.

Jim Moore

Interesting memories re Vietnam demos, Phil.

In West New Britain in 1972, a Cadet Patrol Officer (who I won’t name – I don’t know if he is still alive even) was sprung importing some marijuana seeds from Australia.

He was fined a very nominal amount, not enough to justify sacking apparently, but he was immediately considered a huge risk to good order and government.

So the conservative machinery of government sprang into action, and discovered this fellow had been in an anti-war demo in Sydney in the late 60’s, convicted and fined the huge sum of $10.

Unfortunately, when he applied for the CPO position, he didn’t disclose this huge crime against humanity, so the establishment was able to terminate his CPO contract on the basis of failure to disclose a prior conviction.

He left the service and was required to leave PNG, and I don’t know what happened to him. I do remember he was a perfectly competent and worthwhile officer, though. He could have performed good work for PNG, but it was not to be.

Paul Oates

The key to issue Phil, is PNG's traditional diversity. The British for example, were able to subjugate India by the process of 'Dividing and Conquering'. In PNG, with around the best part of 1,000 ethnically diverse and separate language groups, solidarity is currently a 'Pipe Dream'.

The second cultural impediment to mass political change is envy. Rather than hold those corrupt responsible, a large majority exemplifies these politicians as heroes who are held in begrudging esteem as examples to emulate, if only one could get the chance to do so.

In other words, it's the tribal politics of the village but on a grand scale. National identity and national interest have never been able to develop past a vague notion of common interest that can very easily fragment.

The potential for mass movements will never develop while ever there is cultural envy and rivalry between clans, tribes or Provinces the fires of which can be fanned up to the advantage of whoever is doing the fanning.

The usual manner that national identity is instilled in a nation is external or internal threat or threats. Elsewhere in the Pacific, in Fiji, the ethnicity of the Fijian villagers and the Indian business owners flared into a potential civil war. In the Solomons, the problem of the Malaita islanders who were used in the Second World War as labourers and then stayed on and bred up started a civil war that wasn't helped by envy over the Chinese trade store owners. In Noumea and elsewhere in French Polynesia, there's the simmering conflict between the original inhabitants and the French speaking colonists.

In South East Asia, Indonesia had the Dutch and then Malaysia and Portuguese Timor. The Vietnamese initially had the French. Etc. etc.

So what is a PNG budding politician to use as a rallying point for national identity and mass solidarity? Personal gain or a vague notion of helping the traditional outsiders?

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