By Dr HENRY OKOLE
I invariably give a dual response whenever my views are sought on the current political impasse in PNG: the developments that led to the two legitimacy claims to the prime minister’s post.
The other response I give relates to a serious problem of institutional decay in the country.
This is not a new subject and has been raised sporadically in the past.
Institutional decay stems from the inability of existing institutions (be they laws and inherent features of the government system and public service) to accommodate change as society undergoes transformation.
Change is an inevitable process and therefore parts of the state structure ideally should be reviewed or reformed where and when deemed necessary.
The O’Neill-Somare stand-off can be solved, provided the two sides agree to measures that can allow an opportunity to unlock the stalemate. Institutional decay is enduring and would incapacitate the state system if not addressed promptly with constructive solutions.
Political Will and Survival
An apologetic argument is often invoked stipulating that we are a young democracy and therefore we should falter first in our attempts before we perfect our democratic and administrative practices.
Frankly, I do not subscribe to such a lame excuse.
This line of reasoning is similar in assumption to the now defunct linear-stages-of-growth model that was popularised by development economists in the 1950s – 1960s.
It suggested that developing countries could achieve the development status of the major capitalist countries if only they can replicate the appropriate economic and investment policies.
The fact is, the success of democratic and economic growth depends on smart planning, good leadership and the right attitude to drive policy implementation.
Hence, countries need to deal with characteristics inherent to them as they try to achieve the shared universal democratic goals.
Furthermore, such an apologetic argument would hold if PNG was trying to do its best but yet falling short due to reasons such as limited manpower or scarce financial resources.
That is not the case.
The blatant disregard for proper governance and administrative practices by individuals in places of responsibility seems to suggest that these qualities are not prioritised.
We elect some individuals into Parliament who for one reason or another are more focused on the content of the public purse more than the people’s welfare in general.
The public service that is supposed to brace the main pillars of the state has been overly politicised since the 1980s.
Neither should one say that there have not been any warnings of perils ahead if appropriate changes were not made.
Individuals and civil society organisations as well as the donor community have consistently offered warnings and suggestions on a plethora of issues while giving the legitimate right to PNG governments to make policy choices.
The politics behind the three waves of public reform during the 1980s - 1990s revealed the type of thinking and resolve that should have served on hindsight as reference points for self-reflections as to why reforms were necessary in the first place for particular sectors and areas.
Initiatives to undertake decisive reforms were often killed off by neglect and procrastination. Maintaining the status quo was often regarded as necessary for political survival.
For instance, the first-past-the-post electoral system was already producing unrepresentative results in the 1980s given that more candidates were winning seats with smaller percentages of votes.
Yet the country had to wait another two decades before the electoral system was changed.
Sir Mekere Morauta, as prime minister, knew that procrastination was not an option.
Under the concept of ‘Date with Destiny’, he instituted important reforms.
Apart from the change of electoral system to the limited preferential voting system, Sir Mekere also saw through the adoption of the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC), and the controversial privatization programme that covered some state owned enterprises.
Regardless of successes and failures of the reforms in hindsight, the point is Sir Mekere saw the value in instituting change.
State Building in PNG
Understanding institutional decay should start with a proper grasp of how the PNG state was built.
Our state system was superimposed on thousands of ethnic and social groups starting around the 1950s but more so in the 1960s.
Political institutions that were developed and refined over hundreds of years elsewhere were introduced to PNG in less than 20 years.
The first national elections were held in 1964 for the House of Assembly and a mere 11 years later, PNG was granted sovereign statehood with all the trappings of a fully-fleshed modern state.
The rushed transition of authorities from colonial control to independence left the state institutions with little room for preparations.
The small band of educated elites was overawed by responsibilities at hand, though on hindsight they performed admirably.
However, the state institutions were simultaneously left open and vulnerable to opportunism and manipulation by actors and agents who, by virtue of their vantage positions in the state hierarchy, found it to their convenience to step into gaps for personal enrichment and benefits.
The fact that there were overlapping forms of authority, both formal and informal, left the fate of the state at the mercy of those within its hierarchy.
Then there was the design of a new constitution that would define the identity of a population that had a limited sense of nationalism and whose claim to a national history were derived from developments in two separate colonial territories.
A national vision was framed into a constitution and substantiated through a preliminary national consultative process with an audience, many of whom were relatively ignorant of the significance of statehood.
The vision was steered in part by the inspirations drawn particularly from former African colonies.
In essence, what transpired was the development of a ‘home grown’ constitution for a people whose thoughts and aspirations were guided to a future ideal society.
The process required the adoption of foreign political institutions and a public service while an impending vacuum was about to be created by the departing Australian colonial administration.
In this milieu, democracy and the rule of law was expected to take root.
The Westminster model of government was considered most appropriate for the country.
* Dr. Henry Okole is a Senior Research Fellow under the Institutional Strengthening Pillar at the National Research Institute