Monday, March 08, 2010

Power returned to the people

The restoration of fairness and general social wellbeing in Papua New Guinea


Even if 2012’s election sees a really dedicated reformist group in the lead, a compromise will already have been made. Fence-sitting parties must be promised inducements to join in coalition, so forming a majority. Inducements shaped in a mould formed by tradition, but a mould filled with the spurious metal of personal greed and opportunism. An alloy entirely lacking in idealism or care for the future, devoid also of that most essential ingredient, the principle of separation of powers.

Here is hegemony. Here are opportunities for men who, though well-educated, possess little understanding of the outside world or care for principles of probity and transparency in public life. Such men, once elected, adopt lordly guise, endowed with the means to dispense largesse in the name of “electoral development funds.” Funds provided as of right with sketchy supporting budgets and plans. Funds dispensed without reference to relevant government managers and technocrats, completely sidelining these in task-related lines of control and technical expertise. Hungry for personal wealth and the adulation of their own clansmen, a great number of today’s MPs are in the game entirely for themselves.

It was not until the end of WW2 that Papua New Guinea began to understand anything of the rest of the world; its material and social substance; its history, its systems of law and its main preoccupations. Some peripheral inland areas remained un-contacted by exploratory patrols until as late as 1960.

Then in a dozen years beginning with the compilation of the first national electoral rolls, the first national election which followed in 1964, and ending in full independence in September 1975, this tribally-constituted society took a huge and unprecedented leap. Ancient tradition and custom was the underlying basis for belief and lifestyle everywhere. Full independence and emergence onto the world stage as an independent nation-state was rejoiced in, but it created opportunities and empowerment for a privileged few who have led the new nation along a steady downward path in terms of the health, wealth and the wellbeing of many.

As years pass, the people, once joyous in their new, enhanced free status, have become dissatisfied, perplexed and justifiably cynical regarding their leadership. They don’t know where their power has gone. There was never any social dichotomy based on variances in wealth, opportunity or the ownership of land and resources. No class of hereditary aristocrats, landowners and priests with an interest in suppressing a lower order existed. All were landowners; all had a voice in communal affairs within the admittedly small clan-based societies in which they lived. Because of this happy circumstance there was no need for party-based politics here. PNG’s society identifies with its land and the burial-places of its ancestors; not with a class system and associated iniquities and privileges. A regional representative system would have fitted well, but did not arise. The established party-system floats on society’s surface like a film of oil in a pond. No-one understands it except its managers and the MPs themselves. To these the system represents a collection of opportunistic clubs endowed with the potential to move a man from an ordinary social background to an environment where wealth and influence are easily appropriated by one who is both manipulative and socially adept.

As it stands today PNG is in a state of rolling social/civil crisis. The rule of law is almost entirely absent; there is no firm hand upon the steering-wheel; the arrival of predicted vast returns from the newly-sanctioned gas resource projects will only increase pressure and disorder and discontent within this society. A society which already has great difficulty in managing and accounting for the rents it receives from extractive industries already established. There is no evidence that the situation will be abated, let alone rectified under the present leadership, and little reason to expect the current style and substance of administration to alter even though names change after the election to come.

How may PNG engender the rise of a sympathetic, socially-conscious, “structured-to-fill-real-needs” sort of political regime? A fairer and more open regime where the basic needs of society are met and the rule of law is re-established? Attempts to persuade politicians unilaterally to improve existing practice and systems in any dramatic way will meet resistance. A revolution or a coup is unlikely in the near to mid- future and in any case will only produce more of the same; more gravy for the already well-fed. Papua New Guineans from all walks of life ponder this question and shake their heads.

But there is a way. A way which is potentially non-confrontational and entirely constitutional, and one which will need little if any re-jigging of current legislation.

Soon after the end of WW2, the Australians initiated a system of Local Government Councils. Tentative at first, the system was accepted by the people and began to be expanded. Valuable as a means to steer society into the ways of western-style democracy, the LGC system as it was called-(today the Local Level Government or LLG system) - replaced the existing didactic, paternal connection between society and government where each village possessed an appointed official, effectively the go-between and enforcer-of-orders as handed down by the powerful District Officer and his subordinates.

The dawn of the councils in the early 1950s introduced the concept of communal elections and the secret ballot. The councils were designed to arise in such a form as would be easy for the people to identify with. Here was to be a meeting-place where the community’s concerns and needs, once examined and agreed might then be sent upstairs to the mighty “gavman” for action or advice. It was hoped that the people would take ownership of this system and the empowering ideal it was based on, and largely-speaking they did.

From the start it was expected that LGCs would take responsibility for maintenance of minor public infrastructure; feeder roads, bridges, communal market-places and medical aid-post- buildings. Recognising that the electorates were not in a position to support such activities from their own meagre resources, the LGCs were provided with the necessary training, the needed funds, and help in planning by the central government via the various District Offices. Through the formative years of the 1960s and early 70s the desired path was followed. In 2010 there are 300 or so LLGs, but almost all are moribund. Only those centred upon urban areas where land-rates and service charges levied by the organisations themselves provide cash-flow, continue as communal service-providers. The rest of the LLGs, the rural majority, have been intentionally deprived of support by the evolving party-based system of national government. They have been side-lined as a political force.

Rural councils, without the means to collect any but a derisory level of income from within their constituencies are toothless tigers. Rural councillors live much as faithful old dogs do; lying in the shade, only stirring to snarl and snap when something threatens the wellbeing of the community. And yet these men command great community respect, for they have been chosen on this basis alone; on the basis of respect and not in any expectation of pork-barrelling or clan-related favours for votes. Community support for the councils as institutions also remains high, for their potential is well-understood. By their very nature the councils, through the various wards, are in touch with the whole community, 24/7. This cannot by any means be said of the MPs, or of the national or provincial public service. Councillors within their wards mimic the function and influence of old-time traditional leaders within the circle of a group of closely-related clans, but in addition they constitute a potential direct link with the seat of power. A link which if activated would connect the grass-roots with the highest authority in the land.

The majority of PNG’s growing population are rural subsistence-farmers. Most live within existing, established council wards. Many wards maintain on their own initiative, community youth groups. This is a reflection of the concern with which a great many mature citizens view the rise of a-social, even hard-line anti-social sentiment among young and virile rural males. Boys who see before them a pointless life of idleness and frustration, deprived of education and opportunity, and at the same time deprived of the purpose and sense of worth derived in the past by young initiated warriors ,valued by all, entrusted with each clan’s physical security in time of trouble. Under the LLGs, despite the lack of support from national entities, youths are in touch with their councillor and vice-versa. This is but one example of the huge social-development-related networking potential which the existing, constitutionally-established web of LLGs represents.

The LLGs provide this society with a potentially reliable, very valuable socio-political building block. A foundation upon which a thoughtful and well-prepared national reform group could build a new, fair and happy Papua New Guinea.

But any resurrection of the LLGs within such a set of plans will restore them in a very different image to that which they presented in the past. Today there will be no tip-trucks; no quarries; no road-building or building-maintenance teams; no council workshops or savings-bank agencies or post-office and telephone services. The supply of civic services will continue to be handled by the relevant government authorities. The newly-revived LLGs will carry out a different but far more important range of duties, for they, the councillors, the presidents and their clerks with their records of meetings and transactions and correspondence, these will become quality-controllers for state-funded service-delivery, for public infrastructure maintenance and renewal, and for the proper function of rural schools, health centres, policing and village court activities. All these services are currently in a state of decay due to neglect and lack of leadership.

Each rural LLG will be provided with one suitable, reliable vehicle complete with driver, fuel and all r&m costs met from the funds controlled by the relevant MP. Under strict LLG control the vehicle will be available to convey health department officials and materials, school inspectors, magistrates inspecting village court records and performance, and as and when urgently needed, to transport the ill and injured to the nearest hospital. Where visits from departmental executives or inspectors are perceived to be needed by councillors the LLG will request these, officially, and negative responses citing lack of transport will be forcefully rejected with reference to availability of the LLG’s vehicle.

During the course of each month the LLG vehicle will be available to carry groups of councillors on official, regularly-scheduled inspections of the various wards with special reference to roads, bridges, schools, medical aid posts, village courts and any rural police-posts or other government institutions present which provide services within the LLG area.

Prior to each monthly council meeting each councillor will prepare a summary report of affairs, needs and problems within his ward and these will be tabled for discussion and action. The MP representing the council area or his delegate must also be present to note matters raised each month.

Before the end of each quarter the Council President must cause a summary of needs, problems and matters for attention by government departments and agencies to be made, and discuss this summary with the area’s MP who must then accompany the President and others to meet the Governor to present the summary and to negotiate solutions and rectification of shortcomings.

Where it is impossible to resolve matters at provincial level the MP will take the relevant matter with supporting background documents to Waigani where he will do his best to ensure that satisfactory outcomes are procured.

Made newly-relevant in society and enjoying increased prestige the councillors will play an essential part in leading a renewal of the services which rural people are entitled to expect from government. They will play a very important role in the restoration of fairness and full equity in society and national wealth for the mass of the nation’s people. The people will become empowered in a way they have never known. An overly-large, costly and often-recalcitrant public service will be forced to perform to expectation. For his part, the wise MP will see that times are changing irrevocably, and that to retain his seat and associated privileges it will be essential to fulfil to expectation the role as newly designed for him. The penalty for reluctance being that his term in parliament will be limited; cut short at the next election. Compliance and fulfilment of expectations, however, will ensure his return regardless of adherence to one or another political party.

The number of parties will fall and those which remain will do so because they represent valid points affecting sections of the community as well as broad ideals in respect of the progress of the nation. Whilst parliament and cabinet as such will continue to rule and direct the nation as empowered, the resurrection of the LLGs as pictured here will usher in a dynamic and progressive era for PNG society at large.

  • John Fowke has spent most of the past 50 years living and working in rural Papua New Guinea

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