Freedom's last stand?

Fears of a dictatorship have emerged as various political and constitutional issues remain unresolved ahead of perhaps the most anticipated election since independence. Ex-kiap Paul Oates explores the factors working for and against the rise of a dictatorship.
Freedom's last stand? Freedom's last stand? Freedom's last stand? Freedom's last stand? Freedom's last stand?

Published in the April 2012 PNG Report magazine

As an independent nation Papua New Guinea has in relative terms evolved very quickly.

Many people progressed from traditional village life where a council of elders prevailed, through a period of benevolent but bureaucratic dictatorship of the kiaps, to a Westminster-style Parliament at Independence.

These changes all occurred in just one person's lifetime. The country's collective memory does not therefore have any great unifying force or rallying point to refer to - such as the American War of Independence.

The US presents itself these days as a champion of the "Free World" yet what does that expression actually encompass?

"Freedom" often encapsulates notions of personal liberty, non-slavery, civil liberty, independence; liberty of action, the right to do and the power of self-determination. Yet as citizens of a "free country" what "rights" have the people of PNG? Many of these rights are set out in the country's Constitution. However, can it be said that the people of PNG are and have always been totally free to do what they like?

In traditional PNG village life, there were many influences that impacted and curtailed what a person could or could not do.

Men and women's roles were very much fixed and often at times men lived apart from women and vice versa. Some societies were patrilineal and some matrilineal.

Ownership of land and possessions might be passed on by inheritance or disrupted by conflict and sometimes open warfare. Various taboos (Tok Pisin: Tambu) had to be learnt and adhered to in order to ensure social cohesion.

Fear of the unknown was countered by mystical beliefs in various deities and spirits. Superstition featured largely in everyone's daily life.

Could we therefore say that a person living a traditional PNG life was really free and had the right to do what they like?

What happened after the first contact with the outside world occurred is that, inevitably, the traditional PNG customs and culture started to change. The colonial government required some practices that were contrary to its code of law and order to cease.

Warfare and cannibalism were outlawed. Instead of acquiring wealth through giving away perishable foodstuffs, a common currency was introduced and people encouraged to earn money to buy goods and services. Provided that no serious breaches of the newly introduced laws were transgressed, people were pretty much left to live how they wanted.

Did the people then believe they were free? Probably not at the time since there was always the requirement to obey the new laws and to refrain from many old practices. There were often other irritating requirements like providing road maintenance and paying a head tax to the local government council.

Then in 1975 came PNG Independence. Surely that was a time when everyone in PNG could say they were really free?

Well no, actually. In fact, some people have now learnt how to adapt the political regime and system of government to help themselves.

Most ordinary people have now become almost slaves to lack of services and the private manipulation of their nation's resources.

Public funds became the sought-after prize for those who could adapt the system of government that had been designed and accepted by some of their forefathers at Independence. These so-called leaders have reportedly accumulated selfish, personal empires worth millions.

In order to be re-elected, these people then believe they have the right to use the resources they control to give to those who would then, under the principles of reciprocity, re-elect them again.

No thought was apparently given on both sides of the exchange as to who actually owned these resources.

It seemed like if the opportunity was somehow made available, then the expectation was that it could and should be used. Culpability didn't seem to bother those who only saw an opportunity to better themselves.

The future of PNG's Democracy

Scottish lawyer, writer, and professor Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813) made some famous observations on democracy:

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government," Tytler wrote.

"A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.

"From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship."

Tytler then suggests that most societies tend to progress along the following lines:

1. From bondage to spiritual faith;

2. From spiritual faith to great courage;

3. From courage to liberty;

4. From liberty to abundance;

5. From abundance to complacency;

6. From complacency to apathy;

7. From apathy to dependence;

8. From dependence back into bondage.

Now if as is reputedly claimed by Professor Tyler, the above circular process is universal, where might today's PNG fit in?

Could PNG be at the point of progressing or regressing from "dependence back into bondage"? Could a future PNG dictator arise that would therefore hold her citizens in bondage?

The antithesis of complete freedom or "licence" is one of control. Historically in PNG, control could be exerted through either traditional village customs in a village environment or one of imposed by government legislation.

So how easy would it be for the government of PNG to be controlled by one person or a small number of individuals? If this did happen, would PNG cease to be a democracy and become a dictatorship, as has happened in Fiji with military chief Bainimarama?

Internal Factors helping to prevent a PNG Dictatorship

What important factors might there be to mitigate PNG being taken over by a dictator?

PNG has a diverse cultural background with around 800 languages and ethnic traditions. Individual power bases in PNG have historically been few and far between. While a history of choosing a "fight leader" may be a traditional way of responding to a perceived threat, individual leadership is not recognised as a national PNG trait.

PNG traditional leadership has mostly been by discussion through a council of village elders. While the influence of the village is slowly dissipating due to urban drift and education, the plethora of political parties intending to contest the upcoming 2012 general elections is a good indicator of an absence of any significant power base by any one region.

There is no large ethnic grouping in PNG that could serve initially as a personal power base, as has happened in Zimbabwe where the Shona people supported Mugabe over the smaller number of Ndebele people.

There are also no significant religious differences, as in Nigeria where the Muslim Hausa people dominated the Christian Ibo, who had the misfortune to be sitting on much of the country's oil.

In the case of the Fiji coup, the original ethnic Fijians felt threatened by the perceived domination of the introduced ethnic Indian population. While that might be a future factor in PNG, the numbers of Asians illegally entering PNG and setting up small businesses has only started to become a reported problem.

PNG has a free press and media. It has been observed that these factors alone assist in information dissemination whereby people can be informed about what's happening around the country.

The explosion in mobile phone ownership also assists in quickly spreading information and has happened recently in the ‘Arab Spring' phenomena in the Middle East.

The traditional antagonism between the police and the defence force was often seen as a bulwark against a dictator arising from either ranks. In colonial times, every effort was made to recruit equal numbers of police from each district to ensure there was no ethnic block that might cause an imbalance of power. Efforts also seemed to be evident to have a balance between the leadership of the police and the defence force alternating between a Papuan and a New Guinean commander.

The relationship between the two armed services has however been sorely tested over the last few decades. Mutinies within the defence force have been resisted by a controlled police presence. Yet the police are often also under a cloud: unofficial road blocks and on-the-spot fines have become commonly accepted. Both services have been reported to have unaccountably "lost" high-powered weapons and even intimidated civilians while armed with both issued and non-issued weapons.

Factors possibly helping the rise of a PNG Dictator

The concept of the Westminster system is where the governor-general represents the Crown and provides an apolitical but non-executive head of state. This concept has been seen in recent times to be mostly ineffectual in ameliorating any disruption in PNG politics and has increased confusion over the effective power of the nation's Constitution and legislation.

Poor transport availability might also assist the rise of a dictator. The recent control over air travel to augment police loyal to the O'Neill -appointed police commissioner was noticeable as was the control over the air travel from the Sepik region to prevent any large support for Somare from travelling to Port Morseby.

While there are poorly maintained vehicle roads across the country there is also no direct road between the New Guinea provinces and the capital.

The increasing availability of high-powered weapons would assist any potential dictator in recruiting armed supporters. A recent move to have a retired general report on the control (or lack of) and availability of guns in PNG came to nothing. There appeared to be just no political will to actually enforce the law. Members of Parliament are reportedly able to carry and sometimes use personal weapons.

The possible benefits for an external influence to foster the rise of a sympathetic PNG dictator are obvious. In order to gain influence and assist in say, the extraction of desirable resources, an external influence could more easily deal with and financially control one authority rather than a whole Parliament.

Control is something you can't see. It can be ephemeral and yet effective, especially where untraceable funds are concerned. PNG has not had a good and effective history of applying responsibility and transparent, financial accountability.

The underfunding of various law enforcement agencies is well recognised. PNG has the lowest number of police per head of population of any Pacific nation.

In addition, when a large part of the nation's police service is required to be stationed in the highlands in order to try and prevent tribal fighting, these members are not available to enforce law and order elsewhere in the country.Many police units are reportedly hired and paid by mining and timber companies to protect company assets from disaffected landowners.

PNG's Constitution: How healthy is it?

Since PNG gained Independence there have been a number of amendments to the PNG Constitution.

In March, three new commissioners were sworn in to the Constitutional and Law Reform Committee. There are six part time commissioners and a full time chairman of this committee whose goal is now to reform the PNG Constitution and laws of the land.

Yet even as the commissioners were being appointed, the government was planning to make prospective changes to the country's Constitution. On March 20 in a vote of 63-7, the PNG Parliament passed the Judicial Conduct Bill with what seemed to some the utmost alacrity. This Bill has been claimed by some to directly challenge the independence of the PNG judiciary, which is a central plank of the Westminster system of government.

The Opposition Leader, Dame Carol Kidu, was quoted as saying: "We are taking a wrong way. We are breaking the fabric of the Constitution and I am really worried for the future of PNG."

By contrast, one of the most important aspects of the Australian Constitution is that it takes a referendum approval in the majority of Australian states to make any changes.

One can but wonder whether many of the PNG Constitutional and Law Reform Committee's responsibilities may well be superseded by the actions of Parliament by the time any proposed changes might be presented.

Clearly the majority of the members of the PNG Parliament consider their collective experience and qualifications enable them to determine what some see as dramatic changes to PNG law without any reported prior reference to CLRC for consideration.

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