PNG and the Tyranny of Unicameral Majoritarianism
Australia and New Zealand have propped up Pacific countries since their independence. They can go on propping up the micro-states indefinitely but PNG, with its six million people and its resource wealth, is becoming independent of our handouts. Private security companies are moving in and guns are flooding in. A showdown looms. The prospect is for civil strife and take over by the colonels. They will bring order, Torrens title, ethnic cleansing, and refugee camps on Cape York.
The news stories of slush funds and “big man” chicanery indicate a terrible misapprehension. The reason that the government of PNG has deteriorated since independence is not the locals’ innate cultural defects. This patronising, outsider-judgement will have serious consequences. The problem is not the culture. Given a chance, Melanesian ambitiousness would sustain a flourishing polity. PNG’s problem is its unworkable political structure.
In 1975 the Whitlam government set up PNG with a single chamber of parliament (a “unicameral” system) to which MPs were elected from single-member electorates (so-called “majoritarian” representation). This design—a single chamber composed of electorates each represented by a single member—has never worked for any country.
Where did Australian officials get the idea? In 1975 the only Australian instance was Queensland. World-wide, there were only two democratic examples. One was New Zealand, at that time unicameral for 25 years and regretting it even more than they had regretted the bicameral parliament they had had for a century. The other was Northern Ireland, at that time in flames. In short, they had no model; they experimented. Other majoritarian, unicameral countries were Mauritius, then under a state of emergency, and some catastrophic African states.
PNG joins these as a failed state. The usual “explanation”—dysfunctional culture—misses the point that the purpose of a political system is to deal with the culture. That is what it is there for: if men were angels no government would be necessary. PNG culture is beside the point. PNG is afflicted with a political structure that cannot cope with any culture.
Empirically, a majoritarian electoral system will work provided there is a second chamber of parliament. There are many democratic countries which have only one chamber but they all have multi-member electoral districts—so-called “proportional representation” or PR. The evidence for what makes viable government is unequivocal:
- If the MPs are elected in single-member districts, parliament must be bicameral;
- If the parliament is unicameral, elections must be multi-member PR.
There are good technical reasons for this. In 1965 Sir Arthur Lewis set them out in his Politics in West Africa. No one took any notice—with horrific consequences. The relevant point here is that a majoritarian house requires a curb. Without it, it becomes corrupt: cronies are rewarded, top civil servants take bribes, ordinary lives are ruined. Though the upper houses of Britain and Canada are grossly undemocratic (as was New Zealand’s) and almost powerless, they suffice to curb the majoritarian lower houses from turning into “elected dictatorships”—the term of former NZ prime minister Geoffrey Palmer.
Having a rickety upper house just to curb the lurching of a majoritarian lower house is not optimal and Australia has changed nearly all its upper houses to PR: the Senate 1949, SA 1973, NSW 1978, WA 1987, Vic 2003; unicameral ACT switched to PR in 1988. PNG, meanwhile, has been left to stew. PR better aligns the politicians’ individual interests with the public interest so PR houses tend to be proper debating chambers. The TV news shows us the slanging match from the majoritarian lower house while the legislating is done in the PR upper house.
It is no secret that the unicameral majoritarian structure is not viable. PR is the Continental design and quite un-Anglo yet Westminster knew it had no alternative in Northern Ireland. In the bitterness generated by fifty years of majoritarian polarization, the first two PR attempts failed. The third try seems to have stuck and Northern Ireland has dropped out of the news. It used to be thought that the Irish problem concerned religious culture but we now see that this was incorrect. The task of government is to cope with the culture and the problem in Northern Ireland was—evidently—the government design. Europe is at least as beset with religious differences as Ireland but all its unicameral countries are PR.
The recent devolutions of Wales and Scotland are also unicameral PR, as is Greater London. New Zealand solved its problems (for which, notably, no one blamed the culture) not by re-introducing an upper house but by abandoning its majoritarian, Westminster heritage and adopting PR in 1994.
A viable system of political representation is not a guarantee of political rectitude. It is the foundation for it. No sound foundation can guarantee the superstructure will hold up but an unsound one guarantees the superstructure will eventually collapse. The electoral foundation supports parliament which shapes the executive which shapes the administration which shapes management.
PNG, the Solomons, and Vanuatu have been competing to become the first country in the world to make the unicameral, majoritarian design work. Today, all three are basket cases. When (if) RAMSI departs from the Solomon Islands it will leave behind an effective public administration which, like PNG’s, will immediately fall to bits. RAMSI claims to be laying foundations for long-term stability. The claim is fatuous for it is not touching the electoral system and within twenty years of its departure, the civil war will re-ignite and RAMSI II will be needed.
Among specialists in Pacific politics it is accepted truth that the problem in PNG is its culture. Thus there is nothing to be done. And since our system went through centuries of quarrelling to become democratic, what should we expect? What will be will be. Corrupt governments are interesting subjects for academic research and most academics don’t see the electoral system as their concern. The research imperative is to avoid offending influential contacts in those countries and to maintain Australian taxpayer funding of “governance” courses for Pacific Islands officials.
The AusAid position is comparable: the emphasis is on governance, not on government. This governance activity keeps patching cracks resting on unstable foundations. If we did it once and did it right, there would be a chance to turn the Arc of Instability into a Sea of Tranquility and a chance we could stop running their civil services for them. But no one wants to say straight out that all the earnest and expensive AusAid assistance is in vain. Replacing foundations disturbs residents and in the ranks of the decision-makers there is no incentive to make waves. Far easier to speak sadly of a “culture of violence” and point out how much worse everything would be without AusAid.
Many find it hard to accept that the finer points of an electoral system could be responsible for tribal violence. The culture, they insist, goes back millennia, and every Old Hand has a repertoire of amusing anecdotes about Papua New Guineans. Academic papers regularly bewail the unsuitability of its culture to modern politics and indeed the biggest obstacle to reform may be foreign experts’ unshakeable cultural preconceptions and the consequent conviction that reforming the electoral system is pointless. Thus does ethnocentricity lead to excuse-making and evasion of responsibility.
In 1975 the Australian government inflicted a curse upon the people of PNG. It took fifty years for Northern Ireland to boil over and now, after 37 years, PNG is simmering. It becomes more volatile as its politics become more shambolic and its resources become more valuable. The crisis will be very difficult to cope with. When Queensland goes bananas we can send 4 Corners there to sort it out. When the Northern Territory goes off the rails the Commonwealth parliament can jerk it into line. When Northern Ireland blew up, English troops could occupy the country. These last-ditch curbs are not available for PNG.
Failure to restructure PNG’s political system in peace means it will be attempted, with Australian help, in forty years or so, after the social and environmental devastation. If that succeeds, we will grant immunity to the elderly thugs, argue over the property of the refugees, and hold a Truth and Reconciliation inquiry for the survivors of the Bougainville genocide. Let there be no doubt as to who caused it all. Australia with its UN mandate and a duty of care, set it in train in 1975.
Some will assert that PNG must experience a shock to become a modern country, that this is normal. Give war a chance, they will say, to change the culture and bring the country into the industrial age. Presumably, ethnic cleansing does change culture but it is not certain that slaughter is necessary for progress. We have not yet given peace a chance.
Is it simplistic just to switch to PR? No. The task of the political system is to cope with the culture and PR usually does. Whatever the effects of culture, it does not help to trap a country in a political structure that has never been made to work. Moreover, PNG’s much-discussed, so-called “big man” culture actually consists of competitive leadership based on entrepreneurial popularity. It would form an excellent basis for democracy.
Electoral reform is a thankless undertaking. It has to overcome the opposition of those who are benefitting from the current system, who find every excuse to prove that now is not the right time, and who submit counter-proposals to obfuscate and stall. Advocating electoral reform does not advance careers and even when the need is accepted, it gets put off to tomorrow because today’s politics must be attended to. Moreover, because day-to-day political squabbling is colourful and dramatic, and election rules are dull and bureaucratic, the media and the public are not interested.
Despite these obstacles, all those Australian houses did manage to change. It was a creaking, groaning, whingeing business but they got there. If NZ could do it, why not PNG? But PNG is far past the stage where it can do it alone. It is up to Australia. We have a choice: do it now or do it in forty years’ time. Do it now or spend decades making pompous, impotent condemnations, decades cringing in the UN over what went wrong in our patch—and then spend more decades, excavating mass graves, trying to put a traumatised, impoverished country together again.
There may be a window to act now while Australia still has influence but the window is closing. A tsunami of cash is about to wash over PNG which will utterly corrupt the remnants of its democratic politics and allow its politicians to ignore Australia. Yet the leaders of PNG know their land has become a mafia state. They are patriots: if they were encouraged to adopt an honourable strategy to set their country on a positive path, they might do it. A tragedy might be prevented and with a viable electoral structure, PNG would have a chance to become peaceful and prosperous.
Note: This article is written by Mark Pepperday and was first published in Club Troppo.