Bored with ‘old’ Australian politics? Look to Papua New Guinea

by seangljacobs

Why traditional politics will be with us for some time

Sean Jacobs, Online Opinion, 27 November 2013

Young Australians, it seems, are disenchanted with ‘traditional’ politics. They increasingly don’t like voting, are sceptical about democracy and prefer to be involved in political causes through social media rather than mainstream political parties.

Amid this discontent, which appears to be growing in developed democracies, British comedian Russell Brand has even called for a revolution. “Imagining the overthrow of the current [British] political system,” Brand confesses, “is the only way I can be enthused about politics.”

Brand’s thoughts may have struck a chord, but young Australians should not expect even minimal change in their political settings or institutions anytime soon. While an odd comparison, Papua New Guinea (PNG) – Australia’s nearest neighbour of seven million – illustrates the sturdiness and endurance of democratic institutions that are very similar to Australia’s. PNG’s Westminster democracy – a legacy of Australia’s colonial rule – has in fact persisted despite relentless instability and calls for change.

Since being granted independence from Australia in 1975, PNG’s institutions have faced seismic internal and external pressure. Cabinet reshuffles, weak party discipline and shifting political loyalties in the national 111-seat unicameral (single house) parliament have resulted in corruption and undermined the effectiveness of PNG’s legislature.

Armed conflict has also put pressure on PNG’s political settings. A decade-long insurgency on the island Province of Bougainville culminated in the 1997 Sandline affair, which provoked a tense standoff between the PNG Defence Force, the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and then-Prime Minister Julius Chan. The collapse of the state was thinly avoided.

National elections, which take place every five years, have also undermined PNG’s commitment to democracy. Administrative irregularities, intimidation and violence occur in some but not all parts of the country, testing the legitimacy of PNG’s electoral system and democracy more broadly.

Amid these chapters of institutional strain, many academics, commentators and politicians have been vocal about wanting to see a change to PNG’s political makeup. There are many competing views on reform but two broad themes usually emerge.

Firstly, many would like to see greater decentralisation in PNG – more decision-making at the local level and independent from the capital Port Moresby. Secondly, others wish for a more decisive Presidential-type system to replace the turbulence and instability of PNG’s Westminster politics. The broad message is clear – any wholesale reform is better than PNG’s current political system. “We need to,” as the PNG blogger Martyn Namarong summarises, “sort of create a different playing field.”

However, despite these pressures, PNG’s political system endures. Power remains centralised, elections persist, candidates are voted in and out, government is formed, and legislation is debated and amended. PNG’s institutions may be unhealthy. But undesirable and not undemocratic, they remain the formal arena for state power and managing disagreement.

When looking more broadly at institutional change in liberal democracies, it becomes clear that large scale reforms, particularly of the radical kind, do not progress far. In the 1960s, for example, calls for institutional change were expressed loudly on university campuses and streets across the Western world. Like today’s ‘generation next’, these movements were animated by a similar dismay with political structures and a desire for change. But to fast forward half a century from the 1960s, the institutional scaffolding remains – elections, legislative process and traditional political parties.

While an imperfect comparison, PNG’s turbulent experience over the past four decades is instructional to those calling for an overhaul in Australia’s institutional settings – don’t expect change any time soon. Liberal democratic institutions, like those shared between PNG and Australia, are not designed to shift and change tack upon the winds of social media.

While this may invite a sense of helplessness, change in Australia’s democracy occurs by working through established and agreed institutions. In seeking reform, ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ politics then becomes more and not less relevant. This is because mainstream political parties, by aggregating competing interests and orienting them toward political power, are the vehicle for enacting ideals into public policies.

The most obvious current example is the contrast in approaches between the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party in the United States. The latter organised politically, influenced a mainstream political party and utilised institutions to effectuate change. The content of the policies aside, it is clear which approach was more effective.

Writing on the growing numbers of young people disillusioned with political parties and mainstream politics, one Australian journalist recently concluded, “where this leads no-one knows.” But I would suggest that, at least in Australia, we have a fair idea. History shows that mainstream politics and institutions will be with us for some time. The message then is obvious; those young Australians that claim to be disenfranchised must find ways to interact within traditional politics. Ironically, for those individuals or groups that are serious about change, an interest in so-called ‘old’ politics may increase in the coming years.

Sean Jacobs is a former Australian youth volunteer to the Pacific Islands and has worked with all levels of government in PNG. He currently lives in Canberra, Australia.