"We declare our first goal to be for every person to be dynamically involved in the process of freeing himself or herself from every form of domination or oppression so that each man or woman will have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others".


- Papua New Guinea National Goals and Directive Principles




Monday, 20 June 2011

The Impoverishment of Democracy – Papua New Guinea and the Erosion of Popular Participation


If democracy is about popular participation in the decision making processes that directly shape our life, then we should not be looking to western models of Westminster democracy for guidance. In this article we argue that the poverty of electoral politics and the despotism of the market must be challenged by a participatory democracy that actively engages people in economic and political decision making.

In true western conceit the word democracy is commonly fused to a Westminster style system of elections and party politics. This is democracy we are told!

However, what is democracy if we strip away the liberal ideological baggage that is attached to it in the textbooks? In its most stripped down form it would appear that democracy is a generalisation that captures our capacity to participate in decision making processes that shape our life – and thus it is an elementary feature of social life that has occurred in Papua New Guinea for many thousands of years.

However, Papua New Guinea’s integration into the global market and an international system of governance entails that the decision making processes that directly affect us today take place at various social levels and on different temporal scales. It occurs at the level of the family, the local community, the provincial and national level, and indeed internationally. The decisions may be over what is going to happen tomorrow, or what is going to happen over the next decade.  They take place through numerous forums, from world trade summits through to the cabinet room and multinational head offices.  Note, most of these forums we are excluded from. Note also, that those forums where we do have a voice, e.g. the family or local community, are heavily conditioned by those forums in which we do not have a voice.

Indeed, the laws we live by and how public monies are used, is decided within the secretive (corrupt?) corridors of government. Decisions over which regions of the global economy will develop, have access to jobs, the conditions under which work will take place etc, are decided by autocratic business leaders in a more or less anarchic fashion (i.e. it is a sum result of their individual, self-interested decisions). In a real sense then, a market based economy, overseen by a Westminster style democracy, liberalism par excellence, has in fact eroded democracy in Papua New Guinea, leaving decision making it in the hands of an elitist group of politicians and the dictatorship of business heads.

Ironically who has more democracy, a villager who through dialogue and consensus with other community members, has input into how the essential resources of their society are employed, or the city worker who hopes they can find a job, rent an overpriced home, and afford medical bills perchance they or their family gets sick? The decision making processes on which the city worker’s future depends, occurs at levels beyond the scope of their participation – they can only hope and try to survive in conditions dictated to them by others. The villager on the other hand engages in a process of dialogue, where consensus is built, and a decision is reached, they have a real say.


Indeed, regular elections, while obviously important, do not make a democracy. In some senses it can actually erode democracy, if elections mean that decision making is delegated to a small elite, while the people are largely marginalised. If this more or less describes the situation in Papua New Guinea, then no it is not a democracy. However, nor for that matter is Australia, the United Kingdom or the United States. These countries have elections, but citizens do not substantively participate in political and economic decision making. In fact we have been conditioned to believe that this is normal, how on earth could a world develop where consensus was really built through consensus rather than dictation.

Thus the fight in Papua New Guinea should not be purely over formal democracy (electoral politics), this is a struggle for an impoverished form of democracy. The struggle should be over real, substantive democracy, that enhances the capacity of every individual regardless of their wealth, status, gender or age, to participate in the economic and political processes that set the stage in which life is lived (electoral politics, in this sense, must be part of a much broader program of participation). Sure this might take place in important respects through reforming formal electoral processes, but we should not allow this diluted, half hearted form of democracy to dominate our thinking.

Therefore, the question that needs an answer is: what sort of institutions do we need to develop to obtain popular involvement in the economic and political processes that determinate our lifestyle and standard of living?  Of course, any answer to this question demands we violate the norms of a world where those who monopolise wealth through a system of exclusionary private property, feel ordained to make the primary decisions. Indeed, look at the reaction of the national government and MCC to an attempt by landowners in Madang to have a voice in the mine’s waste disposal system. It has been met by violence, threats, and rogue legislation, leading landowners down the adversarial path of court orders and legal actions. Some call the landowners activists, others troublemakers, this however is democracy in action, mediated however through a system that does not tolerate popular participation, thus it takes the costly form of adversarial struggle in the courts.

For those struggling to allow greater popular involvement in decision making over major social processes that will forever change Papua New Guinea, for better or worse (e.g. LNG PNG!), we must have the resolve, the vision, arguments and popular support to violate the norms of the powerful and invent new forums for participatory democracy, otherwise the dictatorship of the market and the autocracy of closed government will continue to prevail. 

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