By PNG Echo
A lawyer from the Western Highlands told me that one of the ingredients in acquiring and maintaining ‘bik man’ status in the Highlands is by displays of generosity: giving away money and goods.
This revelation goes a long way to explaining the prevalence of ‘money politics’ in the national life of Papua New Guinea.
For although, the practice may seem benign and even …well…generous, when there are expectations associated with the gifts – and let’s face it, even in the traditional culture, ‘bik man’ status is an anticipated reward of such generosity, it so easily slips into bribery – the very foundation stone of corruption.
The Political ‘bik man’
In Papua New Guinea, political elections are not won on political ideology, nor on policy but on personal popularity.
Conversely, in Australia, many voters do not know who their local MPs are, or for whom they are voting. In the main, there is little interest in the personalities save for if, and when, they become government ministers (or those that were previously high-profile ministers)
Of more interest are the policies proffered by the parties; the election promises. And remember, we are only talking two main parties and a third minor player, so there is not too much information needed to be absorbed by the voting public.
Then there are many (possibly the majority) who simply vote along ideological lines with the minor party often picking up the vote of those disillusioned with the major parties – all parties have clearly defined political ideologies that inform their policies.
Indeed the beauty (and sometimes the tragedy) of a system which, in the main, works, is that it can be comfortably ignored – not so in a political system that is struggling, like Papua New Guinea.
In Papua New Guinea, with over 50 parties and a plethora of independents set to contest this election, there would neither be enough political ideologies to go around – nor unique policies, for that matter – they start to all sound eerily the same. Health, education, infrastructure, corruption…they’re all going to make it better.
When you have 30 (or more) candidates to choose from in just one electorate, to be familiar with all their policies and ideologies (supposing they had any) would be quite a task .
It’s so much easier to vote for the candidate you like: your brother, your cousin, or the person who’s just given you anything from beer and lamb flaps to a Land Rover vehicle. It’s comfortable and familiar behaviour to slip back into.
And why not?
Would the average PNG voter have any idea who their preferred candidate will support in the government that will be formed? Of course not – the successful candidate will be eagerly awaiting the period known as ‘horse trading’ to accept the greatest amount of largesse offered in exchange for support – the tradition of the ‘bik man’ will prevail.
So, demonstrably, although the Papua New Guinean elections are fashioned on those of a democratic liberal democracy, all the paradigms that make it work in a western context are rejected in favour of a return to the familiar – the generosity of the ‘bik man’ – a practice that is considered venal and corrupt in a democratic liberal democracy.
Maintaining the status quo
Having learned that it takes money to be a ‘bik man’ – it follows that it then takes even more money to maintain the position – and there are many opportunities when you’re in a position of power to rort the system – and many do.
It is often joked that on becoming a Member of Parliament, the new incumbent will put on 100kg in weight and acquire at least three more wives (I’m not sure about husbands!). It’s a comment on the corrupt money that they can expect to come their way.
But here’s the thing – sharing of the spoils does not happen anymore. The ‘bik man’ tradition is thrown out of the window in favour of a western form of individualism – it’s all mine.
Isn’t it wonderful to have the opportunity to move between two distinct realities based on pragmatism and expediency?
The rules of the game
The recent vote of no confidence serves to illustrate how the practice of money politics will and must continue under this system, how the system perpetuates itself:
For with an opposition of a man and his dog, what do you think provided the impetus to collect the 11 signatures needed to table the motion?
And why do you think the opposition were so anxious to be given seven days between the tabling and the vote?
That a considerable amount of money changed hands during that week (and before the tabling) is a no-brainer – but it had to.
The paradigm had been established, the rules of the game entrenched – the side that didn’t play by them surely would have lost. Once the game is on, neither side has much choice if it wants to be the victor.
Equally, those who refuse to play by these established rules during the elections have little chance of success.
Breaking the cycle –
I have heard it often said that the answer to the political woes of Papua New Guinea is to be found at the ballot box – vote in the right candidates. But that solution is too simplistic – for how do the voters know who that is?
In the main, they have no idea of the candidates’ policies, ideology or allegiances. What’s more, with money politics firmly entrenched many initially altruistic candidates will find themselves unable to perform their duties if they don’t play the established game. Most will succumb to the rules of the game.
There needs to be new rules. There needs to be electoral reform to make it easier for the voter to make his/her choice.
There needs to be a mechanism for restricting candidates – perhaps by severe penalties for candidates who lose badly – by say, more than 10%
There needs to be more onerous requirements of the candidates to elucidate clearly their policies, ideologies and allegiances and some impetus to stick by and enact them.
The lamb flaps, beer and Land Rovers need to stop. And this is just for a start.
PNG has the people with the intelligence to make amendments to the electoral act that will overcome the entrenched money politics – now all it needs is the will.