Papua New Guinea (or PNG as it is more familiarly known) became an independent parliamentary democracy on September 16th 1975. The day marked not only the end of colonial rule but a new dawn in the history of the people.
Almost five hundred years had passed since the first Europeans arrived and it was nearly a century later that the country had full authority over its affairs. With the coming of independence, PNG looked forward to a future in which it could shape its own destiny. Few could have known at that time exactly what problems would arise or indeed how bright that future would turn out to be. After taking charge of its own government, Papua New Guinea began to discover that it had a wealth of untapped natural resources that could ensure financial prosperity for generations to come. Freedom was not only the removal of oppression and interference, it also meant the right to regain possession of the land, to trade under the national flag and to take an active part among the council of nations. Only a people deprived of freedom can properly understand the meaning of self-determination.
The process leading towards independence had been slow. Papua New Guineans first gained the right to some representation in the parliament of their own country in 1951. However, at that time they had only three elected members. Today, there are 109 Members of Parliament, elected by universal sufferage to represent the nineteen provinces of Papua New Guinea. Government exists at three levels: national, provincial and local. This three-tiered system has remained the model for the last twenty years.
The National Parliament is styled on both the Australian and British systems and is elected to a five-year term of office. Its formal head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, while its ceremonial head is the Governor-General, who is elected by parliament and subsequently approved by the British monarch. In 1977, just over a year after independence, the decentralised Provincial Assembly was inaugurated, comprising the nineteen provinces and the district of the national capital, Port Moresby. Like the central government, each of these provincial governments had a premier and a constitution. Each also had the right to impose and collect certain taxes and to control areas such as education, health care and the local economy. All were ultimately answerable to the National Parliament. Recent reforms (July 1995) have changed the status of provincial governments, replacing premiers with members of the National Parliament representing the provincial electorate. At a third level of government are the local councils, funded either by their particular provincial government or by their district MP.
One of the most significant and distinctive characteristics of PNG politics is the concept of consensus. Unlike many other democracies, there seems to be little ideological disparity between the various political parties and the electorate usually votes according to clan or personal allegiance. Moreover, there is a first-past-the-post system, which means that the successful candidate may carry only a small percentage of the vote. Political debate is therefore always susceptible to partisanship, but a consensus of opinion is usually sought on all matters and discussions will generally continue until all parties are satisfied that their interests have been protected and their views represented.
Where self-interest on the part of provincial governments has threatened to upset the country’s interests as a whole, central government has had the power to veto and suspend them and, in a very recent case, to amend the constitution. But whatever changes are effected and whatever disagreements may arise, and however many times individual parties split and regroup, the parliamentary democracy of PNG remains stable, providing continuity for both domestic and economic planning. Despite the fact that a changing patchwork of alliances has sometimes meant that certain parliamentary members have retained ministerial positions while the government itself has been replaced, all such changes have been democratic, peaceful and orderly.