“Parliament has helped develop and strengthen our own brand of parliamentary democracy”, says Speaker Rabbie Namaliu. “Despite all the predictions prior to independence that it wouldn’t survive, it is thriving and flourishing and I think it always will for the future.” There are none who would disagree. Though quite how government can be conducted through the shifting allegiances of the house frequently baffles outsiders.
Speaker Namaliu points to the parliamentary building itself to provide the answer. “The strength of this country, the resilience of our people, is partly due to the diverse nature of it, its ethnic and tribal makeup. No one region or tribal grouping is sufficiently large to dominate the rest.” The building combines two traditions, the diversity of Papua New Guinea and the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy.
The design is monumental. See it from the air and it looks like a great bird settled on the gentle slopes of Waigani, just outside Port Moresby. Rising above the main entrance to the Chamber is a peaked roof modelled on the haus tambaran, the men’s spirit house of the Sepik region. The roof sweeps down over a central office building to end in a round house whose form comes directly from the Highlands.
The interior and decorative elements are equally eclectic. Door handles are shaped like kundu drums. The ceiling above the main hall is decorated with tapa designs, like the court houses of the Sepik. The speakers chair is surrounded by intricate carvings originating from the ceremonial canoes of the Trobriand and Milne Bay areas. The Chair itself is Westminster, but the whole effect is more reminiscent of the orator’s stool which features in village ceremonies along the Sepik river. And carved into the base is a garamut, a long cylindrical drum from Manus island used to call people together.
Each of the 109 MPs has a large desk and earphones on which he can hear proceedings translated into Tok Pisin, Motu, or English. The debates can be watched by 600 spectators. The floor of the chamber is arranged as a sweeping semi-circle around the Speaker. “I find it a very convenient arrangement”, says Speaker Namaliu. “It’s much easier to control. You can see everyone and as they all have fixed positions it makes identification easy.” Individuals may have fixed seats but they take a more cavalier attitude to party allegiance. There are parties in PNG but discipline is loose and members are prone to act independently. Successive government have been dependent on shaky, unreliable coalitions. Parties are distinguished more by the personality of their leaders and their regional bases than by ideology.
“In our tradition,” one MP declared, “leaders are leaders because they are wealthy men. By wealth I mean pigs, material goods and sometimes many wives. Sometimes they are leaders because they have magical powers and can use these powers to catch fish, win negotiations, make rain.” Speaker Rabbie Namaliu would like to see an end to such extravagant claims and the development of a proper party system. Enduring stability will depend on the development and maturing of political parties who can be identified by philosophy, by shared values and a legal organisation. There is a proposed bill before the house which will set down minimum standards and requirements to comply with party status. “That should stabilise them”, says the Speaker. “It will commit them to certain principles so that they can be recognised on the floor of the house.”
The original constitution provided for a six month grace period after a government was sworn into office either after an election or after a vote of no confidence. Just about everyone was agreed that this was very destabilising. “Even during the first six months people were jockeying for position”, said Speaker Ramaliu. “So we tried for thirty months grace period which would translate into half-way through the normal term of five years. Some people in the opposition objected and we compromised on eighteen months.” Rabbie Namaliu was one of the first intake into the University of Papua New Guinea in 1966. He took a Master’s degree in history and political science from Victoria University, Canada, and entered politics as Sir Michael Somare’s principal private secretary in the year of Independence. He won the seat of Kokopo in the 1982 national elections and Somare appointed him Minister for Foreign Affairs. Six years later, in July 1988, Namaliu was Prime Minister. A journalist decribed the scene when he went home to his Raluana village in East New Britain. “ A watermelon shatters at his feet. The old Tolai women from his father’s side of the family wail as they splinter sticks of sugarcane for him to walk over, and cast white, powdery lime on his legs. His father presents him with a spear, places a band around his head and bids his own, leaf-bedecked, sacred Tubuan spirit figure to dance around his son.”
“Tolai traditional society is very strong,” Namaliu confides. “If you come from it and don’t accept it as being part of your backbone, you won’t be accepted as a leader, as a true leader.”
But Namaliu was to suffer under the old no-confidence procedures. “It can be very destabilising because it takes your mind off everything else, including governing, and concentrates your mind entirely on the vote.”
Namaliu would be the first to acknowledge the changes that have come to Parliament since independence. He is proud of them. “Parliament is the one supreme law-making body and as such it has grown enormously in its responsibilities and is going to build up its own traditions, its own practice, its own reputation and standing in the community. It hasn’t been easy but its something for which we can hold our heads high. It is an enormous achievement.”