Reforming the PNG Parliament

By Paul Oates

Recent events in the life of the present PNG Parliament have revealed some glaring deficiencies in the framework set up to take the nation into Independence in 1975.

In an observationquoted by Nancy Reagan, the wife of former US President Ronald Reagan, ‘the strength of the tea bag is only revealed when it’s immersed in hot water.’

So what are the deficiencies that have been revealed? Basically, many could be collectively described as a lack of the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure parliamentary power and legislative government does not get out of control.

In fairness to the so called founding fathers and their expat ‘minders’, the recent circumstances could hardly have been envisaged when the PNG Constitution was drafted.  Yet as PNG has had the resilience to advance from the Stone Age to the Modern Age in one giant leap, so too must the structures of government be adapted to meet the requirements of the day.

The majority of democratic nations throughout the world seem to have one thing in common. That is a House of Review as part of the structure of Parliament. While legislation is debated and enacted in a Lower House, all legislation must be reviewed by an Upper House before being signed into law.

Such is the case in many Commonwealth countries that had their Parliaments modelled on the Westminster system. After many amendments, the United Kingdom’s House of Lords still has a useful function of reviewing legislation from the House of Commons. The Australian Senate performs some very useful functions in that until a Bill from the Lower House is reviewed and passed by the Senate, it cannot be signed by the Governor General and become law.

Perhaps the time has now come for PNG to consider creating an Upper House of Review?

George Washington is supposed to have observed to Thomas Jefferson, another ‘doubting Thomas’ about the necessity of having an Upper House in the United States government. As Jefferson tipped his hot tea into his saucer to cool it, Washington is supposed to have observed, so too an Upper House (in this case the US Senate) performs a similar function with potentially inflammatory matters raised in the US Lower House or Congress.

There is however some conjecture about whether Washington actually said these words since apparently no one has ever seen this written quote until the late 19th Century when it was common place to tip your hot cup of tea or coffee into your saucer to cool it. In fact, the expression, ‘would you like a dish of tea’? originates from this practice. One can only cringe in sympathy with generations of hostesses who had to put up with the inevitable slurping of those guests who tried to drink their tea from their saucers, a receptacle actually designed for holding sauce.

The term ‘Bicameral’ refers to a government that has two chambers. The term apparently originated in the early 19th Century from the Latin ‘bi’ meaning two and ‘camer’(a or al) meaning chamber. The alternative is a single chamber of government or unicameral system.

While there is conjecture as to the efficiency of having a legislature comprised of two houses, the concept has been around since Ancient Roman times where the recognised tendency of the larger plebeian class could be tempered by the patrician Senate, a word reputedly derived from ‘senex’ or old man.

Most nations around the world have opted from a bicameral system of government. The map from Wikipedia below gives an indication of those nations that have bicameral government and those that don’t.

So how could an Upper House of Review be brought into being? Very easily.

Consider the Provincial Governors as a collective group of reviewers. Several have already raised their concerns about the current government and the speed by which Parliamentary votes appear to become law seemingly overnight. Why not determine that at the next general election, the Provincial governors be separated from the ordinary members of Parliament and become instead, a separate house of review as is the Australian Senate.

How would this work in practice?

Well, for one thing, I’m sure the incoming Provincial Governors wouldn’t mind a new title of say, ‘Senator’, a title not unknown and respected throughout much of the world.

Then the powers of the PNG ‘Senate’ could be modelled on similar powers elsewhere.

All legislation must first be reviewed and debated in the PNG Senate before being sent to the PNG Governor General for signing into law. Perhaps there could be a limit, as in Australia, where the Upper House can refer a draft Bill back to the Lower House three times before it must be passed and ultimately become an Act.

Surely this proposal is worthy of consideration from all sides of politics?

14 thoughts on “Reforming the PNG Parliament

  1. Thanks Paul – I think the suggestion put forward is quite compelling.

    The events of late point to a glaring lack of a group of independent legislative scrutineers who are able to more effectively hold parliament accountable.

    This suggestion needs some serious attention.

  2. Good one!
    By using elected Governors, you wouldn’t have a latter-day Keating describing the Senate as ‘unrepresentative swill’.
    I’m worried about expense. Could they use the same Parliamentary Chamber on a roster basis, or build a hugely expensive extension?

    1. Great idea Jaymz.

      Considering how often the current Speaker et al can muster a quorun, there should be bags of opportunities for the current chamber to be available.

      Also, as the current MP’s only are supposed to sit for a limited time anyway, it makes excellent sense.

      The current governors obviously already have offices so nothing really needs to be spent to implement this change in the organisation.

  3. Let’s not get caught up on the logistics and lose focus of the great idea put forward.

    Logistics should be the least of our worries. It’s minor. I’ll give up my family house for the Senate to hold their meetings and scrutinise the bills.

    The merits of the idea must be thoroughly considered to see how we can improve our legislative processes and the quality of our laws.

    1. So what is the Pacific-values-based system that we should adopt to safeguard our legislative process?

      What is the “Pacific solution” that will stop politicians from abusing their numerical strenght in parliament to make stupid laws with the blink of an eye?

      And I can’t get the connection between your propoal for lesser seats in parliament and improving the quality of our laws.

      1. That’s the beautiful thing David! We’re not suggesting a specific or catch-all measure, so much as a concept – a discussion about a political system modelled on Pacific values is something we all can contribute to. For info on the Pacific-values based system, please see the PNG Constitution National Goals and Directive principles.

    2. Understood.

      But there is an urgent need for us to fix up our lawmaking processes at the present time using the system we have been given and Paul’s suggestion seems to make a lot of sense.

      We don’t have the luxury of time to engage in discussions to find the perfect Pacific solution. From the way our leaders are carrying on, we might have nothing left to govern by the time we agree on the line of best fit among a myriad of possibilities on the scale.

  4. From what I saw in New Caledonia, they worked from a Consensus based approach. Which although seemed frustratingly slow at times, it did ensure that no one was left behind.

    In some respects you could say that a consensus based approach to decision making would be closer to the ‘Melanesian Way’ as opposed to majority votes.

  5. Who will guard the guardians themselves? Simple answers are always preferable.
    What seems to be coalescing from a number of viewpoints is the following concepts:
    1. The current system is flawed because it’s foreign and doesn’t represent a Melanesian concept.
    2. Melanesian consensus on debated issues is required before acceptance.
    3. More politicians won’t fix the current problem with those already elected.
    4. A long term solution is needed but a short term fix is imperative.
    The concept of a council of seniors is not a new or foreign idea in Melanesia. Each village used to have one. The issue is: How do you elect the right people to this house of review?
    Suggestion: Only elect those who have a proven record of achievement and knowledge about how a national government works. Initially, Provincial governors who have already been elected and are well known could make up a ‘Council of Chiefs’ or Senate, separate from the rest of the MP’s. This could be done immediately the results of the next general election are known. Perhaps later, only those who have been elected for at least two terms might be eligible.
    All legislation passed by the Lower House of Parliament would then have to be discussed and debated in the Council of Chiefs.
    No legislation would be allowed to progress to the Governor General until consensus is reached.
    Each Provincial Governor would then be individually accountable to their own Provence and people if an issue is allowed to progress further.
    Is this in line with Melanesian customs? Yes, absolutely.
    Will there be more politicians required and will it cost more? Emphatically, No.
    Will a Council of Chiefs, Senate or Council of Governors be able to be held individually more responsible and accountable? Yes. Will it slow down intemperate, knee jerk reactions by lower house MP’s? Again, Yes! (An incentive for new Senators/ Chiefs would be a new title and perhaps an automatic gong.)
    Is this a workable short term fix while a longer term solution is debated? Yep!
    Come on all you ‘Doubting Thomas’. A solution is needed now, not after the next general election.

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