The Role of the Opposition in #PNG by Hon. Sam Basil

By Hon. Sam Basil, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Member for Bulolo

One of Papua New Guinea’s most vibrant Leaders of Opposition, the late Iambakey Okuk once stated: the role of the Opposition is to “expose, oppose and depose” the Government-of-the-Day. And true to form, he set out to do just that

Mr Okuk’s version is not far from a commentator Tierney, who about a century ago, suggested that “the duty of an Opposition is to propose nothing, oppose everything, and to turn out the government”.

After two terms in the Opposition – and three years as Deputy Leader of Opposition – I too have my own view about the role and duty of the Opposition from Papua New Guinea experience. The first is that no Member of Parliament, by choice, wants to be in the Opposition. They are afraid to be in Opposition. I call this “OPS” which stand for “Opposition Phobia Syndrome”. I will explain this later.

Bur Ian Shapiro, a leading thinker in liberal democracy, states that “democracy is an ideology of opposition as much as it is one of government”. This view implies that both the opposition and government are building blocks that make up democracy. You can’t separate or take one away without hurting democracy – big time. The balance can be seen in democratic parliament sitting arrangements. In our own National Parliament, for example, the Executive Government sits on the Speaker’s right while the Opposition sits on the Speaker’s left.

Given that the democracy thrives on majority rules, the Government will have superior number of MPs while the Opposition will have less indicated by the sitting arrangements as well as they way MPs vote. The Government will set the agenda while the Opposition provides the checks and balances in Questions without Notice and in debate on legislative and policy bills. The floor of Parliament is arena where this process of governance takes place. But these exchanges can go beyond the floor of Parliament to the media arena.

Let me first give you some basic background on how the Opposition is established. I will then go on to discuss the role of the Opposition as the voice of the voiceless, exposing, opposing and an alternative to the ruling government as well as its emerging role as a critical partner in nation building. I will then discuss the challenges of the PNG Opposition.

How the Opposition is established

The National Constitution of Papua New Guinea does NOT establish the Opposition. It only refers to a Leader of Opposition (in passing as it seems). What this means is that the Opposition in our democratic Westminster system of Government exists by tradition or convention. It is framed by a number of different laws and regulations. The entitlement provisions for the Opposition MPs are contained in two different public institutions. Those of the Leader of Opposition and the Deputy Leader of Opposition and their staff come out of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) and Ministerial Services Act. This Act provides the regulatory mechanisms, which are managed by the Department of Prime Minister and National Executive Council. The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff – a political appointee – is the Officer-in-Charge as the SRC and ministerial services Act also covers the entilements of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers. The rest of the Opposition – Shadow Ministers and their staff – and the operational funding come under and from the National Parliament where the Speaker and the Clerk of Parliament are in charge. This legal arrangements make it hard for the Opposition to fulfill its functions, which I will discuss later.

A. The multi-roles of the Opposition.

1. Voice of the voiceless

The Opposition comprises Member of Parliament who represent electorates and provinces. The Members themselves may be professionals, businessmen, represent certain sporting or other interests which their colleagues in Governments may not know of or be interested in. This is where they become the voice of the voiceless. The Opposition therefore expresses the view of important sections of the electorate or interest groups so these interests and concerns are not pushed to the side, ignored or trampled upon by Government. This also acts as a “release valve” for frustrations, grievances and voices which can be detrimental to our country and society. This role builds the confidence of the people and reassures them that their concerns and interests are ably expressed and protected and at the same time exposing lack, flaws, short-falls, greed, fraud, stealing and corruption by leaders. Without threat of exposure, leaders can gravitate to corrupt practices.

2. Exposing and Opposing

It is the duty of the opposition to oppose the government in power. The question is why? Ultimately, and before elections, the aim is to convince voters in electorates to vote those in Opposition so they can have the numbers to form Government. This will help them to put in place their policies which they would see as superior in the betterment or development of a country. To this end, the Opposition will investigate and expose aspects of the government in power where the national interest has been set aside in favour of other vested interest. The negative focus is necessary and vital given the tendency of executive power to lead to excesses and corruption. Many of you would have heard of how “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. While the Opposition’s role is to try and challenge the many different ways executive government power can be abused through bureaucratic red tape; abuses of human rights; syphoning of public monies and bring them to the public attention either on the floor of Parliament or to the public through the media.
Governments, for obvious reasons, do not like this watchdog role.
But history, as stated by former Canadian Member of Parliament John Diefenbaker, “proves that freedom always dies when criticism dies”. In other words, if there is no criticism of executive government decision-making, the people can lose their basic rights and freedoms through legislation.

3. Providing Alternative Choice

A Leader of Opposition of Ghana, in Africa, Honourable Alban S.K. Bagbin once said that “choice” is important in any democracy. Having an Opposition, he says, provides “viable alternatives” to the views offered by the Government-of-the-Day. These views, provides the challenge for governments to pursue higher planes. In other words, if you come up with a good idea or policy as a Government MP, I will come up with a better alternative. The next Government will try to come up with even better alternative and so. The theory is that governments will keep out-doing, out-performing and improving all the time resulting in a consistently developing country with good governance. But in practice, it is quite possible to create instability and short-lived policies that are not allowed the full maturity cycle. This ideal is often the reason why Opposition’s chief aim is to remove and take-over Governments. Irresponsible Opposition will use the raw version offered by Tierney to “propose nothing” or no alternatives, “oppose everything” work like Okuk to “expose, oppose and depose” ruling Governments.

4. Opposition as a critical partner in nation building.

In recent times, as highlighted by the Ghanian Leader of Opposition, Mr Bagbin, a new role of the Opposition is emerging in step with globalization and its emphasis on good governance and democratic peace treaty. There is stronger recognition of universal human freedoms and rights. Ruling government and Opposition as “the building blocks of democracy” have these common, uniting agenda. The expectation is that Oppositions are “expected to make room, space or allowance for cooperation and consensus building”, according to Mr Bagbin. This is captured in the idea of “National Interest” where “threats to the peace, security, democracy and psyche of the nation” become a uniting call for all in leaders regardless of affiliation to the ruling Government or the Opposition.

B. Opposition Tools used in Practice

How many of you have been following the news in recent months? Good. The media is one of the tools used by the Opposition. This is not hard to understand. In our democratic system of Government, our Members of Parliament are elected by popular choice. That means, the most popular person, is likely to be elected the leader. And the media plays a very important role in promoting – deliberately or unintentionally – who becomes the most popular.

1. Media as tool of the Opposition
Ruling Governments have a love-hate relationship with the media. They like to use them to promote what good policies they initiative. But they do not like being exposed for doing corrupt, greedy and vested interest misdeeds. The media’s role to expose Government is consistent with the Opposition’s role so often the media is accused of siding with the Opposition. But in recent times, the Opposition has been concerned about some sectors of the media, and wonders would they are under pressure from Government not to report on issues raised and highlighted by the Opposition. One newspaper, I understand, was circulated instruction not to publish anything from the Opposition on “calls for O’Neill to resign” over the recent “warrant of arrest” issue. Use of media as a tool can be through press releases, press conferences, advertisements and radio or TV talk-back shows.

2.Opposition tools on the Floor of Parliament
On the floor of Parliament, the Opposition can raise
• Questions without notice to the Prime Minister and Ministers of State
• Debates of legislation, policy and budget bills
• Boycotting Parliament sitting

3. Other Opposition tools outside of Parliament
Outside of Parliament, the Opposition can based on its own research refer leaders to law enforcement agencies for more formal investigations. It can also use the National Court and Supreme Court to scrutinize legislations or Government policy to see if they comply with our constitution and existing laws.

C. Opposition in PNG Experience

1. Funding implications

In the context of Papua New Guinea, role of the Opposition, is affected by many factors. While Shapiro suggests that both government and opposition make up democracy, the executive Government has placed undue, indirect as well as very direct influence on the Opposition. This has been happening for several decades but has become more distinct with introduction of District Services Improvement Program funding. This makes MPs act like project managers to access the funds necessary for their districts. Many Opposition MPs have had to forego their principled opposition to the Government of the Day just to access those funds for their districts. The other funding problem is how the National Parliament is placed in charge of Opposition Operational Funds. Basically this means that the Opposition is at the whims of the Speaker and the Clerk of Parliament as well as the cash-flow of Parliament. If cash-flow situation is bad in Parliament Services, essential services take priority and Opposition initiatives are not funded in a timely way. The overall budget for the Opposition is therefore inconsistent, insufficient and ineffective. This funding impact arises from the lack of appropriate legislation.

2. Legislative implications

My view is that the Opposition needs to have appropriate legislation that brings together all its funding under the one, independent institution. Because of its accountability and adversarial role, it will grate against the Government. This in turn will cause individuals within Government to manipulate funding access and flow of the Opposition. The resultant impact is that the role of the Opposition can be marginalized weakening good governance, transparency and accountability.


Earlier, I mentioned that there is an “Opposition Phobia Syndrome” among MPs. That syndrome is created largely through the legislative flaws and the funding implications that extend from it. The issue of an effective Opposition is a national issue. It needs to be addressed. My colleagues and I intend to do something about this when we are in Government. Because like our Ghanian colleague we from experience know that “in a true democratic system, the opposition is as important as the government”.