The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Oct. 19) – Papua New Guinea Member of Parliament Peter O’Neill is fast becoming one of the few leaders of the Opposition to plan ahead, develop strategies, and take the role seriously.

Much of our criticism of the Opposition, particularly during the spurious attempts to unseat the Government of Sir Michael Somare, centered on its lack of experience, and the difficulties that could be created if the Opposition were to assume the leadership of the country.

But O’Neill is looking increasingly like a leader, and a political force to be recognized.

We may never know the details of the backstage confrontation that must have occurred between a disaffected Bill Skate, the founder of the People’s National Congress, and O’Neill, its parliamentary leader and Leader of the Opposition.

Certainly, Skate was determined to regain both the party and the Opposition leadership.

And just as certainly, O’Neill gave no signs of giving-in to the former prime minister and acceding to his demands.

Instead he downplayed the importance of Skate’s bid to regain power, and acted in the manner of a politician sure of his numbers and his place in the future of both his party and the Parliament.

At a fund raising dinner last Saturday, O’Neill lamented the lack of stability in PNG politics, and posed a conundrum: How can the strength of political parties be boosted when there are already too many of them?

The Opposition Leader is right on both scores -- there are far too many one or two member parties, and even parties with no membership in the House.

O’Neill also raised the issue of personalities versus policies, a matter that has long concerned The National.

If PNG wishes to develop parliamentary democracy, then it requires a small number of stable and effective parties each clearly discernible by their policies, their goals, and the voters to whom they especially appeal.

To date, PNG has wallowed in a welter of political personalities.

Arguably that was necessary to establish our present system of government, but that was achieved long ago.

Since then we have had a cult of personal leadership, in place of solid policies and plans for the future of our country.

We doubt that many readers would be able to make significant distinctions between the existing major parties on the basis of their declared policies.

Indeed, many of them appear to have no organized manifestos, and nothing that might be called a political platform.

It is the personalities of party leaders that have decided who should sit on the Government benches in Parliament.

Posters carrying a large picture of the candidate, plus a smaller image of his or her party leader, have become an integral part of national election campaigns.

The implication is obvious -- a vote for the candidate will be a vote towards a government headed by the party leader in the small picture.

Even where members have from time to time switched allegiances from one party to another, it has been their personality that has continued to attract the voters.

This has become a global trend, particularly in those states where a presidential system of government is used.

In our view, that development is a good reason for remaining loyal to our amended Westminster structure.

We should move to lessen the impact of individual leaders on the public, and replace it with far-sighted and constructive policies that can work for the country and its people.

These ideas need to be accompanied by others.

Perhaps the most important of them is to establish party structures throughout the nation, so that ordinary people can once again become paid-up members of a political party.

This was a signal success in the early years of the Pangu Pati, but has not been seriously addressed since.

Yet it is the quickest and most substantial way of involving citizens in policy-making, the selection of party candidates, and by extension, the whole process of government.

At the same time a party network of members throughout the country avoids political regionalism, and provides a funding and support basis for candidates.

It is refreshing and encouraging that these sound proposals are coming from an Opposition Leader, and we applaud O’Neill for his initiatives.

October 20, 2004

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