It is 1:00AM and Papua New Guinea’s parliament house is under siege from special forces soldiers during the height of the Sandline crisis of 1997. The army has rebelled against the introduction of foreign mercenaries brought in by the government and demanded the resignation of the prime minister, Sir Julius Chan. Soldiers are rattling the gates, yelling through loudspeakers and threatening to come inside. MPs have huddled in their parliamentary chambers while police patrol the grounds outside. The situation is tense – PNG is on the brink. Sir Michael Somare, then an MP, withdraws to his own chambers wondering aloud to the only journalist inside parliament during the siege. ‘This feels strange because it is the first time I have been a hostage’ he says wearily, ‘it is a sad day to see our democracy under attack like this’.

Sitting with Sir Michael the obvious question arose – is parliamentary democracy a suitable governing system for such a tribal country, and region? It seemed a poignant time to ask this fundamental question. Fiji coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka had famously said even before the Sandline crisis ‘democracy is a foreign flower that has been planted in this region’.

‘There’s nothing wrong with democratic principles and they are not incompatible with Melanesian values’, Sir Michael counters. ‘The issue is that parliamentary democracy has to be adapted to the local situation. It’s a bit like a brand new four wheel drive coming off the ship for sale here. The basic model is good, but if it is to work here in PNG then you need to change the tyres, boost the suspension and modify a few things. You can’t expect one model is going to suit every condition, especially with the roads we have here’.

The key messages of this paper are:

  • The systems of parliamentary democracy are increasingly under pressure in Melanesia.
  • Left unchecked, the trend is likely to shift towards more autocratic forms of government.
  • Half the population of the region is under 24, and Melanesia has the highest urbanisation rates in the Pacific. With growth rates of 4.7 per cent, urban populations are doubling every 17 years.
  • Young people are increasingly disillussioned with barely functioning parliaments, corrupt land and resource sales and few if any employment prospects.
  • PNG is now better described as an autocracy verging on kleptocracy, while Fiji is a full- blown military dictatorship. The Solomon Islands and Vanuatu may be heading in this direction unless there are substantial reforms of political systems and other pressure release measures, including labour mobility.
  • Australia and its allies would do well to prioritise Melanesia, or risk being caught out as everyone was by the swift change that swept through the Arab world this year.
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