Democracy under the Southern Cross

by Dom on January 6, 2011

There has been much debate about how appropriate democracy is for the Pacific Islands, and which form of this apparently essential freedom the various states of the Pacific should adopt. There has been condemnation of a Speight of coups in Fiji (although when the Premier of an Australian state does something similar enough there is silence), disappointment at the progress in Tonga, repeated (justified) assaults on Niue’s ridiculous system, lashings of confusion at the Solomon’s unique way of doing things, head scratching as PNG tries to sort out God-only-knows how many internal messes, and the less said about Nauru the better. But amid the criticism and negativity, there is something far more positive; the system works in the Pacific just as it does in any other democracy; poorly or perfectly, depending on whose side you’re on and how well you play the game.

While some have expressed disappointment at the outcome of the recent Tongan election, the fact remains that the pro-democracy movement secured a large portion of votes. Although they could not secure a governing majority, they have many voices in parliament, the cabinetis hardly exclusively nobles, and there is an acceptance that the political landscape of privilege is changing in Tonga. This may not be happening as fast as some would like, but given the cultural traditions and more-recently created customs that need to be replaced, the progress is undeniable – depending on how you feel about Tonga’s version of democracy….

But rather pointing out that nobles still hold great power in Tonga (and ignoring how long the UK has taken to fetter its Lords), let’s look at what this parliament can do to improve Tonga for all Tongans and judge it on that. Let’s stop and think about the fact that the independents have a say (much like they do in Australia). Let’s think about the public beginning to embrace and understand their democratic system; someday they may even get to choose their own, (just like New Zealand).

The past month has also delivered some interesting changes in domestic politics for Vanuatu and Tuvalu, with both states having their incumbent leaders replaced by shifting alliances in parliament. Probably not the most desirable, understood or even accepted aspect of the Westminster democratic tradition, the ability to replace leaders with factional or coalition changes is something many struggle with, at all levels of government. Outrage and shock were two of the main emotion recently in Australia when there was a change at the helm. While all this was happening, Port Moresby was gripped by some of the most outlandish political maneuvering seen anywhere for some time, by not just the opposition, but the Prime Minister, the courts, Attorney General and factions within government.

There are two conclusions from all of this. First, Tonga has a lot of fun ahead of it as it gets to grips with this thing called democracy and the political permutations it allows. I hope they enjoy the ride! Second, no matter how you do democracy, there will always be who dislike what it delivers.

Tonga is only just getting started with the fun, and judging by the lead in other countries, there is plenty of fun to be had in the democracies of the Pacific, as when they stop “working”, they can be changed from within. But this leads us back to the starting point; if they are that easy to change, how appropriate is democracy?

Questions, comments, thoughts, retorts?

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