Tuesday, April 12, 2011

[pima.nius] Digital-savvy islanders grow wary of 'big man' leadership style

12:39 PM |

Digital-savvy islanders grow wary of 'big man' leadership style

Pacific Media Centre, Rowan Callick

10 April, 2011

As people in the Pacific gain access to more information in the digital revolution, they are becoming less satisfied with the levels of leadership and services in their communities. The ultimate options are unclear, but it is important to note that a debate is under way.

OPINION: The cyclone season is coming to an end for this year, yet a different type of turmoil is starting to stir the Pacific islands. A digital revolution is running through the region, with myriad mobile towers being erected providing cheap-as-chips, pay-as-you-go calls.

Facebook is running riot. People are able to check on their relatives in distant villages, farmers are setting prices after talking to informants at markets. And both the facts and the rumours about how political and landowner leaders are behaving are going feral online and on mobile - as are resulting opinions.

As people in the Pacific gain access to more information, they are becoming less satisfied with the levels of leadership and services in their communities. The ultimate options are unclear, but it is important to note that a debate is under way.

People are becoming wary of those claiming "big man" status and are looking for more accountable, lower-profile leaders focused more on long-postponed delivery of basic services.

Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu, now busy as a corporate board member, said in a recent speech: "I see our democracy, our parliamentary system, as being at the crossroads. The next election (due next year) will be more critical than any since independence (in 1975).

"I sense that the total lack of parliamentary accountability troubles our people greatly" - as politicians and public servants seize the country's fast-growing resource returns for themselves instead of making them available for schools, clinics and roads.

In PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific, younger people, mobiles glued to their ears, are seizing newfound opportunities to discuss options for their futures, just as their peers in the Middle East have been doing.

A lively Vanuatu-based think tank, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, has just published an essay that says: "Where authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have fallen under popular pressure, in our part of the world the pressure is on parliamentary democracy itself. There is growing disillusionment with current systems and the antics of political big men, who treat politics as a self-serving game."

It warns that, as has already happened in Fiji, "unless there is urgent reform a combination of demographics and new geopolitics could spell the end of democracy as we know it in the Pacific, beginning with Melanesia" - which has to date been the regional exemplar of lively democracy, compared with the more aristocratic Polynesian culture.

The institute says: "Vast amounts of time and money are wasted on supporting or toppling governing coalitions, with the net result that the populations of Melanesia are increasingly starting to feel that parliamentary democracy is a waste of time. The struggle between communal values and individual rights remains a deep faultline."

Is Frank Bainimarama's militarised Fiji becoming an attractive alternative in the region as the coup leader milks to the utmost his new chairmanship of the Melanesian Spearhead Group?

Probably not beyond the "big man" elites which last week endorsed his programme but are themselves also on the nose.

What should Australia do? The institute says: "Entering the debate on no-fly zones in Libya might be worthwhile, however, entering the debate on the future of Melanesia is essential."

But this is a debate which only Melanesians can resolve.

It may involve an evolution to presidential-type structures, and more or less devolution. It should involve more women in positions of power at every level. It will mean greater uncertainty over the next few years.

It is also a debate that Canberra - and the broader Australian community - can and should encourage, through providing resources to enhance informed discussion, and through listening to the new voices, and giving them platforms, so that the lively communities to our north shape up to take full advantage of their emerging opportunities.

pacific islands media association
aotearoa, new zealand
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