PNG Speaker defends his plans for reformation of parliament
PNG's Speaker of parliament defends his plans to remove artefacts from the parliament building amid a public outcry and claims that he is destroying the country's cultural heritage.
The speaker of parliament in Papua New Guinea, Theo Zurenuoc has defended plans to remove so-called "ungodly" cultural artefacts from the parliament building.
There's been a public outcry over Mr Zurenuoc's move earlier this month, as head of the parliament house committee, to remove carved heads from above the front entrance to parliament.
He also plans to replace a large totem pole inside the parliament with a National Unity Pole, which will contain a Bible and a copy of the constitution.
Johnny Blades spoke to Theo Zurenouc who says he is overseeing a renovation and reformation of parliament.
THEO ZURENOUC: We realise that certain objects or artefacts in the Grand Hall were not appropriate, meaning they carried images that we view as obscene, offensive and inappropriate to be kept in that area. So the house committee has made a decision that the totem poles be removed and that we put in place a replacement monument that can have a better meaning, can carry a more relevant statement, a message for our people. As part of our restoration, reformation and modernisation programme in parliament we have undertaken some renovations in parliament, improvements in areas where there are concerns.
JOHNNY BLADES: Did you anticipate the reaction that would come from what you're doing?
TZ: Of course. We knew those totems or those objects may be, in fact, of significance and they may create some form of reaction from the public at large. But we felt it better we move ahead with the action and of course manage the reactions that will come as a result of our action.
JB: It seems like people had a lot of pride in those artefacts, a real sense of this is part of the heritage, the immensely rich and diverse heritage of Papua New Guinea which is so precious that people do worry that outside influences can come and take these things away.
TZ: Yes and no, but you must understand that Papua New Guineans as a people, our understanding of artefacts may be quite different from how other people see it. You must also note that I have been branded as a 'cultural terrorist'. But what we have embarked on doing is not destroying our culture, but removing certain objects, particular objects, in this case two sets of objects, which are not, in our view, appropriate to remain in those parts of the parliament. And whilst we understand other people's appreciation of the objects, the carvings and the objects that we have, we also know that there are objects that we are not supposed to keep in our possession. They are supposed to be kept in certain places. So we have taken those points into consideration and have finally made the decision to remove those things.
JB: The spiritualism of these things, are you suggesting that it's dangerous? Because this could be read into any object, the spiritualism thing.
TZ: Um, you know, I must inform you that in my statement that I released yesterday I made a paraphrase of what the Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare said on the eve of independence. It's recorded in the book titled 'Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes: the Masterpieces Exhibition in the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery'. And in that particular book Sir Michael declared that wooden carvings and cultural artefacts are living spirits fixed with abodes. So Papua New Guineans have a very close affinity to the spiritual world. We believe in spirits, but there are good spirits and bad spirits. And they are symbolised in objects that are carved. We try to create things to represent the spirit that we believe in. So these artefacts may have some connections to the spirits, the beliefs that we have.
JB: You're in a very important position in your country's parliament, but why should you be the arbiter of whether these things are spiritually dangerous or ungodly?
TZ: No, come on, let us not be moving into that part of the path. What you must understand is that the entire project that we are embarking on is part of the project to make this parliament more relevant to the people. We want to open this parliament to the people and it is a decision of the house committee, which is vested with the powers to make those decisions by parliament - parliament has appointed members of a national parliament house committee and they've been given powers by the laws of the parliamentary service and parliamentary privileges that they act on behalf of the parliament to make a decision. And as a result that is the decision by the house committee. And it's not a unilateral decision by the speaker of parliament and that must be very, very clear.
JB: But if it's something so contentious and you knew it was going to be this reaction, why didn't you throw it to the floor of the parliament?
TZ: No, I think what we have done was in order. There was no need for us to make a big issue out of it.
JB: What does the prime minister think of this whole process?
TZ: Um, it's really within my powers to do this, but he has spoken to me. Because of the reaction by the public he has asked me to suspend the project and manage the reaction of the people and inform them of what we are doing. Very soon we shall begin again.
JB: Didn't he order you to stop the process, as it were? Or are you just going to suspend it before continuing?
TZ: You must understand the separation of powers in the Westminster system of government. The prime minister cannot come and tell a speaker what to do. He can only ask me and discuss what he thinks I should do and we can then come to an agreement. We have agreed that I suspend the thing until such time as it is right for us to start again.
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