The Forgotten Neighbour


Parliamentary elections in Papua New Guinea opened on 30 June, the same day as elections in East Timor. Yet, though PNG is our closest neighbour and a former Australian colony with five times the population of East Timor, we hear much less of this extraordinary country.

Unlike East Timor, the PNG elections will take more than 10 days, because of the needs of remote communities the Highland provinces will vote on different days and because police are being rotated in the Highland regions.

Like every PNG election since independence in 1975, this one is likely to produce a coalition government. The government is usually formed by the leader of the largest Party, and always by the best coalition builder.

PNG elections can be volatile. Disappointments and perceived betrayals have led to violence in the past. At least 30 people were killed during the 2002 elections.

This year’s concerns have included the purging of more than a million old names from the electoral rolls and the introduction of a limited preferential voting (LPV) system. After the culling of names, there are still nearly four million on the rolls, but already some have complained of wrongful exclusion. There has been a substantial education campaign on the new LPV system, but almost half the country remains illiterate.

Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare

Some are taking advantage of new opportunities. One former soldier told me that LPV suited him well, because he could get 20 Kina (about $4) from one candidate for his first preference, K10 from another for his second, and K5 for his third.

Such modest expectations are understandable. Government services are extremely limited in PNG. There is very little ‘trickle down’ from the annual A$3 billion in mineral and oil exports, or the A$200 million in logging exports. Revenues mostly go to Australian and Malaysian companies. Export-led ‘development’ has not reached the people.

The most common complaints are high school fees, unaffordable health services and lack of roads. However, most families in PNG have access to good quality land, and this has been their saviour.

The Government does have some financial capacity, with a A$2 billion annual budget, but neo-liberal influences have entrenched ‘user pays’ regimes for education and health services. The result is that most families cannot afford health care or secondary school.

No Party has broken through on this issue, nor has any one Party been able to dominate PNG’s electoral politics. This is not simply due to the country’s cultural diversity. These days, almost all Parties are organised on national lines however, they are not class-based and there is a high level of participation and change.

Almost 3000 candidates are competing for the 109 Parliamentary seats. Half these candidates are independents and Party loyalties can be ‘flexible.’ The demand for ministries is strong and there is little security for MPs. Up to half the sitting members stand to lose their seats at each election.

The last Government, led by Prime Minister Michael Somare, included members from all 18 political Parties, at one time or another. Having completed a third term as PM and with his status as ‘father of the nation,’ Somare has proven himself the master networker and coalition builder. That may be his main advantage in this election.

Somare’s National Alliance Party (NAP) faces a challenge from the New Generation Party (NGP), led by former NAP Minister Bart Philemon. The NGP was only recently formed, and had been backed by the Murdoch-owned Post Courier newspaper, which has been hostile to the NAP Government.

To gain office, Philemon’s NGP would have to win a substantial number of seats and then form an alliance with other power brokers, such as Mekere Morauta (an Australian favourite and former PM), Rabbie Namaliu (another former PM, but currently Treasurer) and Pias Wingti (yet another former PM).

Personalities apart, policy differences are less clear. All Parties have been influenced by World Bank ‘structural adjustment’ programs now usually called ‘good governance’ and maintaining privatisation, opening to foreign investment, and ‘user pays’ service regimes.

All Parties have also have been implicated in various forms of corruption. This has been used to maintain the policy leverage of aid programs and foreign loans.

The Australian connection remains important. The Morauta-led coalition (1999-2002) gained Australian support backing privatisation of State enterprises against strong public opposition.

The recent Somare-led coalition (2002-2007) went cold on privatisation, while maintaining support for big foreign investors and stressing diversification of partnerships. The NAP has been slowly building a stronger relationship with China.

There have been several indirect confrontations between Canberra and Somare. They all seem to link to his perceived independence, and Australian concern over its strategic investments, which are mainly in mining and energy.

With the collapse earlier this year of the planned PNG-to-Queensland gas pipeline, and discussions over new partners to process PNG’s natural gas, Australian investment groups will be maintaining their pressure on Canberra to retain its influence over the new coalition that emerges in Port Moresby.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.