PNG Poor Sceptical Of Elections


Following one of the most turbulent periods in the nation’s history, Papua New Guinea is now headed toward its 2012 national election.

But many of the nation’s poorest communities, isolated from both political life and PNG’s resource boom, are sceptical the election will lead to improvements.

For struggling settlement communities, election campaigns are characterised by the free distribution of money and food by candidates in exchange for support at the ballot box. These temporary sites provide short term relief from unemployment and the daily struggle to find food.

But few expect that generosity to last beyond 6 July, when polling officially ends.

In a settlement in Waigani district, not far from Parliament House, the Goilala people are one community that remains sceptical the election will bring better days ahead.

"We’ve been here for a very long time and we have seen a lot of changes around Waigani," Ian, a resident of the settlement, told New Matilda. "We have been pushed to this area here, we have a lot of people who are unemployed and we are very struggling."

"You can see that we don’t have proper sanitation, water supply, power. Probably, you could say we have been neglected. Even though when these elections come, we give power, we give the mandate. But they don’t see the actual need of people."

A blue canvas had been strung up in the Waigani settlement as a meeting point for potential voters. Beneath it, locals sat down to play cards and chew betel nut beside a placard supporting the local candidate.

"This canvas has been up all week. And during that period of time, the candidate gives us money, and for this little money, they expect us to put the canvas, put food for the people that comes in where they can be able to cast their votes," Ian said.

"People like us, we can be influenced because of food, we can be influenced because of money, we can be influenced because of beer. And because of that, we can be convinced to vote for a person."

Staging elections is a massive task in PNG, with the Australian Defence Force, AusAID, the Australian Electoral Commission and Federal Police all contributing personnel, financial and logistical support to ensure the elections take place as scheduled.

But many in the settlement say they are largely indifferent to the outcome of the election, as previous votes have produced little change to a fundamental lack of basic services.

Willie, a resident formerly involved in street crime and now trying to reform his community, wants more direct ways of fixing the social problems affecting their community.

"Create work and schools for us. We are tired of living the life of a raskol and we want to do something positive to improve our current situation," he told NM.

"People are taking drugs and alcohol and doing all kinds of things around this city, and we young people here, we’re think of ways to stay good. Our idea is to create a farm or a garden for us to work on, and we’re asking the PNG government to help us make this happen".

Willie had prepared an outline of the urban garden project to present during NM’s visit to the settlement, in the hope it would reach the PNG government. It is clearly difficult for the youths to have their voices heard. During the interview, a drunk police officer intervened, and tried to prevent the boys from discussing politics with a foreign journalist.

"He’s just drunk and trying to tell us what to do. Forget about him," Willie said.

But around the settlement, many other former and current raskols shared the same reservations about the electoral process.

"These candidates, they need the vote of the people. And the people, they need the money of the candidate. ‘If the candidate gives money, then I will vote for him’, that’s what a lot of people are saying," said one youth.

"’Kai-kai moni, tasol; just eat his money’ they say. Because we don’t know whether by the time he makes it to parliament if he will know us anymore. And the people are suffering."

According to the United Nations Development Program, 37 per cent of PNG’s population live below the national poverty line. In Port Moresby, the cost of rent and food has risen dramatically in recent years at the same time as major resource projects accelerate across the country.

Community elder Shukah said his people are being forgotten in PNG’s push towards modernisation.

"We can vote a leader in there but as he goes in, there is already a system in there. And he will fall in line with the system that has already been placed there. So they go in there, and they get everything for themselves," he said.

"We can’t travel outside PNG, but we know they invest in overseas countries like Australia. In Queensland they have got properties, real estate there. So the wealth of the country is not being distributed equally."

I was shown inside one of the settlement’s rundown wooden shacks, where an elderly woman lived with several grand children. Outside the door, on cracked wooden decking, an array of pots and empty buckets had been assembled to catch the falling rain to serve as clean drinking water.

"How many years have I voted? How many years have we put these people in power and they never come back to the communities," the woman said.

"We have nothing, we live like pigs or dogs. Washing in dirty water, sewerage water, without any clean water. It is really a bad situation."

Nearby the community, children washed in an open drain while the afternoon traffic passed on the bridge overhead. Willie said he and his family had bathed in just the same way decades before.

"All of our family wash our clothes here, and all of us used to wash here. A long time now, we are washing in this drain for how many years? We don’t want our young ones staying like this."

"This election is important," he said. "But in the next five years this election will not benefit us youths or the community. Once they have won their seats they will go for good. And we will stay for the next five years with nothing."

Ian believes the government must assist the communities to improve their own lot.

"We have our needs but its just that they don’t have the time to come down here and look at us. We do have creative ideas, we do want to advance our lives, we do want to put down guns, put down drugs, put off with all the violence behaviour," he said.

"Our project is very simple, we want an agriculture project. And this project can provide us with food. This canvas won’t provide us with food for the next five years. But the agriculture will supply us for the next 10, 15 years."

Voting starts on 23 June.

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