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The Australia-Papua New Guinea Network is an initiative to build stronger people-to-people and foster links between business in Australia and Papua New Guinea.


Mihai Sora
Project Director, Australia-PNG Network

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Papua New Guinea's election surprises

This is the first of several articles for The Interpreter by Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow and former long-time Papua New Guinea correspondent Sean Dorney, who was in PNG for the elections as part of the Commonwealth's PNG Election Observer Mission.

The most surprising thing for me about the 2017 Papua New Guinea Election was the number of sitting MPs who were defeated.

No fewer than 55 were rejected by their constituents. At the time of writing one seat remained to be declared (Southern Highlands Provincial, where fighting not only delayed any result but also forced the counting to be shifted out of the province entirely). Of the other 110 seats, a few were not being recontested by the incumbent Member, so that figure of 55 means that just over half of the old Members who stood again were thrown out.

But, I hear you murmur, isn't this just typical of past PNG elections?

True, massive turnover has been a feature of elections in Papua New Guinea, but never before have sitting MPs had so much state money at their disposal. For the past few years they have had K15 million (A$6 million) each per year to spend in their electorates. The majority of this funding comes from one program, the District Support Improvement Program (DSIP). Those challenging the incumbents claimed to international observers that this created an uneven contest.

I was anticipating that such an enormous advantage would result in a significant change to that historical record of big turnovers and that well over half the outgoing MPs would win again. But no. Either many members did not spend the money properly (Queensland's real estate market was a likely side beneficiary of some MP spending), or PNG voters are smarter and less influenced by cash and project handouts than Prime Minister Peter O'Neill and I expected.

For O'Neill's party, MPs fared worse than the rest. His People's National Congress (PNC) lost 34 sitting Members, just over 60% of those who faced the voters. Only 21 were re-elected, but the PNC did win seven seats it did not hold before, and so wound up with 28 – almost double the number of the second-largest party in the new parliament, the National Alliance. Consequently, O'Neill was invited to have the first go at forming a government.

This election also witnessed the resurrection of the PANGU Party. Sam Basil was the only PANGU Member in the outgoing parliament, but he pulled in nine others this election – six of them from his own province, Morobe. Basil was one of only six MPs to win on first preferences. Of course, O'Neill did as well. William Duma was also successful on first preferences – his United Resources Party won ten seats.

Six other parties won multiple seats (from two to five each) and no fewer than 12 parties won just a single seat. A total of 14 independents won – all newcomers.

Under Papua New Guinea's limited preferential voting (LPV) system, voters have to nominate their first, second and third preferences for candidates they want to represent them in the parliament. One of the reasons counting takes so long is that in the vast majority of seats, very few of the leading candidates score even 20% of first preference votes. And with an average of more than 30 candidates per seat, the elimination of those at the bottom goes on and on until one candidate gets 50% plus one of the votes still in play.

For example, in the electorate of Karimui-Nomane Open in the Chimbu Province in the Highlands, there were 47 candidates. And while two mysteriously did not even vote for themselves (both recording zero votes), the remaining 45 candidates scored from one to 4485 votes. That leading candidate after first preferences was on just 11% of the 39,029 total valid votes.

As the eliminations of each successive candidate at the bottom continued, the preferences were distributed to those who remained. If the preferences went to candidates already excluded, then that vote was deemed no longer in play, or 'exhausted'.

In Karimui-Nomane, no winner emerged until only two of the 47 candidates were left. More than 22,000 votes had been exhausted before Geoffrey Kama of the Triumph Heritage Empowerment (THE) Party scrambled over the line with 54% of the remaining 16,832 valid votes. Kama wrested that seat off O'Neill's PNC. The outgoing PNC MP Mogerema Sigo Wei could manage only 4% of first preferences and, though he stayed in the race for quite a while, he was the 42nd candidate eliminated.

Some analysts have drawn attention to what has been described as large numbers of 'ghost voters' being added in seats the PNC held going into the election. If there were any in Karimui-Nomane, they did not help Mogerema Sigo Wei very much.

In a future article, I will discuss the state of the PNG's electoral roll and how parliament's 40-year-long refusal to allow any electoral boundary changes has led to wildly varying seat sizes and puts PNG at odds with its own laws and international best practice.  

Pacific links: PNG’s election, Australia’s inconsistent approach, Manus and more

  • Over half the seats in Papua New Guinea's national election are still to be declared after more than two weeks of counting. Four of the country's provinces have seen violent unrest since polling completed – four died over the weekend in Enga Province.

  • Radio New Zealand International's Johnny Blades has put together an interesting overview of the contenders for the top job in PNG, and some up and coming politicians to keep an eye on.  

  • It's now expected that PNG will have no female MPs in the next parliament, with the last of the three incumbent women MPs, Delilah Gore, losing her seat and none of the other female candidates expected to win. It's an opportune moment to look back at this post from earlier in the year from Julien Barbara and Kerryn Baker on improving the chances for female candidates in Melanesian elections.

  • Joanne Wallis spoke to Pacific Beat about her new book on Australia's policy in the Pacific, which argues that Australia's influence in the region is waning because of an inconsistent foreign policy approach.

  • On Friday, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's 26 members will be meeting for their conference and 70th anniversary celebrations. A proposed Pacific Ocean Science Centre will be on the agenda for ministers.  

  • ANU is calling for papers for a special issue of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies journal on the Pacific Islands in the 21st Century.

  • Stefan Armbruster tells the story of Manus Island's first refugees, who came from West Papua 50 years ago and have now been offered PNG citizenship.

Predicting PNG’s election

The PNG national elections are upon us, and for a brief moment the attention of regional and global media will be focused on this vibrant and costly celebration of democracy. The issues leading into the elections have been well documented by myself and others. Bal Kama's recent piece for The Interpreter is one of the best yet.

PNG's elections are famous for their diversity, high cost, logistical complexity, and security issues. They are a true marvel of the democratic process. The elections are also famous because they are incredibly unpredictable. There are no polls in PNG, and with 44 political parties and more than 3000 candidates contesting 111 seats, a prospective pollster wouldn't know where to begin. On top of that, PNG elections routinely boot out half of the country's sitting MPs.

It takes a brave or foolish person to predict the outcome of a PNG election. Here goes nothing.

How it could go right for Peter O'Neill

Prime Minister O'Neill has significant advantages coming into the election. He has marginalised the opposition to only 18 seats, and his own party (the People's National Congress) at last count held 54 seats in parliament, almost enough for a majority in its own right. O'Neill will be the first PNG Prime Minister to make it through a full term, and over that time he has proven to be a master at using the levers of politics and funding to maintain a broad coalition government.

Given his considerable advantages leading into the election, there is a very real chance that his party will succeed in being invited to form government. If O'Neill becomes the first declared winner in the election he can quickly move on to the real job of coalition-building. A low turnover of MPs (highly possible, given how subdued cash campaigning has been this year) will benefit O'Neill, as he can bring back more of his key allies and members of his own party. As his base builds he can continue to marginalise key opponents, and quickly get within striking distance of the magic number of 56, which would make a second term with O'Neill at the helm a foregone conclusion.

How it could go wrong

Prime Minister O'Neill is not as invincible as he was when commodity prices were soaring in 2014. The people of PNG have been disappointed on a number of fronts, and the dangerous state of the economy is impacting all parts of the country. There has been civil unrest in urban areas, and the outstanding corruption cases against the Prime Minister have tarnished his reputation. A 'coalition in opposition' has already formed hoping to grab the reigns from O'Neill, which includes major names such as Don Polye, Gary Juffa, Ben Micah, Patrick Pruatch, Kerenga Kua and former prime ministers Michael Somare, Julius Chan and Mekere Morauta. O'Neill has certainly been battered, but he is nowhere near beaten. There is, however, an opening for change that one might not have thought possible even a year ago.

The wheels could start to fall off for O'Neill back in his home electorate. While O'Neill is confident he will win quickly, an insurrection is being led against him by one-time protégé Stanley Liria, who has campaigned heavily. If Liria splits the vote in the Ialibu-Pangia seat then an outcome may take some time, distracting O'Neill from the task of building a coalition. If the turnover of MPs is unprecedentedly high, as it was in 2002 when 75% of MPs were booted out, then existing allegiances and party ties will count for far less. O'Neill nearly doubled his party membership from 27 MPs in 2012 to 54 over five years, but opportunism will pose a difficult test of that loyalty.

A lot will need to go right for this scenario to play out, and even if O'Neill is hamstrung in building his own coalition, it is still unclear which leader will take charge of the 'coalition in opposition'.

What will happen?

With all the variables at play this is an educated guess, but my money is on O'Neill. Say what you will about his policy track record, he is clearly a master at the game of politics. Whoever comes into power, however, will have urgent challenges to address – first and foremost, the dire state of the economy. As the count takes place and coalition negotiations drag on, the stakes for the new government will only get higher.

Pacific links: Resilience, US engagement, marine health and more

  • Jenny Hayward-Jones discusses the limitations of resilience in the Pacific Islands context.
  • Greg Colton cautions that President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may be the beginning of the end of US influence in the Pacific Isands region.
  • The first Pasifika musical to be staged in Australia, 'ReHavaiki', explored identity and belonging for young Pacific Islanders living away from their homelands.
  • Solomon Islands is launching a Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan.
  • Vanuatu announced it will not sign the PACER Plus trade agreement, alongside Fiji and PNG.
  • Bal Kama writes on the challenges faced by the O'Neill Government in PNG over the last five years leading up to this election.
  • Michelle Nayahamui Rooney unpacks a recent political cartoon about female candidates in the PNG election, and offers suggestions to address the media's problematic treatment of women.
  • The 'PNG Speaks' initiative has collected extensive interviews with ten prominent Papua New Guineans, documenting their memories of PNG's independence in 1975.
  • The UN Oceans Conference has ended and, after years of lobbying by Pacific nations, all 193 member countries are supporting an action plan to restore marine health.


Pacific links: Australia’s budget, shortwave services, the Pacific test, and more


Harnessing Papua New Guinea’s rugby league obsession

You don't have to spend much time in Papua New Guinea to realise that the country is obsessed with rugby league. The atmosphere in Port Moresby on a State of Origin night could rival the most devout regions of New South Wales or Queensland. Rugby league is considered PNG's national sport. In a country of eight million people and 800 languages it has a unique power to bring Papua New Guineans together across cultural divides. Rugby league also has significant untapped potential to build the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The highlight of PNG's rugby league calendar is an annual clash against an Australian select side, the Prime Minister's XIII. The experience is a much-needed eye-opener for the visiting Australian players, many of whom have little perspective of the popularity of the sport outside their own country. Recently, PNG has also established itself in the Australian rugby league landscape through the success of the PNG Hunters, the only overseas team in the Queensland Cup. Independently funded with very little support from Queensland Rugby League or the Australian NRL, the Hunters have made a splash in the competition, acting as fantastic ambassadors for PNG across Queensland and cultivating a sense of national pride among Papua New Guineans who would often identify with their home province over their home country. As of writing, they have won seven out of nine games this season, a remarkable feat for a team in its fourth year in the competition.

As the Hunters start to hit their stride, the potential for talent development in PNG should become more evident to the Australian NRL. The Pacific is already seen as one of the major talent pools for the sport – 42% of professional players are of Pacific Island heritage, a number only forecast to grow. And yet of these players only a handful are Papua New Guineans, even though PNG makes up roughly 75% of the population of the Pacific states and Papua New Guineans are the most fervent supporters of the sport in the region.

New Zealand's Pacific migration system is a significant contributing factor to the prevalence of Polynesian players in the Australian NRL. A number of Polynesian countries have migration access to New Zealand and therefore, as a result of the open border policy with New Zealand, Australia. That means more Polynesian players than Papua New Guineans have access to training systems in Australia and New Zealand from a young age. For the majority of players to reach the elite level of the sport they need to be in in these high level training programs by the age of 16 or 17. Targeting youth is essential to growing the numbers of professional Papua New Guinean players.

With the right support and investment Papua New Guinean athletes would be an asset to Australian rugby league. Providing Papua New Guinean players with more opportunities in Australia will also have flow-on benefits for the sporting landscape and ecosystems in PNG, meaning that more Papua New Guineans who want to have a career in rugby league can achieve that without having to leave PNG.

PNG's rugby league fan base also presents commercial opportunities for Australia. NRL jerseys are a national uniform, and Papua New Guineans pride themselves on their encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport and its superstars. Already most Papua New Guineans who travel to Australia will make sure they find the time to attend a match during their trip. Both the NRL and the tourism sector should take advantage of PNG's growing middle class and their passion for rugby league, and target this market in their commercial strategies.

Rugby league tourism also has huge potential in Papua New Guinea. In 2017 PNG will host three Rugby League World Cup games, and the country also regularly hosts PNG Hunters home games for the Queensland Cup. Rugby league and tourism bodies should be collaborating to ensure that a variety of packages are available and easily accessible for fans around the world who want to attend a match and experience PNG's unique tourist attractions. Rugby league tourism can also spark new interest in PNG among Australian rugby league fans to build new people-to-people links between the two countries, while also supporting PNG's economic development.

Finally, there a number of innovative programs making use of the sport's popularity to achieve important development outcomes in PNG. These include League Bilong Laif ('League for Life'), a sport for development program launched in 2013 that uses rugby league as a basis for school and community activities. The program comprises outdoor and classroom sessions, features rugby league-themed reading resources, and promotes the importance of education and messages of respect and inclusivity. One of the most striking results of the program has been a growing realisation among children, teachers and parents that rugby league is 'not just a man's game'. In a country with staggering rates of gender-based violence, seeing women in unexpected roles such as teaching, playing and coaching rugby league seems to be having a wider impact on perceptions of women in society, and changing girls' own views about what they are capable of.

It is clear that there is momentum in many parts of the rugby league relationship between Australia and PNG, and it's a good story to share. But more can be done to build on the successes achieved to date. These organisations and programs often operate in silos and don't have enough opportunities to come together. On March 28 the Lowy Institute, through the work of the Aus-PNG Network, did exactly that. We assembled sport administrators, male and female rugby league players, journalists, tourism professionals, private sector managers, NGO founders, researchers, coaches, sports diplomacy and foreign affairs representatives for a day of discussion to tease out these issues and discuss new connections and pathways. The outcomes document from the day can be found here, and a podcast interviewing some of the workshop participants is available here.

Pacific links: Trade deals, French elections, malaria in PNG and more


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