Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 21:40 | SYDNEY
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A focus on Pacific Islands has been a central component of the Lowy Institute’s work for more than a decade. We research contemporary challenges facing the Pacific islands region in areas including geostrategic competition, sustainable economic development, governance and leadership challenges, poverty alleviation, and Australia’s relationship with Pacific countries and organisations. We also hold major conferences, workshops, dialogues and exchanges. We have produced influential work on Australia’s Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, the 2006 Fiji Coup, normalising Australia’s bilateral relationship with Fiji, Australia’s bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea, the future development challenges of Papua New Guinea, the economic benefits of greater labour mobility between Australia and the South Pacific, security and resilience dynamics in the Pacific, and foreign aid flows in the Pacific.

The Institute manages four major projects focusing on the Pacific:

The Pacific Research Program (PRP) is a consortium partnership between the Lowy Institute and the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Development Policy Centre, with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The PRP is designed to be a globally pre-eminent centre of excellence for research on the Pacific. More details are available here.

The Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and is designed to enhance aid effectiveness in the Pacific.

The Australia-PNG Network is a project supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, designed to foster people-to-people links between Australia and Papua New Guinea. More details are available here.

The South Pacific Fragile States Project was a project supported by the Department of Defence to produce independent research and forward looking analysis on the key drivers of instability in the South Pacific and the associated security challenges for Australia and the wider region. More details are available here.


The Lowy Institute Pacific Aid Map is an analytical tool designed to enhance aid effectiveness in the Pacific by improving coordination, alignment, and accountability of foreign aid through enhanced transparency of aid flows. The Pacific Aid Map has collected data on close to 13,000 projects in 14 countries supplied by 62 donors from 2011 onwards. All data has been made freely available on this interactive platform, allowing users to investigate and manipulate the information in a variety of ways. The Pacific Aid Map is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Lowy Institute Pacific Aid map is available here.

Country profiles from Pacific Islands countries can be found here.

See the Chinese Aid in the Pacific map here.



Latest publications

Pacific island links: Ambae evacuation, violence in Mendi, French Polynesia and more

By Euan Moyle, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • Vanuatu has completed the evacuation of 11,000 residents from Ambae Island as the Manaro volcano threatens to erupt. ABC’s Pacific Beat spoke with Red Cross aid workers on the massive operation and the future for the island’s residents.
  • A Sri Lankan asylum seeker died on Manus in PNG, the sixth since 2013.
  • The incumbent Governor William Powi was declared the winner in Southern Highlands province, the final seat to be declared three months after the PNG elections.
  • The delayed declaration has resulted in a new eruption of violence in Mendi, the capital of Southern Highlands province, with businesses linked to Prime Minister Peter O’Neill torched.
  • The Cook Islands’ controversial move from developing to developed nation, becoming one of only three in the Pacific to reach this status, has been delayed by the OECD until 2018 because of lack of data. The move would mean that the nation would lose US$51m in Overseas Development Assistance grants, which some suggest would make it more vulnerable during times of economic and environmental disaster.
  • French Polynesian pro-independence leaders are arguing for independence at the UN’s decolonisation committee meetings in New York. The territory was placed onto the UN decolonisation list in 2013, but anti-independence President Edouard Fritch is advocating for its removal. France has boycotted the meeting altogether.

Lessons from the PNG elections

This is the fourth of several articles for The Interpreter by Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow and former long-term Papua New Guinea correspondent, Sean Dorney who was in PNG for the elections as part of the Commonwealth's PNG Election Observer Mission. You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

During the annual Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting in Apia earlier this month, the Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland presented PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill with the Commonwealth Observer Group's report on the election.

The report recommends that the PNG government accept outside help to conduct an 'urgent review and lessons learned process' to help ensure there are fewer problems at the next elections in 2022. The Commonwealth Secretariat is offering to provide 'strong support' to this 'lessons learned' process, in collaboration with Papua New Guinea's other development partners.

Among a host of issues identified as 'significant challenges' by the Group was the large number of names missing from the electoral roll. As the Group's Chair and former New Zealand Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand writes in his letter to Scotland at the head of the report, 'An accurate and credible electoral roll is at the heart of a credible election process.'

The Group expressed its sadness at 'reports of election related violence during the counting period in the Highlands region which resulted in the loss of lives, including some members of the Police'. It also lamented that 'not a single woman was elected to the Parliament in the 2017 election'.

The report's 38 recommendations include that the PNG Electoral Commission should be provided with timely and adequate funding; the Commission should strengthen its working relationship with the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Commission to foster greater trust in elections; the Government should consider temporary special measures to ensure some representation by women in the Parliament; and that the thousands of security personnel engaged in the election be given the opportunity to vote before being deployed.

The Group did find some positive aspects, such as 'the high voter turnout and enthusiasm by the people to participate in their democratic process'. Now that the figures are finally becoming available, the extent of that high voter turnout can be calculated – it throws up some fascinating and disturbing results.

The Australian economist Paul Flanagan (who writes a regular blog on PNG issues) has already raised questions about the turnout (145%) in Tari in the Hela Province in the Highlands. This seat, the first to be declared, was won by James Marape from Peter O'Neill's People's National Congress party.

I have been able to get final figures for valid votes in 80 of the 89 Open seats in the PNG Parliament – Tari was not the only seat where more people voted than were on the copies of the Electoral Commission's electoral roll for Open electorates provided to election observers before the poll.

There was a 115% turnout in Imbonggu in the Southern Highlands, while it was 103% in O'Neill's seat of Ialibu-Pangia. Okapa in the Eastern Highlands and Chauve in Chimbu both recorded a perfect 100% turnout. The Highlands province of Chimbu had an average turnout of 97%. The six Chimbu seats were remarkably similar: Chuave at 100%; Gumine at 94%; Karimui Nomane at 99%; Kerowagi at 98%; Kundiawa at 94%; and Sinasina Yonggamugl at 97%. 

Throughout the Highlands, the Open seat turnout averaged 94%. Voting is not compulsory in PNG.

Outside of the Highlands, where five seats recorded more votes than there were voters on the roll, there was only one other seat where that occured. This was Nawe, in the Morobe Province, where there were 33,813 voters on the roll but 44,080 valid votes were counted; a 130% turnout.

My calculations for the respective turnouts in the four regions are: Highlands 94%; Momase 79%; Papua 68%; and the New Guinea Islands 64%. Of the provinces, East New Britain had the lowest turnout at 56%, while the National Capital District was not much higher at 60%.

There are obviously big problems in the Highlands, where tribal and cultural issues continue to have a major impact on how elections are run. The Commonwealth observers who went to the Highlands reported that bloc voting was a major feature at almost every polling station they visited. They said that in many polling stations voters were given multiple ballot papers by polling officials, often at the voter's insistence that they were authorised to vote for absent family members. In Goroka, they witnessed polling officials at the end of the day (after voting was finished) crossing names off the roll to match the number of votes that had been cast earlier. And in the Jiwaka Province, they saw voters who had several fingers inked, indicating that they had voted multiple times.

Not all of PNG's electoral problems can be solved before 2022, but a thorough examination of lessons from the 2017 elections is definitely the best way to start.

Pacific links: IMF visits PNG, French Polynesia’s nuke claim, Honiara protests and more

By Euan Moyle, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program.

  • Australia will open a new detention centre in Papua New Guinea once the Manus Island detention centre closes in October to house around 200 men whose asylum claims have been rejected. About 100 have already agreed to voluntarily return to their home countries.
  • Meanwhile, Prime Minister Turnbull has confirmed 50 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru will settle in the United States in the first stage of its agreement to take up to 1250 refugees from the two detention centres.
  • The Conseil d’État, France’s highest administrative court, has been advised to reject French Polynesia’s compensation claim for victims of nuclear testing after hopes were renewed during the recent Presidential elections. The court will decide on the case within a month.
  • The IMF has issued a press release summarising its recent Article IV visit to PNG, where short-term economic challenges remain severe. The PNG government is taking action, with Deputy Prime Minister Charles Abel announcing an 80% cut to the controversial DSIP and PSIP constituency funds.
  • ABC shortwave radio services in the Pacific may be revived after a package of media reforms was passed in the Senate, with a full review of Asia Pacific broadcasting being conducted as part of the new legislation.
  • John Greenshields reflects on his experience of how vital shortwave radio services are to isolated communities in PNG.
  • Protests in Honiara have forced the Solomon Islands government to reintroduce an anti-corruption bill that was withdrawn during the last sitting of Parliament, citing the need to strengthen the legislation. Opposition groups have suggested it lacked support from government MPs.
  • Terence Wood has analysed PNG’s elections in a three-part series on the Devpolicy blog, discussing the numerous problems with the electoral process, how they can be improved, and how Australian assistance can be boosted in time for the 2022 elections.
  • PNG marked its Independence Day on Saturday, with events being held around the country. One of the most significant is the dawn Flag Raising Ceremony, held on Port Moresby’s Independence Hill, where the Australian flag was lowered and replaced by the new flag of PNG in 1975.


Pacific links: New elections for Tonga, PNG's AG speaks out, Milne Bay and more

By Anna Kirk, Research Associate in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, and Euan Moyle, an intern in the Melanesia Program.

  • Tonga’s King Tupou VI took the unprecedented step of dissolving parliament that was led by PM Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva last week, announcing new elections must be held by 16 November. Pohiva was the first commoner to serve as Prime Minister and there had been high hopes for the government of the former democracy activist. However, while some have raised concerns about what the dissolution means for democracy in Tonga, Pohiva’s government has also been heavily criticised and many have welcomed the move. At the time of writing, Pohiva was expected to hold  a press conference on Wednesday to respond.
  • The 48th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting will take place in Samoa next week. Deputy Secretary-General of the Forum Secretariat Cristelle Pratt told Pacific Beat that the gathering's Blue Pacific theme is applicable across shared geography, resources and security concerns and will strengthen collective identity and political action in the region.
  • This report from the Forum Secretariat identifies key issues including; rising inequality, an increasingly crowded and complex region, and the depletion of natural resources.
  • Following the resignation of New Caledonia’s budget minister Philippe Dunoyer, who has taken up a seat in the French National Assembly, New Caledonia’s political parties have put forward candidates for the election of a new 11-member government on Thursday.
  • Majella Hurney from Save the Children writes on the Devpolicy blog on the growing malnutrition crisis in Papua New Guinea and why aid donors including Australia should tackle the problem more directly.
  • Last Friday marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Milne Bay in 1942, which halted the advance of Japanese forces through Papua New Guinea into Australia. ABC’s Thomas Oriti spoke with Dr Lachlan Grant from the Australian War Memorial about the battle and its legacy.
  • PNG’s new Attorney-General Davis Steven has criticised the Australian Government’s plans to close the Manus Island detention centre by the end of October, saying it is not clear what will happen to the men detained at the centre, or how PNG will manage Australia’s withdrawal.
  • Even though PNG’s parliament has resumed following the national elections, Mendi town is still tense with disputed ballot boxes for the Southern Highlands regional seat still being counted.


Aid & development links: US threat to Pakistan, cholera in Yemen, transfer pricing and more

  • President Trump is trying to pressure allies, notably Pakistan, by threatening to cut foreign aid if they don’t cooperate with the American mission in Afghanistan. Writing for the Washington Post, Jessica Trisko Darden concludes this tactic that never works. 
  • Devex has produced a special feature on the history of public opinion on foreign aid in the United States.
  • The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank, has teased the results of an upcoming report on 13 recommended reforms for the American aid program.
  • Annmaree O’Keeffe has written for The Interpreter on the cholera epidemic in Yemen, describing it as a 'totally preventable catastrophe'. Jonathan Kennedy argues that Saudi Arabia should be taking a lot of the blame.
  • Maya Forstater writes for the Centre for Global Development on the hugely detrimental impact of transfer pricing on resource rich developing countries.
  • The Development Policy Centre has produced a new report advocating for a scaling up of Australian aid for medical research. The authors provide a summary here.
  • The ABC has recently reported on the growing role a select number of private companies play in delivering the Australian aid program. While the private sector has always had a role in delivering Australian aid, in recent years there has been a shift to a small number of large, complex contracts that are designed to improve effectiveness but also increase implementation risk.

Pacific links: Tony de Brum, PNG’s new parliament, giant African snails and more

  • The Solomon Islands’ plans to use a subsidiary of the Chinese company Huawei to install an undersea cable to Australia have raised security concerns in Canberra as Huawei was banned from participating in Australia's National Broadband Network. There are also questions around the tender process and allegations of corruption have been levelled at the Solomon Islands ruling party over the deal.
  • Marshallese political leader and climate change advocate Tony de Brum passed away on Monday. He was instrumental in his country’s independence and spoke out on nuclear disarmament and the threat his people faced from rising sea levels on the global stage.
  • Papua New Guinea’s 10th parliament has officially opened. Prime Minister O’Neill’s address highlighted the government’s plans for the APEC summit in 2018.
  • On Devpolicy, Michael Wesley writes on the historical significance of the Australia-PNG relationship for both countries and explains its role in Australia’s earliest independent foreign policy development.
  • Fiona Hukula delivered a fantastic speech at the PNG Update that’s now available online, reflecting on the issues of gender, culture and development in the wake of the elections. She ended on an optimistic note, calling for increased understanding of the strengths of Papua New Guinea like the focus on the community.
  • This photo story from the UNDP shows the recovery efforts that are still underway in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam in 2015. The traditional knowledge and skills of ni-Vanuatu people have been central to their resilience.
  • Biosecurity doesn’t get a lot of attention in the Pacific but it has come to the fore recently in Solomon Islands where people are struggling to deal with the Giant African Snail’s impact on livelihoods and the environment.
  • The UNDP in PNG has coordinated a two-day dialogue with women leaders to discuss the lack of women’s political representation. There are no women in PNG 's new parliament.


Pacific links: Solomon Islands PM, PNG’s cabinet, Guam and more

  • Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop addressed an audience in Suva over the weekend to provide more clarity on Australia's new approach to the Pacific, foreshadowed last year by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. James Batley provides excellent analysis for The Interpreter.
  • Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has announced his 33-member cabinet, and is soon to announce a 100-day action plan on management of the economy (hopefully with an accompanying and much-needed supplementary budget).
  • While most in the country appear committed to persevere and work with the new government, violence continues in the Highlands provinces, particularly in Enga, where the death toll is mounting.
  • As the dust settles from the election, Sean Dorney is providing excellent analysis on surprises from this election, and the poor state of the electoral roll. A final piece will discuss lessons learnt and changes needed for 2022. At DevPolicy, Terence Wood looks at the winners and losers in the election.
  • Nic Maclellan weighs in on the exploitation within Australia's horticulture industry (which includes Pacific Islands seasonal workers), arguing for the need for union protection.
  • Guam has been in the headlines in recent weeks. The New York Times discusses the real risk facing the small island nation: climate change.
  • The Pacific Islands Forum is pushing for members to develop regional foreign policy to counter expanding risks in the Pacific.
  • Matthew Dornan and I have written a new journal article looking at trends in foreign aid in the Pacific. A summary is available here.
  • Finally, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is in Australia this week on his first official visit to the country. The visit includes signing a new security treaty to enable rapid response, which Sogavare hopes will never be used. Sogavare also addressed the Lowy Institute on a wide range of topics:

Aid & development links: How rich are you? Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the case for optimism and more

  • FT Data takes a look at how global income inequality has shifted since the Global Financial Crisis. The Washington Post discusses why it is so much worse in the US than other rich countries.
  • CARE has a sobering and powerful advocacy tool showing how your income compares with the rest of the world. Most readers (in the developed world) will fit comfortably in the top end of the 1%.
  • Brookings discusses what President Trump’s ‘America First’ budget means for the future of US foreign aid. Meanwhile, Publish What You Fund has complimented USAID on its improving aid transparency. Australia should take note.
  • The Guardian provides a candid biography of Liberian President and trailblazer Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
  • Corrupt governments are seen as the single most important reason poor countries are poor. Charles Kenny debunks this assumption, arguing that luck and geography has a lot more to do with it. 
  • Despite many grim headlines, a growing number of influential thinkers are convinced the world has never had it so good. The Guardian dives into whether the optimists are justified.
  • Speaking of optimism, our world in data has a cool graph showing population growth since 1961 at +137% but cereal production (in large part thanks to improved yields) growing by +280%.

  • Finally, the ANU Australasian Aid Conference has announced the keynotes for next year’s February conference; Penny Wong and Nancy Birdsall. Early bird registration is now available.

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.  


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