Papua New Guinea gets ready for 2017 elections amid falling global commodity prices


A country of extraordinary diversity, spread across some of the world’s most spectacular, and often inhospitable, terrain, Papua New Guinea today is a country once again at a crossroads. A major economic boom has been rapidly followed by a major downturn, and as a result the government has come under some pressure. Meanwhile, this young country, a land shaped by its many ancient traditions, still faces great challenges in spreading more equitable development. Boosting social and economic infrastructure and ensuring a greater sense of inclusiveness are still major tasks. Combatting corruption – both real and perceived – is also a key battle the country’s leaders face. Yet for all its difficulties, PNG also possesses enormous resources and strengths. Developing these in the face of adversities, therefore, is perhaps the greatest challenge of all for this nation.

Ancient Traces

The earliest archaeological traces go back some 60,000 years, with the inhabitants thought to have arrived across a long-vanished land bridge from other parts of South-east Asia.

In the 14th century the Javanese Majapahit Empire had contact with a kingdom in Western Papua named Onin, and in 1526, Jorge de Menezes, a Portuguese explorer, became the first European to land there. The east of the island remained virtually unexplored by Europeans until the 19th century, when, following expeditions by the Russian anthropologist Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai in the 1870s, the British Empire annexed the south-east of the island and the German Empire annexed the north-east. The western part of the island had come under Dutch influence in the 17th century, and Dutch control was recognised by Britain and Germany, in 1885 and 1895, respectively.

Following the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902, the then-British New Guinea (BNG) was transferred to the control of the new Australian government – beginning a long connection between the two countries. Australia then passed the Papua Act in 1905, renaming BNG the Territory of Papua, with direct Australian rule beginning in 1906.

In the north-east, meanwhile, the German New Guinea Company exercised sovereign rights over the territory until 1899, when the German government took direct control. This lasted until the outbreak of the First World War, when Australian troops took over the colony. In 1920 Australia was given a mandate from the League of Nations to run the conquered territory, which it did until the Japanese Army arrived in the Second World War. From this 1941 invasion until the end of the war in 1945, some of the toughest fighting of the conflict occurred on the island, as the Japanese advanced on Port Moresby. Eventually, Australian and US troops beat back the Japanese. The “Kokoda Track”, a strategic route through the Owen Stanley Range that was fiercely fought over, remains a place of pilgrimage for many Australians.

Following the war, in 1949, the former Australian and German colonies were combined into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. A legislative council and a system of local government were established, with the former replaced by the House of Assembly in 1963. A year later, a joint Australian government and World Bank mission to the territory set out a road map for the economic and political progress of the territory (renamed Papua New Guinea in 1972), leading up to independence in 1975.

New Beginnings 

The first elections of the independent state were held in 1977, with Michael Somare (now Sir Michael) the victor. The following years, however, saw a succession of short-lived governments, brought down by repeated votes of no confidence, realignments of parties and their often powerful leaders, and further elections. Other leaders to emerge in the following decades include Sir Julius Chan, prime minister (PM) in 1980-82 and briefly again in 1997; Paias Wingti, PM in 1985-88 and 1992-94; Sir Rabbie Namaliu, PM in 1988-92; and Sir Michael Somare himself, who was PM in 1975-80, 1982-85, 2002-10 and for the first few months of 2011, before being succeeded by Peter O’Neill.

In 1989 an armed secessionist revolt on the island of Bougainville began, leading to the loss of some 20,000 lives. After a ceasefire in 1998, a peace agreement was finally signed in 2001. The first elections for the Autonomous Bougainville Government were held in 2005, with the former leader of the pro-independence movement, Joseph Kabui, elected president. Elections were then held in 2010, with John Momis taking over as president. The final part of the peace agreement is a referendum on complete independence, which has been tentatively set for 2019.

Party Jumping

PNG’s political culture has been marked by party fragmentation, localism and patronage. This is reflected in party- and coalition-hopping by politicians, with members of parliament (MPs) taking a greater role in the distribution of funds and contracts in their locales. Efforts have been made to counteract this, including the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates ( OLIPPAC), passed in 2001 and subsequently amended.

OLIPPAC sought to restrict MPs’ switching, extend a grace period for the ruling government before a motion of no confidence could be submitted, and prevent MPs who had initially supported the government from joining the opposition. Yet OLIPPAC remained controversial. In 2013 the grace period was extended to 42 months, while MPs’ authority over their local areas was enhanced with a law bringing local public employees under an authority chaired by the local MP. The District Services Improvement Programme, designed to funnel state revenues to local development projects, has also been enlarged each year, although questions remain as to the capacity of the local authorities tasked with managing these funds. One effect of this decentralisation has been to boost the power of the MPs, provided they support the government, leading to large coalitions of governing parties and a small, ineffective opposition.

Thus, in 2016, the country faces a political crisis, exacerbated by the transition of the economy’s main growth driver – liquefied natural gas (LNG) – from an investment phase to an output phase. This has also occurred at a time of global downturn in LNG and other commodity prices. In 2015, too, the country was hit badly by El Niño, impacting agricultural output.

In July 2016 student protests and a wave of strikes by professional groups took place, while Parliament had been suspended, then reconvened, to hear a motion of no confidence in PM O’Neill. Fresh general elections are due in 2017, with the hope that some of the structural problems the political and economic system currently faces may be tackled by some new alliance of political forces.

Executive Powers

As a member of the Commonwealth, the country’s head of state is the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen’s representative in PNG is the governor-general (GG), who is currently Sir Michael Ogio. While appointed by the Queen, the GG is nominated by the PNG parliament, which makes its choice via a simple majority vote on the candidates presented. The GG may be in office for a maximum of two six-year terms, with re-election requiring a majority of two-thirds. The position is largely a ceremonial one, with the GG required to act in accordance with government decisions. This includes his or her powers of appointment, which extend to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Executive power resides primarily with the government. The PM appoints a Cabinet, also known as the National Executive Council (NEC), on which sit the heads of ministries. The NEC that was appointed following the 2012 elections contains 33 members, of which 10 are from PNG’s Highlands Region, 10 from the Southern Region, eight from Momase and five from New Guinea Islands. The 33 also include the leaders of six different political parties, with three other parties represented by more junior members. Two other political parties were in support of the government when the NEC was formed, but did not get Cabinet positions, meaning that the government coalition contained a total of 11 political parties. The largest is the People’s National Congress Party (PNC), led by PM O’Neill, who succeeded to this position following the death of Bill Skate in 2006. Skate had been PM from 1997 to 1999. In 2014 there was a reshuffle, followed by the sacking of Don Poyle, the minister of treasury, who was also the leader of the second-largest party in the coalition, the Triumph Heritage Empowerment Party (THEP). In July 2016 Poyle was a chief organiser of the opposition and the no-confidence vote in PM O’Neill’s government. The parliament voted 85 to 21 in favour of retaining PM O’Neill as leader.

The PM has wide powers of appointment beyond the NEC. Crucial in recent political manoeuvring has been the PM’s power to appoint the head of the police force – the commissioner – who in turn appoints the head of the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate. This latter body is, however, also protected by court order, with political and judicial conflict recently ensuing between the commissioner and the directorate over attempts to prosecute government figures, including the PM himself.

Parliamentary Procedures

The NEC forms policy and submits draft bills to the legislative branch, the National Parliament, following the Westminster model. There is, however, no upper house. The unicameral assembly has 111 seats, 89 of which are elected for single-member, open constituencies, while 20 are elected from province-level constituencies, one from Autonomous Bougainville and one from the National Capital District (NCD). The limited preferential voting system has been in use since 2007, under which voters list their top three choices.

The last general election, held in 2012, returned 27 seats for the PNC, 12 for THEP, and eight for the PNG Party. The National Alliance Party and the United Resources Party each gained seven seats, the People’s Party and People’s Progress Party six each, and the rest of the seats were distributed among 14 other parties and 16 independents. To date, no single party has ever won a majority of seats in parliament. Bills must first pass through the assembly before they can become law. In addition, Parliament may pass a vote of no confidence in the government, causing it to resign; however, such a motion cannot be submitted within 12 months of a general election date.

Local Government

Since 1995 the MPs elected from the provinces and the NCD have become provincial governors, as well as MPs – unless they accept a Cabinet position, in which case one of the “open” MPs from the province becomes governor.

PNG has four regions – Highlands, Islands, Momase and Papua – although these have no political function. Each province within the region has its own Provincial Assembly, which mirrors the structure of the National Parliament. The provinces then divide up into districts, and each of these in turn into local level government (LLG) areas. In the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, local government has three districts, each divided into LLGs, while the NCD is considered one district, subdivided in the same way.

Provinces have tax-raising abilities, with the local MP or governor possessing considerable powers in education, health and local economic development. They also receive central government disbursements. The District Service Improvement Programme was ramped up in 2014. This distributes funds through district development authorities (DDAs), which are chaired by the open elected MP from each district, whose civil service arm is centred on a district administration. DDAs, for example, were given control over the El Niño drought relief effort in 2015-16. Capacity building at this level, however, remains an issue.

Judicial Review

PNG’s highest court is the Supreme Court (SC), which acts as an appellate committee, or full court, of the superior trial court, known as the National Court. The judicial system is based on the constitution, English common law and local, customary law, with a hierarchy of district courts and under them village magistrates’ courts.

PNG remains a society troubled by crime, particularly in urban areas, with enforcement of judicial decisions also an issue in remote areas. The SC is composed of three or five judges, depending on the case, and headed by the Chief Justice, who is also the chief justice of the NEC. The SC has jurisdiction over the constitution and can give advisory opinions on the legality of legislation. The NEC, meanwhile, hears cases connected to disputed elections.


PNG faces difficult economic choices given global market conditions. Elections are due in June-July of 2017, and the administration finds itself confronting challenging times. Structural reforms in the way that government works may be necessary, yet will likely be difficult to enact. Meanwhile, moves towards increasing local ownership in a range of industries may have an impact on foreign investment.

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Cover of The Report: Papua New Guinea 2016

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