Coming together: Ethnic diversity brings cultural richness and political challenges

 

With its state motto, “Unity in Diversity”, Papua New Guinea is indeed a country with outstanding ethnic, linguistic and cultural variety, resulting from the rugged and mountainous geography of the main island of New Guinea, and the isolation of the smaller islands of the archipelago. PNG is a young nation, and its diversity has shaped efforts to address the challenges and opportunities related to development. According to the World Bank, PNG had roughly 6.85m inhabitants in 2010. As a result of the diverse backgrounds and geographical spread of the people, the political culture is vibrant and at times unsettled. Following the election outcome in July 2012, the hope among many citizens and investors is that with the political impasse resolved, the country may begin embarking on a legislative programme capable of matching and carrying forward the extraordinary economic growth experienced in recent years.

DIVERSITY & CHOICES: Occupying the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and a collection of islands to its east, PNG has some of the greatest environmental diversity of any place in the world – from savannah and grasslands, to highland and lowland rain forests. Geography has long had a major impact on the politics and peoples of the nation, too. The island of New Guinea’s central mountain range was thrown up by a collision of tectonic plates, thrusting peaks high enough into the air to allow glaciers to form in the Indonesian, western half of the island. This range also created many steep and isolated valleys in the interior of PNG, where indigenous populations would reside, sometimes unaware of neighbours living only a few kilometres away. Some of these communities were also unknown to the outside world until the 20th century. PNG’s diversity is reflected in the astonishing number of languages spoken by its people. The ancient roots of civilisation in PNG and the country’s mountainous terrain have contributed to a proliferation of tongues, with an average density of one language per 558 sq km. Approximately half of these languages are related, with indigenous languages divided between the Austronesian and Papuan language families.

This fundamental linguistic difference underpins the ethnic diversity of the country. The Papuan language group is traced to people who came to the region approximately 20,000 years ago, and the Papuan ethnic group forms the majority of the country’s present day citizens. The Austronesians likely arrived later – around 3500 years ago – settling in the offshore islands now known as New Britain and New Ireland.

CIVIC ORGANISATION: Historically speaking, urbanisation in PNG is a very recent development. Even in 2011 the capital Port Moresby, PNG’s largest city, was home to only 318,128 people. Given the primarily rural and traditional nature of the population, tribal political organisation is common, demanding and receiving strong loyalties from adherents. Given the relatively recent development of urban centres such as Port Moresby, rural organisations tend to also have a powerful affect on city dwellers as well. PNG’s political culture is thus highly influenced by these loyalties, which often take precedence over political parties and other storms of political alignment.

Given this fundamental structure, PNG’s national politics has often displayed highly fluid and fragmented characteristics, with governments tending to comprise alliances of clans and tribes, centred around particular leaders or figureheads, while deputies often move across party lines. This is also reflected in the civil service and other branches of the state.

NATION CREATION: PNG became an independent state on September 16, 1975, making it one of the Asia-Pacific region’s youngest nations. But its civilisations are among humanity’s most ancient, likely dating back to around 60,000, when humans arrived by boat from South-east Asia. Little is clear about the ethnic history of the island of New Guinea, prior to the arrival of Europeans, although the cultural diversity that survives today suggests a complex milieu of migration and trade. The islands of modern-day PNG were probably first sighted by Portuguese or Spanish navigators in the early 16th century. They remained free from major imperial interference, however, until the 19th century. The Netherlands laid claim to the western half of New Guinea – modern day Indonesia – in 1828. In 1884, Germany made the north-east part of New Guinea the first colonial possession in the German Empire, while Britain declared a protectorate over the south-east.

During the First World War, Australian forces, as part of the British Empire, occupied the German territories. The eastern part of the island, along with the German and British possessions offshore in the Western Solomons, was then run as an Australian external territory until the Second World War brought about partial Japanese occupation.

A particularly long and bitter campaign was fought in this region during the war, which left lasting marks on the landscape of the country. Following the Second World War and the Allied victory, the territory reverted to Australian control, with a UN mandate established to steer the nation through to independence.

That independence was also marked by a secessionist uprising on Bougainville Island, which lies offshore to the east of New Guinea. This was the first of a series of uprisings on the island, ending only in 1997 with a New Zealand-brokered peace deal, which gave Bougainville autonomy within PNG.

PROVINCES & POWERS: The uprising on Bougainville Island in 1975 also led to a redrafting of the constitution for the newly independent state. In this, the restive island and the 18 districts of PNG, as well as the National Capital District (NCD), were all given a semi-federal status. This federal-state balance has largely held since independence, although the districts are now known as provinces, and several have new names.

The original provinces have also recently been joined by two more – Hela and Jiwaka – and are grouped within four regions – the Highlands, which has the largest population, at around 3m; the Islands, which includes Bougainville; Momase; and Papua, which includes the NCD. These regions command loyalty as well, with political appointments sometimes characterised by an effort to keep a balance between them.

The province remains the key local government unit, with each having its own assembly. Until 1995 these also had cabinets led by premiers, operating on a unicameral, parliamentary model. The central government retains full power over the provincial governments, however, via the right of suspension. This right was exercised often until 1995, when the provincial premiers were abolished and a system of provincial governors was introduced. Since then, it has been used much less frequently. The governors are the regional deputies from the national parliament, who simultaneously continue to hold their national posts as well.

Each province is divided into a number of districts, and each district is further split into local-level government (LLG) areas. LLGs are then divided into wards.

The mineral-rich Bougainville region, however, maintains a different organisational pattern, given its autonomous status. The region includes Bougainville Island, Buka Island and a number of smaller islands, including the Carterets group. Elections for the autonomous government were first held in 2005, with the current president being John Momis.

LEGISLATURE: The National Parliament of PNG is also a unicameral house. It currently has 109 members, all elected for five-year terms. Since 2007, elections have been organised under a limited preferential voting (LPV) system, in which voters choose their three favourite candidates, with votes transferring in order until one candidate wins 50% plus one vote. The 109 members are divided into two groups: 89 of the members are elected from single constituencies, and 20 from the provinces, one from each. These are the regional deputies that now act as provincial governors.

After a general election, the leader of the majority party or of the coalition of parties forms the government and becomes prime minister. The prime minister then appoints a deputy and a cabinet of ministers to head the various departments of national government. While there has been some historical variation, the cabinet usually has 30 members and is known as the National Executive Council (NEC). The government may initiate legislation based on the Westminster model – with bills proposed for debate in the chamber and for committees – although there is not a second chamber to further scrutinise proposed laws.

A key law governing parliament and the country’s political parties is the Organic Law on Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC), passed in 2001. This imposed restrictions on no-confidence votes, deputies changing parties, party funding, breaking a party whip, and a number of other areas, with the aim of strengthening government and party loyalty. Certain provisions of this were then ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2010, a move followed by some significant realignments in parliament.

COALITIONS: Coalitions have generally been the rule when forming a government, as no one party has yet secured a majority on its own. The 2007 election saw 22 parties gain representation in parliament, the largest being the National Alliance Party (NAP) led by Michael Somare, which won 27 seats. The second-largest grouping (20) were independents, with 13 subsequently declaring for the NAP. The second-largest party was the PNG Party (PNGP), which held eight seats and is led by Belden Namah, followed by the People’s Action Party (PAP), with six seats led by Gabriel Kapris. Another significant grouping is the People’s National Congress, which won four seats in the 2007 elections and is under the leadership of Peter O’Neill.

HEADS OF STATE: While the prime minister heads the government, as a Realm of the Commonwealth, the head of state in PNG is Queen Elizabeth II of the UK. Her Majesty is represented in PNG by the governor-general (GG), whom she appoints, but who is nominated by parliament, via a majority vote. The GG can serve a maximum of two terms (the second of which must be after a two-thirds majority vote). Parliament, or the NEC, may also remove the GG via a simple majority vote. In the absence of a GG, the parliamentary speaker becomes acting GG. The powers of this post are largely ceremonial, and include the swearing-in of new governments and the signing of new bills into law.

Michael Ogio was appointed GG by the Queen in 2010, although parliamentary speaker Jeffery Nape was declared acting GG in late 2011, as the political impasse took hold. This had seen Michael Somare replaced as prime minister by a government led by Peter O’Neill, with Belden Namah serving as deputy prime minister. This change was not recognised by Somare, however, who continued to claim status as premier. The changes to the government in 2011 were also not recognised by the Supreme Court, and in late May 2012 the Supreme Court again stepped into the fray in support of Somare. O’Neill rejected the court’s ruling that Somare’s government be reinstated, and the impasse continued until the elections.

At the time of going to print it appears that the 2012 election has delivered the most profound political change in PNGs recent history. The preliminary vote count suggests that O’Neill’s People’s National Congress party has won enough seats to form a coalition government. Somare conceded his defeat and relinquished control of the National Alliance Party. After over a year of tensions between the two political leaders there is finally hope that the country can return to a period of relative political stability.

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT: The Supreme Court is empowered with advising the government on constitutional issues and is the highest court in PNG. The court is headed by the Chief Justice – currently Salamo Injia – who is appointed by the GG following a recommendation to the post by the NEC.

Two new laws concerning the relationship between the executive, parliament and the Supreme Court – the Judicial Conduct Act and the Supreme Court Amendment bill – are currently being hotly debated. Controversy surrounding the bills may be settled after the 2012 elections, in particular the ongoing ambiguity with regard to the separation of powers.

The National Court, whose members also sit on the Supreme Court, is present in all provincial centres and has jurisdiction in hearing all serious criminal and civil cases. It also hears appeals from the district courts, which consist of juvenile, land and coroner’s courts. There are also village courts, presided over by magistrates who are elected by the village. These are usually specially convened Customary Courts, which allow traditional laws more sway in many rural areas.

PNG’s code of law thus consists of both the Constitution, the customary law of the island nation’s indigenous peoples, and English common law, in the form it took at the time of PNG’s independence in 1975. At the same time, much of the statutory law is derived from the Australian system. The Criminal Code has been adopted from Queensland, while the Rules of Court are from New South Wales, illustrating the effect of the long period of Australian control of PNG.

OUTLOOK: Recent years have seen PNG face the political challenges resulting from competing claims of authority, but it looks to be moving forward with the creation of a unified government post-elections.

Indeed, the political landscape is bound to be a challenging one given the enormous diversity within the country, alongside the tensions of urbanisation and globalisation faced by a largely rural, traditional society. While the level of poverty remains high in some areas, the country has made a great deal of progress since independence, as the economic indicators suggests. The country is also continuing on a path of ongoing democratisation, with general elections seen as the preferred mechanism for change. As of July 2012, it appeared that even in spite of considerable political controversy, the nation’s commitment to democratic change remained. Bringing together the disparate communities, clans and loyalties of this diverse country will continue to be a major undertaking of national politics. The challenges that will be faced by the new government are considerable, and the priorities of reconciliation and reducing corruption are expected to top the agenda.

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