PNG focuses on long-term plans and elections in 2017


With an election in 2017, the year is proving to be a challenging one in Papua New Guinea. The economic downturn following the completion of the PNG LNG project has resulted in criticism of the current government, amid accusations of mismanagement. Despite this, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill secured a fourth term in Parliament, winning 78% of the votes cast in his district. He was re-elected as prime minister in August by a vote of 60 to 46, and will stand his second five-year term in the role. Boosting social and economic infrastructure, improving inclusiveness across the country and combatting corruption – both real and perceived – are key challenges for political decision-makers. Yet, regardless of these difficulties, PNG possesses enormous natural resources, which future leaders must manage in order to boost development and realise potential economic gains.


PNG’s archaeological traces go back some 60,000 years, with early inhabitants thought to have used a long-vanished land bridge to travel to modern-day PNG from South-east Asia. The Javanese Majapahit Empire made contact with the island of Papua in the 14th century, while Portuguese explorers have been credited as the first Europeans to land on the island in the 16th century. The British and German Empires annexed the south-east and north-east parts of Papua in 1880s, respectively, while the Dutch took control of large parts of western Papua.

In 1902, following the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia, control of the then-British New Guinea was transferred to the new Australian government, with direct Australian rule beginning in 1906. In 1920, following the First World War, Australia was also given a mandate from the League of Nations to oversee the former German-administered territory, which it did until the Japanese Army invaded Papua during Second World War. Some of the war’s fiercest fighting took place on the island between 1941 and 1945, including along the Kokoda Track, a strategic mountainous route that has since become a site of historical significance for many Papua New Guineans and Australians. Following the war, in 1949, the two Australian-run colonies were combined to form the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. A legislative council and system of local government was established in the territory, which was renamed Papua New Guinea in 1972. The country gained independence from Australia in 1975.

New Beginnings 

The first elections were held in 1977, with Michael Somare sworn in as the country’s first elected prime minister. However, the following years were characterised by political instability, with a number of short-term governments and snap elections.

A decade-long armed secessionist revolt on the island of Bougainville in the 1980s and 1990s led to the loss of approximately 20,000 lives. Following the 1998 ceasefire, a peace agreement was 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. Further elections were 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 landscape has been marked by party fragmentation, localism and patronage in recent years. This has resulted in party- and coalition-hopping by politicians. Efforts have been made to counteract such developments, including the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (OLIPPAC), originally passed in 2001. The law sought to restrict members of Parliament (MPs) from switching parties, 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. Meanwhile, laws were introduced to enhance the authority of MPs over their local areas. The District Services Improvement Programme, designed to direct state revenues towards local development projects, has also been enlarged, although questions remain over the capacity of local authorities tasked with managing these funds. One effect of this decentralisation has been the increased power of MPs, which has led to the creation of large coalitions of governing parties.

Executive Powers 

As a result of the 2017 election, the People’s National Congress (PNC) led by Prime Minister O’Neill emerged as the primary political party. PNC teamed up with eight coalition partners to form the 10th Parliament of PNG. The coalition partners are the Christian Democratic Party represented by Patrick Basa, Our Development Party represented by Francis Manake, PNG Country Party by Chris Haiveta, United Resources Party by William Duma, People’s Progress Party by Sir Julius Chan, Social Democratic Party by Powes Parkop, United Party by Rimbink Pato and People’s Party by William Tongamp. It is the mandate of the prime minister to appoint the Cabinet, formally known in PNG as the National Executive Council (NEC), which contains the heads of ministries. On top of leading the NEC, the prime minister also has wide range of other powers, including the authority to appoint the head of the police force – the commissioner – who in turn appoints the head of the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate. However, this body is protected by court order, and political and judicial conflict has recently ensued between the commissioner and the directorate over attempts to prosecute government figures over corruption allegations.

Parliamentary Procedures 

The NEC forms policy and submits draft bills to the country’s legislative branch, the National Parliament, which follows the Westminster model. There is, however, no upper house in PNG. The assembly has 111 seats, of which 89 are elected from single-member, open constituencies, 20 from province-level constituencies, and one each from the Autonomous Bougainville province and the National Capital District (NCD). The limited preferential voting system has been in use since 2007, under which voters list their top three candidates. Concluding the 2017 general election, the PNC party walked away with 29 seats, followed by the National Alliance with 15 seats and the Pangu Party with 10 seats.

Bills must first pass through the assembly before they can become law. In addition, MPs may pass a vote of no confidence in the government, resulting in its resignation; however, such a motion cannot be submitted 12 months before a general election date or 18 months after a general election date.

Local Government 

Since 1995 MPs elected from the provinces and the NCD have also been appointed provincial governors. PNG has four regions – Highlands, Islands, Momase and Papua – although these have no political function. Each province within a region has its own Provincial Assembly, which mirrors the structure of the National Parliament. The provinces are further divided into districts, which in turn are separated 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 manner.

On top of receiving central government disbursements, provinces have tax-raising abilities, with the local MP or governor possessing considerable powers over education, health and local economic development. There has also been an increase in the regional distribution of funds, with district authorities granted more powers over spending and decision-making.


Although external forces have seen PNG experience challenging economic conditions in recent times, the general long-term goal remains the same. The country’s greatest strength is the longevity of planning. Prime Minister O’Neill’s victory in the 2017 election solidifies the government’s agenda and improves politically stability. Continuity in planning, along with cohesion with the private sector, is key to attracting foreign direct investment and stimulating economic growth. Hosting international events such as the 2018 APEC summit should have a positive impact on international perceptions, while planned investments in the extractive industries look set to boost the economy.

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