While it is a country of great cultural and geographical diversity, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has also long been a country facing great challenges. Covering roughly half of the world’s largest island, PNG’s tropical climate has ensured this mountainous territory is known around the globe for its thick jungles and often-inaccessible highland valleys.

Tipping Point

The nation is poised for change, with PNG’s mineral riches and recent international investments giving it a major opportunity to move forward through the sustainable and equitable exploitation of its many natural resources.

Despite its ancient cultures, PNG is still a young state, only gaining its independence from Australia as recently as 1975. Thus, it is a place where nation building still continues, alongside the structuring and establishment of a modern economy. In parts of the country, this is also happening within a social and cultural context that has only recently seen the monetisation of economic activity. A huge social transformation is thus under way, as urbanisation and economic development eat away at ancient tribal loyalties and traditional practices. Rapid change has also left many in a tough environment, with limited choices and few established paths to follow. Thus, PNG faces many of the challenges confronted by other developing nations, such as tackling poverty, crime and corruption with a paucity of political, social and economic infrastructure beyond the urban centres.

Yet for all these challenges, the people of PNG are highly resilient and resourceful, inhabitants of a country that presents enormous opportunities for growth. PNG is a country of great contrasts and spectacular environments, and is also strategically placed between Australasia and the Pacific. It steadfastly seeks to leverage the many advantages this brings.

Living History

Some 80% of PNG’s population live in rural areas, with this including huge rain forests, mountains and river valleys. Indeed, the ruggedness of the terrain is a major reason why there are some 850 different native languages in the state, as clans and tribes have inhabited territories that are often close – but largely inaccessible – to each other. As recently as 1954, previously unknown populations were still being discovered; aerial surveys that year revealed upwards of 100,000 people living in the TariKoroba region, unknown to the authorities.

The earliest archaeological evidence suggests the territory has been inhabited for at least 40,000 years, though there is little written history until European explorers and merchants arrived in the 16th century. According to historian Robert Linke, the first European to sight New Guinea was likely the Portuguese navigator Antonio d’Arbreu, in 1512, although unrecorded Indonesian and Chinese seafarers certainly arrived there first. Jorge de Menese, also Portuguese, landed on the Vogelkop Peninsula in 1526, dubbing one of the islands “Ilhas dos Papuas”, from the Malay “Orang papuwah”, which roughly translates to “the land of the fuzzy people”.

The Portuguese, Spanish, French and British all left their mark – the island of Bougainville is named after a French explorer and Port Moresby after an Englishman. In 1906, British New Guinea was renamed “Papua” and its administration was handed to an independent Australia. Britain declared war on Germany at the start of the First World War, on August 4, 1914, and by September 17th that same year, Eduard Haber, the governor of German New Guinea, had agreed to terms of surrender to the Australian forces. Having been divided between the British and German interests, both cultures left a mark. However, during the Second World War the Australians occupied the German part, Papua. Both territories remained administratively separate, however, with Papua governed under a League of Nations mandate, until the Japanese invaded in 1942.

The region became the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the war. After the war, Australia established a single administration over both territories, with the whole eventually renamed PNG in 1971. By then, a 64-member House of Assembly had been installed and elections held. Neighbouring West Papua had also become an Indonesian province, with efforts by parts of the ethnically similar population there to secede – which have sometimes descended into armed conflict – a continuous pressure on PNG. Nonetheless, since a 1973 agreement on borders, PNG has refused to allow itself to become a base for separatists next door.

In 1975 PNG became independent from Australia, with Sir Michael Somare the first prime minister. Separatism within PNG then became an issue, with the island of Bougainville declaring independence. A prolonged armed struggle eventually began on the island, plaguing the country until the Burnham Truce was eventually signed in 1997. This was followed by a peace agreement in 2001, with a great deal of autonomy granted the island and the promise of a referendum on its future to be held 10-15 years later. In 2005 Bougainville elected its first government, headed by former separatist leader Joseph Kabui.

In Port Moresby, meanwhile, independence had been characterised by a succession of short-lived governments. Since 1977, 12 governments have been elected, with only one serving its entire term. Votes of no-confidence were frequently resorted to, prompting the government of Sir Mekere Morauta to introduce the Organic Law on Political Parties and Candidates, which limited these votes while also making it more difficult for deputies to change parties ( sudden mass-defections had been a major feature of many no-confidence votes). Morauta’s government also ended the previous first-past-the-post electoral system in favour of a limited, preferential voting (LPV) system, which has been in use since 2007.

Government is usually by coalition, with no party able to form a majority alone. This is a reflection of the huge diversity in the country and the historical independence of tribal groupings. Tribal loyalties are still strong in the Highlands, with candidates for parliament tending to be tribal leaders. In urban areas, recent years have seen the emergence of organised criminal gangs, know as local followings, but no direct political authority.

Religion is seldom a basis for political division, as the country is predominantly Christian. While there are 850 languages, only three have official status: English, Melanesian Pidgin, and cratic freedoms, like assembly and free speech, are widely exercised and media ownership diversified. The country also has a range of local and international non-governmental organisations.

Head Of State

The Head of State of PNG is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, with PNG a member of the Commonwealth. The British monarch exercises authority in PNG via the person of the Governor General (GG), currently Michael Ogio. The GG is nominated by the PNG parliament, and appointed by the monarch following a simple majority vote for a first, six-year term, and a two-thirds vote for the second, with no more terms possible. The GG’s powers are largely ceremonial, although while acting on behalf of the monarch, the GG must also approve the appointment of the prime minister. This became controversial in the 2011-12 political crisis, when there were two rival claimants to the position of premier. GG Ogio first recognised the appointment of Peter O’Neill as prime minister, then, when faced by a Constitutional Court ruling that Sir Michael Somare should still be premier, reversed this decision. Parliament, which supported O’Neill, then responded by recognising Parliamentary Speaker Jeffrey Nape as GG, a move that was later also overturned, with Ogio then re-recognised as the GG. The GG has the power to appoint the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, on the advice of the prime minister, and other chief judges, on the advice of a judicial commission.

Executive Power

The main executive authority thus lies with the government, headed by the prime minister, who is usually the leader of the largest grouping in parliament. PNG uses a Westminster model, yet with a significant difference – PNG has a unicameral assembly. The prime minister appoints the cabinet, with the prevalence of coalitions meaning that ministerial posts are distributed across parties. The cabinet has decision- and policy-making responsibilities, with 33 members appointed after the August 2012 general elections. The large size of the cabinet may be in part explained by the coalition nature of governments, with large numbers of parties often brought into the government, with a cabinet position a reward. The current prime minister is Peter O’Neill. The cabinet was most recently reshuffled in March 2014, and the finance and industrial relations ministers were replaced.

Legislative Balance

The unicameral parliament, known as the National Parliament of PNG, had 109 members, all elected for five-year terms, until recently. Some 89 of these were elected from single-member constituencies and the remaining 20 from the provinces. Two more deputies were added to the total after the 2012 elections. Under the LPV system, electors nominate the top three, with the vote transferred among them as candidates are eliminated.

The most recent general election was in 2012, with O’Neill’s People’s National Congress Party (PNCP) emerging the largest party, with 27 seats. Next largest was the Triumph Heritage Empowerment Rural Party (THERP), which gained 12 seats, then the Papua New Guinea Party (PNGP), with eight seats. Somare’s National Alliance Party (NAP) won seven seats, clearly badly affected by the defection of former NAP members, led by Don Poyle, who formed the THERP. Some 17 other parties also managed to gain at least one seat in the new parliament, and 16 independents were also elected. The PNG Electoral Commission oversees elections and balloting is usually characterised by challenges both before and after the proceedings, with the EC thus taking on a crucial role in determining the legitimacy of the electoral process.

Those elected at the provincial level have, since 1995, also automatically become provincial governors, unless they accept a cabinet appointment, in which case one of the members of parliament or constituency-based deputies from the province takes the provincial governor position. The parliament debates bills presented by the government, or by members, with committees also having the power to scrutinise proposed legislation. As there is no upper chamber, the legislative process both begins and ends in the National Parliament.

Local Levels

PNG is divided administratively into 22 provinces, one autonomous region and the National Capital District (NCD) of Port Moresby. In addition, the country is also divided into four regions, with these having no independent authority, but representing strong cultural and historical identities.

The four regions are: the Highlands, which contains seven provinces; the islands, which includes the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) and four other provinces; Momase region, which contains four provinces; and Papua, in which the NCD is located, along with five other provinces. Beneath the provincial level are some 89 districts, with the number of these varying according to the size and make up of the province. Each district in turn subdivides into a number of local level governments (LLGs), with a total of 325 of these nationwide. The LLGs then break down into wards and finally census units.

There are elections every five years at the provincial and LLG level, although the amount of political authority granted to local government in PNG is, with the exception of Bougainville, limited, particularly since a major reform in 1995. The substitution of the winner of the provincial seat in parliament for the previously elected provincial governor was one outcome of this reform. In 2006 another reform removed LLG presidents from the provincial assemblies, where they had previously held seats. A lack of capacity at the local level, alongside conflicts between national and local representatives, were the main causes of the reforms. Local government remains the subject of efforts by the government and international non-governmental organisations to build capacity and boost service delivery. Provinces can, however, levy taxes, and have responsibility for education, industrial promotion and business development. The LLGs can also obtain grants from the national government to cover their costs. The LLGs have a role in environmental protection, sewerage and roads.

Judicial Powers

The legal system in PNG is based on English law, alongside customary law, with the constitution the fundamental document. The Supreme Court (SC) is the highest court, as well as the final court of appeal and the constitutional court. The chief justice of the SC is also the chief justice of the National Court of Justice (NCJ), which is the highest trial court and the court of appeal for the lower district courts. The NCJ also has jurisdiction in appeals arising from administrative decisions. The SC may hear appeals on NCJ decisions, while also judging the constitutionality of laws, bills and other instruments being debated or passed by parliament. It has had a crucial role in recent times too in the political arena, most noticeably during the 2011-12 political crisis, when its decisions were the source of much controversy. Decisions of the SC, however, are legally final.


While PNG’s history since independence has often seen divisions among rival parties, it has also seen some remarkable collaboration. O’Neill and Somare decided to join forces following balloting in 2012, voicing a commitment to stability and cooperation. Indeed, there is a strong culture of democratic governance and peaceful transfer of power, and a welcoming attitude to international investment and assistance. All parties want to see PNG’s resources developed to achieve a new economic level. Many challenges remain, with poverty, corruption and crime leading issues for the government to tackle. Yet, as PNG gears up for its 40th anniversary since independence, the future now holds much promise.