PNG at 40—Political stabiliy: Sean Dorney

On the night leading into Papua New Guinea’s Independence Day, I went to a house on Touaguba Hill to drink SP and watch the flares being fired into the sky over Port Moresby’s Fairfax Harbour.

I was with Albert Asbury, the then News Editor of the PNG National Broadcasting Commission, and Bob Lawrence, who, like me and Albert, had been seconded from the ABC to work in the NBC Newsroom.

And we listened to Sir John Guise, PNG’s first Governor General, speaking on the NBC at one minute past midnight. “Papua New Guinea is now independent. The Constitution of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea under which all power rests with the people is now in effect. We have at this point in time broken with our colonial past and we now stand as an independent nation in our own right.”

It hardly seems like 40 years ago!

I have been commissioned by the Lowy Institute to write a paper on PNG and Australia 40 years on which will come out shortly as a Penguin Lowy paperback. So I went up to PNG in March and spoke to various people about their thoughts on how the country had fared.

“Forty years after Independence not many countries have kept their democratic system like we have done in Papua New Guinea,” Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare told me. “We have kept a Westminster system and modified it to our liking. We worked on our Constitution and it is like a Bible to us. And today the Constitution is respected.”

Sir Julius Chan said he felt the period at the beginning was probably the most exciting time. “I don’t know how they describe stability but I would say that we have been stable,” he said. “By any comparison to any developing country—and that is the only guide really—I think we have done pretty well.”

Sir Mekere Morauta, who was the Secretary for Finance at Independence, said that the economic policy foundations were laid strongly. “I remember hearing from Sir John Crawford, who was a very important man in Australia and in PNG, commenting that he was very impressed by the processes and structures, the economic and social foundations of policy,” Sir Mekere said. “His question was, ‘Can you sustain it?’ It was a very impressive start from his international experience and he was very happy. But the problem was, ‘Could we keep it going?’”

Sir Mekere is concerned that what he calls the “institutions of State” are no longer as robust as there were at the beginning. “The police, the Defence Force, the judiciary, the public service, the Attorney General, all of those things they should be stronger.”

The current Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, has benefited from one of the reforms that Morauta managed to implement during his tenure as Prime Minister from 1999 to 2002: the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates.

Prior to that, PNG never had a government complete a single term. Elections were held every five years—in 1977, 1982, 1987, 1992 and 1997—but Votes of No Confidence also led to changes of government mid-term in 1980, 1985, 1988, 1994 and 1999.

So what is really remarkable about PNG since the turn of the century is the relative political stability it has had. Since 2002, while Australia has chopped and changed Prime Ministers every few years—from John Howard to Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard to Rudd again and then to Tony Abbott—Papua New Guinea has had only two PMs: Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill.

That would seem to indicate pretty impressive political stability, two Prime Ministers in 13 years compared with Australia’s five. It reminds me of the humorous quip that Somare made in November, 1975, when Gough Whitlam was sacked by Australia’s Governor General, Sir John Kerr, plunging Australia into a constitutional crisis. Whitlam had been in Port Moresby only two months earlier witnessing Papua New Guinea’s transition from being an Australian colony to independent nationhood. ‘We’ve just let them go,’ Somare said, ‘and look what a mess they are in already!’

Of course, PNG has had its fair share of constitutional crises. The transition from Somare to O’Neill led to one when the PNG Supreme Court ruled that Somare had not been replaced by O’Neill in the constitutionally correct way. This was despite the fact that, when O’Neill took over, Somare was incapable of carrying out his duties because he was in hospital in Singapore and his family had announced his resignation some months earlier on the grounds of health.

Somare recovered, returned to PNG and, following the Supreme Court ruling, tried to assume control again. So Papua New Guinea had, for a brief time, two Prime Ministers, two Police Commissioners and two Commanders of the Defence Force. But, despite the potential for mayhem, none eventuated. O’Neill continued governing, an election was due and was held (in 2012) and he secured the numbers to form a new government.

At functions marking the start of PNG’s first major LNG project, which is now so important to the economy, ExxonMobil officials praised the ‘political stability’ that had helped it come on stream ahead of schedule.

The Registrar of the body set up under the Organic Law, the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Commission, Alphonse Gelu, says a second reform Morauta instituted—changing the voting system from First-Past-The-Post to a Limited Preferential System—also has helped stability. “Those measures helped to create more certainty in PNG politics,” he says. “Prior to that things were just all over the place.”

“We enjoyed stability,” Gelu says, “because we were able to impose restrictions upon Members switching political parties. It put a stop to that.” However, it has led to another typical PNG political adaptation. Some parties began to have MPs on both sides of the House. “So although it forbade MPs from deserting a political party,” Gelu says, “it did not prevent political parties from being in both the Government and the Opposition … Yes, we had this high level of political stability in that the Prime Minister continued in office but with my mandate as the Registrar of Political Parties and their integrity I was very concerned.”

Gelu’s Commission also received a set-back in 2010 when the PNG Supreme Court ruled that its power to discipline Members of Parliament who switched political parties was unconstitutional because it interfered with the rights of Parliamentarians. Gelu says his Political Integrity Commission is still enforcing other parts of the law governing the conduct of political parties. “The only section ruled out was that which attempted to restrict Members jumping from one party to another.” He has the power to deregister political parties that have no physical location for the party headquarters or that fail to produce annual financial returns. He has put thirty-two parties on notice that they might be deregistered.

The Commission also acted against a few parties that never spent any money on campaigning. “In the run up to the 2012 election there were 46 political parties,” Gelu says. “Of those 46, four decided not to endorse any candidates. But after the seats were declared those four came out in the press asking the Members who were elected to come and join them. I was very, very angry. I wanted to just go ahead and deregister them straight away. But the Law does not allow me to do that. There is a process I have to follow. So I told those four, ‘You form a party to contest elections and put your policies to the people not just wait until it is over and then collect a few Independents. No, you can’t do that!’”

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has proved himself to be a master tactician in this new political landscape in PNG. He acknowledges that the Integrity of Political Parties legislation has ‘played a key role’ in reducing political instability. ‘The party system is still weak,’ he says, ‘but it is maturing.’ His Peoples National Congress (PNC) party outperformed all others in the 2012 elections and since then he has gone from strength to strength.

Political parties in PNG these days are partly funded from the public purse. The Political Parties Integrity Commission is in charge of distributing those funds. “Currently it is K10,000 (about $A5,000) per Member,” Gelu says. “So, for one Member you get K10,000 every year. The PNC, the Prime Minister’s party, last year had thirty-two Members who were elected in 2012 in their party so we provided K320,000 of funds to it last year. Now they are claiming to have 56 Members so this year the PNC will get K560,000.”

The Limited Preferential Voting system that came into force in the 2007 elections has ensured that anybody elected can no longer rely on just their core clan support. Under the First-Past-The-Post system previously in place some Members won with as little as seven percent of the vote. With Limited Preferential voting the elector marks the ballot paper with their first, second and third choices as to who they want elected. Your clan member may have no chance at all but now you can make your vote still count by putting somebody you actually think would make a better MP second or third.

It has also helped reduce election violence. The 2002 election is generally regarded as having been PNG’s worst ever, with at least 20 people killed. The Electoral Commissioner even refused to declare results in six electorates. He ruled that in those seats (which were in two Highlands Provinces: Southern Highlands and Enga) the election had failed ‘due to disruptions caused by disgruntled candidates and supporters’.

The success of Limited Preferential Voting in ensuring that those elected actually have significant community support beyond their own tribal group is clear from the 2012 election results. In 2012, only 37 of the 111 Members elected would have won under the previous system. The 37 who would have won under both voting systems were leading after the first preferences but in the other seventy-four seats the leading candidates on first preferences were overtaken.

Another contributing factor to the stability is the huge amount of money that is now provided to each electorate. These days each Member gets K15 million ($A7.5 million) a year: K10 million from what is called the District Services Improvement Program (DSIP) and K5 million that is supposed to be for investment in local health and education. A Cabinet decision in 2012 directed that the DSIP “be spent in the following proportions”: 30% on Infrastructure; 20% on Health Services; 20% on Education; 10% on Law and Justice Services; 10% on Economic Sector Support; and 10% on Administration.

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill contends that this spending in the Member’s electorates is transforming Papua New Guinea bringing development to areas that have not been serviced for years. However, the PNG Auditor-General found major problems with how the DSIP funds were being spent in an audit of 22 of the 89 Districts in 2012/13. In those 22 electorates: more than K116 million (A$58 m) was spent on projects where expenditure was “unsupported” or the projects were “incomplete (or) abandoned”; over K39 million was spent on “non DSIP related expenditure”; “vehicles and heavy equipment with limited application towards DSIP objectives” were bought at a cost of more than K58 million; and there was a “significant underspend on water supply and sanitation, law and justice, rural communication and electrification, and health”.
The Auditor General concluded that there had been “limited value from the DSIP funds granted when measured against the original investment criteria”; that there was a “pervasive breakdown in the DSIP governance framework”; and that “better processes of accountability” were needed “including the application of penalties for non-compliance.”

But the attention of MPs now seems to be more devoted to organising the spending of these funds and less towards trying to engineer a toppling of the Government.


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