PNG General Election 1997: Jim Toner

(Published Una Voce, September 1997, Page 27)

Jim Toner: Chief Clerk, District Office, Mendi 1957-59; District Office, Rabaul 1960-64; Field Manager, New Guinea Research Unit (ANU), Port Moresby 1965-73

Few readers will be unaware that Sir Julius Chan, Prime Minister of PNG, has been ousted from Parliament after 29 years of service. The one-time Co-ops officer lost his Namatanai seat in the June election by only 110 votes. Recently Australia’s Governors-General appear to have relinquished their hitherto arms-length relationship with politically contentious matters in speeches expounding personal views. PNG’s Governor-General certainly spoke out after the election when he expressed “deep regret for the impossible and unthinkable results from the Namatanai electorate …”.

Another loser was the Governor of Milne Bay province, Tim Neville. Son of the late Ron Neville, Southern Highlands kiap and entrepreneur, he had followed his father into parliament but this time ran third to Dame Josephine Abaijah. Her return to Waigani (where she sat 1972-82) gave that parliament its first female voice since 1987 (although Lady Carol Kidu, widow of the former Chief Justice, will also be there to assist).

Jerry Nalau, one of the first indigenous District Commissioners and, until June, Governor of Morobe province, lost his seat but Sir Michael Somare easily retained his and was no doubt hamamas to have his son, Arthur, join him in parliament as Member for Angoram.

What might be termed irregular practices seem to have diminished as compared with the previous election in 1992. However on the night before the poll Kandep patrol post was broken into and 2700 ballot papers stolen whilst at Nomad scrutineers for candidates forced the presiding officer to throw away the keys to 28 ballot boxes. Delay in obtaining authority to hacksaw the padlocks meant that the Member for Middle Fly was the last of the 109 MPs to be declared elected.

Whilst the greater part of the country was free of such overt offences, the election was not without murky possibilities. Peter Barter, a minister in the Chan government and Governor of Madang province, was puzzled to learn that he had lost his seat despite increasing his vote from 32,000 in 1992 to 38,000 this year. He said, “I have been given evidence of names on the electoral roll of children, dead persons, non-existent persons, and cases where persons voted many times.” Disappointed candidates have 40 days to appeal to the Court of Disputed Returns.

The new Speaker at Waigani was educated at Wabag High School and at 30 becomes the youngest Speaker ever in the British Commonwealth. I believe he takes over that title from Perry Kwan (Kavieng) whose brief occupancy of the chair followed the 1972 election.

Bill Skate, the new Prime Minister, was elected by a substantial majority of the Parliament with only two votes uncounted. Sir John Kaputin, who had put himself forward for the post but with negligible response, absented himself from the chamber whilst the new Member for Finschhafen was just commencing an 8-year gaol sentence.

Readers who sweated for months, back in 1964, compiling an electoral roll for that inaugural exercise in universal franchise will be interested (as no doubt will Mr Barter) in the recommendation of a Commonwealth Observers Group – the usual dozen experts from overseas – that “Voters should have ID cards with their photographs linked to a computerised registration system with continuous updating to maintain a common roll”. This would certainly amuse the PNG Electoral Commissioner who has been driven to sue the PNG Finance Department for 3 million kina, being a shortpayment on the budgeted electoral expenses. Additionally he is seeking 5.6 million kina to cover over-expenditure largely stemming from problems in the five turbulent Highlands provinces. Interested observers of the result of that court case are the polling booth officials of Port Moresby who worked 134 hours but so far have only been paid for 40.

Despite the aforementioned ‘hiccups’ once again we have seen democracy in action – in Melanesian/Westminster fashion – and PNG has its Sixth Parliament until 2002.


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