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Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:31 | SYDNEY

Nothing new under the PNG sun


Annmaree O’Keeffe

12 March 2012 15:27

PNG is once again going through a governance-sapping exercise of self-interested politics. Since February last year, when then Prime Minister Somare was suspended from office for two weeks following a decision by the country's Leadership Tribunal, Papua New Guineans have witnessed an increasingly tumultuous tug of war between the country's political leaders. The latest incident in this power struggle was the arrest of the country's Chief Justice on 6 March.

For some observers, this political standoff is a unique event with significant ramifications for the future stability of the country. I suggest it is not unique. It is simply a different expression of an enduring characteristic of PNG politics: the ability of the parliamentary process to be spectacularly rambunctious and to startle the neighbours – notably Australia.

PNG's politics are highly competitive. Tribal and clan loyalty, along with personal connections, shape the political context – not party platforms. PNG's political history is littered with leadership challenges, votes of no-confidence, scandals and prime ministers forced to step aside.

So the hand on the tiller of government is never quite steady enough and often not sure of the direction it should be taking the country because it is too frequently diverted by power struggles. It's this inattention causing the real damage, as the core task of government – to protect the nation and provide basic services – is left behind by the political mêlée.

PNG won't meet any of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. It is the only Pacific island country facing this prospect. This is despite the fact that, of all Pacific Island countries, it is in a very strong macro-economic position with expected economic growth of 8% this year.

This is a country where only six out of ten adults can read, and where the primary school enrolment rate dropped dramatically from 71% of primary school age children in 2000 to 56.2% in 2006. WHO reports that, while health expenditure per capita has more than doubled across the Western Pacific region since 1995, PNG's expenditure has remained static and stubbornly well below the region's average.

So what we are seeing in PNG is an extreme imbalance between national income and social development outcomes. And this latest drama of political manoeuvring threatens to exacerbate a deeper and graver governance malaise; the government isn't fulfilling its social contract.

Aside from the domestic implications for PNG, there are several potential strategic implications for Australia:

  • The growing opportunity for external actors to manipulate the self-serving political system and capture resources valuable for PNG's own development.
  • The continuing demise of basic services are exacerbating already existing transboundary problems such as the provision of health services along the PNG-Australia border in the Torres Strait.
  • The threat of destabilisation in more remote parts of the country such as the Southern Highlands, where there is an arms build-up in the lead-up to the election.

PNG watchers often take heart from the fact that PNG has always managed to defy Australia's worst-case expectations and emerge whole from the political dramas that capture its government. However, that survival is in large part because of the resilience of the ordinary Papua New Guineans who have come to understand that they are excluded. That almost 90% of Papua New Guineans live in rural and remote parts is no doubt a major hindrance to more coordinated and determined demands for better government. That's lucky for the government – but it's not luck that they deserve.

Photo by Flickr user SouthernAnts.