ON 9 July, Papua New Guinea’s Election Advisory Committee resigned in a devastating blow to the credibility of the country’s 2017 election.
The failure of the O’Neill government to provide this high level constitutional committee with factual electoral information suggests deliberate efforts to obstruct the truth.
The three-member election advisory committee is appointed by the governor general and is comprised of the chief ombudsman commissioner (or his nominee) and two other persons — a nominee from the Transparency International board and a retired judge or lawyer.
In its resignation letter, the committee indicated it was ‘prevented from performing its constitutional duties and roles’ because it has not been provided with baseline data and information nor been party to regular reporting.
Such detailed information is required to unpack fully possible ‘cooking the books’ within the general chaos and mismanagement of PNG’s 2017 election.
However, even at an aggregate level, statistical analysis suggests there are very clear patterns of electoral manipulation.
There are nearly 300,000 ‘ghost electors’ in government-controlled electorates — excess names on the electoral roll relative to the latest population census. In the 49 electorates with government members, there is an average of 6000 ‘ghost electors’, more than 10 times the level of non-government electorates.
Statistical analysis indicates there is less than one chance in 20 that this bias to the O’Neill government is just accidental.
But the devil is in the detail. The analysis needs to be done at a lower level to unambiguously confirm this systematic bias. This type of information appears to be hidden from the electoral advisory committee and the people of PNG more broadly.
Without such information, it is difficult to understand how international observers to the election can form a view on whether it was free and fair.
Looking at the 2012 election results, there were many close races where only a few hundred votes would have made a difference. If PNC was deliberately aiming to skew the election (among all the noise), one would target key marginal electorates.
Targeted actions, such as not providing enough ballot papers to even one key ward where the main opponent’s support was located, could easily swing the outcome for the election.
Australia must also take some responsibility for this mess.
Protecting a democracy so close to our shores should have been a much higher priority. No specific figures have been provided on the level of Australian support for this election.
Certainly, the figure is much less than the planned support for the 2018 APEC meeting, which is expected to exceed AU$100 million. It is difficult to explain this choice of priorities in supporting democracy in our closest neighbour, especially given concerns about growing Chinese influence.
Of course, final responsibility for the election and how it is conducted rests with PNG as the sovereign country. But as a close partner, with historic responsibilities and key national interests, Australia should have done better.