The slow death of integrity in Papua New Guinean politics
You say what you say, I see what I see

Julie Bishop walks back from talk of “successful” PNG election

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill (ABC)KEITH JACKSON

“The Australian government congratulates PNG, one of our closest friends and partners, on its successful election and we looking forward to continuing to work with prime minister O’Neill and PNG’s new government” – press statement by Australia’s foreign affairs minister, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, c 5 August 2017

NOOSA – Nothing astounded close observers of Papua New Guinea’s recent shambolic general election than a public statement by Australia’s foreign affairs minister calling it “successful”.

The reaction from the commentariat to this profoundly inaccurate remark – made all the worse because it was clearly deliberate, not a throwaway line – was savage.

Even the think tanks which receive Australian government funding, and in their supplication are mostly reluctant to be harsh, seemed somewhat taken aback.

But there are actors as well as commentators, walkers as well as talkers, and this is where Queensland-based ex-kiap Paul Oates and some of his colleagues entered the arena – communicating directly with the Hon Eric Abetz, Senator for Tasmania and erstwhile senior minister in a number of Australian governments, but not (to his chagrin) in Malcolm Turnbull’s.

Eric Abetz (AAP)Senator Abetz (left) wrote to Ms Bishop and received a reply which referred to PNG’s election as “complex” and “amongst the most difficult in the world” and advised him of how Australia had “provided technical advice and logistical support …. including through the Australian Electoral Commission and the International Foundation for Electoral Support”.

Ms Bishop confessed to being “aware of the reports of significant challenges with the delivery of this election”, noting that “deficiencies in PNG's electoral roll have understandably frustrated those Papua  New Guineans who were not able to exercise their right to vote.”

The foreign minister continued: “Claims of electoral fraud are concerning, including where fraud is alleged to have contributed to more votes being cast than eligible voters. It is not clear whether alleged electoral fraud, if true, would constitute a systematic attempt to manipulate the result.”

She also noted that that it was “particularly disappointing that the number of women elected to PNG's 111-seat parliament looks set to fall from three to zero” and said that “Australia will examine and learn from the experiences of women candidates as we continue to support Papua New Guinean women to contest local and  national elections.”

It is noteworthy that, in her response to Senator Abetz, Ms Bishop did not repeat her public statement that it was a “successful election”. On the contrary, these later comments express a much more realistic – if still incomplete – view of the incompetency and fraud that marked much of the conduct of the election.

There was a final remark that reads as somewhat cloying (and downplays the terrible bloodshed) but was probably intended to conclude on a positive note:

“Notwithstanding the challenges of this election, the PNG people once again demonstrated their proud commitment to the democratic process. The polling period saw less violence than previous elections, although some clashes followed the declaration of winners in PNG's highlands region.”

It seems, upon reflection, Ms Bishop showed a willingness to be more candid in her comments to Senator Abetz than she had been in her earlier public statements.

PaulSo how flawed was the PNG election. Let’s recap the reaction of economist and PNG observer Paul Flanagan to its manifest problems and outrages:

“…. biased appointment of returning officers, manipulation of the electoral roll (many more ghost voters in People’s National Congress electorates especially in the highlands), late movements in the electoral roll, selective distribution of ballot papers, disenfranchisement of voters, mathematical impossibilities in the count, selective counting of some ballot boxes with inconsistent application of EC directives, lack of transparency leading to the resignation of the independent Electoral Advisory Committee, manipulation of the final declaration process by some returning officers with accusations of bribes etc”

Busa Jeremiah WenogoAnd here's PNG economist and writer Busa Wenogo’s itemisation of the many ways in which the election was mismanaged and corrupted:

1) The appointment of returning officers and assistant returning officers seems to have been done without proper screening and/or with the appointment influenced externally. Many of these officials are of questionable character and some have been implicated in foul play in previous elections.

2) There has been a gross abuse of electoral rolls and it could be that the majority of the voting population has not been able to cast a vote. In place of this, cronies of some ‘lucky’ candidates have helped themselves to votes by being able to mark many of those extra ballot papers.

3) Pretty much proven allegations (statistical analysis is compelling) of "ghost names" and extra ballot papers have influenced the result in crucial seats. I suspect the ruling PNC party knew it might not fare well in the elimination process and it did everything in its power to ensure its candidates were declared on the first (primary) count. [Results so far indicate that most PNC candidates leading with a small margin going into the elimination process have been eliminated.]

4) The superficial ‘quality checks’ of counting favour the ruling PNC against others. Cases in point include ‘quality checks’ in Moresby South, Ialibu-Pangia and Tari- Pori compared with Moresby North West and Madang Open. These ‘checks’ were deliberately done swiftly to allow PNC to increase its numbers quickly so that it could be invited by the governor-general to form government.

5) Allowing voting to proceed on a Sunday in Ialibu-Pangia although it is against the organic law on national & local level government elections, that is, unconstitutional.

6) The resignation of the electoral advisory committee over lack of information provided to enable it to do its job.

7) Major election related problems that have lacked effective action from the electoral commission including the return of writs to the governor-general on Friday 28 July without consulting the Registrar of Political Parties & Candidates - and with 20 or so seats still to be declared.

8) The discovery of some 3,000 ballot papers in Goilala District that were been counted.

9) The deliberate delay by the electoral commission in disbursing allowances for staff conducting elections in electorates where non-PNC parties were leading. This was deliberately done to delay the declaration of candidates.

10) Conflicting announcements over who was the duly-elected governor of Hela Province after the earlier declaration of Francis Potape was rescinded. The election manager did this in a very dubious way.

11) William Duma’s declaration made while 28 ballot boxes were to be counted (this has led to violence and the lockdown of Kagamuga airport).

12) In the case of Don Polye, the reluctance of the returning to count 11 remaining ballot boxes led to tragic violence in Enga.

13) In the case of Sir Mekere Morauta, the double declaration where the returning officer declared third placed candidate Joseph Tonde in a hotel witnessed by an EMTV crew and probable relatives of Mr Tonde. A failed attempt by PNC (assisted by the electoral commission) to derail Sir Mek's push to rally independents and form the government with the NA-Pangu led team.

14) There was more – much more – right across the country. This election will be studied in Papua New Guinea for many years to come.

After analysing these events, I question the neutrality of the electoral commission. The 2017 national election will be seen by many people as a failure.

The informal estimate of the death toll relating to the election is 70-80 people. The true figure is not one that officials in either PNG or Australia care to address, at least not in public.

 Paul Oates and his colleagues are to be complimented for taking up this matter with the Australian parliament and Senator Abetz praised for pursuing it.

This PNG election was one in which Australia was deeply involved. Accordingly, the government should not turn its back on its failures.

So was the election free and fair? Did it truly represent the people’s will? Was it “successful”?

Only a person who was deliberately dishonest or incapable of separating fact from fiction could confidently reach those conclusions.

At least Ms Bishop seems to have walked back from the 'success' word and acknowledge some deficiencies.

But the important question now concerns whether Australia has the will and the capability to assist our friend and neighbour to do better, much better, in future.

H&SShe should reflect on the sad words of the respected Catholic priest, Fr John Glynn, 54 years in Papua New Guinea, in a recent article in PNG Attitude:

"As our newly elected honourable members sit there in their comfortable seats I wonder how many of them give any serious thought to what it cost to put them there in terms of blood spilled, lives lost, homes destroyed, families dispersed, businesses disrupted ... and, when Election 2022 comes along, will it be any better?"



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Bernard Corden

Dear Paul, many thanks, you now have me reading Sean Dorney's 'The Embarrassed Colonialist' once again.

William Dunlop

Kim who!

Paul Oates

Well Bernard I beg to differ. The evidence is in the article above.

Bernard Corden

Dear Paul,

Silence is complicity not benign and I cannot think of one MP in the current Australian parliament who has any stature or integrity and those two attributes would be alien to the current unrepresentative swill in the PNG Haus Tambaran. You certainly could not refer to them as representative following the election.

The best PM this county never had was Kim Beazley

Paul Oates

In response to Father John Glynn's comment about honourable members:

'So are they all, all honourable men–' excerpt from Mark Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral.

Paul Oates

Ahhh... Bernard, don't tar us all with the same brush. Remember, both Keith and I noticed and reacted to the cultural insensitivity the same way as did you.

The problem is that the average PNGian is not bothered about selling their nation and neither is the average Australian, (if indeed there be such an individual).

The issue is that our respective political leaders are too busy looking after themselves to become interested in fostering good relations between our two nations that sit on each other's doorsteps.

Never give up. Many who aren't saying anything are both listening and watching.

Bernard Corden

The only culture our foreign minister understands is Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Tiffany et al.
I suspect the I love PNG coffee mug was bought in the gift shop at Jacksons airport.
If you brought a PNG Highlander down from Mount Wilhelm and plonked him in the middle of Queen Street mall he would survive but if you took an Australian and dumped him at Nadzab they wouldn't last a week.

Bernard Corden

My thoughts were exactly the same.

PNG has a true culture whereas Australian culture mirrors the US. An economy is not a society.
Sous les paves, la plage

Paul Oates

On ABC TV last night, in a program about the Australian Parliament House, there was a very interesting vignette on Julie Bishop.

At one point during the program, among the litter of memorabilia presented to Ms Bishop over the years and shown in a split second pan around was an almost hidden coffee mug with the logo 'I (heart shape representing love), Papua New Guinea'.

The segment raised the vagaries of how the Foreign Minister is presented with presents from foreign dignitaries and must try to respond accordingly with a reciprocal gift.

Jokingly, in response to a question about what bizarre gifts she had previously received, Ms Bishop raised the fact that she was presented with some live pigs while in PNG. A film clip was produced to substantiate this claim.

What did she do with the pigs the Foreign Minister was asked. "Well I couldn't bring them back to Australia because of quarantine laws," Ms Bishop joked, 'so I gave them to the local hospital. They were sold for $15,000," she said triumphantly.

What did you give in return she was asked?

"Oh, probably cufflinks," she said.

In this brief interchange, Ms Bishop clearly evidenced her views on PNG. She obviously hadn't been briefed of the importance of the gift to her (as a representative of Australia).

Secondly, she made a joke about what she clearly had no idea what she had made as a reciprocal gift in return. A presumed gift that obviously wasn't appropriate.

I felt that this tiny illustration presented the classic impasse to those of us who have an understanding of PNG but have been effectively sidelined and dismissed in favour of those who don't have any relevant and appropriate experience and knowledge of PNG and her people but are relied upon for counsel by the current foreign minister.

Em nau. Liklik tokpiksa blo mi ipinis.

Paul and I experienced the same gobsmacked reaction to the foreign minister's cultural insensitivity. I tweeted at the time: "ABC TV tonight: Engans gift @JulieBishopMP 3 big pigs, onsold for K30,000. Julie gifts Engans cufflinks. Great hilarity. #ozdiplomacy #png" - KJ

Johnny Blades

Interesting piece. Can someone shed some light on Busa's point #8 "3,000 ballot papers in Goilala District" counted. Were these defective or tampered ballot papers?

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