“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.
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.
“…. 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”
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.
She 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?"