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Punches pulled: The report of the Commonwealth Observer Group

A happy Peter O'Neill receives the report
A happy Peter O'Neill receives the Observer Group report from Commonwealth secretary-general Patricia Scotland


You can read the complete report of the Commonwealth Observer Group here

BRISBANE - The Commonwealth Observer Group that covered Papua New Guinea’s recent general election has just released its report.

The group was in PNG from 19 June to 10 July with a small team remaining four more day to observe part of the counting, but only in Port Moresby.

Unlike Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop’s walk back from her earlier statement that the poll was “successful”, this document largely builds on the observers’ interim report.

The impression conveyed is that observers conducted their mission largely unaware of, or were unwilling to comment in detail on, egregious violations of ethical, legal and proper practice. (For a summary of such malfeasance refer to this earlier article in PNG Attitude.)

The report begins with a few caveats. It says the election “was delivered in the face of significant funding, administrative and logistical challenges, including inclement weather, which hampered the PNG electoral commission’s ability to administer the election within the prescribed time period.”

It seems the group did not want to explore the genesis of these “funding, administrative and logistical challenges”, being content to say merely that they existed, thus depriving itself - and us - of a useful analytical tool.

The last point on weather was especially beguiling. After all,  inclement (and worse) weather is hardly an unknown in PNG and any competent planning by the electoral commission would have taken that into account.

The observers move on to more specific matters, tending to pull their punches on some obvious acts of illegality, such as fraud and coercion. Even the post-election violence (50 killed in Enga alone) tends to be underplayed.

There are recommendations relating to the enforcement of laws related to “bribery, undue influence and underage voting” and ensuring “sufficient distribution of ballot papers based on the numbers on the electoral roll”. But again there is no deeper investigation of the antecedents of these significant problems.

The report also notes as “unfortunate … significant issues with the voter registration process … with a large number of names missing from the electoral roll”.


By and large the temperature of the report is moderation rather than investigation. Output rather than input. On the big issues, fairly light touches framed so as not to upset the PNG government it seems.

Searching for the key word 'transparency', I found one mention, on page 25, in this context: “The group noted the concerns expressed by some stakeholders over the appointment process for Returning Officers, and encourage transparency over the selection process in future elections.”

Perhaps you see what I mean about pulled punches.

And before some snark complains that ‘this is what diplomats do’, allow me to remark that if these observer missions are intended as little more than public relations exercises to be ignored by the governments that are under scrutiny, then please spare the rest of us the façade of concern.

All that said, the report does evince a number of useful recommendations.

Unfortunately, if past practice is taken as a guide, these will be studiously ignored by the O’Neill government.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

One of my greatest memories as a CPO in Mount Hagen was getting my reconciliation of votes for Tambul tallied exactly while all the POs and ADOs were unable to do so for their areas.

As I recall they had to keep at it until they got it right.

In most cases it was just a matter of a few stray votes.

How different to what occurs these days.

Peter Sandery

Would just like to add a bit more to Paul's excellent précis of the earlier PNG voting process.

In addition, when voters fronted the polling booth they were met by an electoral official who marked their name off the common roll and ticked a number off a sex tally sheet.

The voter then went through to the Presiding Officer who was issued a ballot paper as per Paul's notes, with the Presiding Officer also ticking off a number on another sex tally sheet.

When the ballot box was full, one sex tally sheet was placed in the ballot box and it was sealed, ready for counting, whilst the other, sex tally sheet was placed in the Presiding Officer's returns to the Returning Officer.

This enabled the number of ballots to be accurately reconciled at the count and verified from the aforementioned electoral returns.

This process was stopped in the late 1970's or early eighties and, despite a substantial amount of trying, I was never given an official explanation as to why it had.

Bernard Corden

"Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything" - Josef Stalin

Paul Oates

Let's address the central issue. Was the latest PNG general election fair and transparent? Were the principles of one person, one vote, uniformly applied across the nation?

If the answer is a blatant 'No' then those who claim the election was 'successful' and 'legal' are purposely and intentionally ignoring these democratic principles.

If democratic principles are ignored, then the subsequent election outcomes are little more than a PR exercise, held to achieve a designed result, assuage the consciences of those who claim victory and those who haven't the intestinal fortitude to denounce the result and those who claim victory.

In other words, 'The end justifies the means'. The results are clearly therefore a sham.

So why should anyone be concerned?

Good question.

I suppose what we have seen still 'sticks in the craw' of those few of us who knew how it was and still could be.

To those PNG people who never experienced a different regime in their country, let me tell you what it was like prior to Independence.

Each village in rural PNG was visited at least once a year and the loose leaf green Census Books were personally updated. Those whose names appeared in the books were either seen or at least verified by their peers and neighbours. Those who had been born since the last Census were entered into the books and those who had died were noted and deleted.

When the time came for an election, only those whose names appeared in the village Census books and were over 18 years old were allowed to vote. Many who lived in town returned to their village to vote and with 97% of the population still living in rural areas, the election results were both transparent and universally accepted.

Assistant Returning officers signed each ballot paper and only those ballot papers that were emptied out of previously locked and sealed ballot boxes at the public count were accepted by the Returning Officers.

All election staff were very concerned to be seen to be impartial and fair.

Contrast that situation with the reports of the recent election.

If it can be done in the past, why isn't it able to be done now?

Answer: Because those in charge don't want to do so for their own reasons and those who turn their heads and stay silent are too intimidated, for whatever reason, to speak out.

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