An Analysis of Papua New Guinea’s Political Condition and Trends Through to 2025

last updated: August 2017


Papua New Guinea entered its 2017 National Election after a tumultuous period in the country’s politics and economy, and there remains much uncertainty about the election process, with significant implications for the country’s future. In the last ten years key political, bureaucratic, and regulatory institutions have struggled and in some cases, failed. These struggles have been more profound under the O’Neill government despite some tangible advances in the country’s ambitious Vision 2050 roadmap.

There is a widespread desire across the country for robust and independent institutions to ensure economic gains are transparently and sustainably managed. The ultimate question for many voters in the 2017 general elections was not who would form the next government, but who would be the most credible leader. With elections now over, and the O’Neill government returning for a second term, what does Papua New Guinea expect of the new government and those in power?

This analysis attempts to address how key trends in PNG’s politics will impact upon both the bureaucracy and regulatory environment. It will identify some of the key actors and how they are likely to change. It will discuss current political trends, their impact on the regulatory and legislative environments and how likely they are to continue in the future. Finally, it assesses the prospects of continuing dysfunction in PNG politics, the further marginalisation and deterioration of the bureaucracy, and how this destructive course might be avoided.

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Changing Geopolitical Dynamics For Papua New Guinea

last updated: August 2017


The new O’Neill government faces a rapidly changing external environment as it struggles to manage a significant domestic economic downturn and unprecedented pressures on the national budget. Australia remains Papua New Guinea’s closest foreign partner; by far its largest bilateral aid partner, trading partner and foreign investor, but its influence is diminishing as that of other actors is growing. China is an increasingly important player — as a trade partner, investor in infrastructure and source of foreign loans, as well as in the small to medium business sector. Relations with other Asian nations are expanding. Large foreign companies are exerting more influence on government policy than most nation state development and trade partners of Papua New Guinea can hope to exercise. These relationships are likely to come into sharper focus over the next year, as the PNG government prepares to host APEC in 2018. It is not clear that the new PNG government has the capacity to pursue the national interest abroad while it is preoccupied with a complex set of challenges at home.

How Papua New Guinea Interacts With The World

The Pacific Islands region, once remote from the global centre of economic gravity, is now benefiting from its proximity to the centre of global growth that is China, East Asia, and India. The neglected and relatively poor Pacific Islands end of the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly attracting the attention of outside powers as its neighbourhood has grown wealthier. China’s profile in the Pacific Islands has grown enormously. China’s interests in Papua New Guinea have predominantly focused on trade and investment but in the last year Beijing has for the first time leveraged these interests to put public pressure on the PNG government and other governments in the region to support its actions in the South China Sea, signalling a shift in dynamics in its relations with the island states.

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Current Views on Resumption of Large-Scale Mining in Bougainville

The current (2016) relationship between local-level politics and large-scale mining in Bougainville has both similarities and differences to that which existed between 1987 and 1989, especially with respect to the extent of community opposition to Large-Scale Mining (LSM). The current situation has of course been deeply influenced by dramatic changes arising from the conflict itself. Although the Panguna mine has been closed since 1989, the possibility of reopening it ensures that LSM is a factor in political relationships between Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Bougainville, and also within Bougainville.

The differences between the two situations include a major shift in the state’s ‘corner’, largely resulting from the 2001 BPA, which made legislative authority over mining available to the ABG. There is also much greater complexity in each of the company, state and community ‘corners’ and in their mutual relationship, along with emergence of a new, multifaceted ‘fourth estate’ corner. Major differences arising from the complex post-conflict situation include: the national government’s much-reduced role in Bougainville as compared to 1988; the ABG’s limited capacity and reach in a situation where several parallel ‘governments’ claim ‘sovereignty’ over all or part of the autonomous region; armed groups remaining a factor to contend with; and numerous fringe foreign mining interests seeking to play significant roles in alliance with different local factions. A major similarity is that multiple Bougainvillean groups with considerable autonomy from one another, aware that important decisions on the future of mining may be made in the foreseeable future, all seek to ensure that their voices are heard.

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‘Pressure Groups’ in Southwest Bougainville

The Mungkas leaders had close links with the Bana Pressure Group, the Siwai Pressure Group and similar, though less well organised, groups from the Buin area. Bana and Siwai were relatively densely populated areas, with intensive cultivation of cash crops and associated land shortages, close to the mine, and hence experiencing some of its impacts. Little has ever been written about these groups and their roles in the conflict. Francis Ona received strong support from them, both before and after the conflict started.

These groups were mostly led by older men. Some held land adjacent to the tailings lease, receiving little or no compensation despite the impacts, leading to particular resentment of BCL. They were also concerned about the broader problem of environmental degradation, the lack of employment and business opportunities with the mine, and the number of non-Bougainvilleans now settling on their land or running small businesses nearby. Pressure group leaders thought that independence was the most realistic way of getting a fairer deal from BCL. They rejected the earlier generation of ‘nationalist’ Bougainville leadership that had abandoned the secessionist cause in 1976. Their position was also a reaction to PNG’s failure to agree to 1981 NSPG proposals for changing the BCA.

As Bana Pressure Group chairman from mid-1988, James Singko expressed its position in ever more radical terms. From late 1988, he assisted Ona with funds raised from the sale of bananas and other crops from his plantation. He accompanied Ona into the bush in late 1988, bringing young men from his group, and soon becoming Ona’s deputy in the BRA. He is also regarded as being the strongest proponent of secession, and central to that cause being agreed as a core goal of the rebellion at a major meeting at Sipuru, in central Bougainville, in late February 1989. In later tensions with Ona over the direction of the rebellion, Singko claimed the right to negotiate with the PNG Government on the issue since he was the sponsor of that particular aspect of their agenda.

Mungkas Association

Although Ona was on the executive of this important Arawa-based organisation, its major focus was on the impacts of the influx into Bougainville of people from elsewhere in PNG and the limited mine-related opportunities for Bougainvilleans in general. The name, Mungkas Association, originated with Bougainvillean students at the University of PNG who met to discuss Bougainville’s political future in the late 1960s. Various manifestations subsequently emerged, in Port Moresby and other urban centres, as well as in Bougainville, to address specific problems. The Arawa Mungkas Association, set up in 1987, comprised representatives of communities from many parts of Bougainville then resident in mine-related urban areas. During 1988, its members held public meetings and demonstrations to express grievances about squatter settlements.

The minutes of an executive meeting in held in Arawa on 24 March 1988, with Ona and Serero in attendance, provide insights into their concerns and demands. Squatters from elsewhere in PNG were said to be committing crimes, taking over customary land, running small businesses and taking jobs and business opportunities that should have been reserved for Bougainvilleans. The NSPG administrator, Peter Tsiamalili, reported on the Operation Mekim Save taskforce that had just been set up to respond to such problems. He counselled moderation and collaboration with the NSPG.

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The Lessons of Panguna

The construction, operation and closure of the Panguna copper mine on the island of Bougainville, in the period from 1967 to 1989, provides a clear illustration of the process of modernisation and its political repercussions. But, in this case, the illustration also served to inform the new model of stakeholder politics that was applied to the large-scale mining industry at a global scale.

The Panguna mine exemplified the technical innovations that were typical of the new generation of open-cut mining projects. However, because it was commissioned at the very start of the process of modernisation, no environmental conditions were attached to the licences granted by the Australian colonial administration, so the mine was designed to discharge its waste material directly into the Jaba River. The construction of this most modern mine was also accompanied by the construction of a modern mining town to accommodate the families of a workforce with multiple technical skills. Long-distance commuting was not yet thought to be an economic option for the employment of this type of workforce.

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The Papua New Guinea-Indonesia Border and its Effect on Relations Between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia

In October 1986 the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea signed a Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship and Cooperation. Under the terms of this treaty the two countries agreed not to threaten or use force against one another and not to cooperate with others in hostile or unlawful acts against each other or allow their territory to be used by others for such purposes. Provision was made also for consultation and negotiation in the event of any dispute. The treaty was hailed by President Suharto as ‘another milestone in the history of both countries,’ while Papua New Guinea’s prime minister and foreign affairs secretary said it would give direction for the future and inspire confidence in Papua New Guinea and its regional neighbours (Niugini Nius 28 October 1986).

More sceptical opinion, however, observed that there was nothing in the new treaty which either had not been the subject of earlier and repeated verbal assurances, or was not already adequately provided for in the existing agreement on border administration. Some opposition politicians in Papua New Guinea went further, describing the treaty as ‘naive and misconstrued,’ ‘sinister,’ and ‘an exercise in hypocrisy’ (Post-Courier 29 October 1986; Times of Papua New Guinea 31 October– 6 November 1986).

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The Bougainville Crisis

The Bougainville mine, in Papua New Guinea’s North Solomons (formerly Bougainville) Province, is one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines. In recent years it has accounted for around 40 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s exports and between 17 and 20 per cent of government revenue. Ever since mining exploration began on Bougainville in the 1960s, however, the presence of the mining company has been a source of resentment amongst the local people in the Panguna area, as well as for many Bougainvilleans not directly affected by the mining operations. Opposition to mining development was a major factor in the emergence of a secessionist movement on Bougainville in the late 1960s. Melanesian people have a deep attachment to their land and, notwithstanding a complex structure of compensation payments, many Bougainvilleans feel that the development of the mine has robbed them of their land, irrevocably changed their way of life, and left them with little of the wealth they believed the mine would bring. As a prominent member of the Panguna landowner group said in 1989: ‘Land is marriage – land is history – land is everything. If our land is ruined our life is finished’ (Perpetua Serero, quoted in Post-Courier 1 May 1989).

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National Parliament of Papua New Guinea

National Parliament of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a single chamber legislature (law-making body) consisting of 89 Members elected from Open electorates and 22 Governors elected from Provincial electorates. The total 111 Members are directly voted into office by citizens over 18 years of age and represent Papua New Guinea provinces and districts.  After an election, the political party with the most seats is invited by the Governor General to form Government. Since Independence all Governments have been formed by a coalition of Parties because no Party has won enough Seats to form Government alone. The National Constitution gives the legislative (law-making) power of the people to Parliament. The PNG Constitution also declares that the maximum term of a Parliament is five years.

The National Parliament was first created in 1964 as the House of Assembly of Papua and New Guinea and became the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea in 1975 when Independence was granted. The House of Assembly building was located in downtown Port Moresby and had previously been used as a hospital. The new Parliament building was officially opened by His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, on 8th August 1984. The old House of Assembly building has been demolished and a Political History museum/library is being built as part of the redevelopment of the site.

Parliament House

Parliament House is an iconic building in Papua New Guinea and a building that PNGans can all be very proud of. It is open to the public on week days (except for public holidays) and Parliamentary staff are available to do guided tours for groups of visitors. If you live in Port Moresby or are a visitor to Port Moresby make sure that you visit our Parliament – it is certainly worth the effort.

National Parliament Official Website:

Electoral Systems in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) used an optional preferential voting system in elections held in 1964, 1968 and 1972, but then switched to a first-past-the-post system in 1975. The number of candidates contesting elections subsequently increased at every election, reaching an average of 27 per constituency at the 2002 polls. Numbers of victors obtaining more than 50 per cent of the vote declined, with the majority of MPs being elected on the basis of less than 20 per cent of the vote in 1992, 1997 and 2002. National elections became vehicles for the articulation of clan rivalries, particularly in the Highlands. Parties proved, at most, loose associations, which politicians were readily willing to ditch in pursuit of ministerial portfolios. Customary ‘big men’ competed for wealth, influence and authority through electoral processes, driven by pecuniary rewards attached to state office-holding. Whether or not they joined nominal political parties, victors’ positions remained highly precarious. More than half of all MPs lost their seats at most elections after independence, with incumbent turnover reaching an all time high of 75 per cent at the 2002 polls.

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