Senior Fellow, Program Convenor
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On 26 March 2019, Professor Betty Lovai, Dean of the University of Papua New Guinea’s (UPNG) School of Humanities and Social Sciences launched the Australian National University’s observation report on the 2017 Papua New Guinea (PNG) General Elections at UPNG.
The report - authored by Associate Professor Nicole Haley and Dr Kerry Zubrinich – provides an independent, research-based assessment of PNG’s ninth general elections since independence. The ANU was one of several groups invited to observe the elections. The 2017 election observation was the third such observation undertaken by the ANU in PNG, and is the most comprehensive observation we have undertaken to date anywhere in the region. Funded in partnership by the ANU and the Australian Aid Program, the 258-person observation team, led by Nicole Haley, head of the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA), comprised 32 PNG academics/researchers in team leader roles, 21 ANU-based academics in mentoring roles, 10 ANU undergraduate students, 192 PNG observers recruited from civil society and the tertiary sector, and three ANU support staff. The study involved detailed observation by observers from the issue of writs through to the formation of government, key informant interviews and two cross-sectional citizen surveys designed to explore attitudes, perceptions and the ways citizens engaged with and experienced the election. In total, over 7500 citizens were surveyed. Their views, experiences and insights inform the report and supplement the observations made by the ANU team.
In launching the report, Professor Lovai reflected on her observations as team leader of the Moresby Northwest electorate, particularly concerning Papua New Guineans’ attitudes towards elections. “People of PNG recognise the importance of elections, there’s no doubt about that … It was demonstrated from my observation that people wanted to vote.” However, Professor Lovai also noted that there were a number of issues that prevented voters from participating in the election, “I’d like to sum up what I saw by saying that too many basic things went wrong with the 2017 election. Looking across and seeing what my team reported … I realise that there are basic things that went wrong that were not managed well and that contributed to a lot of our stories that we’ve heard about the election.” Professor Lovai was joined by Dr Alphonse Gelu, Registrar of the PNG Registry of Political Parties; Ms Arianne Kassman, Executive Director the Transparency International PNG (TIPNG); preeminent political scientist Dr Joe Ketan, who led the ANU’s Western Highlands Regional observation team; and Associate Professor Nicole Haley in a panel discussion, following Dr Haley’s presentation of the key findings. TIPNG and the PNG Registry of Political Parties also undertook detailed observations of the 2017 elections.
Dr Gelu pointed to a mismatch between people’s understanding of political parties in PNG with the role they play in the formation of government as a major challenge. “At the end of the day, it will be a political party that is invited to form government, but during the elections people don’t know anything about the political parties”, said Dr Gelu. “To us [the Registry] it is quite a serious mismatch that needs to be fixed in PNG. People start talking about mandate, but … we can’t really see the mandate coming out from this process.” Arianne Kassman highlighted the accuracy of the PNG electoral roll as one of the greatest challenges to the conduct of the 2017 PNG elections and an area for attention. “It is important for all of us to do whatever we can to protect the integrity of the electoral roll”, said Ms Kassman, given the number of decisions the electoral roll informs, including the number of polling stations, the location of polling stations, the number of ballot papers to be printed, and expected voter turnout.
On Wednesday 27 March, the day following the launch, ANU DPA and UPNG’s Department of Political Science hosted a masterclass for over sixty UNPNG students, which provided an opportunity to discuss the findings of the observation and the possible implications of electoral reforms currently being debated in PNG. The observation report findings were also presented later that afternoon at a civil society forum hosted by the Institute for National Affairs.
The ANU 2017 Papua New Guinea General Elections election observation report is available below.