Inside the Papua New Guinea election

Getting to know our Pacific neighbour is increasingly important if we want to take a meaningful role in our own regional backyard

There was a time two or three generations back when many New Zealanders referred to the United Kingdom as "home". We were a European-focused nation. No more. We are now a Pacific nation and at the core of our foreign policy we take an interest in developments in the Pacific region and its issues.

Yet we have a way to go to make this world view meaningful.

I recently joined a New Zealand team observing the Papua New Guinea 2017 General Election. While PNG is an important Pacific country we hear little of in our local media about what is happening there. In fact, most New Zealanders are surprised when they hear how large a country Papua New Guinea is – its land area is 462,840 km2 (178,700 sq mi). This makes PNG considerably bigger in area than New Zealand which covers but  268,021 km2 (103,483 sq mi). We are but 58% of the size of PNG, and remember we are only counting the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. The western half of the island adds another 420,540 km2 (162,371 sq mi) of area to the land mass. It really is a much larger country area-wise than New Zealand.

It also has a significantly larger population than New Zealand at 7.5 – 8 million. I give a range because the state of census and administration does not provide for a more accurate number.

Amazingly PNG has just over 800 separate and individual languages – languages that cannot be understood by non-speakers of that particular language. The common language of the basic population is Pidgen – a highly simplified derivation of more proper formal English. Formal English is the language of administration and government, but when the locals talk to each other it is in Pidgen. And while that is based on English it is not comprehensible by normal English speakers, although signs can sometimes be figured out by sounding the words.

I saw no signs of lack of food as all plants grow abundantly in what is a verdant tropical hothouse, but the infrastructure is very basic and roads, buildings, etc suffer from a generalized lack of maintenance. And the place is untidy. If ever there was a country that could do with a ban on plastic bags it is PNG.

As to media and public information, most villagers rely on word of mouth for their information. There is little penetration of normal media and cellphones work only modestly in many areas. PNG has a long way to go with development.

Papua New Guinea’s reputation is as a dangerous and aggressive place.

The MFAT briefing for the NZ Observer Team had stressed the high level of care observers needed take to ensure their peronal safety while in PNG. Obviously the degree of the threat varied depending on different locations in Papua New Guinea,  with some areas being considerably more dangerous than others. Both Port Moresby and the Highlands Region have reputations for nasty brutal criminal violence.

Our team was in the Madang Area – we felt no threats to our personal safety there. There were media reports that problems of violence had spilled over into the election at some polling stations in the Highlands. There was a report we saw of four people having died in clashes related to the election with several candidates attacked during campaigning or nominations. 

For context it is worth emphasising the point that organising an election in a country like PNG with its undeveloped communications, poor roads, and spread over a very big area with so many villages and settlements would challenge the electoral authorities in a much larger and well organised country.  And our mission could not but conclude that the electoral rolls were a mess.

But Papua New Guinea is part of our region and we should know more about this country and our Pacific neighbourhood.