Australia praises 'successful' PNG election as death toll mounts

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says Australia looks forward to working with re-elected PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill despite ongoing violence in the wake of the country's recent election.

The Australian government has congratulated Papua New Guinea on holding a “successful” election, despite widespread irregularities and deadly violence, and said it “looks forward” to working with re-elected Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop did not specifically congratulate Mr O’Neill in the statement to SBS World News and is still awaiting a report by four Australian MPs who acted as election observers.

At least another five people have reportedly died in election-related violence since a rowdy session of parliament on Wednesday that re-elected Mr O’Neill.

Transparency International PNG (TIPNG) has condemned the conduct of the election as “disheartening and completely unacceptable to the vast majority of our people who believe in good and fair actions, transparency and democratic processes”.

On Thursday Mr O’Neill appointed a caretaker cabinet with the full allocation of ministerial portfolios due later this month from his coalition of 60 MPs.

The opposition Alliance consists of 46 MPs, more than three times its size from the previous term of parliament.

Five seats were still undeclared when parliament sat after a scandal plagued election that saw thousands left off the electoral roll, video evidence of systematic ballot box stuffing and allegations of Mr O’Neill’s People’s National Congress party had rigged the election.

“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,” Ms Bishop’s statement said.

“The Government will consider the reporting and observations from electoral observers about the conduct of the election, when that information is made available.”

Interim reports from international election observers include the Commonwealth finding “widespread” failures with the electoral roll and recommending a review of all aspects of the electoral process and the Pacific Forum expressing “alarm”.

Australia is a member of both organisations.

Police restore order after deadly election-related violence near Wabag
Police restore order after deadly election-related violence near Wabag Source: EMTV

Mr O’Neill has praised the conduct of the poll, highlighting it had one of the lowest death tolls of recent elections.

PNG police on Thursday confirmed five people were killed and more than 20 injured, including by gunfire, during fighting in the electorate of former opposition leader Don Polye, after he lost his seat in controversial circumstances.

More than 120 houses were reportedly burnt down and 500 security forces have been deployed to Wabag to stop further violence.

Violence in the Highlands claimed a number of lives in the lead-up to parliament on Wednesday, including two police officers killed by automatic weapons crossfire between supporters of rival candidates over the election result.

“This election, Papua New Guinea witnessed double declarations plus questionable declarations in a number of seats indicating a level of undue influence on Returning Officers,” TIPNG chair Lawrence Stephens said in a statement.

“TIPNG recognises that the avenue to seek redress is thorough the Court of Disputed Returns and appeals to authorities, including the Electoral Commission, to make sure that records and relevant reports, including ballot papers, are preserved to ensure that the court process is expedited fairly.”

Courts took four years to clear a backlog of appeals after the 2012 election. 

No women were elected to PNG’s parliament, and only seven have ever been MPs since independence in 1975, despite women’s empowerment being a major focus of Australia’s half-billion dollar foreign aid budget to the country.

“In 2016, 60 per cent of Australia’s aid to PNG prioritised women’s empowerment or equality as a primary or significant concern,” DFAT said in a statement to SBS.

“Key projects include the Women in Leadership support program, to improve women’s leadership and political participation by enhancing the competitiveness of female candidates in local and national elections.”

Australia also provided PNG with $8m to run the election, down from more than $18m in 2012, according to Department of Foreign Affairs figures.

About 200 Australian Defence Force personnel, Army helicopters and RAAF Hercules and other aircraft were provided as logistical support.

Parliament will resume on 22 August.

4 min read
Published 5 August 2017 at 8:30am
By Stefan Armbruster