Papua New Guinean voters prepare to go to the polls

Top of the election agenda are the economic management, provision of basic services, the perennial problem of corruption and there is little concern for external affairs.

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Australia is PNG’s biggest aid donor, with about $500 million spent annually, but the illegal asylum seeker detention centre on Manus Island and the Kokoda track are the two issues that dominate media coverage of its nearest neighbour.

This year’s election is receiving little foreign media attention with the ABC, Radio New Zealand, Al Jazeera and SBS among the very few reporting in country, which may also be because of the difficulty in obtaining journalist visas.

Polls in PNG are a raucous, colourful and sometimes violent affair, with tens of thousands gathering, often in full traditional costume, for campaign rallies by party leaders.

There are over 3,000 candidates standing and 44 political parties in the country of 7.5 million people.

PNG election campaigning in full swing.Stefan Armbruster

Apart from the established parties like Mr O’Neill’s People’s National Congress, National Alliance, People’s Progress Party and Triumph Heritage Empowerment (or THE) Party, there is a selection of Monty Python-esque names called the Paradise Kingdom Party, Wontoks in Godly Service Party and PNG’s very own One Nation Party (no relation). 

Ideology plays little part in the political system, rather wontoks (common language groups or clans) predominate parties.

A near 50 percent turnover of the 111 seats in parliament occurs, with an unpredictable scramble for power after a two-week polling period. The party with the most votes is invited by the governor-general to try to form a government.

No party has ever won a majority and ungainly coalitions are created, held together by strategic political appointments and largesse, but still in the last 42-years since independence the country has only had seven prime ministers. 

When Mr O’Neill was elected as prime minister in 2012, it was with a promising agenda of free education and health care, the establishment of an anti-corruption taskforce and an ambitious infrastructure program.

Underpinning this was expected revenue from a liquefied natural gas development but that fell short of expectations, which the government blames on low global commodity prices and saw it borrow heavily to meet its election promises.

Highway construction is promoted by the government as opening the rest of the country to improved health, education and other services.

PNG is getting ready to vote.Stefan Armbruster

Now debt repayments and a foreign exchange shortage has hit the economy, which suffered a rating agency downgrade two years ago.

Drug shortages in the health system have occured and the education is under-resourced to cope with the many children now in school for the first time.

The government points to its achievements of infrastructure development, especially in the capital, and raising the country’s international standing by hosting the Pacific games and securing the APEC world leaders meeting next year.

In their shadow are the settlements of Port Moresby and elsewhere in the country, where people live in poverty. 

The promise of further revenues from another major LNG project and a gold mine are again being held up as economic saviours.

A turning point for the O’Neill government was when corruption allegations by Taskforce Sweep saw an arrest warrant issued for the prime minister. 

Concerns about the government’s direction escalated when the anti-corruption body set up by the prime minister was shut down.

Far from putting the matter to rest, it escalated and peaked last year with university student protests demanding Mr O’Neill stand down.

Peter O’Neill at a PNG election campaign.Supplied

PNG’s human rights record, already heavily criticised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, took a further battering when police turned their guns on students last June and more than a dozen were injured. 

The incident led to a vote of no confidence in parliament. Mr O’Neill comfortably won with the support of 85 to 21 MPs.

Preparations for the 2017 election have also been hit by budget difficulties – the election commission suffering a funding short-fall, raising concerns if there will be a free and fair poll.

Eight hundred election observers from the Commonwealth, Pacific nations and other invited bodies are in the country to monitor the outcome. 

In 2012 the Commonwealth election observer report was highly critical of many aspects of the poll but only a few recommendations, which is all they can make, have been acted on.

This year Australia has chipped in $8 million and defence force assets to make the election happen, less than half of what was provided for the 2012 poll.

Stefan Armbruster

Concerns about ballot papers being printed in Indonesia, an incomplete electoral roll and security of ballot boxes is heightening tensions.

So far the eight-week pre-polling period has been more peaceful than previous years, with only a few deaths attributed to the campaign.

PNG has mobilised about 10,000 security personnel but again lack of funds has hampered deployment.

There is no opinion polling in PNG and Mr O’Neill has said he is confident of being returned to power but opposition parties say they sense a mood for change.

The results will be known some time in late July but the outcome will be subject to legal challenges, which took and under-resourced court system four years to finalise after the last election. 

MORE FROM PNG

Elvis comeback more likely than carbon tax on cars: Frydenberg

The front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported the government was planning to apply a carbon tax to family cars, which would force up prices by thousands of dollars.

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The government was quick to calm down the story, with Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg telling the ABC there would be no carbon tax.

“This is a complete beat-up. There is as much chance of a carbon tax on cars as Elvis making a comeback. The only thing that the government is interested in is, how do we reduce the fuel costs for families on their vehicles? There’s been consultation going back as far as October 2015 on fuel efficiency standards and the government has made no decisions on the policy to go forward in this particular area.”

While no decision has been made, the government is still considering new rules that would regulate how much carbon cars can emit.

But it says that’s different to a carbon tax.

The Infrastructure Department has proposed new standards that would force car-makers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or face fines.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten says Labor does not have any plans for a carbon tax either, but the opposition is ready to support new emissions standards.

“We offer Mr Turnbull our cooperation to get on and tackle climate change. You know, really, Mr Turnbull should stop faffing about (dithering) and just establish vehicle emissions standards to reduce pollution. We will work with Mr Turnbull. We just say to Mr Turnbull, just get on and do something!”

Consumer advocates are concerned fines for non-compliant car-makers would be passed on to buyers.

The Australian Automobile Association warns the proposal could see the price of the average family car rise by thousands of dollars.

The debate over vehicle emissions comes during a busy week for the energy minister, who is preparing for a meeting with his state counterparts on the recommendations of the Finkel Review.

The government has already endorsed 49 of chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s 50 recommendations to improve the reliability and affordability of electricity.

Among them are a plan for more battery storage, and a new requirement that coal-fired power stations provide three years’ notice before shutting down.

But the party room has not yet reached a decision on the most controversial suggestion: a clean energy target that would require power companies to source a percentage of their electricity from renewables.

“I’m sure the states would like to discuss it and I’m happy to talk to them about it, but the point of the government’s position on a clean energy target is that we haven’t finalised our internal discussions. There are a number of issues that have been raised around modelling assumptions, and the like, and we’re continuing to consult with key stakeholders. So this is a very big decision to move down the path of a new mechanism. It’s one that Dr Finkel himself said should be in place by 2020, so we don’t have to rush it.”

The COAG meeting of state and federal energy ministers takes place on Friday.

 

 

PNG PM defends record as polling starts in confusion

Commonwealth election observers have expressed surprise as sporadic voting started in some parts of the country, causing confusion after the Election Commission said there would be no voting until Monday.

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Mr O’Neill hopes his People’s National Congress (PNC) party will be returned as the largest party and be called on to form a coalition government at the end of two weeks of polling, which begins in earnest on Monday.

The official opposition Triumph Heritage Empowerment (THE) party, led by Don Polye, has joined with former members of Mr O’Neill’s ruling coalition to try and remove him from power.

We have delivered: PNG PM

Mr O’Neill in an exclusive interview with SBS says he stands by his record in office.

“There is a substantial change in infrastructure across the country and I think that is delivering a much better level of services to our people and continues to assure there is growth in our economy,” Mr O’Neill said.

“We are telling the people we will strengthen the policies we have been able to deliver over the last five years and we have to continue to build on it.”

Voters in Central Province on Saturday (Photo credit: Commonwealth Observer Mission)Commonwealth Observer Mission

Five tumultuous years in government began in 2012 with optimism and core promises of free education, universal healthcare and the establishment of an anti-corruption taskforce.

An Exxon-Mobile LNG projects was to underpin his ambitious policies but a collapse in resource prices saw the economy slumped, the currency fall dramatically and budgets were cut.

“When you have a drop in revenue of over 2bn kina (A$800m) you have to take some drastic action and we have been able to do so,” he said.

“Perceptions we are not able to meet commitments are absolutely false.”

‘We must not let leaders fool us’

One million more children are reportedly attending school, but class numbers have blown out with the government unable to keep up with building new facilities or employ enough teachers.

In the lead-up to the election, severe drug shortages hit the health system.

The government has had to borrow heavily to keep its promises and now spends 10 per cent of its budget on debt servicing.

“We must not let Peter O’Neill and other leaders deceive us and fool us,” opposition leader Don Polye said.

“The biggest mistake is the breaking of the constitution and the rule of law and the taking of massive loans through the breaching of the law.”

A veteran of PNG politics has returned to the fray and is locked in a bitter feud with the prime minister.

PNG women election bids to take on ‘big man’ politics

PNG is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, say human rights groups, and that makes running for parliament even more difficult.

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Rarely do women get elected in the culture of the “big man” PNG politics and there is little money available. Most are grassroots campaigns.

Once in office they hope to change the ever present threat of violence and offer a different perspective on addressing economic and social problems.

“It’s a culture (where) men must be the boss, and we must listen to our husbands, and if we don’t listen to our husband, that’s where the violence is coming in,” said Kathy Tom, candidate for Gulf Regional seat.

For decades she has a campaigned for women’s rights and against domestic violence.

PNG is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for women.

Domestic violence rates high: UN

There are no reliable statistics, but the UN estimates two in every three women experience violence in their lifetime, often with fatal consequences.

Recent brutal sorcery-related murders of women in PNG has drawn UN condemnation, especially after 20-year-old Kepari Leniata was burnt to death on a pile of tyres in the Highlands after being accused of being a witch in 2013.

“We know there is a clear link between gender-based violence and women’s participation, and more so when it comes to political life and taking up leadership roles,” said UNDP’s head of governance Julie Bukikun.

‘I broke the rules’

Among the more than 3,300 candidates there are only 165 women and the UN’s focus is on preparing them for taking their place in parliament.

“It’s supposed to be a men’s house, not a women’s house, so I broke the rules,” said Nahua Rooney, one of three women elected to the first parliament post-independence in 1977, one of the few ever.

“I had nine years of my 10 years as a member as a cabinet minister. My experience is that when it comes to decision making and issues, men will be talking big things, and they’re up on cloud nine, while I’m talking about the basic essentials, the water, the needs.

“It’s to do with money and with women now (gaining) their own economic sustainability, they’re not going to put up with any bullshit any more, that men think he is the only one that control them.” 

The missing jigsaw piece

A new generation of women, in business and the public service, are appalled at being locked out of power but are optimistic they can make a change.

“We fix things domestically, that’s the part of the jigsaw that’s missing from this national agenda on development; the woman’s perspective on how something could be fixed,” said Julienne Leka, a candidate for the Rigo Open electorate.

Women have never held more than three of the 111 seats in any PNG parliament.

IS leader al-Baghdadi reported dead after loss of Mosul

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a longtime conflict monitor, said it had heard from senior IS leaders that Baghdadi was dead.

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If confirmed, his death would mark another devastating blow to the jihadist group after its loss of Mosul, which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday declared had been retaken from IS after a gruelling months-long campaign.

The Britain-based Observatory’s director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that “top tier commanders from IS who are present in Deir Ezzor province have confirmed the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, emir of the Islamic State group, to the Observatory”.

“We learned of it today but we do not know when he died or how,” he said.

The report could not be independently verified. Baghdadi has been reported killed several times.

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Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, remains largely under IS control but the group has rapidly lost territory elsewhere in Syria and in neighbouring Iraq.

Abdel Rahman said Baghdadi “was present in eastern parts of Deir Ezzor province” in recent months, but it was unclear if he died there or elsewhere.

There was no official confirmation or denial of the news on IS-run social media outlets.

Persistent rumours of death

The US-led coalition fighting the jihadist group in Syria and Iraq said it could not verify the Observatory’s information.

0:00 US military on IS leader death reports Share US military on IS leader death reports

“I don’t have a clue” about Baghdadi’s status, said US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who heads the coalition.

“Hope he’s deader than a doornail. And if he’s not, as soon as we find out where he is he will be,” he said in a video call from Baghdad.

Asked if the coalition was examining the claim, its spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said: “We have professionals who use all information at their disposal to verify reports before we would confirm any allegations.”

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday tweeted “Big wins against ISIS!”

It was not immediately clear if that was a reference to Mosul’s recapture, Baghdadi’s reported death, or both.

There have been persistent rumours that Baghdadi had died in recent months. Russia’s army said in mid-June that it was seeking to verify whether it had killed the IS chief in a May air strike in Syria.

The US-led coalition said at the time it could not confirm whether the Russian strike had killed Baghdadi.

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With a $25 million US bounty on his head, Baghdadi has kept a low profile but was rumoured to move regularly throughout IS-held territory in the area straddling Iraq and Syria.

The 46-year-old Iraqi has not been seen since making his only known public appearance as “caliph” in 2014 at the Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul.

IS destroyed the highly symbolic site before Iraqi forces could reach it as they pushed the jihadist group from Mosul.

Iraqi forces launched their campaign in October to retake Iraq’s second city, which was seized by the jihadists during the mid-2014 offensive that saw them take control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.

Abadi announced in Mosul on Monday that the campaign had ended with the defeat of IS in the city, hailing “a victory over darkness, a victory over brutality and terrorism”.

Devastation in Mosul

The cost of victory has been enormous: much of Mosul lies in ruins, thousands are dead and wounded and nearly half the city’s residents have been forced from their homes.

In Mosul’s Old City, where buildings lie crumbling and burned-out cars and other debris choke the streets, security forces were still searching for remaining IS fighters.

“What we are doing today is just combing the area and clearing it of sleeper cells,” said Staff Lieutenant General Sami al-Aridhi, a senior commander in Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service.

“There are groups that are hiding in shelters,” but they surrender or are killed, Aridhi said.

Since the Mosul operation began in October, 920,000 people have fled their homes, only a fraction of whom have returned, according to the United Nations.

Rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday accused Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition of exposing civilians to “relentless and unlawful attacks” in west Mosul.

“Pro-government forces launched barrages of indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks using explosive weapons unsuitable for such a densely populated urban area,” Amnesty said.