Author: Ronald May, ANU
2022 was an election year in Papua New Guinea (PNG), so electoral politics dominated much of the first half of the year. Polling took place over three weeks in July, with more than 3600 candidates contesting the 118 open and provincial seats. This includes seven new electorates created due to a review of electoral boundaries.
As in other recent national elections, polling was marred by logistical problems, inaccurate rolls and, in some parts of the country, vote buying, intimidation of voters, theft of ballot boxes and election-related violence. The previous election in 2017 was widely described as the worst in the country’s history, but some commentators saw the 2022 election as a further decline.
In early August, with 99 of the seats declared after an extension of the counting process, the National Parliament met to elect a prime minister. As leader of the party with the greatest number of endorsed candidates elected, outgoing Prime Minister James Marape was invited to form a government and was re-elected unopposed as Prime Minister. As has been the case after every election in PNG since independence, he heads a coalition government, which includes seventeen parties and some independents.
The new Parliament will include two women parliamentarians — a small number in a house of 118 members, but two more than the 2017–2022 Parliament.
The return of Marape’s coalition government led by the Pangu Pati seems likely to ensure a continuity of the broad policy objectives set out by Marape upon replacing Peter O’Neill as prime minister in 2019. Marape is likely to focus on gaining better returns for PNG from foreign investment in big resource projects.
In the mining and petroleum sector, some progress was made towards the long-awaited reopening of the lucrative Porgera gold mine. In September 2022 it incorporated New Porgera into a new joint venture between Barrick Gold (the original mining lease holder), state enterprise Kumul Mineral Holdings and province-based Mineral Resources Enga. New Porgera has applied for a special mining lease and there are plans to re-open the mine in January with the goal of achieving production by June 2023.
The P’nyang liquefied natural gas project also moved a step closer to completion with the signing of an agreement between ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso PNG P’nyang and the PNG government. In Morobe Province, a position paper from the provincial government was submitted to the national government concerning the controversial Wafi Golpu mining project. In November 2022 it was reported that the provincial government had withdrawn its opposition to the project and that a memorandum of agreement was imminent.
Constitutionally-mandated consultations between the PNG government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government continued. They followed the November 2019 non-binding referendum on the future status of Bougainville — in which Bougainvilleans returned a 97.7 per cent vote for independence.
President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government Ishmael Toroama has called for the recognition of Bougainville’s independence by 2027, but it is far from clear whether the National Parliament — with whom the ultimate power rests — will accede to this. Prime Minister Marape’s proposal that there be a nation-wide consultation before a parliamentary decision was opposed by Toroama.
Sensitivities were highlighted in October 2022 when Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, while visiting PNG to discuss a new Australia–PNG defence agreement, was asked about Australia’s position on Bougainville. His response, that Australia’s role ‘is to support the Prime Minister and the government of PNG in the decisions that it makes’, was reported locally as ‘Australia backs PNG on Bougainville’, provoking an angry response from President Toroama.
The 2023 budget presented to parliament in December 2022 forecasts strong growth in revenue in 2023, primarily due to strong commodity export prices but also due to a controversial 45 per cent corporate tax on banks. The budget provides for substantial increases in expenditure on education and law and justice, but forecasts a smaller fiscal deficit than in 2022. The debt to GDP ratio is forecast to reach 52.3 per cent in 2023 but to reduce by around 1 per cent per year thereafter. GDP growth in 2023 is forecast at 4.0 per cent.
In October 2022 PNG was selected as one of four countries and one region to receive attention under the US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability set up under the 2019 Global Fragility Act. PNG is set to have a ten-year plan ‘to address fragility using all arms of US government’ in defence, diplomacy and development.
Late in 2022, the findings of a study by the United Nations Population Fund and the University of Southampton were leaked, estimating the population of PNG at 17 million compared to the official estimate for 2022 of 9.3 million. The report has been greeted with some scepticism, but there is widespread agreement that PNG urgently needs a national census. The last one, in 2021, was declared a ‘failure’ by then prime minister Peter O’Neill.
Following a year dominated by electoral politics, Marape is set to prioritise these key policy objectives for PNG in 2023.
Dr Ronald May is Emeritus Fellow of the Australian National University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2022 in review and the year ahead.