TO UNDERSTAND PAPUA NEW GUINEA – the maturity or otherwise of its institutions, the commitment of its people to democracy – it is important to appreciate what really happened in the 12 turbulent months leading to Peter O’Neill’s finally undisputed emergence, on 3 August this year, at the head of this new and energetic government.
It is a story of painful generational succession - one which tested the country’s constitution and political institutions more than any other moment in its post-independence history. It was a crisis that lasted exactly a year and a day.
If you will permit me a digression, the day it all began –2 August last year - was a unusual day for me.
It was the day I became the first Australian High Commissioner in more than 20 years to visit the site of the enormous Panguna mine on the island of Bougainville.
You will know that Panguna was once the largest copper mine in the world – until a dispute focused on landowner and environmental concerns morphed into a bitter struggle by secessionists to break Bougainville away from PNG.
This became, in the 1990s, the worst conflict the Pacific had seen since the dark days of World War II. The mine lies dormant for the moment, and its future is intertwined with the future of the island. All this is another story, but it is worth mentioning in passing as an abiding strategic issue of importance to Australia.
In any case, if you had been there on the morning of the 2 August last year you would have seen me walking – with dignity I hope - under the raised boom-gate that is still used by former members of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to control access to the Panguna district.
You would have seen me towing, by its foreleg, a very large pig – the ceremonial price for Australia’s re entry into the area. I understand from reports I heard later in the day that it was delicious, but cannot confirm this.
It was an eventful day. Late that afternoon, on the long drive back to Buka town, our vehicle became stuck at mid-point when fording a rising river.
My young colleagues – a group of impressive young women – and I managed to extract ourselves from the vehicle and escape the raging stream with the assistance of hundreds of locals who magically appeared on the scene (as they always seem to when an expatriate encounters trouble).
It was as I climbed to the top of a grassy river bank, barefoot, muddy and soaked from the neck down, that I received a text advising that Peter O’Neill had just been elected on the floor of Parliament.
And it was in that state that I made my congratulatory phone call to him. Such is the romance of diplomacy.
For PNG, the 12 months that followed were marked by two separate but related crises.
The first, which peaked in the December/January period a year ago, was essentially a dispute between O’Neill and the man he had overthrown – Sir Michael Somare – over who was rightful Prime Minister.
The court backed Somare, and Parliament strongly backed O’Neill. In circumstances that would have challenged any constitution, the Public Service, the PNGDF and the Police Force largely accepted the principle that a Prime Minister must have the backing of Parliament.
We appeared, for a while there, to have two of everything in Papua New Guinea: Governors General, Prime Ministers, military and police commanders. But O’Neill was the effective prime minister throughout.
There were several moments in this first crisis when attempts were made to get the security forces involved. This is an important point.
On each of these occasions the leaders of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and the PNGDF showed remarkable maturity. They refrained from becoming involved despite the significant pressures placed on them.
And they exercised very good judgment in the disciplinary approach taken in dealing with the small disaffected elements within their midst that were tempted to support one side or another.
The populace certainly did not behave as if there was a crisis. Papua New Guineans understood clearly the political dispute, but it was quite striking how people remained calm, and how everyday life and business continued as normal in Port Moresby, and across the country.
I certainly wasn’t short of advice at this time – from the Australian media and commentators - about how Australia should conduct itself.
The Australian government was active behind the scenes: encouraging restraint and persuading the parties, through confidential dialogue, to keep what is a political dispute in the political arena.
At a local level we undertook some successful, creative diplomacy with the police and defence forces to keep the temperature down. But in the end it was Papua New Guineans who kept a lid on things.
Through this first crisis we – and more importantly, the PNG people, took the view that the only hope of restoring real political stability lay at the ballot box, in the national elections scheduled for June-July this year.
This is why we were all so concerned when a second crisis emerged in February-March this year, as powerful negative forces within the PNG Parliament began to suggest that the constitutionally mandated election should be deferred, perhaps indefinitely.
For a moment there appeared to be a real risk that PNG would walk away from its proud democratic record, which has seen it hold elections every five years since Independence.
But the people spoke in no uncertain terms, staging peaceful protests in support of their right to vote. The local media cleared its throat, and letters to the editor sent a consistent message. Slowly Parliament came to accept that its mandate would in fact expire, and elections would be held.
It was in this context that Australia moved to provide unprecedented support to PNG to help ensure the success of the elections….
But once again, the best part of the story is what Papua New Guineans achieved themselves. To conduct an election in PNG – a country with more than 800 distinct languages and with some of the world’s toughest topography – is no mean feat.
It takes place over a fortnight, involves more than 3,000 candidates and 9,800 polling places, and requires almost 5,000 small polling teams to travel – by helicopter, boat and foot – to some of the remotest places on Earth to deliver the poll.
As Senator Carr said last week in Port Moresby, if Papua New Guinea can deliver an election in such circumstances, then no other country has an excuse not to trust the people, and not to stage a democratic election.
Was it a free and fair election? Well, it was a relatively safe election, and I have no doubt that the overall result reflected the will of the people. In many coastal and urban areas the polls would have been familiar in their conduct to anyone with a western perspective.
In some parts of the Highlands this was not the case, and the motto “Vote early, vote often” had particular application. But let me give you two brief anecdotes that will put this last comment into perspective.
In one region, a corrupt local candidate arranged to procure the ballot papers intended for a remote community, and to have the papers filled out by his own supporters.
The community in question walked en masse for two and a half days out of their mountain fastness to the local provincial centre, demanding – and ultimately obtaining – their democratic right.
And in a case witnessed by High Commission monitors, a community of seven clans found itself in a situation where insufficient ballot papers had been provided.
Consultations were held, and it was agreed that the papers available should simply be divided evenly into seven – irrespective of the size of the respective clans.
All agreed that this was in the best spirit of consensus making, and would best reflect the collective will. We Westerners should hesitate before we criticise.
But what now? What lies before this new Government in PNG?....
The new leadership grew up in an independent Papua New Guinea. This makes them more confident in dealing with Australia. It naturally makes them more inclined to be selective in their international dealings, taking each external relationship on its merits. We need to understand and accept this.
So when we take a step back and imagine the future shape of Australia’s nearest neighbour, we should be imagining a country led by people more inclined to be assertive and selective in their dealings with Australia, with a population approaching contemporary Australia.
Over time it will likely play a different kind of role in regional affairs. It will remain confronted by very significant development challenges, and yet have access to unprecedented new wealth.