Scott Flower is a McKenzie Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is regularly engaged by multinational companies as a risk management consultant to major resource projects in PNG.

Over the last month, rarely a day has passed without some drama in Papua New Guinea's political landscape. Many of these events point to the likelihood of instability during the 23 June elections. Should the PNG Government and its regional friends fail to address the evolving political and security challenges in the next three months, the elections will probably be marred by escalating violence, a collapse of electoral integrity and the erosion of local and international confidence in the quality of PNG's democracy.

On the back of a still boiling constitutional dispute regarding the legitimacy of the O'Neill Government, in the last week things appear to be going from bad to worse. PNG's Police Commissioner, Tom Kulunga, and two senior officers were arrested on contempt of court charges, mass student protests in Port Moresby followed laws passed by parliament giving it the ability to suspend senior Supreme and National Court judges perceived to be biased, and Opposition MPs continued to avoid parliamentary sessions as part of their protest to be recognised as the legitimate government.

More worrying from a security perspective is Prime Minister O'Neill's vow on 25 March to declare a State of Emergency in Hela province to protect PNG's LNG project, upon which the country's future economic development hinges. 

The PNG Government and the Electoral Commission have previously claimed that security forces would be withdrawn from the LNG project area in order to cope with security operations for the election. Implementing a State of Emergency in Hela will tie up these resources, which are much needed to provide security around the election.

Security forces managing the election in the highlands provinces already have their work cut out for them, given the proliferation of homemade shotguns in the region. In the last six years, I have taken many trips up and down the Highlands Highway, and I have never seen as many homemade shotguns being flaunted publicly as I did driving from Wabag to Mt Hagen in January this year. 

The good news is that, despite market demand, there has not been a significant influx of factory-made weapons, and a lack of ammunition for homemade guns would appear to be a reasonable constraint on broad-scale violence.

'The 2012 National Elections in Papua New Guinea: Averting Violence', a Lowy Policy Brief I co-authored which was released today, draws attention to the areas requiring immediate investment to support peaceful and lawful elections.

The paper makes a number of recommendations, but following recent comments from our newly minted Foreign Minister, a critical element not directly addressed is the need for Australia to assess its own agenda in PNG and the way it attempts to influence PNG politics to achieve foreign policy objectives. If the PNG Government is to hold peaceful and lawful elections, it urgently needs foreign support in administration, security and logistics. Immediate support could include:

  • Negotiations with the PNG Government to establish legal arrangements and protections for foreign personnel deployed for the election. 
  • Initiating preparations for a short-term deployment of foreign police and military contingent for the election period.
  • Providing more helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft and crews to support timely delivery, collection and security of ballot boxes.
  • Supporting an independently run pre-election weapons amnesty and buy-back.

The perception among many Papua New Guineans and the PNG political elite (as evidenced on PNG social media sites) is that Australia is paternalistic and disrespectful to PNG's sovereignty. Comments by Australia's new Foreign Minister Bob Carr that he would initiate punitive diplomatic and economic sanctions on PNG if elections were delayed (comments he has since described as a 'mistake') have further reduced Australia's legitimacy and agency to deliver support.

It is time for Australia to step back from its self-appointed role as lead actor and share the stage with other countries to try a different approach, one free of the colonial legacy and the 'Tok Masta' rhetoric that a growing number of PNG locals perceive and resist.

Photo by Flickr user kabl1992.