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Why is Papua New Guinea’s election being ignored?

by mnews

AbCNews – The average Australian is more likely to know what the US President had for breakfast than the current Prime Minister of our nearest neighbour.

But with over 800 languages and cultures, Papua New Guinea offers a complex and fascinating society on our doorstep.

Veteran ABC PNG correspondent, Sean Dorney, argues that since the country’s independence in 1975, Australia’s knowledge of its nearest neighbour has markedly declined.

In the 1970s, there were six Australian correspondents in PNG — today, there is only one: the ABC’s Eric Tlozek.

And if they haven’t seen his coverage, many Australians may not know that PNG is holding its national elections this month, with polls open until July 8.

It’s the ninth of its kind, since Gough Whitlam relinquished Australia’s colonial rule in 1975.

Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam and Michael Somare in 1975 standing together.

PHOTO: Gough Whitlam and Michael Somare at an Independence Day ceremony in 1975. (Supplied: National Archives of Australia)

It’s complicated

Since PNG inherited Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy, its citizens follow a preferential voting system and elect candidates in each of the 22 electoral regions throughout the country.

But in a country with so many variations of language and culture, elections are never straightforward.

Throw into the mix a complicated tribal structure that dictates all public and private protocols and you can begin to see why election season in PNG is highly charged.

There’s also the widely acknowledged issues of corruption. In Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, PNG ranked in the bottom third.

Listen to the documentary

Earshot discovers why radio is so important in PNG.

Earshot discovers why radio is so important in PNG.

Public hospitals can charge up to $300 for a rudimentary tetanus shot due to a lack of a lack of adequate funding. Schools lack books and adequate toilet facilities for students, and roads outside the capital, Port Moresby, are in constant disrepair.

When election season comes around, everyone is interested. Candidates bestow money and gifts upon voters in the hope of securing their ballot. Promises of a better future are bandied about.

Anecdotal accounts suggest that even where a voter knows a candidate’s promises are hollow, they’ll still vote for them because of family and tribal allegiances.

While this might be difficult for Australians to understand, it makes sense in a country like PNG, where extended family and clan relationships are important. Support from family, both financial or otherwise, can be crucial in a country with poor public infrastructure.

People wait outside a shop decorated with small campaign posters showing two of the candidates' faces in Port Moresby.

PHOTO: Voters are expected to know the outcome of the election by August. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

But with all their country’s problems, Papua New Guineans are resilient and resourceful. Port Moresby’s entrepreneurial street hawkers travel each morning to central warehouses to buy goods that will sell.

It could be headphones, dusters or brooms made of twigs. Or Rabaul mangoes or bags of peanuts grown by families on the mountains surrounding the capital. People sell crops grown in the broken concrete footpaths.

And after the rain, villagers sweep gravel into the pot holes in the road, holding cups to collect payment for their services.

A struggle to get information

While many Australians might not know much about PNG’s elections, the country’s own citizens also struggle to get access to accurate information.

Much of this can be attributed to the fact that most shortwave radio transmissions currently do not work.

Considered antiquated by the rest of the world, shortwave is the most effective radio transmission medium in PNG, because it can cross large distances with a single tower.

In a country where radio is the largest source of media consumption, this is highly problematic. Internet and television penetration rates remain low, at about 10 per cent of the population. Newspapers are restricted to the regional centres.

In PNG, geography determines everything, including radio. Since 80 per cent of the population live in rural or remove areas, most people in PNG aren’t getting any access to media.

“With our breakdown in transmitter facilities, our ability to do our job, and link to remote and rural communities, its been very hard on us,” says Michael Samuga, PNG National Broadcasting Corporation’s provincial director.

“Especially for broadcast officers who at the back of their mind know [radio content] won’t be heard by the people who are supposed to hear it because of the reality of the coverage being very limited.”

Where to next?

During this election season, many people are relying on word of mouth to find out about the policies of candidates.

Imagine people in Bendigo or Dubbo or Emerald having no idea of government policies that affect them, and relying on their neighbours or children in Sydney to pass on news.

When PNG is Australia’s largest recipient of foreign aid, it is in our interests to know more about the country and to support the development of a reliable media inside the country.

This may appear an insurmountable task, but the resilience and resourcefulness of the citizens of PNG continue to defy expectation.

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