Political leadership in PNG: women parliamentarians in the 2017 election

The three women parliamentarians who were elected in the 2012 Papua New Guinea (PNG) election failed to win re-election in the 2017 general election. Their electoral defeats only deepen the concern for gender representation in parliament. However, an analysis of their short-lived political careers reveals that their conduct in parliament is consistent with the demands and expectations made of the Papua New Guinean politician. In PNG there are two arenas in politics a member of parliament (MP) must contend with to ensure survival: the first, naturally, is electoral victory; the second is the politics of electoral development – when elected, an MP is expected to successfully deliver development to their electorate.

Re-election is certainly not assured: over 50 per cent of incumbent MPs in PNG do not get re-elected to a second term in office and over half have lost their seats in each election since 1972. The defeats of the three women are consistent with this national trend. Therefore, an MP’s record of accomplishment in development (and public perception of it) is essential in understanding the high turnover rates in elections. A ‘track record of service delivery’ and ‘someone who looks after the community’ were essential qualities that voters sought in the 2017 election. The politicisation of electoral development or provincial disputes can seriously affect his or her chances of re-election.

Loujaya Kouza’s media background and her strong voice on political issues as a radio announcer may have assisted in securing a seat in the 9th parliament with 7364 votes. Kouza’s political career was dominated by political infighting over the establishment of the Lae City Authority (LCA). Then prime minister Peter O’Neill relieved Kouza of her ministerial responsibility to oversee the creation of the LCA. However, the establishment of the LCA did not go down well with other leaders of the province, with the new funding arrangement their main concern. The redistribution of financial and administrative powers would impair the Morobe provincial government’s ability to deliver services to rural areas outside of Lae district. Kouza’s decision to boycott various Tutumang (Morobe’s local name for its provincial assembly) escalated the political infighting and tainted her image for the people of Lae.

Kouza resigned as the chairperson of the LCA in 2016 and moved to the opposition. In question time in parliament Kouza insisted that then prime minister Peter O’Neill come out clearly on the funding arrangements of the LCA. Peter O’Neill noted that Kouza’s resignation as the chairperson of LCA was not valid under the provisions of the LCA legislation. Kouza admitted that the LCA and her move to the opposition affected her plans to develop Lae. In 2016, Aihi landowners of Lae city demanded that Kouza attend to Lae city’s development needs, describing how the deteriorating road was an impediment for access to services and conducting business in Lae. Kouza was not alone in her inability to resolve this developmental need, but according to voters, Kouza had not sufficiently prioritised the development needs of the people of Lae. In the 2017 election, Kouza lost in the first round of counting under the limited preferential voting (LPV) system.

Julie Soso came to prominence as a radio announcer and a former president of the Eastern Highlands Council of women in 1996. Soso contested the Eastern Highlands seat on several occasions, eventually winning the regional seat in 2012. Circumstances surrounding the appointment of the provincial administrator of the Eastern Highlands provincial government affected Soso’s political career. In 2016, Solomon Tato, the suspended provincial administrator, initiated court proceedings over a contractual agreement that was breached by the Soso administration. The court found Soso guilty of seeking to frustrate the court order by writing formally to Tato to vacate the office. The political impasse in the province escalated to the extent that Soso called on the prime minister to intervene and help mediate the conflict. Soso admitted that the issue was politicised and everyone in Eastern Highlands was aware of the political infighting.

In 2017, alongside 48 other candidates, Soso contested the Eastern Highlands regional seat. After the distribution of the first preferences, she received 31,644 votes in the preliminary voting round. The elimination processes of the LPV affected Soso, as significant votes were pulled away from her compared to the 2012 election.

Delilah Gore was a public servant before entering politics; she attributed her success to a successful campaign of visiting every local ward in the Sohe district. However, Gore’s involvements in the appointment of the provincial administrator, her involvement in ousting the provincial governor and her outburst against a flight attendant sums up her political career. Firstly, in 2014 the Oro provincial assembly endorsed retired General Jeffrey Dademo as acting provincial administrator to the National Executive Council (NEC). Tufi local government president, Jaff Taua, subsequently said:

Gore has never turned up for any of the PEC [Provincial Executive Council] or assembly meetings and should not use her power as a cabinet minister to influence the running of the provincial administration … In fact, she had disqualified herself from the provincial assembly after failing to turn up for three consecutive meetings.

Gore denied allegations regarding her involvement in the appointment of the administrator. Gore was also alleged to have used public funds belonging to the Department of Community Development to pay for accommodation for Oro councillors in a bid to oust provincial governor Gary Juffa. Gore strongly denied the allegation. Juffa challenged Gore to explain the use of public funds totalling K17,000 (US$8000) to accommodate the village councillors at the Grand Papua Hotel in Port Moresby.

In the final controversy, Gore faced the leadership tribunal about an incident on an Air Niugini flight in 2015. The National Court declared that on 24 April 2015 Gore behaved inappropriately as a national leader towards a flight attendant before being removed from the aircraft as a disorderly passenger. Gore was penalised three months without pay for misconduct for her inappropriate behaviour.

In 2012 Gore won by over 6105 votes, but at the 2017 election she was defeated by just over 200 votes. While she did not suffer the fate of outright rejection by her voters, the manner in which she was defeated is noteworthy. The runner-up in 2012, Henry Jons Amali, defeated Gore with those 200 votes after elimination, indicating that Gore had retained support in the Sohe Open electorate. Had it not been for the LPV system, she would have retained the seat. According to Wood and Laveil, the 2017 distribution of preferences under LPV indicated that there were protest votes against the People’s National Congress (PNC), the party for which Gore was a candidate. With the unpopularity of the PNC in Oro Province, backed by Juffa’s staunch criticism of the PNC, there is a plausible case that those protest votes affected Gore’s chances of election victory. Gore’s involvement in provincial assembly politics, perhaps not as evident as Kouza’s and Soso’s, might have been used against her during the 2017 campaign.

While Kouza, Soso and Gore may or may not have been treated differently because they are women, what is certain is that they had to deal with the nature of PNG politics, as experienced by all MPs. The controversies surrounding the three women relate to the politics of delivering development to electorates, which is crucial in influencing votes for the re-election of any MP.

Having access to development funds or control over administrative oversight is critical in directing electoral development. Kouza’s role as chairperson of the newly established Lae City Authority (LCA) would have given her control over the administrative and financial aspects of Lae, the second largest city in PNG. Soso, the subject of the second case study, was involved in the tussle over the appointment of the provincial administrator in Eastern Highlands Province. It is notable that the impasse over the appointment of the administrative head of the province dragged on after the defeat of Soso in the 2017 election.

The bureaucratic heads of provincial government play a key role in influencing development in their province and as such, it is important for any politician, especially governors, to have a provincial bureaucracy totally committed to the visions of the incumbent governor. The third case of Gore also demonstrates this phenomenon. Gore tried to intervene in the appointment of the bureaucratic head in the province using her position as a state minister through the National Executive Council (NEC). She was also alleged to have been involved in the attempted removal of Governor Gary Juffa despite denying her involvement. As in the case of Soso, the visions and goals of Gore and other MPs in Oro Province were different from Governor Juffa’s, leading to political infighting in an effort to remove Juffa.

The case studies indicate the three women made efforts to consolidate their political power and form alliances with other MPs within the province with the aim of dictating electoral politics, but they were met with resistance within their respective electorates and provinces.

Secondly, the role of provincial assemblies in the politics of electoral development should not be underestimated. For a start, provincial assemblies are subnational parliaments with equally important functions in dictating electoral development. In this respect, leaders in the provincial assemblies are arguably just as influential as national MPs. Kouza’s absence in the Tutumang assembly (Morobe Province) proved costly to her political image in debating the LCA concept. Governor Kelly Naru used this to his advantage to mobilise support against Kouza in the Tutumang assembly.

A similar trend can be seen in the second case study of Soso, who breached a court order in an attempt to remove provincial administrator Solomon Tato. The case of Soso has roots in the provincial assembly as well, although not evident from the media coverage. Then police minister Robert Atiayafa stated that there was lack of understanding between Julie Soso’s administration and the political leaders of the province – an indication of division in the provincial assembly. Soso also admitted that the political impasse cost her image as a leader.

Gore’s case is somewhat similar, although the narrow margin of her defeat in 2017 suggests that she had maintained support in her electorate. Gore’s involvement in the Oro provincial assembly and the conflict with Governor Juffa further illustrates how provincial assemblies can influence the politics of electoral development and voter perception. Provincial assemblies are composed not only of national MPs but village councillors, presidents, youth and women’s representatives who reside and interact with the majority of the eligible voters. Their dissemination of information in the electoral market is paramount to understanding voter behaviour in this regard. In addition, Gore stood as a candidate of the People’s National Congress (PNC), a party that Governor Juffa strongly opposed.

Lastly, whether the three women’s experiences exhibited aspects of big-man politics is unclear and needs more research. In this regard the case studies give mere glimpses of how the three women performed during their tenure as mandated representatives. Gore was referred to the leadership tribunal for her inappropriate behaviour by shouting to a flight attendant in an aggressive tone, ‘Do you know who I am?’ The outburst could indicate a persona associated with big-man status in PNG politics, which can involve aggression.

The cases of the three women may highlight the big-man political culture through their debates and arguments presented in the media. The behaviour of Soso in ignoring the court order to restore Solomon Tato as provincial administrator is an example of behaviour commonly associated with the big-man narrative. Kouza’s reluctance to negotiate with the LCA and her skirmish with Governor Naru is another example. It could be argued that the three women were treated as politicians and their behaviour matches that of other (male) politicians in PNG. The three women’s staunch defence of their actions was essential to preserve their big-man status. According to Joseph Ketan, the achievement and maintenance of big-man status is paramount in ensuring continued support and social relations in traditional settings. It becomes even more necessary for a politician to maintain political support at the state level.

The key findings above highlight how local politics pertaining to provincial and district matters affected the prospects of the three women MPs seeking re-election in 2017. The women were unable to strengthen their positions despite displaying some behaviours associated with big-man politicking in Papua New Guinea.

This is an edited version of In Brief 2021/02, originally published by the Department of Pacific Affairs at ANU as part of their In Brief series.

Disclosure: This research was undertaken with support from the Pacific Research Program, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the author only.

This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog (devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National University.

Russel Yangin is a Lecturer in Political Science at the University