Harriet Smith brings together some highlights from the discussions on Papua New Guinea and Australia at this year’s State of the Pacific conference at ANU.

Photo: Flickr/ADB

The State of the Pacific Conference is an annual conference hosted by the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. The conference explored a range of topical issues facing Melanesia and the broader Pacific.

This year the conference took place mid-September in an unfortunately unsuccessful effort to evade the Canberra chill. Despite the cold and rain, the conference was a positive showcase of current research on the Pacific region that brought together academics, policy makers, business leaders, civil society representatives and the media. The conference themes for 2016 were Pacific regionalism, social and cultural developments in the Pacific, the state of democracy in the Pacific, and political economy trends in the Pacific.

To open the conference, Dr Transform Aqoru, the technical and legal advisor to the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office, delivered the keynote address, speaking on the shift of the concentration of geopolitical power from the South to the North Pacific. Dr Aqoru also stressed the importance of human relationships in Pacific organizations, emphasizing that they are the key to effectiveness and success. He further stated that international and Pacific cooperation should be about empowerment, creating self-reliance, and reducing aid dependency, and emphasised that donors should support this vision.

The state of democracy in Papua New Guinea was addressed in a panel featuring Bryan Kramer, Bal Kama and Dame Carol Kidu. Bryan Kramer is the founder and director of Youth-Link PNG and spoke on his knowledge and experience of elections in PNG. He spoke candidly about the risks and challenges candidates face in the unique Papua New Guinean election system. Bal Kama, PhD candidate at ANU, discussed the PNG judiciary and its impact on democracy. He pointed out that unlike the Australian system, courts in PNG have a broader, activist function. However, due to a growing culture of legalism and reliance on black letter law in PNG, some courts are failing to take into account the social and political contexts of contentious cases.

In the same panel, Former Member of Parliament, Dame Carol Kidu, reflected on democracy in PNG. She noted that education about democracy is the key to the development and health of democracy in the nation. She stated that a one size political analysis does not fit all in PNG, where diversity of culture, language and politics is more varied than most other nations. Her main takeaway was that people are very emotionally involved in politics in PNG, and this passion will continue to build and drive democracy.

Dame Carol also spoke on a second panel, ‘Women and Elections’, where she reflected on her time campaigning as a woman in PNG. She named some hard truths facing women who campaign in PNG, and was not optimistic about the number of women running in the next election, due to the gendered barriers women face. She asked, while women constitutionally have equal opportunity in PNG to stand in elections, do they really have equal opportunity to win? Dame Carol also recognised the need to prepare female candidates for what will happen after they win, as women are subject to far more scrutiny than men. Reflecting on her own time in Parliament, she told some personal anecdotes recalling the sexism she experienced.  She astutely noted that “You cannot call 2.7% of parliament being women a representative democracy”, and recognised that the campaign trail in PNG is a battlefield loaded against women, and is by nature an unfair battleground. Dame Carol concluded by giving future candidates some advice, saying that elections in PNG are about relationships, resources and constantly checking the rolls.

Reflections on Pacific regionalism provided insight into the current state of affairs. Cristelle Pratt, Deputy Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, reiterated Dame Carol’s assertion that ‘one size does not fit all’ in the Pacific. She outlined the forum’s priorities for 2016, which included;  fisheries, climate change, West Papua, cervical cancer, economic development, and disabilities. Leonard Louma, member of the Specialist Sub-Committee on Regionalism, made the point that ‘we have not yet seen Pacific regionalism, but we will recognise it when we do’.

A closing panel on sports diplomacy and development was a highlight of the conference, drawing attention to positive sports-based programs running in the Pacific. Nigel Vagana, NRL education and wellbeing manager and former player, and Roannie Ng Shiu, Research Fellow at SSGM, drew attention to the fact that while Pacific people are less than 1% of Australia’s population, they make up over 40% of players in the NRL. Their work engaging NRL players and Pacific communities in development and education programs demonstrates the wide-reaching positive power of sport. Another NRL-based program has had success in PNG – Joanna Lester spoke about the ‘League Bilong Laif’ program, which teaches the importance of education and respect over a 6 week program in schools. She also discussed the power of NRL for transforming women’s lives, and shared upcoming plans for a documentary about female NRL players.

Overall, the conference was an excellent forum for communication and knowledge-sharing between Pacific nations, and both educational and thought-provoking for their Australian neighbours.

To listen to the podcasts from the conference, click here.


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Harriet Smith - Research Associate, Lowy Institute - Lowy Institute

Harriet Smith

Research Associate, Lowy Institute

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Harriet Smith is a Research Associate in the Melanesia Program, where she works primarily on the Aus-PNG Network. She holds a Master of International Studies from the University of Queensland.