Government and governance, Law | The Pacific

29 April 2022

After more than four decades of inaction, Papua New Guinea’s electoral boundaries are out of sync with the population, but political interests are preventing much needed change, Benjamin Raue writes.

In less than two months, voters from the Pacific’s largest country, Papua New Guinea (PNG), will be going to the polls to have their say on who should run their country.

In addition to voting for the country’s 22 provincial representatives, Papua New Guineans will also be voting for 96 members representing ‘open’ electorates, which cover the whole country. These electorates should, in principle, cover similar numbers of people, and are intended to be subjected to regular redrawing of boundaries to ensure equal distribution.

However, this is not the case in practice. In fact, the current boundaries have not been significantly changed in over 40 years. Following independence in 1975, a significant redistribution was conducted prior to the 1977 election.

Since that time, despite numerous attempts by PNG’s Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) to redraw the electoral map, no proposed changes have managed to pass parliament aside from a recent – extremely conservative – effort.

PNG’s constitution specifies that redistributions should take place once a decade. The Organic Law on National and Local Level Government Elections provides more detail, requiring that each seat’s population should be within 20 per cent of the average population per seat.

Redistributions of electoral boundaries are essential because they are meant to ensure a fair distribution of political power among different parts of a country. Electorates are theoretically distributed on the basis of one person, one vote, but this assumes that each open electorate has roughly the same population. Population trends shift over time, with some areas growing faster than others, and other areas even seeing a decline in population.

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These effects add up over time, to the point where some members of parliament represent far fewer voters than others. This phenomenon is known as ‘malapportionment’, where the share of seats in parliament allocated to one part of a country is significantly out of sync with that part’s share of the population.

It is always tricky to achieve agreement on new electoral boundaries when members of parliament have such a direct interest in the outcome, with changing boundaries potentially affecting their chances of re-election.

Abolition of seats would see some of representatives lose their positions or be forced to run against other incumbents in new areas, and the creation of new seats dilutes local power and reduces the share of resources that members of parliament can distribute.

PNG’s weak party system also makes it hard to achieve an outcome that is seen as good overall, even if it may not be advantageous to particular individuals.

Importantly, it is difficult to gather accurate information on the scale of malapportionment in PNG. By law, electoral quotas are based on the number of people in each electorate, not the number of voters. Yet PNG’s census, due to be held in 2021, has been delayed until 2024 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although data on the number of enrolled voters from 2017 is available, it fails to count every person eligible to be a voter, let alone counting the non-voting population. Enrolment rates vary between electorates, with ‘roll inflation’ a problem, particularly in the Highlands Region

The average population per electorate as of 2011 was 81,745, with the median at 74,139. Yet two seats had about 190,000 people – Anglimp-South Waghi in the highlands province of Jiwaka and Talasea in West New Britain – and 10 others had over 120,000. By contrast, there was a population of just over 36,000 in Goilala in Central Province.

Whilst the most recent redistribution led to the creation of 13 new electorates (seven in 2022, and another six in 2027) in March 2022, these seats are by and large not going where they are needed most. Only four of the eight most populous seats are proposed for duplication by 2027.

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Meanwhile, many of the other seats marked for redistribution seem to have no relationship to their malapportionment. For example, Middle Fly ranked only 38th in the country for population in 2011, yet it is due to be split in half at this year’s election. Conversely, New Ireland Province ranks fifth-highest in terms of average population per open electorate, but it will not gain any new electorates.

National Capital District and Southern Highlands will need to wait until 2027 for a new electorate while over-represented provinces like Central Province will gain new seats in 2022.

The EBC’s redistribution report responds to these issues by arguing that 45 years without a redistribution has built up an accumulated debt of malapportionment that cannot all be resolved all at once. However, the proposed splitting of the nominated electorates has in some cases worsened the issue.

While half of the duplicated electorates do have an above-average population, the EBC has prioritised electorates covering larger rural areas. PNG’s second-largest city, Lae, is populous enough for two full electorates, but has been left untouched. But confusingly, Bulolo electorate in the same province will be duplicated in 2022 despite having less than 70 per cent of Lae’s population.

This said, the EBC’s most recent redistribution should reduce overall malapportionment, if only slightly. Currently, just over 40 per cent of existing electorates fall within 20 per cent of the quota. The new 2022 boundaries bring that proportion up to almost 48 per cent, and it reaches 53 per cent in 2027.

However, it is worth noting this is all based on 2011 census data. It is likely that fresh population data from the next census will worsen the discrepancy again, increasing the need for redistribution. It is clear that whilst the EBC’s efforts are a start, they are nowhere near enough.

Malapportionment will continue to be an issue unless electorate boundaries within some provinces are completely redrawn – splitting under-represented electorates in half will only go so far. PNG may also want to take a page out of Australia’s book and reduce the power of the parliament over redistribution.

Australian federal redistributions that once required parliamentary approval to be implemented – which regularly led to redistributions not being approved – have been out of politicians’ hands since 1984.

Electoral redistributions are always difficult affairs — shifting power from some voters to others, and shifting power between political elites. This task is made more difficult due to a 45-year gap between redistributions. But the Pacific Islands’ largest democracy deserves better.

This piece is based upon an ANU Department of Pacific Affairs Working Paper.

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