Reserved seats in PNG: lessons learnt

Reserved seats in PNG: lessons learnt
Papua New Guinean women participating in UNDP’s Practice Parliament for Women including former MP and Minister Nahau Rooney, centre (UNDP Papua New Guinea)

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of three countries without a single woman in parliament. Two previous attempts to increase women’s representation in PNG’s parliament were unsuccessful. In light of the proposal to create five reserved seats for women before the 2022 elections, this article looks at the past efforts and the challenges that lie ahead.

Attempt 1: nominated members

Section 102 of the PNG Constitution allows for parliament to appoint a person (other than an MP) to be a nominated member of parliament. This process requires a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. The first attempt to increase women’s representation in PNG’s parliament relied on this provision of the Constitution to get three women nominated to parliament. In 2009, the Somare-led government, backed by Dame Carol Kidu, who was then a member of the cabinet, put a motion to parliament for nominated female representatives.

This process began with a call for expressions of interest, which attracted 78 applicants. A human resources (HR) company was engaged to undertake the process of selecting 12 women from 78 applicants. The HR company provided 12 names to a panel. After interviewing the candidates, the panel recommended six women to Prime Minister Michael Somare and Opposition Leader Mekere Morauta, who were tasked with selecting three to be nominated as women representatives. The night before voting, the opposition withdrew their support for the proposal, and didn’t submit their list. Somare selected three women and presented the names to parliament for voting but failed to get the mandatory two-thirds majority to nominate them – 60 MPs voted for the proposal, 16 voted against it, and 33 abstained. Although the nomination approach fell short in 2009, it could be revived again. Yet in recent years a different approach has been taken: reserved seats.

Attempt 2: reserved seats

After failing to have women nominated through existing provisions of the Constitution, women leaders lobbied for the creation of 22 reserved seats for women based on provincial electoral boundaries. This approach had an obvious strength: reserved seats would see women MPs elected by voters, not appointed by political leaders. Reserved seats required an amendment to section 101 of the Constitution, with the addition of section 101(d) creating the seats. This amendment just needed a simple majority in parliament. Yet, the enabling legislation involved an Organic Law, which required a two-thirds majority. When the vote for the enabling legislation, the Organic Law on National and Local Level Government Elections, was taken in early 2012, it failed to reach the two-thirds majority. By then, Somare – who had been supportive of the reserved seats – had been removed as prime minister in 2011, and Dame Carol Kidu had moved to the opposition. The new O’Neill government failed to pass the enabling legislation.

Despite both attempts failing to increase women’s representation, they started a nationwide conversation, and in 2012, three women were elected to the PNG parliament. However, the three failed to be re-elected in 2017, and no new women were elected.

The new national proposal

The current proposal to create five reserved national seats for PNG women is a repeat of the 2011 efforts, but with a reduced number of seats. Each of the proposed seats will be allocated to a ‘region’ including the Highlands, West Papua, East Papua, New Guinea Islands and Momase.

From past experience, the main challenge will be mustering the political will to amend the Constitution and pass the enabling legislation. It’s hard to tell if this support exists, but there are encouraging signs.

In the past two attempts, the proposals for increasing women’s representation were driven by women and stakeholders who were non-parliamentarians, with the exception of Dame Carol Kidu. This time there seems to be more support within parliament. In November 2019, Prime Minister James Marape said there would be no reserved seats for women. But he now supports the ‘reduced’ proposal. In the case of the parliamentary opposition, when Peter O’Neill was prime minister in 2019, he promised that if there were no women elected in the 2022 election he would revive the proposal for 22 reserved seats. And if that didn’t attract support from politicians, he would push for four reserved seats. Furthermore, a coalition of 20 MPs from both sides of the house, who make up the Parliamentary Committee on Gender-Based Violence, are supporting the current proposal.

There is also a promising proposal before parliament to revise the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates to require that at least 20% of all parties’ candidates be women.

Lessons from Bougainville

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which has reserved women’s seats in its parliament, offers lessons on the limitations and challenges of reserved seats. The size of reserved seat electorates in Bougainville are larger than the 33 open seats, which requires extensive resources and time to campaign. Also, the discretionary funds allocated to these electorates aren’t proportional to their size. They get the same amount as the smaller open seat electorates, making it hard for the representatives to tangibly help their constituents.

If national regional seats for women are created, the challenges will be even greater. The proposed regions are vast. It’s hard to see how aspiring regional MPs will be able to gather meaningful support across their regions. Without a substantial support base, the new MPs’ mandate will be weak. What’s more, without adequate resources, the new MPs will face major challenges engaging with their constituents.

Since Bougainville created the reserved seats in 2004, women have been elected to these seats in four consecutive elections – 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2020. However, women contesting open seats have had little success, with just one woman winning an open seat in 2015 and another in 2020. There is a misconception that since women have reserved seats they should not be elected to the open seats. As Bougainville has shown, reserved seats are a good way of getting women into parliament. Yet it has also shown that large reserved seats create problems of their own. These problems will be greater in the regional seats proposed for PNG’s national parliament.

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This research was undertaken with the support of the ANU-UPNG Partnership, an initiative of the PNG-Australia Partnership. The views represent those of the authors only.

Michael Kabuni

Michael Kabuni is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

Danny Eric Agon

Danny Eric Argon is a political science student at the University of Papua New Guinea.


  • I think culture is the main influence behind the less or no women representatives in the Parliament. It is in our cultural system that men are the leaders in everything, from the family to the political environment. With this thought, or I should say a norm in our society, it also has a strong influence on the voters choices which is manifested in the elections results. Of course women have the same opportunities, rights and freedom, but its the strong culture that acts as a blockage to what should be done. Therefore, the people should be educated on this as they are the power to put women representatives in the parliament.

  • Just thinking!
    Maybe a cross sectional research is a way forward to capture factors contributing toward women not given that political participation.

    It would be interesting if the rationale for (all 22 of them) MP’s reservation and/support for both nominated seats and reserve seats have been captured. Was there any related research/publication/etc?

    • Hi Nellie,

      Thanks for the comments.

      I don’t know of any study that documents the reasons for MPs’ reservations. As you say, it needs more studies.

      The issue was not extensively debated in parliament as well. That would have given MPs the chance to stated their reasons.

      Also, studies on this topic, so far, only focus on women. Researchers talk to former female MPs, female candidates etc.

      It will be interesting to see how this proposal goes.



  • Firstly, we should all know and agree that our constitution is not gender biased. Both men and women have the equal right to be nominated and run for elections. We are making it seem as if our constitution is biased to men only, NO!!!

    Secondly and most importantly, the voters will decide who they want as their representative in the parliament. If they want a woman as their rep, they’ll vote for her, or otherwise for man.

    There is no need for such “reserved seat” policy for women. We all have the equal right and equal opportunity to run for election if we choose, it is ultimately the voters who have the power to decide.

    Our constitution provides equal opportunity and equal participation for both genders to run for election.

    Our government needs to stop such notion and focus on delivering services to the people.

  • Absolutely agree with you Mclaine on your point raised on development parties driving programs that raise awareness on the importance of votes – at this critical juncture of the country. While I also support the push for reserved seats for women, I also think programs for women participation in Parliament should be held by our development partners during the 5 year period with a pipeline of programs leading up to the NGE. Not 1 year – 6 months before the elections.

    I also think the 20% candidacy of women in political parties would create further opportunities for women to be voted into Parliament.

  • PNG have well qualified and capable women who can outperform men at the political arena. And who can also get elected without given reserved seats based solely on their merits. The only issue is vote-selling and special interest which is prevalent in PNG. To level the playing field to an extent, the very national and international agencies driving the reserved seats should develop programmes that would educate and create awareness on the value of citizens votes and how to determine and elect competent members of Parliament. What PNG is missing and needs right now is not the lack of women representation in parliament but the lack of honest result driven MPs.

    • That’s right both men and woman can be elected but with lack of honesty in delivery of services most needed by people, the country will remain the same.

  • The proposal to establish five regional seats reserved for women is truly bizarre, especially when the boundaries of the five regions would fail to coincide with those of the four regions currently recognised in PNG’s political system. Why would five be any better than four?
    In either case, how could any woman standing for one of these seats be expected to campaign across such a large area, unless perhaps she were to be the female relative of some male bigwig who owns a helicopter or can afford to hire one for the purpose?
    And what would the Indonesians make of an electorate called ‘West Papua’? Not amused, I would imagine.
    At least the proposal to create 22 reserved seats, in line with current provincial boundaries, made some sort of sense. Why is it so hard to get the necessary support for this proposal? Are the male parliamentarians afraid of having so many women in their midst?
    Is there some problem with the current toilet facilities in Parliament House? Who knows?
    The idea that 22 reserved seats, or any other number of reserved seats, would reduce the chances of a woman getting elected to one of the other 111 seats does not hold much weight when the chances already seem to be just about zero. Maybe, if 22 women could prove their worth in Parliament, the chances would go up a bit.

  • This problem of getting women into the parliament will continue, even more; most of the voters are interested in temporal goods and funds given to them directly. They feel they aren’t part of the beneficiaries who experience the centralized development. However, I believe women will still be able to get elected if they play money at this quick-bucks demanding times.

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