A struggling state, a changing society: Ron May’s writings on PNG 2001–2021

By the late 1990s it was clear that early hopes for post-independence Papua New Guinea had been misplaced. The country had remained democratic, but was struggling in all manner of other ways. Economic management was poor. Political leadership was haphazard. Violent crime plagued the big cities. Natural resources were being exploited to the benefit of a few, while many others bore the environmental costs. And there was Bougainville: a bloody combination of secessionist and internecine conflict.

But for a moment, as the millennium turned, it appeared as if the country might be charting a new path. A reformer, Mekere Morauta, was in power. Economic management became more orthodox. And hostilities in Bougainville had recently ceased. A new electoral system was introduced, which advocates promised would bring better governance. Laws were passed with the intent of stabilising parliamentary politics. Maybe, the coming decades would finally deliver on PNG’s promise.

What happened next is effectively the subject of Ron May’s recent book, State and Society in Papua New Guinea, 2001-2021. The book is a sequel of sorts to May’s 2001 book on the country’s first 25 years. (Both books can be downloaded for free from ANU Press.) Like its predecessor, the new book is a collection of essays rather than a historical narrative, but its breadth and depth are such that it gives the reader a sense of what happened as well as a good idea of why.

So what did happen? What came of that turn-of-the-millennium moment of hope?

Nothing much.

Of course, lots of things have happened since 2001, many captured in detail in May’s book. Economic fortunes have waxed and waned. Politicians have plotted, determinedly, against each other. Political heavyweights have skirted and subverted the law. Government departments have limped along, occasionally innovating, often deteriorating.

But what hasn’t happened is progress. Morauta lost power. Electoral reform may have helped, but not much. Parliament has become no more stable – or if it has, it’s mostly because prime ministers have become better at undermining institutions. Conflict hasn’t returned to Bougainville, but the underlying issue of independence hasn’t gone away.


The answer, according to May, is that – absent class, ideological or ethnic divides – politics in PNG is highly parochial. Voters tend to see “the state as the source of things”. Getting access to those things requires “getting their candidate elected” (p. 72).

Given the violence that has emerged in other countries, the lack of national ethnic divides is likely a good thing. But the absence of any other coherent political organising force leaves PNG trapped in a form of politics in which MPs focus on getting patronage to their supporters. Prime ministers, and aspiring prime ministers, focus on making or breaking MPs’ loyalties with promises of plum ministerial positions. And ministers attempt to ride, or guide, the political tides of the day.

Amidst all this, no one does much governing. Ministers rarely understand their portfolios. The civil service is undermined by political patronage, or just plain disillusioned. Legislation is often ignored by a parliament preoccupied with political intrigue. Even when good policy is developed, it’s rarely implemented. Reformers exist – but they have to battle against the headwinds of politics.

The problem, May stresses, doesn’t usually stem from voters’ primordial attachments to clans or kin (he has examples of voters happily voting for unrelated candidates; the book also contains a version of his seminal paper showing the limited electoral importance of clan allegiance in the district of Angoram). Voters, as May sees it, are typically pragmatists – supporting candidates they think likely to help.

This political dynamic doesn’t explain everything. Nor does it excuse politicians – some of the skulduggery on display in chapter 14, for example, is simply inexcusable – but it helps explain why the politics of post-independence PNG has failed to deliver. It’s also a dynamic that wasn’t likely to be changed by anything as simple as a reforming prime minister, switching electoral systems, or parliamentary rule changes. (May foresaw as much.)

That, at least, is the main lesson I take from the book, but it covers much more: the triumph of Tok Pisin as PNG’s lingua franca, international relations, political parties. The book is a fascinating collection of essays, elegantly written and more engaging than most academic works. It has detail aplenty, perhaps too much for some readers at times, but the detail will be invaluable for future scholars. May’s tone is kind too. He never blames the people of PNG for the predicament they have found themselves in; his rare wry comments are aimed at buffoonish colonial officials or ignorant Australian pundits.

The only thing the book is missing is definitive answers to two big questions: Where is PNG heading? And what can be done?

This is another strength.

PNG’s future could be bleak: a new political class may be on the rise, ever more eager to subvert democracy when it becomes inconvenient. Or perhaps the country will continue to stumble along, countervailing powers preventing change for better, and for worse. Or, perhaps there is a positive pathway forward, involving a burgeoning civil society, and changing political dynamics. May hints at all of these possibilities but wisely avoids hazarding guesses as to which is most likely.

As for what can be done: if we’ve learnt one thing since the turn of the millennium it is that silver bullets are unlikely. No one thing is to be done. If they can be found, real answers will be piecemeal, and patched together over time. Most solutions will emerge from within PNG. May appears to be aware of this, and eschews prescriptions even more than he shuns predictions.

This doesn’t mean external actors should give up on helping PNG. Australia, in particular, has a duty to its nearest neighbour and former colony. And it’s always possible to do some good if you are willing to learn. For those willing to learn, May’s book is an invaluable resource, filled with insights from someone who both cares about PNG and understands it well.

Ron May’s State and Society in Papua New Guinea, 2001-2021 is published by ANU Press and can be downloaded for free.

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This research was undertaken with the support of the ANU-UPNG Partnership, an initiative of the PNG-Australia Partnership, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the author only.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.


  • Hello Yauka,

    I am going to throw caution to the wind and say that by itself, I do not see government at any level as a solution to anything in PNG (or the Solomon Islands). I emphasise that the two words “by itself” are at the heart of the matter.

    It is my observation that the governments in both these jurisdictions represent almost no one. If a common man or woman is not directly related to a politician or a public servant then almost without exception their current crop of politicians and public servants have no jurisdiction over them, their clan or their land.

    And since traditionally people generally don’t trust anyone not related to them genealogically the system as it stands is alien and counter intuitive to good governance.

    It encourages public servants, particularly those in planning and development roles to do “nothing” because they know that in a traditional sense, they don’t have the support of most of the people who fall within their service catchment area. Better to chill out, look after “wantoks” and collect their pay.

    If you agree with the foregoing, then the government, by itself is basically powerless, always has been and always will be.

    I have come to see that every decrepit school building, every nil stocked clinic, every undriveable road is in large measure a consequence of the above cultural realities.

    My thesis, for what it is worth is that until and unless each landowner group, clan or group of clans are included in the decision-making processes about issues that affect them or their land, there is no momentum for change.

    No foundation upon which to lift human development indicators, no prospect of stocked clinics, vibrant schools or maintained roads.

    But it’s not that simple I hear people say. I understand where they are coming from, but if communities believed that local administrators and politicians would genuinely listen to them, treat them with respect and within reason seek to facilitate mutually beneficial solutions, would we be witnessing the situation we see today?

    In 2016, I attended a community meeting with the late Deputy Secretary for National Health, Dr Paison Dakulala. During that meeting he was asked to speak to numerous issues relating to the absence of primary healthcare services in that locality to which he responded that under the law he was not in a position to intercede on provincial matters.

    He did however advise the community to approach their local government representatives and work with them for change. There was prolonged silence until one woman speaking for everyone said, the people you refer to never listen to us. And in her few words is the issue that government by itself at all levels, cannot solve.

    I return to my observation that communities are part of the solution and if mobilised on their terms around common goals in loose partnership with government the results can be empowering and powerful.

    And that until this is recognised and development resources allocated to facilitating this dynamic, we are wasting limited money and precious time.

  • Papua New Guineans are no longer moved by thinking and ideology, they are moved by their mouths and bellies.

    That is my experience during the PNG National Elections in 2022. The thinking that families, clans, tribes, ethnicities and cultures would determine our political outcomes is outdated and disconnected from our realities.

    Haus Sels? Han Maks? These are the toxins that are destroying our politics, governance and democracy.

    Sel Haus, Haus Man, Han Maks are strategies advocated by international organisations like UN Women in their various programs to get more women in PNG into parliament, but, we have seen, it had a negative effect on voter behaviour.

    We need something else to right the path of our politics and democracy. This is beyond education and awareness.

    Sharing my experiences as a candidate.

    • Hi Emmanuel,

      Thank you for your comment and sharing your thoughts, and experiences as a candidate. It’s very interesting to hear about the role of the Han Mak, and Haus Sels in the election.

      To be fair to UN Women, things like voters supporting candidates who provide them with direct material assistance existed in PNG long before any UN training for women candidates.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

      Where did you stand?


  • “Voters, as May sees it, are typically pragmatists – supporting candidates they think likely to help.”

    In a country of 850 languages and thousands of clans deeply anchored to “their” land with little expectation of influence beyond clan boundaries, this goes to the heart of the issue.

    The consideration most likely to exercise the mind of the voter is which candidate, if any, might bring some benefit to me and who do I not vote for to minimise damage to my clan’s interests?

    The observation that voters tend to see “the state as the source of things,” a theme with traditional significance has been weaponised by the modern generation of politicians to their advantage.

    This was why Sir Mekere Morauta failed to hold onto power. A technocrat and darling of the World Bank and IMF, not a wheeler and dealer and only someone from Gulf Province to the average punter.

    Since his defeat what has emerged is a seething cauldron of opportunity for the opportunists and the consummate opportunist who seized power in 2011 has shaped the destiny of PNG ever since.

    I believe the observation that “perhaps there is a positive pathway forward, involving a burgeoning civil society, and changing political dynamics” is one from which to take heart.

    Traditionally, power vested within each community or clan group and it still does. Each clan was supremely independent and ostensibly, they still are.

    If the interests of these units of governance are concentrated around common goals the results can be powerful and encouraging.

    I take the view that in addition to our focus on the organs of state there should be a major realignment in development assistance in a way that recognises traditional governance and empowers civil society to be a part of the solution to issues they want addressed is a practical way forward.

    • Stephen, I agree fully with your views, almost ‘spot on’ as that’s what I have come to perceive as well. The traditional forces in PNG are now “resurfacing in the modern polity” not to anchor development and good governance but for the original longstanding traditional value/position: what one can get for themselves and/or for the clan…Readers may wish to read one of Dr Sinclair Dinnen’s books to get an insight into traditional forces at work in an emerging modern PNG polity (“Law and Order in a Weak State: Crime and Politics in Papua New Guinea (Pacific Islands Monograph Series” by Dr Sinclair Dinnen).

      As the challenges in PNG are emerging from many fronts, we can get overwhelmed on where to respond or how to respond with our efforts in trying to get the nation back on track. One start point has to be the “national leadership”: they have to walk the talk. The nation watches its leaders and get strongly influenced by what they do and what they don’t do so I would really like to see more courage and honesty demonstrated from the top (by ‘courage’ I mean the courage to do what is right, even if it doesn’t appear to be politically sound in the first place…).

      Also, exploring ways to capture those inherent traditional forces in the clans/villages and rerouting them through various creative development mechanisms and pathways may be another area to explore going forward. As an example, let’s say clans in a district (an open electorate) may be co-opted and organized so they discuss cooperation during elections and form a “tribal council” which may oversight clan members’ behaviour and adherence or non-adherence to the agreed rules during the elections. This mechanism–a tribal council–may help mitigate violence during elections which has ramifications in everything a successful candidate (who become an MP) thinks and does, which in turn influences the district/electorate and the wider society as well as governance generally. The anti-developmental and regressive cycle has to be broken somewhere somehow: that’s where we need to be directing our thoughts to.

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