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New and evolving forms of political participation in the Pacific


Julien Barbara, Kerryn Baker

Session presentation

In the Pacific, and particularly Melanesia, the fragmented nature of politics – perpetuated by clientelistic and patronage-based forms of politics – has created contexts where political engagement is decentred and highly personalised. Yet while engagement with the central state may be low for many, the high turnouts in national elections, as well as the generally high level of engagement with local-level politics, suggest that political participation is valued. How do people in the Pacific engage with formal political structures, and participate in political spaces more broadly? How has political participation in Pacific states evolved in the post-independence era? And to what extent is political participation shaped by societal power dynamics and restricted for marginalised groups? In this panel, we invite paper submissions from scholars on all facets of new and evolving forms of political participation in the Pacific, which could include new political parties and movements; urban politics; civil society participation in politics; and local, national, and transnational social movements.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Evolving/Dissolving forms of Political Participation in PNG

Nicole Haley (Australian National University)

Kerry Zubrinich (Australian National University)

The modified Westminster system of parliamentary democracy adopted by Papua New Guinea at Independence has not been equal to the task of ensuring universal adult suffrage for PNG’s citizens. Within PNG, discussions concerning suffrage have typically entailed calls for new electorates, with discussions concerning genuine suffrage, largely confined to external observers and commentators. Whilst acknowledging the keen interest with which PNG’s citizens engage with formal political process such as elections it remains the case that political participation is constrained by numerous factors. Some of them are embedded in longstanding cultural practices. Others a result of more recent engagement in global markets and the internal migration occasioned by extractive resource development, urbanisation and centralised institutional activity.

Side by side with the disenfranchisement of women at the ballot box, we examine how they, urban settlers and other marginalised groups are disenfranchised through systemic administrative failures and widespread electoral malfeasance. Drawing on the findings of the 2012 and 2017 ANU/DPA led PNG National Election Observations we explore how and why the marginalisation of large groups of voters occurs.

Political spaces and women’s access in Papua New Guinea: Case Studies from New Ireland and Oro Province.

Almah Tararia (The Australian National University)

This paper draws on data collected in New Ireland and Oro Province for our respective doctoral research into women’s political participation and decision-making in Papua New Guinea. Specifically we deal with how in New Ireland (Tararia) and Oro (Meki) women are even in the current context of marginalisation are working towards and sometimes achieving influence in leadership positions. In New Ireland we examine the way leadership is envisaged and how women become a part of the political life of the province. We then contrast Oro’s regional seat in the 2017 general elections, specifically the successful partnerships of women and men as campaign committees.
Understanding women’s participation and access to public roles of leadership and decision-making New Ireland requires an understanding of the context and nature in which women and men view, conduct themselves and vie for visibility. New Irelanders associate a leader’s role with their ability to bring together councils of clan elders including women representatives. This has ramifications at elections where the political party is one platform and institution which becomes a contested space.
In Oro, women are moving into political space but not necessarily through political parties. At the national level, the number of women candidates in Oro Province had increased significantly. Essential to these women's success were the organization of their respective campaign committees; comprised of both men and women.

Collective Action and Political Participation through Market Vendors’ Associations: A Case Study from Vanuatu

Kerryn Baker (Australian National University)

Julien Barbara

To properly evaluate political participation in Pacific states, it is necessary to look beyond formal political institutions such as party systems and examine how other organisations are facilitating individual and collective participation. This paper focuses on one such organisation: the Northern Islands Market Vendors’ Association, based in Luganville, Vanuatu. Markets are of significant importance to Pacific economies. They provide links between urban and rural areas, and economic opportunities for informal sector workers – predominantly women – from both urban and rural communities. The association, among its activities, lobbies for better working conditions for its 2200 members; contributes to discussions on market management; and builds linkages with government at both local and national level. As it grows in strength, the Northern Islands Market Vendors’ Association is being recognised as a vehicle for substantive collective action by others. This case study will examine how the association has facilitated the political participation of market vendors both individually and collectively, and evaluate the potential for market vendors’ associations to act as vehicles for collective action more broadly.

Can “Old” evolve into “New”? – Thought on forms of political participation derived from the past in Kiribati

Harald Werber (University of Salzburg)

Remote Micronesian Atolls, as Kiribati mainly consist of, with limited resources set in an extraordinary challenging environment “naturally” led to a very specific system of power balance with a ritualised form of political participation. These ways of government, kitai ni kiribati, evolved over many generations. The encounters with the west – so called colonization – brought step by step alterations to the system prevailing and proving very practical since the beginning of time – the original settling if the Atolls about 1500 years ago. Colonial rule finally tried to eliminate this old traditional form of leadership and political participation. Ever since independence in 1979 the challenging question arose how to govern the islands further on. Will the old traditional way be revived to create a new form of political participation, will the remnants of the colonial rule and administration survive and further on be the mode to govern the Society or is there a chance to indigenize the western democratic model and merge it with the “old”, then “new” ways of organizing life, solving conflicts and setting rules for a people that is additionally endangered by the impact of climate change most significantly visible in the form of flooding of vast parts of the atolls caused by sea level rising.

Defining a future for New Caledonia

Denise Fisher (Australian National University)

New Caledonia’s long-promised independence referendum of 4 November marks the beginning of a process that can potentially involve two more referenda before 2022. Meanwhile, all parties are discussing the future governance of New Caledonia in consultation with the French state. At the very least, New Caledonia will continue to hold or share powers with France as transferred so far under the innovatory 1998 Noumea Accord. But there are opportunities to secure new autonomies. The process is re-defining the role of this French territory, and of France, in the South Pacific at a time of regional change.

Building the House of Peace: Strategies for women as candidates and members of parliament

Diane Zetlin (University of Queensland)

The historically low representation of women in the parliaments of the Pacific region has received a few small nudges of academic interest in recent years, with the relative electoral success of women in countries as diverse as Fiji and Samoa. It has also seen setbacks with the three first term women MPs in Papua New Guinea defeated in 2017. Many of the obstacles to women candidates in the region are well rehearsed. In addressing these, neo-institutional theory has most commonly proposed quota reforms, which have brought some success, most spectacularly in the French territories where the principle of parity has been legislated. However, more widespread adoption of quotas is resisted in most Pacific countries, uncovering some key weaknesses of neo-institutional theory when applied to the Pacific. This paper suggests that approaches from the peacebuilding literature may be more effective in understanding women’s political participation in the Pacific, and in identifying specific gender norms around leadership that require further interrogation. In particular, we demonstrate how Paul Lederach’s ‘elicitive approach’ to peacebuilding dialogue may facilitate a method of promoting women’s contribution to decision-making and justify their place in parliaments and we suggest that recovering women’s roles in conflict resolution may provide women with more empowering pathways to power.

This paper will be given by Sonia Palmieri