A.9 Papua New Guinea [1975; 1995]

A decolonizing process: Consultative committee and constituent assembly

Papua New Guinea, located in the southwest South Pacific, just north and east of Australia, occupies the eastern part of the large island of New Guinea (the western part of which is Indonesia’s Papua provinces) and many smaller islands. Its population in 2011 is in excess of 6.5 million, more than double the almost 3 million at independence (1975). It is a country of unparalleled linguistic and cultural diversity (more than eight hundred distinct languages are spoken) and immensely varied and difficult geography. Until independence it was administered by Australia, in part as a colony and part as a United Nations trust territory.

A decolonizing constitution was made between 1972 and 1975. Proposals for a draft constitution were developed by a fifteen-member committee of the colonial legislature—the Constitutional Planning Committee. Its terms of reference were determined by a resolution of the legislature moved by the chief minister (the head of the executive), who emphasized the need for the constitution to be “home-grown.” This was interpreted as involving a constitution that reflected the views of the people, but also autochthonous in the sense both of being developed by Papua New Guineans and incorporating people’s views, and of having no legal authorization from the colonial regime.

After first educating themselves on constitutional issues, the members of the Constitutional Planning Committee conducted civic education for the public (radio broadcasts, newspaper advertisements, posters, and preparation of six information papers that were widely distributed). Two main methods were used to seek people’s views. First, a government department set up 500 discussion groups of about twenty people each, intended to reflect broadly the diversity of the population, which discussed the six information papers and answered the guiding questions they contained. Reports on the views expressed then were submitted to the Constitutional Planning Committee. Second, the committee’s teams held more than a hundred public meetings, with more than sixty thousand people attending. More than two thousand written submissions were received. The views expressed were taken into account by the Constitutional Planning Committee, but limited time and resources meant they were never analyzed systematically.

The Constitutional Planning Committee prepared a two-volume final report containing its views and recommendations for a constitution. Debate by the colonial legislature resulted in some significant changes to the recommendations that were accepted by a majority, and the revised recommendations were incorporated into a draft constitution. To achieve autochthony, the colonial legislature reconvened as the National Constituent Assembly, and without any legal basis under Australian or colonial law debated and amended the draft, and adopted the final constitution, which came into operation in September 1975.

Ongoing changes

The Papua New Guinea constitution adopted in 1975 remains in force in 2011, substantially as adopted, but with changes made through a total of twenty-two amendments, some of them minor and others extensive and significant. The process to amend requires two separate votes of parliament separated by at least two months, with the majorities required varying between sections of the constitution (some requiring votes above 50 percent of all members, some above two-thirds, and some above three-quarters, whether their seats are vacant or not). The difficulty of meeting these requirements means that bipartisan support is usually required for an amendment to be made.

Constitutional changes as part of peace processes

In both 1976 and 2002, major amendments to the Papua New Guinea constitution were made as part of peace processes intended to end secessionist conflicts in Bougainville, a mineral-rich island region about a thousand kilometers west of the mainland capital (Port Moresby). The mid-1970s conflict involved little violence, but that ended by the 2002 amendments took almost ten years (1988–1997) and involved the loss of several thousand lives. (The 2011 population of Bougainville is about two hundred thousand.)

In both cases, details of proposed constitutional amendments negotiated between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville leaders were specified in peace agreements, and received bipartisan support in parliament. The 1976 amendments involved detailed provisions for a system of decentralized autonomy, while the much longer 2002 amendments provided for a far higher degree of autonomy and a referendum for Bougainvilleans on independence for Bougainville, the referendum being deferred until ten to fifteen years after the autonomy arrangements had begun to operate.

Making a subnational constitution

The 2002 amendments to the Papua New Guinea constitution included provision for Bougainville to make its own constitution for its autonomous government, a law mainly intended to cover institutions and processes of the government. (Arrangements for its power and resources, and its relations with the national government, are provided in the 2002 amendments to the Papua New Guinea constitution.) The then existing Bougainville authorities comprised a thirty-member (mainly nominated) provincial government, and a larger and broader-based consultative body of about a hundred members, the Bougainville People’s Congress. Their executive bodies were empowered to jointly establish a broadly representative constitutional commission, and the two bodies agreed that they should combine to form a Bougainville constituent assembly with authority to debate, amend, and adopt the draft constitution to be received from the Bougainville Constitutional Commission.

The commission began work in September 2002, and after about two weeks of educating themselves on constitutional issues, the members developed a list of questions on constitutional issues for Bougainville and broke into five teams, which held consultative meetings throughout Bougainville over a period of about a month. The commission then developed a first draft of the constitution. In response to requests made during its initial public consultation meetings for feedback on the use made of the views submitted by the people, the commission prepared a detailed simple-language paper on the proposals in the draft, and circulated that widely, together with limited copies of the draft, and the same five teams held a further round of consultative meetings. This time there were strong requests for copies of any new draft prepared to be circulated widely. After making further amendments based on the additional views received, more copies of the second draft were circulated and a further round of consultative meetings was held. The commission then made another round of amendments to the draft, resulting in a third and final draft, together with a 370-page explanatory report, completed in July 2004.

In addition to engaging in public consultation, the commission consulted:

  • the national government, mainly because PNG had final authority to refuse to endorse the draft Bougainville constitution if it viewed the draft as not meeting the requirements of the Papua New Guinea constitution; and
  • the Bougainville provincial government and the Bougainville People’s Congress, to ensure that when they sat as the Bougainville constituent assembly they would have a good understanding of the draft constitution.

The constituent assembly met in September 2004, and again in November when it adopted the draft with only minor amendments. The adopted draft was then endorsed by the PNG government in December 2004, and the first general elections for the Autonomous Bougainville Government were held in May and June 2005.