The Prime Minister is the political head of PNG. He is elected by Parliament. Since Independence only four men have been Prime Minister. The first was the man who saw the country through to Independence, Sir Michael Somare “The Chief” from East Sepik.
“I came with a vision. I wanted to see Papua New Guinea as an independent sovereign nation which could stand with the rest of the people in the Pacific and Asia region”, said Sir Michael. “A lot of people said it wouldn’t be possible to make a country out of 700 different dialects, different languages, but I was able to prove to them that it can be done. People are beginning to see themselves as Papua New Guineans.” Sir Michael formed PANGU (Papua and New Guinea Unite, known just as Pangu Pati) in 1967. He worked assiduously for Independence. He became Chief Minister in 1972 and in 1975 (at Independence) Prime Minister. But while his party has so far achieved the largest number of seats at each election, it has never commanded an overall majority.
When Sir Michael became Prime Minister he relied on a coalition to keep him there. The first coalition was with Sir Julius Chan’s People’s Progressive Party. In 1978 that coalition came apart largely because Somare wanted to tighten up on the leadership code which would have restricted the business interests of politicians. Chan’s party is essentially a businessman’s party. Somare struck a deal with the opposition and continued in power until 1980 when Somare lost a no confidence vote and Sir Julius Chan, from New Ireland, became the second Prime Minister of PNG.
For two years Sir Julius Chan successfully fought to keep his government intact and built up his numbers to 70 as members switched allegiance and crossed the floor. 1982 was election year. However, it turned out to be a triumph for Somare. PANGU achieved 34% of the vote and won almost half the Parliamentary seats. Somare was Prime Minister for the next three years by which time his party was splitting apart. Sir Julius Chan tabled the motion of no confidence nominating Paias Wingti, the MP for Mt. Hagen in the Western Highlands, as alternative Prime Minister. Somare survived one vote and then fell. Paias Wingti became Prime Minister.
Paias Wingti had been a member of PANGU party and had taken office in successive Somare governments, but in 1985 had split and formed his own party, the PDM, the People’s Democratic Movement. He was thirty four when he took the Office of Prime Minister. “There will be a different style of leadership”, he promised. “There will be discipline and control of expenditure.” Wingti had eighteen months to the next election. It was close run. In a desperate attempt to save his party Somare stepped down and Rabbie Namaliu from East New Britain took over as PANGU leader. In mid 1987, the election returned Wingti to office however his government was defeated in a no-confidence vote in July 1988, and a coalition government led by Namaliu took power.
The next four years were swings and roundabouts as first Wingti and then Namaliu tried to keep their coalition governments together. In the 1992 election, Wingti returned to power leading a coalition government. By 1992 it became clear that the vote of no confidence mechanism might turn consensus into instability and the constitution was modified to allow successive governments a period of grace. On 24 September 1993, Parliament was advised that Palais Wingi had resigned from the role of Prime Minister. Nominations were then called and Wingi was subsequently re-nominated and re-appointed to the role. The opposition objected and one year later the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a prime minister to be re-appointed by Parliament on the same day that Parliament heard of the preceding resignation. Sir Julius Chan then led a coalition government of the People’s Progress Party and the Pangu Party.
Sir Julius once described PNG politics as “regionalistic and tribally based. Each member has a strong commitment to directly benefit his immediate electorate. In a way that is a good thing.” It puts pressure on members to service the needs of their electorate. It makes a logic out of a system that frequently seems illogical to an outsider. Sir Julius is an astute politician. He began as an officer in the Australian Administration. He has led his party since 1970. In the 1970’s he was a Governor of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. He has always shown great interest in matters of finance, trade and industry. In 1980 he was awarded a KBE and became Sir Julius Chan. In 1994 his service to Papua New Guinea was recognised by the highly prestigious award Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St.Michael and St.George (GCMG). Sir Julius remains head of government today and is also Minister for Foreign Affairs.