Nicholas Ferns reviews R.J. May’s State and Society in Papua New Guinea, 2001-2021 (Canberra: ANU Press, 2022).


Over the past several decades, Ronald May has established himself as one of the most authoritative voices on Papua New Guinean politics. He is a prolific writer on a variety of topics, ranging from Papua New Guinean political parties to the impacts of religion and sustainable development on PNG politics. In State and Society in Papua New Guinea, 2001-2021, May has assembled fifteen different pieces that he has written over the past twenty years, producing a comprehensive account of Papua New Guinean politics since 2001.

This book is a follow up to May’s 2001 State and Society in Papua New Guinea, which charted the twenty-five years that followed PNG’s independence in 1975. Given that it includes chapters, papers, and articles written since 2001, this sequel offers a window into the changes in Papua New Guinean politics in the twenty-first century. While not formally organised into different sections, the book shifts neatly from a discussion of political parties in PNG, to some of the challenges to Papua New Guinean democracy, to an examination of the past decade of political leadership under Prime Ministers Peter O’Neill and James Marape.

In the opening several chapters, May provides a thorough and fascinating analysis of political parties in PNG since 1975. One of the threads that runs through May’s analysis is the ultimate lack of influence of political parties on Papua New Guinean politics. This is demonstrated by references to the huge coalitions required to form government, the yo-yo politiks of MPs shifting parties during a parliamentary term, and the huge numbers of independent candidates in each national election. For May, the expectations of Australian and PNG political planners at the time of independence that a strong political party system would emerge have not been fulfilled, but this has not necessarily been detrimental to Papua New Guinean democracy.

While the lack of strong political parties might not be a significant issue in May’s analysis, the middle section of the book examines challenges that are more pressing. Corruption looms large throughout the book, and a short chapter, originally written in 2007, offers few solutions but recognises that there is strong anti-corruption rhetoric in PNG. However, the transactional nature of Papua New Guinean politics, where MPs are often expected to maximise returns to local supporters, creates a structure where corruption is more likely to occur. The theme of corruption also pervades the final chapters on the period from 2012-2021, as May describes the numerous examples where the O’Neill government behaved inappropriately. This leads May to question whether Papua New Guinean political culture has changed to become more accepting of corruption; it seems it is still too early to tell if this is the case.

The thematic chapters are interspersed with analysis of fascinating moments in Papua New Guinean politics over the past twenty years. One standout is May’s analysis of the ‘Zurenuoc affair’, where speaker of the national parliament, Theodore Zurenuoc, sought to remove Indigenous art in the parliamentary chamber, because it violated his Christian beliefs. For May, this episode highlighted the emergence of ‘religious fundamentalism’ as an aspect of Papua New Guinean politics. In his concluding thoughts on the 2013 events, May suggests that it is still unclear whether the influence of ‘foreign evangelists’ will be a ‘passing fad’ or ‘evidence of some growing tendencies that should give cause for genuine concern’ (p. 185).

Another interesting chapter is May’s analysis of the ‘political coup’ that ousted Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare in 2011. After a detailed summary of the events, which culminated in Somare being replaced by Peter O’Neill while recovering from surgery in Singapore, May examines the constitutional and political ramifications of the ‘coup’. For May, the fact that the episode was ‘solved’ by the 2012 election, which confirmed O’Neill as Prime Minister, has left ongoing questions about the strength of Papua New Guinean democracy. This theme, which is recurring throughout the book, reflects May’s primary concern over the troubling trajectory of Papua New Guinean politics.

Australia also looms large in some of May’s analysis. For instance, in his chapter on Papua New Guinean security, May is critical of the ‘paternalistic’ attitudes held by many Australians. Similarly, May highlights Papua New Guinean criticisms of Australian ‘boomerang aid’, which is perceived as bringing more benefits to Australia than PNG. This is an important point to make, as Australian awareness of Papua New Guinean issues needs to go beyond superficial observations by disengaged Australian officials.

Ultimately, May presents a nuanced picture of Papua New Guinean politics over the past two decades. This has been a challenging period for PNG, and May is conscious of the factors that have influenced the nation’s leaders. While he is sympathetic regarding the degree of agency PNG has over global affairs, he is also critical of PNG’s politicians, arguing that ‘to a large extent much of the country’s difficulties can be attributed to poor economic management’ (p. 5). This incisive critique is buttressed by the detailed analysis throughout the book.

This is a book that will prove useful to scholars of PNG, and Ronald May should be congratulated for his long career studying the politics of Australia’s closest neighbour.


Nicholas Ferns
Nicholas Ferns

Nicholas Ferns is a research fellow in History at Monash University. He is a historian of development and Australian empire in the Pacific, with a particular focus on Australia’s colonial administration of PNG. He was recently awarded an ARC DECRA for a new project examining the historical relationship between Australia and the World Bank.