Meet PNG's New PM

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Peter O’Neill, PNG’s new Prime Minister, was dramatically elected yesterday after a revolt by government MPs who were fed up waiting on the health status of Sir Michael Somare.

O’Neill’s elevation to the top job is classic PNG politics. In this land of the unexpected, the unexpected happened when Opposition leader Beldan Namah led a massive coup on the floor of parliament.

Namah, who defected from the government in a failed vote of no confidence last year, had the numbers to force the Speaker Jeffery Nape to conduct a vote to declare the PM’s seat vacant due to Somare’s protracted absence.

In October last year, when working in PNG, I learnt O’Neill wanted to oust Professor Ross Garnaut — yes, Australia’s climate change guru — from the PNG Sustainable Development Fund that was failing to act as BHP’s mea culpa for irrevocable environmental damage in PNG’s Western Province.

After the story was published the poo hit the fan and O’Neill, PNG’s then-Treasurer, denied ever saying a thing against the good professor — a denial that came in emails, press releases and a phone call to me. Explaining to the honourable member that I had his precise comments on my dictaphone, the one he had agreed would sit on his office desk when we spoke, he paused, heartily laughed and explained that, "when I said I wanted him gone, I didn’t mean I wanted him sacked". We both laughed and he politely said goodbye. A few days later we shared a few more laughs and beers at the bar he owns in Port Moresby, the popular Friday night watering hole, Paddy’s. Such is the flex, familiarity and fluidity of PNG politics.

O’Neill, leader of the People’s National Congress Party, has an Australian father. He is a shrewd politician and successful businessman who, like most successful Papua New Guineans, has various question marks around him

In PNG, they say it’s only a scam if you’re not involved. There are many reports regarding O’Neill’s past — but PNG politicians are always walking close to the line of not being involved. This was one of the problems with the previous Somare-led government: too many politicians were getting too involved.

Somare, known affectionately as the Old Man, is also the father of the nation, considering he was the country’s first PM. Along with other firebrand politicians Somare brought about independence from Australia in September 1975. But now, with 40 years in politics under his belt, Somare, 75, languishes in a Singapore hospital after receiving heart surgery four months ago. Shortly before the operations a three-member tribunal found him guilty of failing to lodge financial statements, some dating back 20 years.

A two-week suspension was a slap on the wrist that turned into a power struggle between various government factions — and this is what ultimately leading to Somare’s acting PM, Sam Abal, losing the struggle to O’Neill and his backers in yesterday’s 70-24 vote.

There was a clause, somewhere, in PNG’s constitution which allowed this to all proceed. Whether it is constitutional is another question which will be settled in court at a later date, but disgruntled government MPs and tired opposition figures have finally found a way to bring about change in PNG. PNG needs real development and infrastructure — and even more so, functioning systems. This is a hard task for any new government — and especially in a kleptocracy culture that has eroded PNG’s institutions into dysfunction.

This new PM takes up the reins with nine months until elections in 2012.

If O’Neill gets it right in the next coming months — and in PNG politics that means dishing out large sums of cash for special projects to his supporting MPs — this new coalition government could be a force to be reckoned in 2012.

But if it is more of the same, if nothing happens, if scandals continue, if old scandals haunt the government, then the Somare faction may be able to push back.

The Somare-led National Alliance (NA) party is now split with members on both sides of parliament. NA is the strongest political party in the country, a machine that has enough financial and political capital to mean something. The other smaller parties really don’t differ much on policy, indeed they work more as clubs with various personalities attached to them. It’s a scramble to form government. The opposition is simply made up of those MPs who missed the bus.

It was the Somare Old Man brand that managed to keep the government together — like many of the dilapidated cars crawling along Port Moresby roads, chugging along spewing out black smog while perilously stuck together by sticky tape.

With O’Neill in the driver’s seat, PNG has no excuse. After this prolonged paralysis, it should be all systems go.

Once our own Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, recovers from his own heart problems, Australia will push for the re-opening of the Manus Island detention centre, negotiations that were stalled in Somare’s absence.

The other issue Canberra’s finest will pursue regards Somare’s second eldest son, Arthur, the one-time heir apparent, who as public enterprise minister oversaw the development of PNG’s largest resource project, the massive $16 billion ExxonMobil-led Liquefied Natural Gas project.

Arthur Somare was recently suspended from office to face a similar tribunal his father faced. Now he is out of the government completely. Australia believed Arthur was a safe pair of hands when it came to the LNG project. It is unclear what these changes mean for a resource project that the Australian government is supporting so closely. The project is touted as yet another resource panacea for PNG but already there are fears it will sour thanks to the politics played out in parliament this week.

As he takes office, O’Neill can capitalise on these unanswered questions — but don’t expect the endless corruption allegations, the dodgy deals and incompetence that typify PNG politics to go away.

 

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