Has Anything Changed In PNG?


Papua New Guinea went to the polls in June and just last week a new parliament was sworn in. Most interested observers could not have foreseen the results.

Yet for all its newness there is a strong sense of déjà vu around the ninth PNG parliament. The 2012 elections followed an established historical precedent in that there was a high turnover of MPs — only 40 sitting members (37 per cent) retained their seats. (Although admittedly, some of the "new" MPs were reborn and recycled from older regimes — such as former PM Paias Wingti, who re-won a Western Highland’s seat)

There were 111 MPs elected from a field of 3343 candidates representing 21 parties. 2197 candidates ran as independents and 16 of them were elected. The party with the greatest number of winning candidates was the Peoples’ National Congress (PNC), with 27 seats, headed by the immediate past prime minister, Peter O’Neill.

O’Neill was invited to form government — but to do so he needed to make up the numbers.

If things had gone according to a prearranged plan and followed the Memorandum of Understanding, the government benches would have been occupied in tandem with O’Neill’s previous coalition partner, leader of the PNG Party and former Deputy Prime Minister, Belden Namah. But they didn’t.

Here, it gets complicated. Namah was the architect of the August 2011 political coup that ousted the incumbent Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, in absentia. Although Namah did so as leader of the opposition, he was also Forestry Minister in the regime he sought to overthrow.

Namah was the self-confessed "kingmaker". He chose Peter O’Neill, also a former Minister in the Somare regime who had been marginalised and sidelined into the Works portfolio from Treasury, to lead the country.

There was nothing really new about this government.

It contained twice as many faces from the old regime as from the opposition. What’s more, even some of the opposition MPs were actually disgruntled MPs formerly from the Somare administration — such as Belden Namah and the veteran politician, Bart Philemon.

It was this coup that would see PNG in political turmoil for 12 months. Retaining power became the government’s primary agenda and the legislature and the executive were pitted dangerously at loggerheads with the judiciary. It was hoped that the elections would solve the impasse.

Intending to obtain unfettered legitimate power, Namah took steps to ensure his election victory and that of his party members — armed with $13.5 million from his private fortune.

He predicted that he would be the one who would be asked to form government. The kingmaker would henceforth be king.

Cracks started to appear in the O’Neill/Namah alliance. Namah accused O’Neill of filling the 2012’s Queen’s birthday honours list with his "drinking buddies". O’Neill responded that all Namah had to offer PNG was "his big mouth".

It was a portent of things to come and proved strategically fatal for Namah. He played his cards badly.

The PNG Party, with 88 candidates and bucket-loads of money, expected that they’d improve on their previous total of 25 MPs. They won just eight seats in total. Namah did not expect to have to rely on preferences to win his own seat, nor was he prepared for the loss of one of his party deputies, Jamie Maxtone-Graham.

When O’Neill was asked to form government, Belden Namah was already persona non grata. O’Neill stated that Namah and his people had "made their bed and they could lie in it together".

Instead, back in the governing fold, Peter O’Neill had four powerful backers, all former prime ministers: Sir Michael Somare, Sir Julius Chan, Sir Puka Temu and Paias Wingti.

Peter O’Neill had become the Prime Ministers’ Prime Minister.

On the other hand, Namah, the former soldier and graduate from Duntroon Military Academy, had engineered the most expensive and spectacular failure in the history of PNG post-colonial politics.

In twelve short months, Namah had gone from being opposition leader to being opposition leader — with reduced numbers and an estimated expenditure of upwards of $AU18 million.

Many high-profile politicians lost their seats in this election including the powerful former Speaker, Jeffrey Nape. Moses Maladina, another of the coup rebels and a minister in both the Somare and O’Neill/Namah regime, failed to retain his. Sam Abal, the Acting Prime Minister in Somare’s absence and during the coup, also lost his.

A female candidate Loujaya Toni (one of only three women in 2012 to win a seat) unseated the veteran, Bart Philemon, a pleasant surprise for the under-represented women of PNG. Toni also scored a ministerial portfolio — the same one relinquished by Dame Carol Kidu, who retired this year as the sole female MP during her 15 years in the PNG parliament.

With 10 first-time MPs in a ministry of 33, one could argue that real changes have taken place — but the percentage of first-time ministers is in inverse proportion to the percentage of first-time MPs.

And there’s lots that hasn’t changed. Patrick Pruaitch is once again Minister for Forestry. William Duma continues to hold fast to the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum after three regimes and Polye is reprising his role as Treasurer.

Marape, Pala, Pundari and Allen are all familiar names from the Somare regime, just heading different portfolios.

First-term parliamentarian, Kerenga Kua is Justice Minister and Attorney-General — but he’s no political novice being Sir Michael Somare’s personal lawyer.

And still the taint of corruption lingers on both sides of the parliamentary chamber. Will the new blood erase the taint — or just become infected?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.