Papua New Guinea: New cabinet forms as elite move to resolve crisis

August 17, 2012
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill and Sir Michael Somare.

Papua New Guinea's new cabinet was named on August 10 by re-elected Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. It marked the end of the election period that ended the country's long-running political crisis.

The election period began in June and was extended in some areas due to violence, delays, fraud and voting problems.

The elections had considerable influence from Australia and other Western countries. The Australian government floated the idea of sanctions if PNG went ahead with plans to delay the elections. Australia and New Zealand also lent military helicopters and personnel to help with the election.

The political instability that plagued O'Neill's first stint as PM meant an election was vital to create a more harmonious environment for investment in the country.

PNG's economy is dominated by foreign corporations mainly involved in resource extraction, who have plundered the country's wealth for decades, leaving little for ordinary people. PNG's elites enable this plunder while taking a cut of the spoils for themselves.

These companies have traditionally been based in Western countries, especially PNG's former colonial ruler Australia. However, recent investment from China and the influence of Chinese money on the former regime of Sir Michael Somare worried Western imperialists. This led them to back the pro-Australian O'Neill.

O'Neill's People's National Congress Party emerged with the most seats after the election. O'Neill was re-elected as PM by parliament in a landslide over his former deputy Belden Namah.

His government is typical of PNG governments before it — a coalition of various parties and individuals based around personal advancement rather than political principle.

Australia Network News said on August 7: “O'Neill's People's National Congress Party went to the election with 24 endorsed sitting MPs. While eight of those lost, 15 retained their seats and the party won 12 seats it never held before for a total of 27 in the 111 Member Parliament.”

O'Neill's popularity is due to his image as a reformer and a fresh face as opposed to Somare, who he deposed last year.

However, O'Neill's record does not match his image. He is a long-term member of PNG's notoriously corrupt political establishment and has been accused of profiting from fraud.

PNG Exposed said on June 27, 2010: “He helped steal millions from the retirement savings of ordinary Papua New Guineans and he has never been brought to justice.”

Somare, PNG's “grand chief” who retained his seat in the election, has played a leading role in politics for more than 40 years.

Somare's third stint as prime minister from 2002 until last year was marked by higher-than-usual corruption and nepotism, alienating the public and fellow politicians. It also encouraged Chinese investment in PNG.

Blogger Martyn Namorong said on July 25: “The last decade was pretty bad for the people of Papua New Guinea and many wanted Somare out of office. When O'Neill and Namah triumphed in getting rid of Somare, the nation rejoiced.

“Whilst the two men may not have had legal mandate for their actions, they certainly had the mandate of the people. The people of Papua New Guinea had gotten fed up with selfish leaders.”

Despite the sentiment for reform from voters, little is likely to change. O'Neill has joined forces with members of the old guard of PNG politics, including former PMs Sir Julius Chan and Paias Wingti, AAP said on July 25.

In a surprise move, O'Neill also received the backing of Somare after the election, despite the recent months-long feud between the two over who was the legitimate PM.

The feud threatened to derail the country, with events descending into farce at times. Somare had threatened to jail O'Neill and Namah if re-elected PM.

O'Neill was first elected PM by parliament in August last year after then-PM Somare had been critically ill for months in a Singapore hospital. However, Somare later made a shock return, claiming O'Neill's election was illegal.

This sparked a feud that involved two governments claiming to be legitimate, an attempted military coup on behalf of Somare, stand-offs between security forces, the arrest of Supreme Court judges for opposing O'Neill and the passing of laws that undermined the constitution.

Despite this bitter struggle, many of the faces in government remain unchanged.

More than a third of O'Neill's cabinet positions went to current or former members of Somare's National Alliance party. Namorong said on August 10 it was “a successful rebranding of the Somare regime”.

PNG's people “have now been betrayed by O'Neill by his marriage of convenience with an old guard of former prime ministers, who are considered by many as being either corrupt or incompetent”, Namorong said.

Many of O'Neill's ministers have dubious records regarding corruption. One example is O'Neill's forestry minister, Patrick Pruaitch, who was accused of widespread corruption during his time in the same role under Somare. documented many cases of Pruaitch's alleged complicity in crimes by Malaysian logging giant Rimbunan Hijau.

Somare's National Alliance party won only five seats, said. It lost the seats of former high-ranking members of the Somare regime, Sam Abal and Arthur Somare.

The biggest loser in the election was O'Neill's former deputy, Belden Namah, and his PNG Party. It dropped from 19 to eight seats in parliament, Australia Network News said.

Namah had ambitions of becoming PM before the election, but his campaign was “the most expensive and spectacular failure in the history of PNG post-colonial politics”, New Matilda said on August 15. Namah took the role of opposition leader.

Namah was the architect of Somare's removal last year. His split with O'Neill was mooted before the election with several public disagreements and Namah claiming O'Neill was a puppet of Australia.

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