Landowners on LNG project impact
Remembering the Montevideo Maru tragedy

Big-man politics: when the chief is away...


Papua New Guinea’s political dramas have intensified in the 10 weeks that Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare has spent in intensive care in Singapore’s Raffles Hospital.

Only on 22 June did Arthur Somare, the Minister for Public Enterprises, tell Parliament that his 75-year-old father had undergone a heart valve operation plus two further emergency operations.

Last Friday, 24 June he stated that the family had decided he would be told he could not return to his job and should resign, and late last week the government made a snap decision to adjourn Parliament for five weeks till August, which will give it some time to resolve its internal divisions.

In May a government minister was chastised for insensitive ambition for angling to replace the nation’s founding PM while he was ill, but since then the power plays are becoming increasingly evident.

The current Opposition is not the main force here — it makes up only 21 of the 109 MPs, and a vote of no confidence is unlikely.

Conflict has emerged both within and between the dozen coalition parties, most who have been together since 2002. Somare’s National Alliance (NA) is still the largest party with about 40 MPs, but in the event of a mid-term vacancy the party’s leader is not guaranteed the prime ministership; MPs would have an open vote.

The political outcome of these struggles cannot be predicted at this stage. What we are seeing is a currently-muted return to the pattern of ‘horse trading’ between several candidates, with several parties already clearly divided. Some current ministers could also move to the Opposition. The unfolding situation can best be understood by briefly examining the cast of characters.

As flagged previously in East Asia Forum the Somare family has been embroiled in Leadership Code cases initiated by the Ombudsman Commission. In April the PM was briefly suspended from duty for failing to lodge annual income and asset returns over many years, and in July his son Arthur faces a tribunal on charges relating to alleged misuse of electoral-district development funds. Such funds are poorly-controlled honey traps for MPs, and since 1976 some 94 leadership cases have been commenced.

PNG’s politicians are gearing up for the mid-2012 elections and building up political and financial credit for themselves and their parties. The situation has been quite fluid since a Supreme Court decision in July 2010 allowed MPs to swap parties, and several parties in government have grown as MPs hopped around the floor, some more than once. The NA could remain the largest party after the next election, but meanwhile faces leadership struggles.

The party’s constitution denies Sir Michael a third term as PM, but observers believe that ‘the old man’ has hung on because his family wants Arthur to succeed him. Arthur has had carriage of the $15 billion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project and in Parliament he constantly extolls the riches it will bring. But he is often accused of arrogance, and the idea of a Somare dynasty attacked.

This helped precipitate the split in the NA July last year. Moreover, Arthur Somare is not one of the NA’s four regional deputy leaders, who under party rules should provide the next party leader.

When Sir Michael stood aside last December because of his Leadership case he appointed Sam Abal Acting PM. Son of a respected politician, and trained in Australia as a diplomat, Abal was Foreign Minister from 2007. He is respected as a bureaucrat but is not a flashy politician.

Although seen by some observers as lacking political toughness, while provincial affairs Minister in 2005 he took principled action to improve governance, resisting strong pressure from above. His current manoeuvres show a capacity for bold action.

Another person to watch is the NA’s longest-serving regional deputy leader, Patrick Pruaitch. Forestry Minister until 2007, he is allegedly implicated in a secret US$40m fund held in Singapore, derived from logging companies. He became Treasurer in 2007, although lost the position for 11 months and is still facing a Leadership Tribunal.

Pruaitch is seen by the Somares as a cousin, and Abal recently reappointed him Treasurer. Commentators say Abal wanted the NA to regain control of Treasury in the run up to the 2012 campaign.

The NA’s Highlands region deputy leader is Don Polye, who was also Deputy Prime Minister. An engineer, Polye, as Works and Transport Minister, gained enormous power after 2002. He excelled in Parliament and over the years built huge political credit, especially in the Highlands.

Australian educated, Polye is a smooth speaker and works well with foreign governments and aid donors. Last year Polye, a frankly ambitious man, argued that the NA needed a new leader and let it be known (to no avail) he was interested. Polye’s name was also damaged in the 2007 election, which he won with such a landslide that an appeal judge deemed it was rigged.

After spending huge funds in his electorate he was re-elected in a rather violent by-election in November 2009, and other Highland leaders clearly see Polye as a major threat. In December 2010 Abal removed Polye from his power base in Works and Transport to the Foreign Affairs portfolio, only to be sacked by Abal this June for alleged insubordination.

The NA’s deputy leader for the New Guinea Islands is Planning Minister Paul Tiensten. Although not tactically-astute, he has had enormous power in the disposition of the development budget and funds to MPs from the country’s ongoing mining boom ‘windfalls’.

Some of his spending has been seriously challenged, and last year NA’s strong Islands Division sought to expel him. Tiensten was also briefly suspended in 2010, but has strong connections with the Somare family who have kept him in the fold.

The coalition’s second-largest group is the United Resources Party (URP) led by William Duma from the Western Highlands, Minister for Petroleum. Duma has been plagued by poor performance and Abal removed him from the ministry in mid-June. The URP is now deeply divided, opening the possibility it will be absorbed by the NA — which would then owe their promotion to Abal and NA, who would no doubt hold URP members beholden to it for their ‘promotions’.

The Peoples National Congress (PNC) is the third major party in government, having grown rapidly since July 2010. Its leader Peter O’Neill was close to PM Somare while leading the Opposition from 2004, and after 2007 he became Public Service Minister. Now reputedly a very wealthy man, O’Neill is the best parliamentary speaker and tactician in government, though he remains under a cloud from the 2002 National Provident Fund Commission of Inquiry.

O’Neill used his time as Treasurer in recent months to build political support, but in mid-June Abal sacked him. Some journalists speculate that O’Neill could withdraw his party from the NA coalition, positioning himself  to win an open vote for PM.

These are the key characters and parties around which the narrative of PNG’s politics is unfolding. The outcome remains far from certain.

Parliament sits again for three weeks in July, and the constitution theoretically allows the Opposition to bring a vote of no confidence until 7 August, but that is unlikely given the PM’s ill health. A VNC is also unlikely because a number of MPs who crossed the floor in July 2010 have returned to government, often to different parties. 

One Minister who crossed back is Charles Abel, whose recent appointment as Minister of State Assisting the PM is strongly resented by other coalition MPs. The Opposition’s leaders since 2007, former PM Sir Mekere Morauta and his Deputy, Bart Philemon, stood aside in April in order to allow generational change, wan inducted Belden Namah and Sam Basil to replace them.

Namah was prominent while a young army lieutenant in removing South African mercenaries during the 1997 Sandline crisis, and since then has become wealthy from logging in his West Sepik Province. He was Forests Minister from 2007, which gives him demerits with civil society groups. Namah crossed the floor in July 2010 and after fiery speeches alleging corruption in government the PM Somare warned him not to break cabinet secrets.

Basil is a businessman from the mining area of Mumeng, a man of principle who understands the issues of governance as promoted by aid donors and civil society and environmental groups.

These first term MPs are strongly disliked by the old guard in government, and are unlikely to be able to form a new government this year or next. Sir Puka Temu, the Deputy PM who quit the government last July and was named then by Morauta as alternate PM has been calmly taking an elder statesman role while the PM is incapacitated.

Government has been in a state of policy paralysis this year and state services continue to decline. Angry landowners are blocking some of the construction at the LNG sites in the Southern Highlands and Gulf provinces, and resource projects in Madang province are under court challenge.

The new Police Commissioner Tony Wagambie admits major problems of police indiscipline; brutality by members of the under-resourced and trained force is a major public concern. The Governor of Morobe, Luther Wenge, is leading a renewed push against the Ombudsman Commission. A challenge is under way questioning the constitutionality of the process used for swearing in Abal as Acting PM and Sir Arnold Amet as his Attorney General last December.

The National Alliance is considering a resolution from Mr Polye’s Highlands region to expel Sam Abal from the party. Meanwhile, the capital Port Moresby faces a building boom induced by the LNG project. High inflation is making life difficult for the little people. Government services are declining across most of the country. 

Resentment of the incumbent government is found across the country, with constant allegations of corruption, so factors such as these could once again lead to  very high electoral losses by sitting MPs in 2012.

Meanwhile, on 14 June Sam Abal reassured Parliament ‘there’s a lot of things moving, a lot of things are coming up, for once in this country stabilization has occurred and investors have confidence in this country’.

Dr Bill Standish is Visitor at the School of Culture, History and Languages, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, and is a former lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea.  Since Dr Standish wrote this article, Prime Minister Somare has stood down from the leadership

Source: East Asia Forum


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Reginald Renagi

This whole saga between father and son is very interesting.
The father is pissed off that the son is trying to dismiss him.

Insiders who know the father very well confide that he can be extremely vindictive. I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t try to destroy his son for the betrayal.

I say this because the newspapers are reporting that the father is walking and talking. That means he is capable of writing a letter of resignation, but hasn’t. You see?

The father is not in agreement with the son about him stepping down. But is embarrassed to say anything about it.

This should have some positive affects for the opposition and other like minded-MPs in parliament.

PNGeans now want parliamentarians to stop the political games and start being serious about running PNG properly.

It's time to form an honest, transparent and a more accountable government now than before, because the two Somares seem irreconcilable. They are permanently divided.

But who cares about what's happening inside the family itself. It's their private business and does not concern the country. But they better not do it on 'our time'.

The time is just ripe for PNG to now have a fresh new clean regime. Or is that too much to ask for?


There also seems to be some dissension in the Somare and Sepik ranks, according to this report from Radio NZ International


Arthur Somare accused of misleading public over PM quitting politics

RNZI: There is a claim in Papua New Guinea that Arthur Somare misled the public when he announced that the prime minister’s family wished Sir Michael Somare’s retirement from politics because of ill-health.

The claim has been made by John Aramura, who is the brother of Sir Michael’s wife, Lady Veronica Somare.

Mr Aramura has told the Post Courier that his sister, who is in Singapore with Sir Michael, is unhappy with her son’s announcement.

Mr Aramura says according to Lady Veronica, the family discussions are not in line with what Arthur has done.

He says by custom and tradition, Arthur Somare is only the third born in the family and did not have any authority, or standing as a chief or leader, to make such statements.

Mr Aramura’s comment has been supported by the traditional chiefs and leaders of East Sepik, where Sir Michael has been elected.

A joint statement, signed by the nine chiefs of East Sepik, says what Arthur Somare has done is shameful and of total ignorance of family and traditional values.

Arthur Somare, who is the Minister of Public Enterprises, will face a leadership tribunal on Monday on allegations of misconduct in office.

Reginald Renagi

A good synopsis by Bill Standish. Just one observation in the footnote though.

PM Somare has technically not 'stood down from the leadership' as widely commented on other related blog articles here.

The constitutional process of electing a replacement PM on the floor of parliament after all legal requirements have been met is yet to be thoroughly followed through by parliament and the government.

Whether this will be allowed by the Speaker remains to be seen and will be a concern for the opposition.

The NA led government might want to kill the opposition's chances of again trying to move a vote of no confidence in the August sitting of parliament.

And keeping Sam Abal on as the Acting PM in government on an extended basis leading into the polls next year.

Reginald Renagi

The PM may be a legend but let's see the other side of the coin.

On his watch the PNG government has earned a very bad reputation for not being a responsive and responsible political regime in its two terms since 2002.

So the legacy being left behind now for those who will be at the helm is very daunting to steer the ship into the future. Many now feel it is time for a new sea change.

It is true as PNG can not afford the luxuary of time to improve itself for its new generation.

That is why since 2002, the Parliamentary Opposition party have been calling on the PM and his government to improve its act for the sake of good governance.

They have on many occasions called on both parliament and the executive arm of the government to do the right thing by the people of PNG. But this has fallen on deaf ears.

Scandals, corruption, gross financial mismanagement and the dismal failure to provide services have caused PNGeans to lose confidence in the Somare government.

The Opposition wants a new honest, transparent and accountable government and has for some time now called on MPs with the true interests of our nation at heart to collectively join and form a government of integrity and Service.

So after Somare, it is now the time to build a better and a more certain future.

Bernard Singu Yegiora

The power vacuum that Sir Michael Somare has created will set the stage for a tussle between potential leaders for the top job.

The article has put the spotlight on the key players and where they come from, what they are capable of doing, and what they have done.

We could be on the verge of a political dog fight that could change the course of PNG politics.

Interesting how the writer says Australian educated when talking about some of the leaders. Does that mean that their loyalty lies with Australia, or are they pro-Australian?

Phil Fitzpatrick

Education is an interesting conundrum.

When Gough Whitlam won power in Australia in the 1970s he made tertiary education free. This enabled a lot of smart kids from working class families to attend university.

When Gough was kicked out subsequent governments recognising the dangers of educating the great unwashed quickly brought back fees.

The clear message there was that education is a right of the rich and privileged and a way of hanging onto power.

Education is also a handy means of indoctination, instilling the beliefs and ethics of the ruling classes. It also works to establish closed shops in the professions; the lack of a formal qualification is used by discipline related organisations to exclude anyone not toeing the corporate line.

In that sense it can be detrimental to advancement; many of the great discoveries, scientific and otherwise have been made by people without formal qualifications. Uneducated writers are generally better than the educated ones.

On balance, however, education is a good thing. One of the first things a new PNG government in 2012 needs to do is abolish school fees.

After that it needs to allocate a very, very large amount of money to UPNG and the private universities. (Then it should kick in a large donation for the Crocodile Prize). The rich should not control education in PNG.

In my experience many of the rich, especially business men, are not especially smart. In many cases they are just greedy and crafty, a poor substitute for intelligence.

You can pick the dumb ones quite easily, they are the people with the obscenely large houses and monster cars. A credo of the new rich is that big is better and status is king.

Bernard Singu Yegiora

Lydia, that is a very spot on comment, I think those with money are playing the game and the smart ones dance to their music.

Joe Wasia

Thanks for the well written article. Let's have faith that a CEO of PNG will be appointed from above.

Lydia Kailap

When education becomes the almost exclusive right of the wealthy class; then you end up being led by the richest people and not necessarily the smartest.

Colin Huggins

Well said Kela! Yes, the money of the taxpayers of PNG were well spent on jet fares to Copenhagen. I think Somare and Mugabe had a very fruitful talkfest. I wonder if the PNGean people realise this?

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

People from all walks of life in PNG don’t elect or elevate people to higher positions of authority based on merit. Contemporary PNG society pushes people up the ranks through whom they know.

Now, even to receive a university education, threads along aristocratic lines and not meritocracy. Therefore those dumb and corrupt fat cats who became millionaires overnight a couple of years ago, find themselves up there as the CEO of the country.

Upright people like Abal will be sieved out soon. Those that have the indelible scars of corrupt deals highlighted will exhaust all means available to get to the apex.

So let us keep a vigil for the election of the next Mugabe. Oh dear, oh dear, the situation here right now is like George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’.

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