Australia-PNG: More in common than immediately apparent
Belden Namah says he's concerned over slow pace of justice

‘I’m on the right path,’ says O’Neill, & hits out at social media

ROWAN CALLICK | The Australian

Peter O'NeillPAPUA NEW GUINEA'S MOST POWERFUL prime minister since independence, Peter O'Neill - who has won the backing of 104 of the 111 members of parliament - has come under fire in recent weeks, especially on social media, over the government's aggressive management style.

However, "we are leading the way," he tells The Australian in an interview in his parliamentary office. "And in PNG there is a lot of story-telling without facts.

"There has been some apprehension in the community at large because of the new level of enthusiasm we brought. That's now starting to rub off. The public is responding well; they can see new infrastructure and free health and education, and discipline coming back into the disciplined services."

And a new Asian-style model for development is emerging through government businesses. Fifteen months after the election, O'Neill acknowledges his team could do better, and anticipates his first ministerial reshuffle.

"Everybody now knows there's a light at the end of the tunnel, which can be reached if we work together," he says.

"Over the next four to five years you'll find the country in better shape."

The government is communicating with Asia better, he says, which is providing his new development template. And it's engaging well with Australia, too.

O'Neill says his government has developed "a good working relationship with the new Abbott government - and we had already established a friendship with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. All in all, it's got off to a good start."

The government "is receptive to Australian aid being recast in line with our own priorities - education, health and infrastructure. There must be some visibility in the projects that Australia is involved in, with infrastructure being the key."

Tony Abbott has been invited to visit, which O'Neill expects will happen early next year. The men have already met several times, on the sidelines of other meetings in the region. Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato will lead PNG's team for the annual Joint Ministerial Forum, which will be held in Canberra on 11 December.

Greater involvement of the PNG, and especially Manus, business communities in the asylum-seeker centre will be one issue that Pato will take up, says O'Neill - as will concerns about spying.

O'Neill says: "This must be resolved with some level of certainty" at the forum.

"We know that this might be happening, but it would certainly be a breach of trust. Among friends, this is not necessary. If there are issues to be discussed, all they have to do is pick up the phone and give us a call, as they do on many other matters. Under our laws, it is illegal to tap phones, a serious criminal matter."

The PNG Prime Minister details how the government has embarked on a new economic direction for the country - one that follows the more state-directed path of many Asian countries.

He admires government-owned conglomerates such as Singapore's investment house, Temasek, with $190 billion in assets, and Malaysia's resources corporation Petronas, with $175bn.

He says: "In countries like ours, where the economy is not fully developed, but with a fast-growing population and high youth unemployment, we need to create industries that will engage them more fully. Other countries around the world have taken that approach."

O'Neill points out that Peru and Chile also have major mining companies that are fully owned by the state. "As long as we create a business model which is managed outside the public service structure, and governance issues are addressed properly, the opportunity will yield good returns for our country."

Several Asian countries, he says, "have succeeded economically with very limited resources. We have an abundance. Our only problem has been our management of them".

"If we structure well, there is no reason why we shouldn't succeed as they have done, with professional managements and independent boards, and an ability to achieve global branding."

The government is putting an increased focus on small and medium-sized firms, he says, "trying to get Papua New Guineans into business"

He concedes that "many will feel that focus may lead to the displacement of foreign interests in certain sectors. But it's not an issue about national content or local ownership or nationalisation of interests".

O'Neill says there has been "deliberate misinformation about this peddled by some of our critics, especially in the background of the Ok Tedi mine takeover" with the government acquiring - so far without compensation - the 63.4% owned by PNG Sustainable Development Program, a trust established when BHP-Billiton left.

O'Neill says: "We're not taking over the interests of foreign investors as such in Ok Tedi. We are just rearranging the structure so we can maximise returns for our own stakeholders, as any company would do."

The prime minister reveals he is moving to create a national content framework for media in PNG, linked with a required level of local participation.

National daily newspapers the Post-Courier (majority owned by News Corp, owner of The Weekend Australian, but with 30% local ownership) and The National, broadcaster EM TV and several FM radio stations are foreign-owned.

O'Neill says: "We are holding discussions with stakeholders, which we are trying to conclude by the next parliament sitting in February. It's an open discussion, not something we are forcing on to people. It's not uncommon around the world."

The public sector has been "a bit slow in responding to the demands which the economy is placing on them. So we're bringing more people from the private sector into the public service, recruiting new people, and now the focus is there. We're been able to achieve some level of delivery in 2013, but in 2014 there will be a substantial increase in projects on the ground."

PNG is establishing an Asian-style free-trade zone in east Sepik to attract large-scale agricultural investment, in which government and landowners will also participate. And it has agreed with Indonesia to develop jointly their border zone.

O'Neill laments that "personality attacks have been coming from people with nothing to offer the nation - using social media to put out untruths against which we can't easily defend ourselves.

"Some is sourced from political enemies, and we know where that's coming from. They are determined to derail stable government, and are also trying to compromise sections of the police force and the military. So these are very dangerous people for our country."

But he insists: "They won't deter me from doing my job. In fact, it just goes to show I am on the right path. If I upset a few people along the way, as long as the majority know I'm putting the country on the right path to the development it deserves, I need make no apology to anyone."

Comments

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Steve W Labuan

Peter O'Neill and his government are negatively supported in the rest of the country, whether the government likes it or not.

I do not know whether the PM's belief that the majority of people are with him was ascertained by himself, his office, party or government, and that indeed it would be interesting for him really show this.

What I do know is that of the nation's 7 million people, 80 percent mind their own business in the rural areas with little or no interest in politics. About 2.5 million of the urban population are well educated. More than half of the well educated (64%) may be regarded simply as swayers with the wind.

So this leaves less than 500,000 who are part of the core urban elites actively involved in heading the running and maintenance of all public & private servicees & functions in PNG, MPs included.

So the country is run actually by about an active 30 percent of PNG's educated elite population. Most of this (200,000 - 300,000) are active users of social media, and have acute influence over the rest of the country's population much more than most MPs do.

In light of the PM's comments on having the majority behind him, it would seem an obvious fact that the majority view is against him and his government led by the elite through social media, and that FB for instance, accurately reflects this reality on the ground.

To avoid kidding himself, the PM needs to verify his statements with better analysis than his shrug-off one against social media for instance, and start using these voices to guide his direction.

Michael Dom

I'd rather that politicians and their supporters grow some balls, grit their teeth and take it on the chin when citizens express their views on public agenda. They are public figures and hold public office and therefore should be amenable to public reproach.

This happens in all good democracies.

We on the other hand should respect the position even if its taken up by an ass.

What we have to say may have little influence on public policy and government business but we do have the right to express our views.

Or do we remain silent and not provide criticism? How does government know what the people are thinking, mind-reading?

As PM O'Neill notes, the discomfort may be evidence that we are on the right path.

Personally, I'm not concerned with the short term outputs of this government, but in the outcome of good government policy and active implementation over at least the next ten years.

It is short sighted and unrealistic to expect turn around in PNG in less time than that.

Peter Pirape Anage

PNG experienced uninterupted economic growth year in year out over the last 10 years, however, this economic progress has not translated into infrastructure and service outcomes reflective of that progress.

We now have a government that is focusing on services and infrastructure delivery throughout the country while in office for just two years, and we are slowly seeing results we should have seen ten years ago.

There are all range of reforms coming especially to streamline business and service delivery models and it seems to be working.

Can PNGeans for once give this government a chance to deliver within its parliamentary term of 5 years and judge after the completion of its term? PNGeans have come of age and therefore should judge better than what the coverage leads some to believe.

Michael Dom

Philip Maiyeh, we have a PNG version of that saying, when at one election rally in the highlands the nominee promised to build a wharf.

When someone shouted out that, "mipela nogat solwara", his response was, "bai mi karim solwara kam". This was received with whooping and cheering - we love a slick tongue in PNG. Too bad they come forked.

I believe that candidate may have won the seat and passed on to other glorified positions. As for his electorate...

Philip Maiyeh

Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.

Mike Yapis

Peyet O'Neill is the best PM we have had since independence. He knows PNG's potential and definitely has a clear vision, an agenda to run PNG.

PNG is a sleeping giant. For too long we have been put down like rags by countries like Australia.

Winston Parks

Peter O'Neill knows that if he repeats his lies often enough they will start sounding like the truth even though they aren't. Where are these "disciplined services" that all of us are supposed to be seeing, according to O'Neill?

Harry Topham

The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks, which begs the question why has it become neccessary for social media outlets to have to take on a "perceived" role of being an opposition party when such a role should lie directly with the elected opposition political parties within the House of Assembly?

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