NOOSA – Political turmoil is not unknown in Papua New Guinea but it's the only story occupying people's attention this weekend.
In the wake of the exit of many of his high profile political cronies, and with more MPs likely to follow, can prime minister Peter O’Neill hang on to his leadership?
With a parliamentary vote of no confidence to be brought on in a little over a week from now, PNG’s eight million people won’t be kept in suspense much longer.
And as for O’Neill, in an audio statement released from Beijing Friday evening he reassured supporters that his coalition still had plenty of numbers in parliament and was well able to continue as a stable government.
Earlier, at a dramatic media conference in parliament house in Port Moresby late Friday morning, broadcast live throughout PNG, six of O’Neill’s closest supporters in the ruling People’s National Congress dropped a bombshell.
They collectively announced their resignation from the party setting up a showdown when parliament sits. In quitting, they followed the footsteps of onetime O’Neill confidante and PNG finance minister James Marape, who had walked a fortnight before hurling a long laundry list of complaints at his former colleague.
Each of the leaders, sitting in a row facing a huge media contingent, delivered a homily on why they were exiting and all grasped the money quote from William Powi that “this is a private sacrifice for public good.”
Given previous political experience in PNG, that virtuous rhetoric has yet to be observed in practise.
Behind a string of tables covered by what looked like a bed sheet and many corded microphones were Enga governor Sir Peter Ipatas, Southern Highlands governor William Powi, Hela governor Philip Undialu, Jiwaka governor Dr William Tongap, former attorney-general and Esa’ala (Milne Bay) MP Steven Davis, and vice-minister for petroleum and energy and Komo-Magarima (Hela) MP Manase Makiba.
James Marape was absent and this was noticed, with Undialu explicitly challenging him to follow their example and join the group. More on this later
It was interesting, though, to listen to each of these influential figures offer their rationale on why they were deserting O’Neill at this time.
In these explanations, corruption loomed large. It would be wrong to write that none of these leaders has ever benefited from corruption, but it seems that its great scale under the O’Neill government – of which they have been such a prominent part for many years - has proven too much even for them.
Corruption was specifically mentioned in remarks by Ipatas, Undialu, Davis and Makiba as were the related issues of law and order and institutional decline.
Another key issue was what the leaders saw as a failure by O’Neill to effectively share power - and equitably share the benefits from major mining projects. Landowners in particular have been dudded - but so have the people of PNG more generally. Greedy politiciand and resource companies .
The extremely high level of overseas loans, public service salaries and service delivery were also mentioned as troubling matters for these senior national figures.
Enga governor Ipatas, who along with Marape and Sam Basil must be looked upon as a possible successor to O’Neill, said that the two outstanding issues for him were the lack of consultation and consensus in the delivery of services and corruption in the government, which he said had reached unprecedented levels in recent years under People’s National Congress rule.
Southern Highlands governor Powi – a provincial colleague of O’Neill – said a fundamental issue of national importance was the continuous failure of the prime minister to strengthen provincial and local level governance and empower the people.
He said the PNG constitution made it clear that elected leaders have a moral obligation to the people they represent and this has been greatly undermined by the current political and administrative structure in PNG.
Hela governor Undialu said bluntly that his own resignation was the result of the government failing to honour its commitments under the PNG LNG project. It has not delivered the promised royalties, grants and other funds under a whole range of agreements.
“I cannot be continue to be like a fool in front of my people who are yet to see real and tangible benefits in terms of promised project, funds and others,” he said.
"Hela is the host province of the over K40 billion first LNG project but there are many unanswered questions that continue to haunt this government.”
Undialu pointed out that, since the first shipment of gas five years ago, over K70 billion had been earned but the O’Neill government was not telling the country where the money was parked and why.
“Where is all the money earned from the PNG LNG project and revenue from forestry, fisheries and other exports?” he asked.
“I’m very frustrated that the prime minister has gone away to China yet again to borrow money, placing a huge burden on our people - this and future generations who will repay the debt.
“Why do we have to still continue to borrow, when we are so blessed with abundant natural resources? Why have we not learnt from the first PNG project?” All good questions.
Former attorney-general Davis blamed the current leadership of failing to put in place anti-corruption measures or to promote and strengthen the rule of law.
Makiba said he resigned from People’s National Congress because, as vice-minister for petroleum and energy, he clearly witnessed breaches in the recent signing of the Papua LNG agreement.
“Three day before signing I opposed it because certain procedures were not complied with. My view is that, in such important investments, members of parliament together with provincial and local level government leaders must be given the opportunity to have their views [considered].
"In this case it was rushed and there are still many outstanding issues that need to be put right,” Makiba said.
Meanwhile, stress fractures are continuing to grow in the Pangu Pati, from which its high profile leader, current finance minister Sam Basil, was expelled after he took the party from opposition into government in 2017.
Basil is registering a new party but the Pangu executive is urging other Pangu MPs not to join him.
If O’Neill and People’s National Congress are ejected from power in the next few weeks, Basil and Marape will undoubtedly be seeking to replace him. And perhaps deputy prime minister Charles Abel will see an opportunity to emerge as a compromise candidate.
But, as Radio New Zealand journalist Johnny Blades says: “Peter O'Neill has been the dominant political player in PNG politics for seven or eight years now. He's a master at garnering the numbers, and we can't count him out just yet.”
We can't and shouldn't, but the count is on.