ANALYSIS BY FRANCIS NII
KUNDIAWA – The resignation of finance minister and Peter O’Neill comrade in arms James Marape has sent shockwaves throughout Papua New Guinea and signalled a possible changing of the political guard when parliament resumes in May.
Marape, who is the member for Tari-Pori and a provincial colleague of O’Neill, also held the key post of leader of government business in parliament.
His resignation came three days after the government signed an agreement for the development of PNG’s second liquefied natural gas project to proceed, this one in Papua.
Reports that he has been joined in his resignation by defence minister Solan Mirisim, MP for Telefomin and like Marape a People’s National Congress member, have been denied by Mirisim.
But other Cabinet ministers may follow suit, leading to a possible vote of no confidence when parliament resumes on 7 May.
Marape made his decision public in a news release on social media early yesterday afternoon that immediately went viral.
In his statement, Marape said the continuous decline in trust between himself and prime minister O’Neill was the reason for his exit from cabinet.
“It is with great regret that I announce my resignation as a minister of state in the O’Neill-Abel government,” Marape said.
“This decision is not easy to make and, despite cultural and personal ties, the level of trust between prime minister and myself is at the lowest after his office and associates continue to send negative signals on their lack of trust in me.
“Whilst we don’t have any personal differences, we do differ on some work and policy related matters.”
Marape went on to list these as these as more local content in the resources sector, greater empowerment of PNG businesses, reconfiguration of resource laws, greater local wealth generation from resource projects, the failure to honour existing resource project agreements and the neglect of provincial governments and landowners as well as other issues.
“I have raised my views and concerns on those areas and have come to realise that most of my advice finds no traction and is none compatible with the prime minister’s world view, thus it is only fitting that I exit cabinet,” Marape added in what read as a pitch for the prime minister’s job.
O’Neill was in New Ireland when the news reached him. Speaking to EMTV news, O’Neill said Marape had not spent time with his electorate and on issues that were close to his people because of his ministerial responsibility.
In an apparent attempt to belittle Marape, O’Neill said Marape’s district required great attention from him for an improved level of services.
The resignation of Marape closely followed the government’s sign off of a $US12 billion LNG project with Total and its development partners ExxonMobil and Oil Search.
It is understood the agreement was done in defiance of expert advice from the Department of Petroleum regarding issues of non-compliance.
A letter dated 27 March 2019 from the department’s secretary to PNG chief secretary and powerbroker Isaac Lupari, highlighted non-compliance on the part of Total regarding a number of key requirements under the Oil and Gas Act 1998 relating to the petroleum development licence.
The letter highlighted eleven key areas that were not documented in the licence as required by law.
“None of the required documents have been submitted and the department of petroleum has no ability to verify any of the important economic parameters provided by Total in the economic analysis,” the secretary's letter said.
Among the matters not complied with, the letter revealed, was the failure to complete social mapping and landowner identification processes, which have been at the heart of often great community unrest over the operation of resource projects in the highlands.
This indicates that the government has not learned from, or simply ignored, the unresolved issues surrounding the first Exxon Mobil LNG project particularly landowner frustration and anger at non-payment of royalties and other promised benefits.
There is great suspicion in PNG that the government, or certain people in the government, are up to something and may have secret arrangements with the resource companies.
From Marape’s media release and the secretary’s letter, it can be deduced that something is very wrong with the Papua LNG agreement which Marape didn’t want to be part of. If so, more information is bound to surface in the days and weeks to come.
Marape’s resignation could also be part of a political strategy ahead of the coming vote of no confidence in the prime minister, but in light of O’Neill’s well-known trickiness, it could be a stratagem. Thus politically, it is really an unpredictable move.
There is no doubt that this issue has many twists and turns still to be revealed.