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Leadership crisis: Australia’s tin ear on PNG as uncanny as ever

Scott Morrison with Peter O'Neill - stepping in where angels fear to tread


NOOSA – Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison has praised Peter O’Neill even as the Papua New Guinea prime minister fights the battle of his political life against a resurgent opposition that seems set to command a majority in the country’s Haus Tambaran.

Yesterday afternoon O’Neill announced his resignation after seven years as national leader but has not yet formalised this position as is required by the PNG constitution.

Ben Packham in The Australian newspaper reports this morning that Australian officials are “closely watching the political fallout from the move”.

But Morrison gave O’Neill a protective boost yesterday by talking of his “strong friendship and relationship” with the struggling prime minister.

He described O’Neill as “a passionate servant of his country” and said he looked forward to working with his successor.

These sentiments showed once again why Australia does not ‘get’ Papua New Guinea.

The ‘passionate servant’ reference flies in the face of much evidence that O’Neill has exploited his position of prime minister for his own gain and for the benefit of his cronies.

It also flies in the face of evidence that the 2017 general election which re-elected O’Neill was widely rorted, as was revealed in a definitive study by the Australian National University and reports by other independent observers.

It is also contradicted by statistics showing that, on O’Neill’s watch, PNG’s performance in health, education, agriculture, infrastructure development and other key areas has taken the country backwards.

Furthermore, and presumptuously, Morrison’s statement mentioning a ‘successor’ pre-empted immediate political developments in Port Moresby as O’Neill has not yet tendered his resignation to the governor-general.

It is widely suspected in PNG that, not for the first time, O’Neill is deploying tactics that he hopes will save his prime ministership or at least a position of great influence in any new government.

Morrison's words were either a significant misreading of a fluid and complex situation or simply naïve.

“The relationship with PNG is one of our most important, with successive [Australian] governments fretting over the possibility of an unstable and potentially disintegrating neighbour to the immediate north,” Ben Packham wrote.

That is true, and the bilateral relationship and regional stability are not assisted by an Australian prime minister unsophisticated in the complexities of PNG politics stepping in, as Malcolm Turnbull did in 2017, and appearing to give Australia’s support to a man who most Papua New Guineans want gone – and quickly.

The statement was without calibration and nuance and could not have been more inappropriate at this time.


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Lindsay F Bond

The following is prompted by Chris’s retelling of David Niven, a person attuned to drama..

Some gratitude ought go to leaders who bring change…that yield benefits positively perceived by many, by more, by most folk.

Finding good in any unlikely circumstance is the province of some long-lived religions. As devotees search for a spirited understanding, clues are like gold veins, but awaiting refining.

Devout readers of PNG Attitude may have wised up already yet one clue more funny, might delight readers who are still learning aspects of English vocabulary. Thus, to “Learn Some Funny but Necessary Words with Necessary Vocabulary Meaning”, see:

There is the word ‘Frogmarched’. Closer inquiry of that word is revealing where it states:
“Frogmarch … [to force Sb to go somewhere by holding their arms lightly so they have to walk along with you] He was frogmarched off by two police officers”.

The image of police manhandling a suspect, shows not only two but four police officers.

Footnote: Frogmarch has a more extensive application of restraint.

Lindsay F Bond

Well said by Keith about the PNG Constitution, yet the matter of clarification is nub of the issue today.

And who most did the ‘cast aside’? Is that not the same who today would have folk believe in “an obligation to ensure proper processes and the rule of law is followed”?


Who now seeks another jurisdiction, the judiciary, to state opinion on a process that is the prerogative of parliamentary gatherings, past, present and future?

As to the proposition “judiciary has not acted when it ought to have”, interest is now on scope of need to venture (act), if more than to implore parliamentarians to represent constituents with the imperative of the PNG Constitution with respect to unifying inclusive vision of equity.

Robert L Parer CMG MBE

Very true, as Australia doesn't get it.The Australian mainstream media doesn't get it either.

For example, last week I was on Facebook Chat and contacts in PNG told me about a huge earthquake off Rabaul, strength 7.

Ten minutes later a message from a friend in Japan arrived to say he had seen that PNG has just had a strong earthquake near Rabaul.

But nothing on Australian radio or in newspapers the next day.

Over the last wee, due to Facebook attacks, prime minister Peter O'Neill has been fighting for his political life and has lost.

Australian media only today made a comment which was that he was resigning. If they look up the meaning of resigning it is "voluntarily leave office or job." Come on, wake up!

Daniel Doyle

I am confident that most Papua New Guineans could not care less about what Scomo thinks about Peter O Neill.

The majority, at least the majority of parliamentarians, appear to have made up their minds about him for now anyway.

Chris Overland

I agree that Australia continues to demonstrate a tin ear when it comes to PNG.

Morrison's effusive praise might be explained by the fact that he and his colleagues have some things in common with the apparently outgoing O'Neill government.

For example, both have been staunch opponents of creating a genuinely independent and powerful national ICAC and both have succeeded for a long time in creating an image of themselves as just humble servants of the people while all the while systematically favouring their wealthy mates.

As for whether O'Neill is truly leaving the national stage for a supposedly honourable obscurity, this remains to be seen.

I am reminded of David Niven's story (related in his memoir The Moon's a Balloon) regarding the death and funeral of Samuel Goldwyn, one of Hollywood's most powerful movie moguls of the 20th century.

Goldwyn, like O'Neill, was loved and reviled in equal measure. Niven admired Goldwyn and went to his funeral expecting to see only those that felt the same way. He was therefore surprised to see a man there who he knew detested Goldwyn.

"I am surprised to see you here, given that you hated Sam," said Niven.

"I just came to make sure the bastard is really dead," was the reply.

In a similar way, there may be more than a few Papua New Guineans withholding judgement on current events until convinced that O'Neill is, politically speaking, truly dead and buried.

Lindsay F Bond

For the sake of stability, when hoohaa abates, PNG leadership and nation may care to look at the PNG constitution with respect to the provision of transition of prime ministerial appointment, and more clarity of process.

When is it the keys are returned for a new appointee, for instance, the keys to the PNG government jet.

I don't think constitution's delve as deep down as keys to government jets, Lindsay. I believe the PNG constitution is a fine piece of work. Unfortunately it has been too often cast aside and the judiciary has not acted when it ought to have - KJ

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