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.