Three medicos say hello to PNG's newest beautiful citizen
The fight goes on, and puppet master turns puppet

Smart tactics mean Peter O’Neill lives to fight another day

Scott Morrison and Peter O'Neill
Scott Morrison and Peter O'Neill

MICHAEL BACHELARD | Sydney Morning Herald

SYDNEY - Clever manoeuvring by Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill has delayed a no-confidence motion against him until the end of May at least, but the issues creating political pressure in Australia's near neighbour are not likely to be so easily dismissed.

O'Neill mustered a majority of 59 votes to 50 to win a series of votes on Tuesday, delaying a parliamentary sitting until 28 May and forestalling an attempt by his opponents to bring him down.

The rebel MPs filed the motion after parliament closed late on Tuesday, but changes O'Neill also made to parliamentary committees mean the motion might have trouble getting on the notice paper later this month.

O'Neill has consistently asserted that he has the numbers to stay prime minister, and declared on Tuesday: "The government is well and truly solid, intact and we are ready to work".

The push to oust O'Neill, who has led the country since 2011, was fomented over the weekend after weeks of growing frustration. It began when finance minister James Marape resigned, followed by seven others, including attorney-general Davis Steven.

Marape is now the prime ministerial candidate for those hoping to oust O'Neill.

Paul Barker of PNG's Institute of National Affairs said Marape quit after saying the government was being run by an inner coterie which excluded most of the cabinet.

Steven quit after criticising a lack of action on governance issues and corruption.

"It's unusual to have such senior people quitting because the main game is to gain office, so they must be very annoyed, or very certain of gaining prospects after the forming of a new government, or both," Barker said.

Political disputes in PNG tend not to be related to ideology or policy differences, but more about access to payments which are distributed by the government to MPs for the benefit of their communities.

This means that, for an MP, being close to the government is important. Conversely, it also makes challenges to the existing leadership frequent and unpredictable.

Local media outlet Loop PNG says that in the past nine PNG parliaments, six have had prime ministers who were either removed by a vote of no confidence, or who resigned because of a threat of such a vote.

O'Neill and Sir Michael Somare are the only leaders in the country's post-independence history to have served full terms.

Strict rules now surround no confidence votes, including a seven-day notice period.

Andrew Wilkins, the publishing director of Business Advantage, PNG’s leading business media outlet, said one of the key pressure points in PNG politics was over how much benefit ordinary people received from the big resource projects which are the backbone of the country's economy.

"There is a sense that the full value and benefits of major projects haven’t trickled down to the ordinary people, and concern that money is being made and not being spent where the population can see it - on roads, schools and hospitals," Wilkins said.

"This indicates to me impatience [in that situation]."

Draft legislation put forward earlier this year by government members proposed to force businesses under a certain size to be locally owned. But O'Neill is expected to significantly water down that law after an outcry from foreign companies worried that they would have to sell down their holdings.

A much-delayed mining act also proposes to balance the desire for foreign investment with the need to spread the benefits more broadly. The legislation is so controversial it has never been tested in Parliament.

Ordinary people have been particularly frustrated that the promised benefits to landowners of a number of massive gas projects have not flowed as quickly as promised.

One, built by ExxonMobil, became controversial after it boosted the country's GDP, the share prices of foreign firms, but no discernable benefit for ordinary people, including the local landowners who were promised a flow of royalties. They have so far received little.

Meanwhile, government debt has continued to rise, partly due to volatile commodity prices, and partly to new loans signed with China as part of its Belt and Road project.

Barker said this had pushed up debt servicing costs to almost 20% of the budget.

Australia has worked closely with O'Neill to keep almost 550 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island, and the two countries recently agreed to a joint naval base, in part as an attempt to stave off China's growing influence.

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