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Marape questions PNG’s resource exploitation deals

James-Marape
James Marape being sworn in as new prime minister on Thursday (AFP/Vanessa Kerton)

NEWS DESK | AFP | Extract

PORT MORESBY - Former Papua New Guinea finance minister James Marape, elected as prime minister on Thursday, has immediately issued a nationalistic address that puts foreign resource companies on notice.

Marape threatened foreign logging companies and vowed to tweak resource laws that underpin a recently inked $13 billion gas deal with Total and ExxonMobil.

Hours after being elected, Marape told parliamentarians he does "not intend to chase away our investors" but insisted "our resource laws are outdated," a clear reference to the huge LNG project.

"Who says one conglomerate from outside will come and tell me I can change the law for my country?" he asked.

"I have every right to tweak and turn resource laws for my country," he said. "We will look into maximising gain from what God has given this country from all natural resources."

One of Asia's most impoverished nations, Papua New Guinea is rich in natural resources, which include large gas fields.

The ExxonMobil and Total Papua LNG project, signed in April, would almost double its gas exports and make the country a significant global player.

Marape -- who comes from energy-rich Hela province -- had resigned from the government in April, saying that the spoils of the contract were not equitably distributed.

He also said Papua New Guineans don't need foreign companies operating in the country's lucrative timber export sector.

Tighter global logging rules and widespread deforestation in Indonesia have seen loggers - predominantly from China - turn their attention to PNG's extensive forests.

Marape won the landslide backing of members of parliament that forced eight-year prime minister Peter O'Neill to resign.

O’Neill’s tenure was marked by endemic corruption and chronic underdevelopment in a country that has increasingly become a venue for US-China rivalry.

The government's purchase last year of 40 Maseratis to ferry foreign dignitaries around Port Moresby's few fully paved roads during an APEC summit became emblematic of his time in office.

Marape, 48, said his victory represented power shifting to a new generation and away from O'Neill's top-down approach to one more suited to the country's complex tribal, regional and ethnic politics.

Likening himself to a choirmaster, Marape urged members of both parties who backed him in a 101-8 vote to unify.

"Every one of you can sing your part. Some of you will sing the bass parts; some of you will sing the soprano, the alto, the melody."

"Together, we can make the song that our children truly deserve."

Marape's tenure could also spell a rocky patch for PNG-Australia relations.

He had previously demanded an investigation into "corrupt contracts" with Australia to settle asylum seekers on tropical island camps, which he said had sullied the country's image.

It remains to be seen if his premiership brings substantive reforms or tinkering around the edges.

Many Papua New Guineans - only 13% of whom have access to reliable electricity - will be suspicious Marape's appointment is little more than musical chairs among the country's distant elite.

Much may hinge on who Marape appoints to his cabinet and how much delay the policy rethink takes.

"Papua New Guineans are suffering," former prime minister Mekere Morauta warned Marape in an address to parliament. "You will need to address corruption and abuse, mismanagement of finances and mounting debt."

"The people of Papua New Guinea want change."

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