NOOSA – Rumour transitioned into reality yesterday when the Papua New Guinea opposition under Belden Namah seemed to have mustered enough MPs to command the Haus Tambaran.
A procedural vote showed the opposition with a bare majority of 57 members of parliament – but enough to squeeze prime minister Marape out of office.
The drums had been beating for weeks that the opposition would have a crack at forming a government about now, but I and most other people didn’t take this seriously. The old Moresby toktok nating we thought.
Same as we regarded the rumours of Peter O’Neill making a comeback which blended suspiciously neatly into this takeover gossip.
But, complacency aside, yesterday Papua New Guinea once again placed itself on the edge of a political precipice as a sizeable number of ministers and other politicians indicated they would cross the floor to show they had lost confidence in James Marape's leadership.
Not that they can topple him just yet. Because the grace period that bans votes of no confidence for 18 months after an election does not expire until 30 November. But that's imminent enough.
Adding to the agony for Australia, which has been blindsided by these events, are Namah’s claims that a planned visit to PNG by Scott Morrison starting next Wednesday is an attempt to interfere in the country's politics and "highly suspicious".
Morrison's visit is "bad diplomacy and tantamount to directly attempting [to influence] the country's political process," Marape said.
Marape also expressed "high suspicion" of what he termed "tainted money" - suggesting that a $400 million loan to PNG had, at least in part, been applied to corrupt ends.
It seems highly unlikely that Morrison will want to see himself in Port Moresby next week shaking Marape’s hand while the majority of parliamentarians are ready to give their leader the flick.
Morrison himself said yesterday, "“I’m not going to speculate on those events. But it’s my intention to be with prime minister Marape next Wednesday as planned.”
Meanwhile from Canberra The Australian newspaper’s PNG affairs correspondent, Ben Packham, has written that Scott Morrison's trip to PNG “is now tenuous given political upheaval in Port Moresby”.
Packham also notes that, if the trip is cancelled, it will be the second such cancellation for Morrison due to Waigani political chaos. He switched his first overseas trip as PM from PNG to Solomon Islands after O'Neill was toppled 18 months ago.”
Meanwhile, nine national ministers were said to be eager to defect from the government to join the Namah-led putsch including deputy prime minister Sam Basil, Patrick Pruaitch, Justin Thatchenko and Governor Powes Parkop.
Other prominent politicians who say they will do the same include Governor Gary Juffa, Linus Tom, Governor Allan Bird, Bryan Kramer, former prime minister Paias Wingti and former deputy prime minister Steven Davis.
There's a bunch of crooks in there, too, who I won't name. Yet.
The foregoing names include politicians I regard as ‘good guys’ like Juffa, Tom, Bird and Kramer. I find this somewhat heartening. But I'm ready to be disappointed.
The outstanding questions are why and what? Why has this moment been chosen to seek a new prime minister and what lies behind it.
The Guardian says critics of Marape, in particular Namah, have accused the prime minister of under-delivering on promises around corruption and economic development.
They also say he leads a government of empty slogans like “take back PNG” or promising to make PNG “the richest black Christian nation on earth".
That’s not an entirely fair summation of Marape's track record but, in politics, accounts of your how your rhetoric stands up to reality are seldom fair.
Marape has also been criticised for failing to arrest people responsible for a massacre in Tari last year in which 18 women and children were killed.
In PNG – where the country is barely governable in so many places – such statements are easily made because the ills they point to can never be fixed.
Not while the present political culture exists, anyway.
Who is the hero who will extinguish tribal violence, sorcery killings and everyday domestic violence?
And why this time? Well, the vote of no confidence season beckons.
So where exactly does Marape sit – and what are his prospects of retaining the prime ministership?
Marape sits in a situation where he has been undermined not so much by opposition leader Namah but by colleagues like deputy prime minister Basil.
And his prospects of staying as leader?
His opponents, presumably in a state of high hyperbole, claimed they have mustered 78 of 111 MPs in parliament, a number which would put any vote of no confidence in doubt.
That they probably (at this stage) have nothing like that doesn’t mean that Belden Namah hasn’t wrecked Marape's leadership. He’s gone.
When you see high profile anti-corruption advocates like Governors Allan Bird (who some people are promoting as the next PM) and Gary Juffa, as well as Linus Tom and Bryan Kramer, saying Marape’s on the ropes, their credentials mean something
But where’s the real politik? In a parliamentary vote yesterday afternoon to suspend standing orders, 57 opposition members voted together while 39 voted with Marape, although he claims to have 52 who support him.
None of that would be enough to save Marape. Those 56 votes in a 111 seat chamber represent a majority, enough to tip Marape out.
And the votes yesterday were enough to suspend parliament until 1 December.
The grace period in which there cannot be a vote of no confidence ends 30 November.
It will be a rugged three weeks in PNG politics.
Especially with ex-prime minister Peter O’Neill lurking somewhere in the background, eager to retain the position he believes was unjustly ripped from his grasp and with some scores to settle.
Namah is positing as one explanation of his actions that Marape has been the recipient of a $400 million loan from Australia last year which he says was "tainted", suggesting it was used for corrupt purposes.
For his part, Marape is quoted by The Guardian as saying that “Papua New Guineans must know this is a debate between those who want to maintain the status quo of corruption, big boys’ elite politics, multinational lobbyism for foreign interests, and those new leaders with a blend of strong experience, patriotic leaders who want to do the right thing, changing [the] country’s policies and laws for a better future for our children.”
Maybe a good message for the people, perhaps, but it won’t stop the politicians who want to see him out of the way
And what do Papua New Guineans think about yesterday’s developments.
Well, there are the cynical, like Ian Taukuro who commented on Twitter, “Sorry PMJM, clearly, they are taking back PNG from you.”
And a sideswipe from @HoaratioRaddish who opined on Peter O’Neill, “It won’t be pretty. He has openly told businessmen that he’s back to settle with those who pulled him down.”
Academic Dr Bal Kama entered what seems like a losing battle for Marape, saying getting rid of him “would be a setback and not in the best interests of PNG”.
Watna Mori, a lawyer, agree saying, “He hasn't been a great PM but all the likely alternatives are worse quite frankly. How do we clean the whole house out?”
The answer to that question, unfortunately, is you can’t. One can only hope that somehow the 111 members can see their way clear to putting into the highest office a man (they’re all men) who is honest, competent and deserving of it.
Bryan Nonisa commented on Twitter that Marape “had every chance to stamp his mark and lead but his indecisiveness and unwillingness has now come back to bite him. Bad, ridiculous decisions like Porgera, the BioMed saga, the handling of the Covid issue and the senseless killings in Tari exposed him outright.”