“Every man has his good side,” Marape says of O'Neill. “But as time progressed, power got into his head, and his heart shifted away from the main goalpost"
| The Saturday Paper
MELBOURNE - As Papua New Guinea’s prime minister James Marape was working the tables at a hotel gathering of his Pangu Party in Goroka, a heavily drunk man was making a nuisance of himself.
Burly police bodyguards moved in for a rough eviction. But then Marape saw the man, walked closer, embraced him, and got him to sit quietly in a corner. The prime minister had recognised an old high school classmate.
In a country where tribal and regional identity has deep pull, the incident showed qualities likely to help Marape retain power in Papua New Guinea’s elections starting tomorrow: an empathetic character widely cited by political observers, as well as personal connections way beyond the wantok links of his Huli tribe in the Southern Highlands Tari region.
Marape, 51, spent his childhood following his father, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, to churches across the country, from Ningerum, hard up on the Indonesian border, to Buin, in the south of Bougainville, before high school in Goroka and university in Port Moresby.
All these places claim him as their own. Marriage to Rachael, a Sepik woman raised in Madang on the north coast, extended his connections.
This kind of thing counts in PNG, where electioneering is a succession of mass meetings at which candidates try to establish rapport with crowds.
Greeted at Goroka’s airport by a group dressed as the region’s famous mud men warriors, Marape spent the day plunging into crowds with bodyguards holding back. He gave long speeches in Tok Pisin.
His acknowledged communication skills will be sorely needed to win enough of the parliament’s 118 seats to form a government coalition.
He is up against a powerful rival in his predecessor, Peter O’Neill, 57, a man with extensive business interests whose People’s National Congress has endorsed 94 candidates and cashed them up.
O’Neill, the son of an Australian colonial-era magistrate, is also identified with the Southern Highlands through his mother, and, like Marape, is defending a seat there.
Having ousted the ageing independence leader Michael Somare through intense parliamentary and legal manoeuvres in 2011, O’Neill himself fell victim to the turmoil that saw Marape rise to power in 2019.
O’Neill is itching to get the prime ministership back, or at least be the power behind the throne – not least because Marape’s government has been trying to put him on trial for alleged irregularities in government spending and borrowing – and has set up a new Independent Commission Against Corruption to pursue inquiries.
Money counts in these five-yearly elections, where politics is described as among the most ‘clientelist’ in the world.
In the Highlands, would-be candidates are told not to bother unless they have at least K2 million ($A800,000) to spend, according to estimates by academics.
At places such as Mount Hagen, locals scoff and say a winning budget would be more like K20 million.
With an average of 30 candidates vying for each seat, the region is awash with voter bribery.
Some candidates run to lose, selling their second and third preferences to others.
Candidates in the calmer coastal regions can get away with K500,000 or less.
Sitting MPs will have had the advantage of a personal government fund that has ranged up to K10 million a year.
Ostensibly for government services such as clinics, schools and roads, the funds are often deployed to attach the MP’s name to projects.
“It’s pork-barrelling,” says Allan Bird, MP and governor of East Sepik Province. “It’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s just become more pronounced.”
A tightening of this funding contributed to O’Neill’s downfall.
When he came to office, the economy was booming with investment in the $US19 billion ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project in the southern highlands.
But soon after the LNG came on stream in 2014, global oil and gas prices plummeted.
O’Neill had borrowed $A1.3 billion from the Swiss bank UBS to buy 10.1% of the Australian company Oil Search, an LNG partner.
When its share price fell, a put option forced O’Neill’s government to sell the shareholding and repay the loan, at a loss of $A340 million.
Then, as projected LNG revenue streams dropped, O’Neill resorted to commercial loans and high-interest bond sales to domestic institutions.
The government interest bill soared from about 5% of domestic revenue to about 20% by the time he left office.
O’Neill’s treasury had less to hand out to MPs for their local projects.
“I guess that’s where the economy intersects with politics,” says Maholopa Laveil, an economics lecturer at the University of PNG.
“If you have government revenue falling, you can’t keep governing coalitions together. That’s when you lose power.”
There were other casualties, beyond the personal largesse of MPs.
The 20% of their electoral funds supposed to be spent on health was the first to be cut back.
Vaccination rates for infants fell from 70-80% to 30% by 2018, contributing to outbreaks of polio and tuberculosis.
At the best of times, delivery of essential services has been falling behind a population growing at 3% a year, meaning PNG’s estimated nine million people could double in 24 years.
Other factors loosened O’Neill’s grip.
Despite reputational damage from his time running state pension and investment funds in the late 1990s, many had cautiously welcomed O’Neill as someone who might bring private-sector efficiency into government. These hopes were steadily dashed.
“There was no such thing as conflict of interest,” says Paul Barker, director of Port Moresby’s Institute of National Affairs.
“His business enterprises were burgeoning. He was clearly spending a lot of his working hours advancing his business interests, rather than the government’s interests.”
Ministers were irked at being pushed out of decisions made with a circle of associates around the prime minister.
A severe earthquake in the southern highlands Hit revenue even further in 2018.
Marape’s three years as prime minister have not been any easier. The Covid-19 pandemic put the country into isolation and hampered access to vital supplies. This year, fuel prices jumped because of the crisis in Ukraine.
Having jumped from O’Neill’s party to the rival Pangu – which clings somewhat to its 1960s liberation-theory origins, with a policy of ‘economic independence’ – Marape put the squeeze on the country’s biggest gold producer, the Canadian-and-Chinese-owned Porgera mine, after its operating lease expired.
He demanded and eventually got a higher equity share for the surrounding Enga Province and landowners, with more to be acquired in another 10 years.
But this has involved a two-year shutdown at a time of high gold prices, with a loss of about K2 billion in revenue. O’Neill is making much of this in the campaign.
And after three years, there are still some who wonder how different is James Marape from Peter O’Neill.
“He’s an enigma,” according to Barker, who says Marape engages well with everyone, refers often to his faith, and does not hold back on delivering hard news if required.
“But others say: ‘Yes, but he’s the Christian, sweet face of Peter O’Neill.’ He learnt his tricks with Peter O’Neill, he was part of his cabinet, he knew what was going on, he wasn’t blowing whistles.”
In Goroka, I asked Marape how he differs from O’Neill.
He demurred at saying he was a better man. “Every man has his good side,” Marape said. “But as time progressed, power got into his head, and his heart shifted away from the main goalpost, which is to say equally to all parts of the country and do it right for everyone.
“The decisions made must be collective decisions, instead of one-man decisions. We come from a Melanesian society where it’s more democratic in every sense, where you make decisions collectively. You take the blame together.
“But if you make one-man decisions, you must take the blame with you. Some of us reached the tolerance rate where we can’t be part of that sort of regime where you make a call and you expect everyone else to follow.”
Asked what drove him, Marape said it was his rural upbringing.
“I come from a place where they’ve been harvesting oil and gas, and even up to the date I took office there was no electricity, no sealed road,” he said. “That is my mind space.
“At independence, I was at a place called Nomad River.
“If I were to take you back there today, that place is as it was in 1975. Yet only 30 minutes by road you have a world-class gold and copper mine, Ok Tedi.
“So this kind of thing drives me. I feel the unfairness of distribution of the benefits to all parts of the country.”
I put it to him that, with all the money likely to be splashed around in the election, he could have to work with the same corrupt elements in parliament as before.
Marape said he had fought off challenges by O’Neill “from day one”, including a tense vote of no confidence in 2020.
“I maintained government on the back of first-term and second-term MPs, those who wanted to do the right things for our country, and they became the backbone of me remaining in power.”
After the election, Marape said, he would assemble Pangu MPs and allies in Wewak, where Somare is buried, to remind them of the hopes of independence.
“I will be taking the young leaders who come in, not for privileges, but to make it better for our citizens.”