O’Neill’s big clean up

Phil Mercer

When Prime Minister Peter O’Neill launched an ambitious drive to root out corruption, he didn’t expect the finger of suspicion to point primarily at him

Peter O’Neill promised a new style of leadership, free from corruption. Photo: APEC Creative Commons by 2.0

Peter O’Neill promised a new style of leadership, free from corruption. Photo: APEC Creative Commons by 2.0


In Papua New Guinea, politics can be ruthless and mystifying. In a country that once had two rivals claiming to be Prime Minister at the same time, a corruption-busting leader – labelled a tyrant by his critics – has responded to allegations of massive fraud by sacking the Attorney-General and deputy police commissioner.

The star of this Melanesian drama is a former businessman, Peter O’Neill, the son of an Australian magistrate. Since August 2011 his government has controlled a complex nation of almost seven million people that covers the eastern half of the island of New Guinea.

It is a rich and vivid place blessed with more than 800 indigenous languages and gilded with reserves of copper, gold and oil that promise unparalleled wealth. This year the country reached a critical economic milestone when it started to export natural gas for the first time. But Papua New Guinea (PNG) is also scarred by poverty, violence and disease, as well as a political class seemingly unable to offer strong leadership, according to Jenny Hayward-Jones, Melanesia programme director at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International policy.

“Instability is the great normality in Papua New Guinea politics,” she explains. “Papua New Guinea is destabilised by its wealth of natural resources that politicians fight over, particularly now with the liquefied natural gas. The revenue is only going to increase, so I think the competition for political power in Papua New Guinea will only get greater.

“I think it is going to get more difficult to really keep a handle on corruption and to vote people in who are genuinely interested in the good of the country rather than benefiting themselves.”

Peter O’Neill has built a powerful parliamentary majority and promised voters a new style of crusading leadership that would be transparent and free of sleaze. The rotten days of the past would, the Prime Minister insisted, be over. An anti-corruption unit – Taskforce Sweep – was established and it set about its mission to cleanse public life with great zeal. What it uncovered was a racket of lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats and financial institutions bent on stealing from taxpayers. But, unfortunately, caught up in a maze of allegations was its creator and the man at the very top of government.

O’Neill was accused of making shady multi-million dollar payments to a law firm and issued with an arrest warrant on suspicion of misappropriation, conspiracy and official corruption. Investigators said they were armed with “more than sufficient evidence to mount a case against Prime Minister O’Neill”.

However, the assertions were strenuously and repeatedly denied. They were politically motivated, claimed the embattled leader, whose response was swift. The anti-corruption body was disbanded and PNG’s chief law officer, the Attorney-General, was dismissed from his post along with the deputy police commissioner. Hundreds of protestors defied the police by converging on parliament in the capital Port Moresby, their anger at the government equaled by outraged critics within the legislature.

“We have a tyrant, we have a dictator,” raged opposition leader Belden Namah. “I’m calling on public dissent to protest against the leadership of Peter O’Neill as Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.”

There was intervention, too, from one of the nation’s founding fathers, Sir Michael Somare, who oversaw Papua New Guinea’s journey from Australian colony to independence in 1975. He called on O’Neill to step aside as leader until the corruption case against him had been thoroughly investigated.

“He is the Prime Minister, he holds the highest office in the land [and] should adhere to the law. Now questions are over his head. He should clear those questions before he comes back to the office,” he said.

The O’Neill government may well survive this maelstrom of intrigue and accusation through its dominance of parliament, and, although the nation’s reputation has been dented by the whiff of scandal, many academics believe that PNG will suffer no long-lasting consequences.

“We only tend to hear about PNG when there is another crisis and yet between those events a lot of positive things do happen. The governments continue to function. The country does tick along. It doesn’t descend into chaos and conflict as a result of these political storms,” explains Glenn Banks, associate professor in development studies at Massey University.

He adds that what happens in Papua New Guinea has ramifications in the neighbourhood and that, with a population greater than that of New Zealand, the Melanesian nation is on the verge of a gas-fuelled resources boom.

“Papua New Guinea is a major player in the region. It has got about 70 per cent of the total population of the Pacific islands. Despite all of the comings and goings at a political level, next year PNG is likely to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world,” he explains.

So, here is a nation that is a patchwork of breathtaking cultural and geographic diversity with the potential to become an East Asian economic tiger, yet one that seems hobbled by political hostility and upheaval. Despite the plotting by the elites in Port Moresby, life for everyone else goes on. Most people fend for themselves in villages, where there are genuine concerns about the state of education, health care and roads.

The national flag features a soaring yellow bird of paradise, the symbol of tribal culture, and illustrates the emergence of Papua New Guinea as a nation. Almost 40 years after independence, this extraordinary nation continues to chart its own course. Of course, there have been mistakes, wrong turns and predictions it would become a failed state, but Dr Mark Busse, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Auckland, believes that what underpins Papua New Guinea is an undeniable resilience.

“When I arrived in 1982 there were many people predicting that the country was going to fall apart, that things were never going to work out,” he explains. “The country hasn’t fallen apart. It has not, for example, ever had a military coup. It has had its ups and downs, but the predictions of Papua New Guinea’s demise are overstated.”

About the author:

Phil Mercer, a BBC correspondent in Sydney, is a regular visitor to Papua New Guinea


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