Pos­i­tive vote for O’Neill un­likely end to un­rest?

The coun­try is in a cash­flow cri­sis and has a shortage of for­eign ex­change, while the coun­try’s liqui­fied nat­u­ral gas project, long touted as its eco­nomic saviour, has been hit by free-fall­ing global com­mod­ity prices.

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The de­feat of a no con­fi­dence mo­tion against PNG’s Prime Min­is­ter Peter O’Neill is un­likely to end months of po­lit­i­cal up­heaval. The Supreme Court ear­lier this month or­dered the par­lia­ment to sit to hear the mo­tion tabled by Deputy Op­po­si­tion Leader Sam Basil, who nom­i­nated his leader, Don Polye, to be the al­ter­na­tive Prime Min­is­ter. In the end, 85 MPs voted in favour of the govern­ment of Peter O’Neill, while only 21 MPs sup­ported the op­po­si­tion’s mo­tion to oust him well short of the 56 votes needed. Five MPs did not vote. In open­ing the morn­ing’s ses­sion, Mr Basil de­tailed a plethora of griev­ances against the govern­ment, ac­cus­ing Mr O’Neill of shut­ting down de­bate of se­ri­ous is­sues (cit­ing a mo­tion, which had to be or­dered by the Supreme Court), breaches of the leadership code, evad­ing crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions and treat­ing PNG ci­ti­zens “like crim­i­nals”. “To make the wrong de­ci­sion here would be a mis­take,” said Mr Basil. “To­day it is up to us on the floor to make a change.”

Air­ing griev­ances

The vote fol­lowed months of protests against Mr O’Neill by stu­dents, doc­tors, pi­lots and port work­ers, who have been urg­ing him to re­sign over a long-run­ning cor­rup­tion case that has dogged his of­fice for more than two years.

But Mr O’Neill in­sists he is in­no­cent. He has re­fused to go in for Po­lice ques­tion­ing over an ar­rest war­rant is­sued in 2014 by now-dis­banded anti-cor­rup­tion unit Task­force Sweep fol­low­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of $US30mil­lion (F$62.57m) in il­le­gal state pay­ments to a law firm. Ahead of the vote, Mr Basil zeroed in on the long-run­ning in­ves­ti­ga­tion: “We can say that O’Neill avoids any chance to prove him­self in­no­cent or for oth­ers to show him guilty.” Sit­ting op­po­site, a vis­i­bly ner­vous Mr O’Neill, slouched in a green leather seat, chuck­led. The Bu­lolo MP said pub­lic per­cep­tions around deep­en­ing cor­rup­tion in PNG grav­i­tated around the Prime Min­is­ter.

Of­fi­cials in other coun­tries, he pointed out, would stand down for some­thing as mea­gre as ac­cept­ing a bot­tle of wine, but Mr O’Neill per­sisted through multi-mil­lion dol­lar fraud al­le­ga­tions.

Mr Basil also crit­i­cised Mr O’Neill’s han­dling of an econ­omy show­ing se­ri­ous fis­sures. Pub­lic ser­vants have gone with­out pay, power black­outs have be­come a con­stant in main cities and bud­get con­straints have meant cuts to es­sen­tial ser­vices. To add to the woes, the coun­try is in a cash-flow cri­sis and has a shortage of for­eign ex­change, while the coun­try’s liqui­fied nat­u­ral gas project, long touted as its eco­nomic saviour, has been hit by free-fall­ing global com­mod­ity prices. Mr Basil said the O’Neill govern­ment in­her­ited an econ­omy that was on the rise, but, “since 2014, the Prime Min­is­ter’s short-sighted and reck­less fis­cal prac­tices have de­stroyed that growth”. Fol­low­ing Mr Basil’s speech, Morobe Gover­nor Kelly Naru spoke, hom­ing in on con­cern about se­ri­ous con­sti­tu­tional is­sues around the par­lia­ment sit­ting, and the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers be­tween the Supreme Court and Par­lia­ment.

Mr Naru felt that ju­di­cial clar­ity was needed to de­ter­mine whether, in making the rul­ing, the Supreme Court had breached the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers out­lined in PNG’s con­sti­tu­tion.

Re­gard­ing the al­leged fraud case, Mr Naru pointed out that the Prime Min­is­ter had not yet been found guilty, and that it was not a vi­able op­tion to change govern­ment on un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions. The ar­rest war­rant that the fraud Po­lice se­cured for the Prime Min­is­ter two years ago re­mained stayed by a court af­ter var­i­ous tech­ni­cal chal­lenges by Mr O’Neill. “A per­son is pre­sumed to be in­no­cent un­til found guilty, ac­cord­ing to law,” Mr Naru ex­plained. “We will need to wait for the courts to dis­pense jus­tice.” The gover­nor urged pa­tience and re­straint by ci­ti­zens ex­er­cis­ing their rights to free­dom of ex­pres­sion, as­sem­bly and other ba­sic rights.

He then re­ferred to sec­tions of so­ci­ety who had been pub­licly call­ing for the Prime Min­is­ter to stand down, in­clud­ing key pro­fes­sional groups with­draw­ing their ser­vices, as ver­i­ta­ble “do­mes­tic ter­ror­ists” and called for the “full force of law” to be ap­plied on them.

De­bate de­scends into shout­ing

The de­bate be­came heated as Kavieng MP Ben Micah, who un­til last Fri­day was Mr O’Neill’s en­ergy and re­sources min­is­ter be­fore he de­fected to the op­po­si­tion, crit­i­cised the Prime Min­is­ter for plac­ing him­self beyond re­proach. MPs in the govern­ment benches be­gan to heckle Mr Micah, and the deco­rum of the par­lia­ment soon dis­solved into a meelee of sledg­ing and points of order, to the frus­tra­tion of Speaker Theo Zuren­uoc.

“You’re avoid­ing re­al­ity,” Mr Micah, adorned in a bright yel­low suit, with a yel­low shirt and a yel­low tie, shouted back to the Prime Min­is­ter. “To­day you can hold your num­bers... but you can­not run away from the truth that your govern­ment is not go­ing to last long, it will col­lapse. And you know why it is go­ing to col­lapse? Be­cause it is full of men and women who are not telling the truth, Mr Speaker!” In the govern­ment’s re­sponse, Fi­nance Min­is­ter James Marape de­fended the Prime Min­is­ter’s leadership, which he called one of the great­est in the coun­try’s his­tory, and ac­cused the op­po­si­tion of try­ing to cre­ate in­sta­bil­ity through a “ma­li­cious” mo­tion. “It seems that the mo­dus operandi of our friends on the other side of the house is to cause chaos, con­fu­sion, strife, dis­or­der and emo­tion in so­ci­ety, let alone in this par­lia­ment,” said Mr Marape.

He said the op­po­si­tion’s ef­forts to bring the mo­tion of no-con­fi­dence had im­pacted Pa­pua New Guinea’s in­ter­na­tional im­age. “In­vestor con­fi­dence has been im­pacted by head­lines on the me­dia and so­cial me­dia,” he claimed. Mr Marape’s speech con­cluded amid a vol­ley of ob­jec­tions by op­po­si­tion MP Belden Namah when the speaker dis­al­lowed his point of order. A vis­i­bly ex­as­per­ated Mr Zuren­uoc, who was now strug­gling to main­tain order, closed the de­bate af­ter lit­tle more than an hour and called for the par­lia­ment to vote, to the out­rage of many MPs who were re­fused per­mis­sion to speak in­clud­ing Mr Polye and Mr O’Neill. While the votes were tak­ing place, a tense si­lence de­scended upon the cham­ber, but from the mo­ment Mr O’Neill walked into the par­lia­ment lead­ing a pack of more than 50 MPs, the re­sult was never re­ally in doubt.

Pub­lic dis­con­tent sim­mers on

Mr O’Neill’s hold on power is un­likely to sat­isfy thou­sands of stu­dents and other pub­lic work­ers from across the coun­try who have been protest­ing against his rule for weeks, cre­at­ing a new level of in­sta­bil­ity in a coun­try used to po­lit­i­cal crises. The protests came to a head in June when Po­lice opened fire on stu­dents who were try­ing to march on Par­lia­ment in sup­port of the mo­tion, se­ri­ously in­jur­ing a num­ber of stu­dents. The aca­demic year at the Uni­ver­sity of PNG has been can­celled, while the year at the other two main univer­si­ties re­mains in peril af­ter un­rest at their cam­puses. A strike by pi­lots and work­ers with the main air­line Air Ni­ug­ini has had a mas­sive im­pact on trans­port links in a coun­try de­pen­dent on air travel since last week, adding to the with­drawal of ser­vices by mar­itime work­ers, health and en­ergy sec­tor work­ers. And, as of Mon­day, mem­bers of PNG’s Na­tional Doc­tors As­so­ci­a­tion an­nounced they were scal­ing down op­er­a­tions through­out the coun­try.

Lead­ers of the civil disobe­di­ence had in­di­cated they planned to con­tinue their protests re­gard­less of whether Mr O’Neill sur­vived the vote in Par­lia­ment, and doc­tors would go on strike on Au­gust 4 un­less the govern­ment re­versed a 30 per cent bud­get cut and re­opened a med­i­cal school.

In short, the op­po­si­tion has ex­hausted its fi­nal at­tempt to re­move the O’Neill govern­ment ahead of next year’s elec­tion, as a one-year amnesty that pro­hibits mo­tions of no-con­fi­dence is about to come into ef­fect. Af­ter the vote, Mr Zuren­uoc ad­journed Par­lia­ment un­til Au­gust 9 and Mr O’Neill’s some­what ner­vous grin had trans­formed into a full-beamed smile as he marched out of the cham­ber, fol­lowed by 85 MPs.

The cham­ber of Pa­pua New Guinea’s Par­lia­ment.

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