Heat on PNG PM in and outside parliament

3:25 pm on 25 March 2016

Johnny Blades, RNZ International - johnny.blades@radionz.co.nz

The Papua New Guinea coalition government appears to have a comfortable majority in parliament despite attempts to table a motion of no-confidence against the prime minister.

But as the PNG parliament resumed this week after a break of almost five months, Peter O'Neill found himself under fire over his handling of an economy showing serious fissures.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill. Photo: PNG PM's office

Since election in 2012, the prime minister's mastery of the numbers in parliament has rarely looked in doubt. Mr O'Neill's People's National Congress has been able to lure dozens of MPs from parties less-resourced than his, to become easily the largest party in parliament, with around fifty of the 111 MPs in its ranks.

The opposition this week lodged the motion of no-confidence with the Speaker's office, but the motion was being vetted by a parliamentary committee stacked with supporters of the prime minister.

The deputy opposition leader Sam Basil said whether the motion went through or not, parties within the ruling coalition were disillusioned with the leadership.

"The country is cash-strapped now," he said. "We're seeing signs of no liquidity in our system and as I've said the Central Bank has been pressured by the government to raise more funds."

"They are really struggling at the moment to do that. And as far as we can see, it's not a good sign of a good government running the country in terms of bringing us to that mess."

Mr O'Neill was however dismissive in his response to opposition leader Don Polye's questions in parliament about cash flow problems, debts and the allegedly rapid decline in the state of the economy.

"Mr Speaker, I know it's grand-standing to the highest degree for us to just come and say anything that we want to say, but we must be factual about what we say," said Mr O'Neill, adding that monetary policy was the domain of the Central Bank and not his government.

Papua New Guinea opposition leader Don Polye.

Papua New Guinea opposition leader Don Polye. Photo: Supplied

However, opportunities for the opposition to engage in serious debate with the government are very few since the O'Neill-led government moved legislation to reduce the number of annual sitting days in parliament from over 60 to 40.

PNG's registrar of Political Parties, Alphonse Gelu, admitted that recent developments had eroded parliament's effectiveness.

"You know, the demise, diminishing number of members in the opposition; the number of sitting days; and the inability of the opposition to hold the government to account; there's a number of things, and most importantly the debate on very important legislations that go through parliament," he said.

Dr Gelu said he is frustrated that legislation he helped develop to revise the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates had not made it onto the parliamentary agenda before the 2017 election. He explained that the legislation would tighten up on the flagrant movement of MPs from political parties which they entered parliament in, something which has gutted Peter O'Neill's opponents since the 2012 election.

A view of the government benches in Papua New Guinea's parliament.

A view of the government benches in Papua New Guinea's parliament. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Still, the main parties in the coalition government moved to signal their commitment to the prime minister after the motion of no-confidence planes re-surfaced this week. Ben Micah, the leader of one of the People's Progress Party, said the coalition's support for the prime minister remains locked in until the election.

"My commitment to prime minister O'Neill and our coalition partners, the National Alliance and the United Resources Party, is unshakeable until the writs are returned in 2017," said Mr Micah, who holds the influential Petroleum and Energy ministerial portfolio.

Public pressure

But outside the parliament questions about the O'Neill administration persist as the country's cash flow troubles begin to bite.

Public servants continue to go without pay. Power blackouts have become constant in the main cities Port Moresby and Lae. Also, budget constraints have meant cuts to health and education services amid a prolonged drought.

Catholic Health Services, which provides up to a third of PNG's medical services throughout the country and relies on government funding, is feeling the effects of the cash crisis. The director of Catholic Health Services, Justine McMahon, said the government had reduced its support and for some staff this means 40 percent pay cuts.

"Staff will have to be put off," said Ms McMahon, "but other staff will leave because they will not put up with that level of cut."

The Health minister, Michael Malabag, told parliament that the health of the people was not being put at risk by the cuts to health services. However public concern about these problems is growing.

Papua New Guinea's parliament.

Papua New Guinea's parliament. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

A planned public march on parliament, protesting about poor governance, was planned for this week but police issued a directive saying it would be illegal. Police said the decision was for the safety and security of residents and businesses.

However, the activist Martyn Namorong said the police action was disappointing.

"Given the difficult economic times, the problems that are associated with that, there was a big response to the call that was put on social media for a protest, and predictably we have a clamp down on it," said Mr Namorong, who is the national co-ordinator of the PNG Resource Governance Coalition.

"Again, from my perspective, the authorities have the legal mandate to do that and so it brings into question whether Papua New Guinea truly sees itself as a democracy if we have laws that allow police to clamp down on lawful assembly."

Vanimo, West Sepik province, Papua New Guinea.

PNG's mainly rural-based population struggle for access to adequate health and education services Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

These and other signs of a stifling of public discussion in PNG are a concern to the MP for Sinesine-Yongomul, Kerenga Kua, who likened the current situation in PNG to a pressure cooker reaching boiling point, with the government holding down the lid.

"That's what they are doing, they are building up pressure in the system, they are building up pressure in the community, they are building up pressure in the country. And when you do that for long enough, it explodes," he said.

"When it explodes, you lose your ability to control and regulate it. If you're running the country, it's a serious matter. I would want to think that we should not put the lid on debate. Allow debate to take place on all fronts. You listen and then you respond."

LNG Project facility, Central Province, Papua New Guinea.

LNG Project facility, Central Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Money woes

To add to the prime minister's woes, PNG has been placed by Moody's Investors Service on review for a currency issuer ratings downgrade.

Mr O'Neill's government deployed significant state resources for PNG to successfully host the Pacific Games as well as the Pacific Islands Forum summit last year. PNG is preparing to host the APEC summit in 2018 too in what's billed by the government as a sign of the country's growing international role.

However these big ticket events are no consolation to most of the population which struggles for adequate health and education services. PNG's resources sector boom of the last decade is well and truly over, and revenues from its landmark LNG gas Project (led by Exxon Mobil) appear to be tied up with repaying government debt.

Powes Parkop, the governor of Papua New Guinea's National Capital District.

Powes Parkop, the governor of Papua New Guinea's National Capital District. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The Governor of the National Capital District, Powes Parkop, insisted that PNG was not facing a debt crisis, but said now ws the time for the government to borrow more.

"We are in a situation where we have the opportunity that we have - oil and gas and minerals - might not exist for the future. So it is this generation that is going to make that choice for our people for the future. Sometimes, for me, I think we are not making that choice. We are also not taking advantage of the (international) aid finance that is available to us."

The prime minister was last year taken to court by opposition leader Don Polye for his decision to take out a US$1.2 billion loan with Switzerland's UBS without parliamentary approval. However Mr Polye appears to approve of Mr O'Neill's government reportedly taking out a new US$250 million dollar-loan from the International Monetary Fund in order to meet its basic expenditure in health and education, and other essential areas.

Port Moresby CBD.

Port Moresby CBD. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

The government, Mr Polye said, had been forced into the loan because commercial banks had lost their appetite for buying the government's treasury bills to raise revenues to meet its spending, and Peter O'Neill's sovereign bond issue was not taken up. The international lending agency, according to Mr Polye, had better strategies on how PNG could create a sustainable and sound economy.

Governance

But according to Kerenga Kua, a lot of the disillusionment around Peter O'Neill centred on his lack of adherence to basic standards of governance. He cited the prime minister's refusal since 2014 to stand down to allow police to probe his role in a major fraud case involving allegedly illegal state payments to a law firm.

"Here's a prime minister who is facing a warrant of arrest. Instead of stepping down, he's still sitting in the chair and throwing all the state resources into defending himself," he said.

The MP claimed the prime minister has been "throwing all manner of trivial applications into the court" to frustrate and delay the case on technicalities, and "procrastinate through the court system forever and ever."

"And the sad thing is even the courts are buying into it," said Mr Kua who was removed as Attorney-General by Peter O'Neill in 2014 for pressing the prime minister to step aside to allow the investigation to take course. The new Attorney-General, Ano Pala, is currently on bail on a criminal charge for allegedly perverting the course of justice over legal matters related to the fraud case.

Papua New Guinea's Attorney General Ano Pala and the man he replaced in the job, Kerenga Kua.

Papua New Guinea's Attorney General Ano Pala and the man he replaced in the job, Kerenga Kua. Photo: RNZ Todagia Kelola

Meanwhile, Mr Kua has rejected a government claim that his signature was forged on the motion of no-confidence being considered by the speaker's office for tabling in parliament.

The leader of government business, James Marape, said the opposition's motion was questionable because it wrongly purported to have signatures of Mr Kua and Sir Michael Somare. Mr Marape told media he would refer the opposition to police for attempting to abuse procedures of change of government through forgery, fraud and deceit.

But Mr Kua said he saw Mr Marape's claim as a diversionary tactic. He said his signature was not forged as claimed, but conceded that he failed to convince other members of his party, the National Alliance, to support the motion.

Peter O'Neill's coalition partners look set to stay with him until next year.