24 Oct 2013

Forgotten man of PNG politics reflects on political impasse

5:30 pm on 24 October 2013

A former top Papua New Guinea politician says he had to go against the traditional Highlands mould of character and behave in a passive manner in order to prevent bloodshed when his government collapsed.

Sam Abal was Acting Prime Minister in 2011 when the majority of MPs controversially ousted the Somare government and triggered a political and constitutional crisis that only ended with the outcome of last year's general election.

Mr Abal, who lost his Wabag seat in the election, was detached from much of the bitter fighting between the two groups claiming to be government during the impasse, choosing to remain neutral in parliament.

He spoke to Johnny Blades about the impasse, but began by saying his legal petition claiming the Wabag election result stemmed from bribery and undue influence is still in the courts.

SAM ABAL: It is a case where it happened that way and everybody in my electorate knows what happened during the elections, but unfortunately we have a feeling in this country that we should just leave these things and go on, cover it up and it's all right, let's continue on. Like what's happening with the issue that happened during the impasse. The impasse happened because the constitution was broken. The leaders that broke the constitution wanted to change the government by breaking the constitution.

JOHNNY BLADES: Did you feel that you were the scapegoat in a way? It can't have been easy trying to hold things together as acting Prime Minister. Plus, you had Don Polye trying to take the National Alliance leadership and it was difficult on a number of fronts for you to have to juggle all these interests, I suppose.

SA: My role there was more or less to keep the peace. I did not want to upset. There was so much going on that people seemed to be reckless and careless. People were jostling for power and money and all these kinds of things. The countries in the world have turned into difficult places with upsets and other things that come up. PNG is a young country at the verge of trying to unite all the different tribes, the thousands of tribes. And the handling of that, to me, was very important, otherwise we would end up fighting on the streets and the tribes would take sides and breakdowns would happen easily, so that's why I realised I had to play neutral all the way. The breaking of the constitution, I couldn't agree with, but I just kept quiet and let it roll right through and I ended up sitting in opposition after the dust had settled. I think it's very important I play in a passive manner, despite the fact that I come from that area (Enga) where you don't take things lying down.

JB: The National Alliance seems to be growing again. Would you go back in?

SA: The executive or the president at that time decided to sack me while I was still Acting PM of a government that was a National Alliance government. I said 'Look, it doesn't happen anywhere in the world. It's a joke. Now you have stated the case for breaking up the party'. So that's when it all happened. Now, I am out of the party but if I win the court case (and get back into parliament) I could possibly return to the party.

JB: Since you lost your seat in the election, what have you been doing?

SA: I've spent most of my life in public service. Straight from university I took up a job with the Foreign Affairs in the late 1970s, early '80s, and from there I've always been with the public service until serving overseas and then back as Trade and Industry secretary, and then from there I went and served as one of the administrators in the provinces for four years, and then became an MP. So all my life has been public service and I have neglected my family for all this time. So now I can spend time with my family and that's what I've been doing this year, sorting out my family. And also, when I was an MP and an administrator in the provinces, I handled money and signed cheques and all this so I never did any business. I have always believed that if you're in politics, there are all these issues about corrupt practices and everything so I never wanted my name to be involved in all that so I decided never to do business while I was in politics.

JB: So you're not rich like all those other MPs?

SA: No, I'm not. I have my own house in Moresby which I bought before I was an MP. I was a secretary for a department and all that so I've earned my keep over the years. But I'm not as rich as... what you call dirty rich the way some go about this. I don't want to be like that. Now, for the first time, I've set up one or two companies to start to work and look after my family, try to tap into the opportunities that are available here in the country now. So now that I'm out of politics, I feel free, I feel I'm not inhibited in any way so I can run my business and help my family out.

JB: What do you think of how the current government is running the country?

SA: There are some good things that are happening now - opportunities in business and for economic growth. But they are part of things created by our government, for instance the signing of the LNG Project and bringing all those investors in. we were a government that brought the country out of serious deficit. There are a lot of positives coming out of all that now. But government has to ensure there is no over-expenditure. Last year and this year, we were in the deficit in the budget. Small and developing countries always need to keep a balanced budget. The Treasurer, Don Polye, seems to be doing a good job in managing the deficit and not over spending. But government as a whole must continue to manage things carefully in case of a downturn. The kina rate has gone very low now and the Bank of PNG says it's just a short term thing and that it will be okay, but it shows the fact that at any time we are a very exposed economy and can't be careless in managing our economy. The LNG Project cash should start to flow next year but between now and then we have to be careful not to make any serious mistakes in terms of any borrowings. It's no good to borrow before you have the gas flowing, it's not wise. My only concern is for government to put in place legislation and administrative and budgetary provisions to fight corruption strongly. That's the main thing we need to sort out, our governance. So much money comes in (to PNG) through things like the LNG project that people lose their head. Unless we have strong governance rules and transparency, we could still fail. Peter O'Neill's government has an absolute majority and has extended the period when motions of no-confidence can't be tabled against it to something like 30 months. So this government has the grand opportunity to set down legislations for governance and transparency which no other government in the past had, and I would wish that Peter O'Neill does that. Before the gas money starts to come through, they have an excellent opportunity to get this right.