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Politics in Papua New Guinea: University challenge

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CORRUPTION scandals are a familiar story in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a remote, mountainous country of 7.7m with an economy that depends on mineral resources and logging. One led to the suspension of the previous prime minister. Another threatens the current one, Peter O’Neill. On June 8th police opened fire on unarmed University of Papua New Guinea students protesting against Mr O’Neill’s refusal to present himself for questioning on corruption charges. Dozens were injured, though none were killed.

Protests soon spread from Port Moresby, the capital, across the country, and show no signs of abating. Clashes have left students hospitalised in Goroka, the capital of the country’s Eastern Highlands province, and Lae, PNG’s second-largest city. Calls for Mr O’Neill to resign will probably grow louder in the run-up to general elections, scheduled for next June.

Many hoped for better from Mr O’Neill. In 2011 he set up an anti-corruption body called Taskforce Sweep. Its investigations led to dozens of officials being arrested. However, Mr O’Neill’s enthusiasm for Taskforce Sweep waned when it started investigating him, alleging that he authorised fraudulent payments of 72m kina ($22.8m) to Paraka Lawyers, a local law firm. Both deny wrongdoing.

In June 2014 arrest warrants were issued for Mr O’Neill and his finance minister, James Marape. The prime minister responded by disbanding Taskforce Sweep and firing his attorney-general. When the courts resurrected the body Mr O’Neill simply cut its funding. In July 2015 an anti-corruption unit within the police force brought fresh charges against Gari Baki and Ano Pala, respectively the new police commissioner and attorney-general, alleging that they conspired with Mr O’Neill to scupper the Paraka investigations. Neither has been convicted.

In 2008 PNG’s ombudsman looked into how Mr O’Neill’s predecessor, Sir Michael Somare, had acquired a large apartment and a beach house in the Australian state of Queensland. In 2011 he was suspended from office for failing to submit required financial statements.

Since Mr Somare’s time the stakes have grown. The past decade’s commodity boom poured rivers of extra cash into public coffers. Lower oil and gas prices since 2014 have squeezed budgets just as the government was ramping up infrastructure spending, leading to severe cuts to health and education. Meanwhile, politicians have grown more adroit at using state institutions to quash investigations into their alleged misconduct. Incumbency confers big advantages. The fear is that some politicians may steal and take kickbacks not only to enrich themselves but also to buy protection and win elections.

The students’ demands that the prime minister step down came just weeks before the last date when Mr O’Neill’s government can be dislodged in a no-confidence vote before the next election. Mr O’Neill has easily defeated no-confidence challenges before, but this time his reputation is less shiny and his supporters may be less loyal.

Claiming that the protests were stirred up by “outside agitators”, Mr O’Neill adjourned parliament until August 2nd—after the no-confidence risk passes. No doubt it seemed a shrewd move. But if Mr O’Neill’s critics cannot make themselves heard in parliament, they may do so on the streets.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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