Analysis – 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 Friday’s 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.”
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 $US30 million 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 4 August unless the government reversed a 30 percent 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 9 August 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.