Australia’s nearest neighbour has been thrown into political chaos amid a surge of defections from Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s ruling party ahead of a likely move on his leadership next week.
Australian officials are closely watching developments in Port Moresby, where the instability has placed a $16 billion gas deal at risk, and could force a reframing of one of Australia’s most important bilateral relationships.
Opposition parties today claimed to have secured the backing of 57 MPs in the 111-seat parliament, which would be sufficient to bring on a vote of no confidence in Mr. O’Neill as early as Tuesday.
Mr. O’Neill’s backers say the opposition has “more like 40” votes, and will fight to hold onto his job.
Both camps were today closely watching for a statement from PNG Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister Charles Abel, who last week called on Mr. O’Neill to resign but was yet to abandon his ruling coalition.
In a bid to prevent violence, the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary said public movement would be restricted on Port Moresby’s streets, with an extra 1000 police deployed in a city-wide operation ahead of the resumption of parliament.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said Mr. O’Neill had been a “mixed blessing” for Australia.
“He has certainly been a tough PM to deal with at times, and there has been a sense of worry that he has allowed himself to get too close to China which clearly is a concern to us,” Mr. Jennings said.
“But dealing with PNG is always going to be complicated for Australia – there is historical baggage there, and they are a country that will make decisions according to their interests, which don’t necessarily align with ours.”
Lowy Institute Pacific program research fellow Shane McLeod said Australia, which recently sealed a deal with Mr. O’Neill to build a joint naval base with PNG and the United States on Manus Island, had invested heavily in its relationship with Mr. O’Neill.
“There would be uncertainty over what comes next, but Australian officials are also familiar with a lot of the players in this situation,” he said.
Mr. McLeod said the momentum appeared to be with the opposition “but O’Neill won’t be giving up”.
“O’Neill is in the fight for his political future right now,” he said.
Today, opposition MPs were locked down in a Port Moresby hotel, where senior political figures hoped to lock in support behind a move on Mr. O’Neill, and come to a consensus on who would replace him.
Opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch told local media that all agreements signed by the O’Neill-Abel government would be reviewed, including the $16 billion Papua LNG deal signed less than a month ago with Oil Search and its partners ExxonMobil and France’s Total.
Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, who has been a key player in the push to topple Mr. O’Neill, said on Thursday that the LNG deal – negotiated directly by Mr. O’O’Neill – failed to meet agreed domestic supply obligations.
“It is clear that Mr. O’Neill has breached his own policies and in doing so has trashed attempts to develop a domestic gas industry and to support other sectors of the economy through the availability of cheap domestic gas,” he said.
Mr. O’Neill raced home from a visit to China, where he was attending a Belt and Road Initiative conference, to deal with the growing threat to his leadership last week.
Among the most recent defections were Enga Governor and political powerbroker Sir Peter Ipatas, Health Minister Sir Puka Temu and Defence Minister Solan Mirisim.
They joined former Finance Minister James Marape and Justice Minister and Attorney-General Davis Steven who resigned last week.
PNG, which has an estimated population of about eight million, is Australia’s biggest aid recipient, receiving $541 million in development funding last year.
By: Ben Packham/Weekend Australian