James Marape gets clear air to establish new PNG administration
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James Marape gets clear air to establish new PNG administration

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The time when Australia could critique prime ministerial transitions in Papua New Guinea through the prism of political stability has long passed.

Which is why this week’s relatively seamless handover in Port Moresby from Peter O’Neill to James Marape is significant and commendable.

The success of Australia’s nearest neighbour – a country of more than eight million people, just kilometres from our shores – is one of enduring importance to Australia’s national interest.

For many Papua New Guineans, 48-year-old Marape will represent a new generation of leaders – those who have grown up as independent Papua New Guineans and who have been agitating for a different approach to the country’s politics.

Now they get their chance, even if Marape’s governing coalition turns out to be essentially the same one that was led by his predecessor Peter O’Neill.

While O’Neill’s instinct for political gamesmanship continued right to the end, his resignation on Wednesday cleared the way for a relatively straightforward transition to Marape.

It’s the first handover of power since 2002 not to be the subject of a court challenge and is in stark contrast to the way O’Neill assumed power in 2011 in a takeover that dragged the country into a full constitutional crisis.

Marape now gets clear air to establish a new administration.

With an overwhelming parliamentary support base, and barring any major disruption, he should be able to hold power at least until national elections in 2022.

He’ll set out his vision for the country in a speech next week.

And if he is serious about reaching his stated goal of making PNG the “richest black Christian country” in the world, he’ll need to come up with new solutions to the same challenges his predecessors have been dealing with for decades.

PNG has consistently underperformed on a range of indicators including health, education and income.

Much-heralded resource projects have failed to deliver. Some factors have been external – like a collapse in oil prices just as the country’s LNG industry came online. But others are self-generated, like weak governance, poorly executed policy and ill-timed government investments.

Marape has offered himself as a leader to take the country in a new direction. As someone who was until recently a close ally of Peter O’Neill, he’ll need to stake out some distance from his former mentor.

He says how the country negotiates resource projects – like the recent expansion of its LNG industry – will change.

But the legacies of resource projects gone awry will become prominent in the first few months of his tenure.

In October, the autonomous province of Bougainville will vote in a referendum on whether to become independent from PNG.

The timeline for the vote was set down nearly 20 years ago under a peace agreement brokered in part by Australia, which had set up the Panguna copper mine to provide the new nation of PNG with income to support its independence.

The closure of the mine and descent into civil conflict through the 1990s triggered the economic collapse that PNG’s leaders have struggled to escape in the years since.

The PNG government’s failure over many years to invest in the case for Bougainville to remain probably can’t be turned around so close to the vote.

The expectation is that a majority of Bougainvilleans will opt for independence.

But through his words and actions Marape, with his own experience as an MP from the resource-rich Hela province, can show he is serious about persuading them otherwise.

Bougainville will test the integrity of PNG like never before.

If it votes to leave, other provinces – especially those in the New Guinea Islands, with their own economic prospects – would probably push to do their own thing, too.

One former prime minister has said as much.

In assuming the leader’s chair, Marape now takes responsibility for holding his nation together.

For Australia, Marape brings change but likely the continuation of the policy approach of his predecessor.

And with him and Scott Morrison both enjoying the prospect of a number of years untroubled by political moves against them, there is an opportunity for a strong personal connection to be built between the two leaders.

Morrison could help to build strong foundations for that by resolving the longstanding issue of Australian asylum seekers on Manus Island.

And how Australia responds to the Bougainville vote will also be another important test of the relationship.

PNG’s citizens – through their MPs – have judged Marape to be the best person to steer their country through the decisions that lie ahead.

Australia should do what it can to make his leadership as successful as possible.