Commentary | 31 May 2019

New PNG prime minister, same problems

Touting a new narrative of the Pacific family, Scott Morrison is profoundly changing where the Pacific fits into Australian foreign policy.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Touting a new narrative of the Pacific family, Scott Morrison is profoundly changing where the Pacific fits into Australian foreign policy.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Last Thursday, James Marape was sworn in as Papua New Guinea’s 10th prime minister, following weeks of political theatre in Australia’s nearest neighbour. Fifty days after the former finance minister and his backers abandoned the government, and 10 days since being announced as the opposition candidate for prime minister, Marape returned to the government’s camp on Wednesday following the resignation of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. In the vote for O’Neill’s replacement, Marape secured 101 votes out of the possible 111 in the single-house parliamentary system.

O’Neill will leave as the country’s second-longest-serving prime minister, just shy of eight continuous years in power. He will leave behind a checkered legacy. A political master, O’Neill has proven adept at wielding every lever of power at his disposal to keep his Coalition together, outlasting five Australian prime ministers in the process. On policy he has disappointed. The economy has been crippled by external shocks and internal cronyism. Despite lofty commitments of free education and health for all, quality and distribution of services are in decline. The country is not trending in the right direction. I have a lot of sympathy for the impossibility of the top job in a system as complex and fractious as Papua New Guinea’s, but O’Neill’s tenure has been left wanting.

In a cruel irony for O’Neill, a deal that he expected to be a major legacy for his tenure looks to have been the catalyst for his demise. Looking to speed up proceedings, the Prime Minister seized control of negotiations with Total, a French oil and gas company, to ram through a deal on Papua LNG, a $US12 billion-$US14 billion project set to double the country’s gas exports. Marape cited the exclusion from the deal, and most importantly critical benefit sharing components, as the reason for his party abandoning government, sparking off the past 50 days of political turmoil.

Now that turmoil has ended. With a mandate Australian politicians can only dream of, and a populace eager for change, expectations are high for Marape to set Papua New Guinea on a new course. The challenge for him will be to convince the public that all of this theatre was worth it and that change is on the horizon, while at the same time dealing with all of the characters and entrenched interests he inherits from the O’Neill government. The make-up of his cabinet, as well as critical bureaucratic appointments, such as the position of chief secretary, will signal how much continuity we will see from the O’Neill era. It is likely we will see more continuity than change.

The gas deal recently negotiated by O’Neill is likely to be reopened, though unlikely to be dramatically changed. Marape has also signalled a review of the country’s mining legislation, a threat likely to make the extractive industries sweat. Given his track record as finance minister, and his roots in the highly resource-dependent highlands region, it is unlikely we will see wholesale reform. The natural resource sector should be taking this time to reflect and take a harder look at benefit sharing – the companies involved cannot continue to make significant profits while the government hardly sees any tax benefit and not expect pressure in the system to build.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will need to work fast to establish ties with the Marape. As our closest neighbour, largest aid recipient, critical security partner, and major bilateral trade and investment partner, there is a lot at stake. Peter O’Neill was an effective partner for Australia on a number of fronts from enforcing Manus Island policies to protecting Australian business interests. He also played an adept game at balancing Australian and Chinese interests, which are no more pronounced in the Pacific than in Papua New Guinea. A bilateral visit from Morrison, and a ''Guest of Government'' visit for Marape, should both be on the cards at the earliest convenience.

Morrison has already shown that he is a true believer in the importance of the Pacific to Australia’s national interest. Australia wants to be a leader in the Pacific, and the rest of the world expects us to be so.

Touting a new narrative of the Pacific family, Morrison has taken ownership of a Pacific "step up" that is profoundly changing where the Pacific fits into Australian foreign policy. His visit to Solomon Islands this weekend will mark his third bilateral visit to the Pacific in five months – an unprecedented effort, and a reflection of his personal conviction to the region, where personal relationships are king.

Let’s hope this trend continues with James Marape.