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PNG: O'Neill Government safe for now, but still mired in corruption allegations

PNG: O'Neill Government safe for now, but still mired in corruption allegations

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O'Neill comprehensively headed off a motion of no confidence in parliament yesterday over corruption allegations. O'Neill's assertion that his government is stable and will 'continue to provide stability' ahead of handing down a difficult budget next week is convincing, particularly as he yesterday won a vote of confidence 78 votes to two. But doubts remain about his government's commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.

I wrote about the O'Neill Government's apparent lack of respect for the rule of law in June 2014 ('PNG: O'Neill Survives, Rule of Law Suffers'). At that time, Prime Minister O'Neill had avoided an arrest warrant issued relating to his alleged connections to fraudulent payments from the Papua New Guinea Finance Department to Paraka Lawyers.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill at the Lowy Institute, 2012. (Peter Morris.)

This matter has continued to reverberate. In July this year former Police Commissioner Geoffrey Vaki was found guilty of contempt of court for failing to execute the2014 arrest warrant against the Prime Minister and sentenced to three years in jail. In August, two PNG detectives with the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate, Chief Superintendent Mathew Damaru and Chief Inspector Timothy Gitua, brought contempt charges against new Police Commissioner Gari Baki for alleged interference with an arrest warrant that had been issued for Treasury Secretary Dairi Vele on charges of official corruption relating to decisions of the Prime Minister. Vele won a stay against the warrant in July, pending a court decision on setting aside the warrant.

Commissioner Baki then began an investigation into Damaru and Gitua and issued an arrest warrant against them. [fold]

Two Australian lawyers, Greg Egan and Terence Lambert, who were joining the legal team acting for Damaru and Gitua, were denied entry to Papua New Guinea in late September. They believed this to be politically motivated. A week later the National Court of Justice overturned the ban imposed by the PNG Department of Immigration and the two lawyers were permitted entry. The arrest warrant against Damaru and Gitua was stayed by the National Court in October and Baki was restrained from further investigating the detectives and their lawyer in a case which cast doubt on Baki's commitment to police impartiality.

The Government also sought to suspend Chief Magistrate Nerrie Eliakim in early October. Eliakim is the magistrate who issued the arrest warrant against the Prime Minister. The Government insists its move to suspect Eliakim is related to complaints received about her performance rather than her involvement in the Prime Minister's case.

In a further twist this week, Supreme Court Judge George Manahu dismissed the application of Attorney-General Ano Pala to have an arrest warrant against him stayed. Pala is alleged to have conspired with Finance Minister James Marape, Prime Minister O'Neill and others to defeat the course of justice in relation to the investigations into the Paraka Lawyers payments. Importantly, the judge said the power of police to investigate and arrest should not be interfered with, that criminal matters do not recognise the status of a person in the community, and that being a minister and the chief legal adviser to the government is irrelevant. In other words: no-one is above the law. Assistant Police Commissioner Thomas Eluh, perhaps fearing another lawsuit, has called for Pala to  hand himself in for questioning at the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate office, declaring 'we cannot be going around looking to arrest a national leader'. But Pala doesn't have time to hand himself in this week – he is busy attending parliament.

This convoluted web of legal processes which the Government has woven has created a public perception that it has something to hide. The Prime Minister has encouraged this perception through his unwillingness to engage with critics. His government has cracked down on 'improper use' of the internet, with new laws imposing fines and jail sentences for placing 'offensive' or 'false' information online – apparently targeting social media activists who have been very critical of the government. The Prime Minister decided in August that Australian journalist John Garnaut and former Treasury official Paul Flanagan were no longer welcome in Papua New Guinea because of their criticism of his government's budget management. A peaceful public protest against the Prime Minister at the beginning of this week in Port Moresby which drew only small numbers provoked a disproportionate reaction from the police.

Why a leader with a parliamentary majority that would be the envy of prime ministers the world over should be sensitive about a few critics on social media, an Australian economist and a journalist is curious.

Prime Minister O'Neill's ability to maintain his dominance is not as easy now as it was at this time last year. The dramatic fall in commodity prices, consequent budgetary challenges and the El Nino drought threaten his capacity to deliver promised nationally significant reforms such as free education and healthcare, and maintain the District Services Improvement Program under which MPs receive grants to administer services and development initiatives in their electorates and which secure their loyalty to the Prime Minister. O'Neill is also clearly concerned about his legal battles, which ultimately may present the greatest threat to his leadership.

Nevertheless, for the moment O'Neill remains in a strong position with few realistic competitors for his job. O'Neill is right that Papua New Guinea needs a stable government to deal with the challenges facing the nation. But the people of Papua New Guinea also need a government that respects the rule of law and is confident enough to engage with its critics about the best way to deal with those challenges.

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