PNG opposition looks to regroup after Pangu exit

9:11 am on 13 September 2017

Although prone to volatility, Papua New Guinea politics is reeling after the move by a main opposition party to join government.

The Bulolo MP Sam Basil and the bulk of his Pangu Pati have confirmed they are joining the People's National Congress-led coalition government, leaving the opposition trying to regroup.

Papua New Guinea MP Sam Basil.

Papua New Guinea MP Sam Basil. Photo: Supplied

Pangu emerged from the recent election as one of the three big parties in the new parliament. Mr Basil had revived the fortunes of PNG's oldest political party, winning eleven seats last month after entering the polls with only two MPs. Five independent MPs then joined the party to make it the second biggest party in parliament.

Pangu had campaigned vigorously on a platform for removing the government led by Peter O'Neill for the past six years. This made it all the more shocking for his many supporters when Mr Basil - flanked by 11 Pangu MPs - held a press conference on Monday with the prime minister himself, to announce their move to join Mr O'Neill.

"We'll be joining hands with the PNC (People's National Congress) to help implement policies, to help the Treasurer to make sure the 100 Days (policy plan) announcement that he has made, we will support it, to make sure that we help this government to deliver," explained a sombre-looking Mr Basil as Mr O'Neill nodded approvingly behind him.

It's yet to be confirmed what ministries Pangu has been offered by Mr O'Neill, although some have mentioned Mr Basil as a potential deputy prime minister. Explaining his reasons for the move, Mr Basil said Pangu was compelled to join the government to help implement its policies for the good of PNG.

As someone who had been in opposition for most of his career, he also cited the difficulty MPs who are not in government have in accessing District Service Improvement Funds (DSIP).

"As Bulolo MP, I have managed to secure DSIP and project funding for Bulolo district over the past 10 years. But what many do not know is that I have had to work ten times as hard, use every ability, skill and network to ensure that happens," the Pangu leader said.

"As a responsible parliamentary leader, I cannot subject Pangu MPs returned at the 2017 polls, as well as the independent MPs who joined later, to these unnecessary hardships."

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill  (with glasses) celebrates being declared winner of the election in his Ialibu-Pangia electorate, alongside fellow victorious People's National Congress member James Marape (red hat).

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill (with glasses) celebrates being declared winner of the election in his Ialibu-Pangia electorate, alongside fellow victorious People's National Congress member James Marape (red hat). Photo: PMO Media

After Mr Basil's repeated attacks of recent years on Mr O'Neill over alleged corruption and mismanagement of the economy, the defection was not easy, according to the Pangu leader. Only weeks ago Mr Basil was warning MPs-elect not to be swayed by inducements to join the PNC camp ahead of the formation of government:

"He or she must not sell the voters' rights to a political party that voters do not want to come back into power," said Mr Basil in mid-July.

The prime minister said it was now time to put their differences aside and work together.

"We have agreed that we will take into considerations all the issues that they have stood for over the next five years, and we will make sure we work together to deliver them to their expectations," said Mr O'Neill, adding that some of Pangu's policies were "very solid".

One of the defecting Pangu MPs, the Tewae-Siassi Open MP Kobby Bomareo, said because most Pangu MPs were from Morobe province, they had a duty to serve their people.

"We are from Morobe and, you know, it's a big province of Papua New Guinea, and has half of its industry and everything. If we stay in opposition, we really can't contribute much to the development of Morobe. So we have a lot of projects coming up in Morobe, we have to be part of the government to facilitate these projects."

It appears the other five Pangu MPs, including former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta and social media sensation Bryan Kramer, will stay with the opposition. They and others have expressed disappointment at the defection of a leader and party who embodied the hopes of many Papua New Guineans seeking a change of government.

Pangu was seen as the galvanising force in an opposition which only narrowly failed to prevent the re-election of Peter O'Neill as prime minister five weeks ago. The opposition began the new parliamentary term last month with around 46 members in the 111-seat house - far greater numerical strength than it had experienced for six years. With the departure of most of Pangu, other opposition members could be expected to follow.

Papua New Guinea MP for Oro Regional, Gary Juffa

Papua New Guinea MP for Oro Regional, Gary Juffa Photo: Loop PNG

Social media reports emerged ten days ago that Mr Basil had joined Mr O'Neill in government. He initially dismissed these reports but stopped short of denying tha he had been considering the move. The opposition MP, and Oro Governor, Gary Juffa, said the uncertainty left many people reeling.

"There was much anxiety, disbelief, and there was a lot of people very upset in the last few days about what was going on. The silence caused much anxiety in Papua New Guinea."

Mr Juffa said he remained committed to the parliamentary opposition, despite the setback, and reminded the country that its democracy needed a strong opposition.

"It's a sad day for many, but life goes on. And what we in the opposition must do is regroup. What we must do is focus, and be the best opposition that we can possibly be for our people. Give them what they deserve: a voice."

Some Pangu supporters have taken to social media to vent against what they see as a betrayal from the party which stood so vehemently against Peter O'Neill's leadership and his governance track record. However Mr Bomareo said people in Morobe agreed with the move.

"We all have spoken to our voters," he said. "I'm in Lae now, and people here are happy, they're so happy we've moved to that side, saying we can now see some changes."

The opposition's main remaining party is the National Alliance, the PNC's major coalition partner from the last parliament. Questions of whether Mr Basil, rather than the NA's Patrick Pruaitch, should have been opposition leader are immaterial now.

Sir Mekere Morauta

Sir Mekere Morauta says the defection of the bulk of the Pangu Pati to the government is extremely disappointing. Photo: Post Courier

NA's president Walter Schnaubelt was philosophical about Pangu's departure but didn't believe district funds were at stake, despite government's clear cash flow problems.

"Of course there's going to be a lot of attempts by the government to try and restrict the flow of project funds into the districts, and they'll use that to their advantage," he said. "We're staying fixed. We believe that there's enough funds in the coffers and we will all get our DSIP."

Sir Mekere echoed this, saying MPs could not claim that they needed to be in government to receive district or development funds.

Meanwhile, Mr Schnaubelt admitted the opposition was still coming to terms with Sam Basil's exodus.

"You know, politics in PNG, very volatile at the best of times, so we try to manage everything the best we can, so yeah... a surprise but we're in communication with him and he's in communication with us."

However the National Alliance last week lost one of its own 15 MPs to the government side, exposing an opposition that is struggling to contain defections so early in the tenth parliament.

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