PNG government approaches breaking point

11:50 am on 29 April 2019

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill is battling increasing odds for political survival after five MPs resigned from his party.

It follows the resignation of two high level government ministers earlier this month, the latest sign that Mr O'Neill's support is collapsing and the government could soon change.

The five members of Papua New Guinea's government who have resigned.

The five members of Papua New Guinea's government who have resigned. Photo: Twitter/ @pesmoni

The five government MPs announced their resignations from the People's National Congress at a press conference yesterday in Port Moresby.

Influential Enga Governor Sir Peter Ipatas was flanked by the governors of Southern Highlands and Hela provinces, William Powi and Philip Undialu, as well as two other MPs.

These leaders are from the same resource rich Highlands region as Peter O'Neill, and have until now been key allies for him in the PNC, the party which has dominated PNG politics for seven years.

The resignations happened while Mr O'Neill was in Beijing with a government delegation, attending China's Belt and Road global forum.

After news broke that more allies were leaving, the prime minister said he respected their decisions.

"PNC has supported them in many (more) ways than one, so that they can retain their positions and their role as members of parliament," he reflected.

But the resignations appear to strengthen PNG's parliamentary opposition which is planning on tabling a motion of no-confidence against the prime minister when parliament resumes next month.

The opposition would need around a score of MPs to defect from the coalition government to defeat Mr O'Neill in a confidence vote. It may look to offer the prime minister's role to a prominent government MP such as James Marape, a key ally of the prime minister's until he resigned as Finance Minister this month.

PNG PM Peter O'Neill

PNG PM Peter O'Neill Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

The Komo Margarima MP Manasseh Makiba, and the Esa'ala MP Davis Steven, who resigned as Attorney-General last week, were the two other MPs resigning from PNC yesterday.

The move by the five MPs highlights discontent among MPs about the O'Neill government's approach to business, its management of debt, failure to arrest decline in basic services such as health, and its handling of major resource projects.

The resigning MPs raised their dissatisfaction with the government's actions in signing the Papua LNG Project agreement this month with French company Total SA, warning that interests of provinces and landowners were not being protected.

They lamented that promised equity and royalty benefits from PNG's first big LNG gas project, based in their provinces, had still not transpired, ten years after that project agreement.


At the press conference, Sir Peter and Mr Steven revealed they would be returning to the People's Party led by Jiwaka Governor, William Tongamp, who also attended the announcement.

The Party was founded thirteen years ago by Sir Peter who said it was always understood he and other MPs who also joined the PNC to help it in the 2017 election would later return.

"We are still part of the O'Neill government, but we are aligning ourselves in our own party," the Enga governor said.

That his return to the People's Party was part of an earlier arrangement was backed up by Mr O'Neill himself in Beijing.

Mr O'Neill said there were always movements in a large party such as the PNC.

"Despite a little bit of movement on the floor of parliament and in the party, I can asure you that our government is very stable in the sense that we've got quite a large number."

The prime minister said he expected the opposition would "make a big noise" out of Friday's resignations.

After the last general election in 2017, PNC emerged with around 30 MPs in the 111-seat parliament, far less than the previous term.

But while O'Neill had managed to sew together a coalition government, and even enticed some opposition MPs across, the huge majority of three years ago has eroded, and the tide appears to be turning within the PNC itself.

An ExxonMobil LNG Project plant near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

An ExxonMobil LNG Project plant near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Hela discontent

Hela's Governor Undialu said he decided to resign as he'd had enough of the neglect of his province despite it being home to a project generating between 12 and 15 billion kina every year.

"What happened to the revenue coming on from our oil and gas resources?" Mr Undialu asked.

"What happened to Porgera mine revenue, what happened to fisheries and forestries?"

He said MPs could not continue to pretend everything was ok.

"I am furious about prime minister flying to China today to obtain more loans," Mr Undialu explained.

"We have obtained so much loans, and most of these loans are concentrated in one, two or three centres in this country."

After mistakes made in the first LNG Project, Mr Undialu said he had trusted that the second would be better.

"Believe it or not, the second LNG is worse than the first LNG Project. And I hold this government accountable for the reckless decision we have made to sell our future."

Mr O'Neill said he took note of the resigning MPs expressing their differences with government policy.

"But quite frankly, I am yet to see a policy proposal in writing or otherwise made to government in the past eight years."

A view of the government benches in Papua New Guinea's parliament.

A view of the government benches in Papua New Guinea's parliament. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Political Stability

For Manasseh Makiba, in his first term of parliament, the decision to leave the party stems from a conviction that government is on a path that could destroy the nation.

He said that after being elected as an independent MP in 2017, he opted to join the PNC-led government in the interests of maintaining the political stability that he believed Peter O'Neill was forging.

"I was of the view that political stability was a positive force to develop and progress our country forward," he explained.

"But now I have come to realise on the other hand that if we do not have good policies in government, political stability can be used as a sham to entrench and perpetuate corruption, undermining of institutional process and the rule of law."

PNG parliament

PNG parliament Photo: AFP

Echoing this, Governor Powi claimed that the biggest danger facing PNG was "the abuse and misuse of the institutions of government" which he warned faced destruction.

In his response, Peter O'Neill defended his government's approach to developing the country's provinces and districts.

"Our country has a bright future, but only selfish and self-indulgence politics will continue to destroy and derail the development agenda that our country truly deserves."

The concept of destruction was used frequently in these exchanges - a sign that a lot is at stake.

The prime minister has previously proved resourceful at containing discontent in the ranks, but this month's resignations represent the biggest threat to his leadership since MPs controversially elected him to the role in 2011, sparking a constitutional crisis.

While the future of Peter O'Neill's grip on power is uncertain, it is clear that PNG politics is approaching a breaking point.

  • PNG Attorney-General resigns over governance concerns
  • PNG PM avoids confidence vote for time being
  • 'I see no future in this govt' - PNG governor explains defection
  • PNG leader dismisses claims of MPs deserting him
  • PNG opposition confident more govt MPs will cross over
  • PNG opposition seeks support to remove PM