PNG's embattled PM buys time to consolidate

2:05 pm on 8 May 2019

Papua New Guinea's prime minister Peter O'Neill has used his mastery of parliamentary proceedings to frustrate the opposition's attempts to remove him.

Bolstered by recent defections from the government, the opposition has lodged a motion of no confidence against the prime minister, but Mr O'Neill has bought himself time to regroup.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill (with spectacles) flanked by coalition partners following a parliament session, 7 May 2019.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill (with spectacles) flanked by coalition partners following a parliament session, 7 May 2019. Photo: Supplied

PNG's parliament resumed on Tuesday for a much-anticipated showdown between the government and opposition.

In recent days both groups claimed they would have a majority in the 111-seat parliament. For the first time in many years, the numbers on both sides of parliament appeared even when MPs filed into the chamber.

Kicking off question time, the opposition finance spokesman Ian Ling-Stuckey urged Mr O'Neill to stand down in order to rescue PNG's struggling economy.

"Failing economic policies that are destroying he economy with massive falls in general living standards, destroying the economy with massive increases in debt, from 8 to 26 billion (kina) in just seven short years. Prime Minister, why did you not step down earlier and offer your failing leadership to more competent leaders?"

The chamber's atmosphere quickly became heated, a sign of the opposition's frustrations with a prime minister they accuse of operating as a dictator, and of allowing corruption to fester.

When things quietened down, the prime minister defended his government's handling of the economy.

"So Mr Speaker, our economy is doing quite well. Let me say that it has enjoyed growth for the last sixteen or seventeen years, unlike many economies around the world. As I said, you produce a data, produce an independent study (of the economy) that is not biased like those studies you receive from the Australian National University."

Papua New Guinea government MP James Marape outside the national court in Waigani after an electoral petition against him was dismissed.

James Marape (centre) Photo: Melvin Levongo

The opposition's nominee for alternative prime minister is James Marape, whose resignation as finance minister last month sparked an exodus from the ruling People's National Congress party.

He questioned the prime minister over decisions related to the economy and finance for resource projects. But the questions had limited success because the prime minister was able to portray Mr Marape as having been centrally involved in those decisions himself.

When the opposition sought to test the numbers, with a motion to remove the Speaker, Job Pomat, Mr O'Neill's side defeated the motion by 59 votes to 50.

By the same margin, the government won a vote to adjourn parliament to the end of the month. After the session, Mr O'Neill struck a confident figure.

"The government is well and truly solid, intact, and we are ready to work. But all in all, you can see the strategy that the opposition has laid out, it is to try and test the numbers to remove a sitting Speaker today. Well obviously, that failed."

The opposition's motion of no confidence against Mr O'Neill still has to be vetted by a parliamentary private business committee, before it can voted on.

The press conference where the nine MPs announced their resignation.

The press conference where the nine MPs announced their resignation. Photo: PNG News

But in a move that could further dim the prospects of a vote happening soon, Mr O'Neill replaced two members of the committee, both of whom were MPs that recently left his government.

James Marape said the prime minister was trying to sabotage the vote.

"What showed today was that the prime minister is not confident of the numbers on the government side. You saw a ploy by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's government to sabotage the process of the vote of no confidence. And we are appealing to the processes of parliament, the office of the Speaker, that they must not stand in the way of the will of the people."

The opposition has called on people across the country to urge their MPs to support its motion.

But while a vote appears inevitable, it could still be weeks away, as Mr O'Neill has bought himself precious time to consolidate his support.

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