Peter O'Neill

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The Honourable
Peter O'Neill
CMG
Peter O'Neill May 2015.jpg
7th Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
Assumed office
2 August 2011
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor General Bob Dadae
Deputy Leo Dion 2012-2016
Charles Abel 2016-
Preceded by Sam Abal (Acting)
Minister for Finance
In office
July 2010[1] – July 2011[2]
Preceded by Patrick Pruaitch
Succeeded by Patrick Pruaitch
Personal details
Born Peter Charles Paire O'Neill
(1965-02-13) 13 February 1965 (age 53)
Ialibu-Pangia, Papua New Guinea
Political party People's National Congress Party
Spouse(s) Lynda May Babao
Alma mater University of Papua New Guinea

Peter Charles Paire O'Neill, CMG (born February 13, 1964) is a Papua New Guinean politician and the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea since 2011.

Early life and education

He is born in Lalagam, Pangia, Southern Highlands Province. O'Neill's father, Brian O'Neill, was an Australian-born magistrate. His mother, Awambo Yari, a Papua New Guinean, came from the Southern Highlands. His father moved to Papua New Guinea in 1949 as an Australian government field officer, known in Tok Pisin as a kiap, later serving as a magistrate in Goroka until his death in 1982. Peter O’Neill spent his first years of his youth in his mother’s village and entered his father’s urban household after going to secondary school. O'Neill was educated at the Pangia Primary School , Ialibu High School and Goroka High School . After leaving school he obtained a Bachelor’s in Commerce at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) . This was followed by an honors degree in accountancy from UPNG. He obtained a professional qualification and became a Certified Practicing Accountant in 1989. A year later he became President of the PNG Institute of Certified Practicing Accountants. Peter O’Neill became a partner in Pratley and O’Neil’s accounting firm. He combined this with a substantial number of directorships, often as Executive chairman. The most important of these is the PNG Banking Corporation when it was government owned.[3] f[4]

Political career before becoming Prime Minister

O’Neill entered parliament in 2002 as MP for Ialuba-Pangia. He was reelected in 2007, 2012 and 2017. This is remarkable as the turnover in the PNG parliament is high.[5] Immediately after election in 2002 he became a Cabinet Minister for Labour and Industrial Relations in the government of Michael Somare. In 2003 he was reassigned to the post of Minister for Public Service. However, in 2004 was dropped from the Cabinet. His party, PNC, left the government coalition. Thereafter O’Neill joined the Opposition. Amidst fierce competition the became leader of the opposition in the same year,[6] After the final vote, the speaker initially did not want to recognize him and claimed Peter Yama was the leader of the Opposition,[7] O’Neill then energetically tried to mount a vote of no confidence, but without success. Somare in conjunction with the speaker used procedural issues to stop this.[8] However, after the 2007 elections O’Neill joined again Somare’s government as minister of the Public Service. In July 2010 he switched to the key position of minister of Finance. Somare was hospitalized in Singapore in 2011 and appointed Sam Abal as his caretaker. Abal demoted O’Neill to works minister in July 2011.[9] [10]

Prime Minister (2011-since)

A prime minister in PNG needs in the first place an aptitude for coalition formation. There is never a party with an absolute majority and the political spectrum is fragmented. Party formation is weak and political loyalties are fluid. Coalitions are therefore opportunistic: Coalition formation is not guided by policies or strict party loyalties [11][12] Peter O”Neill is very skillful in this fluid political culture. Before he became Prime Minister, he had already shifted loyalties for and against prime minister Michael Somare. In 2011 he shifted loyalties again by joining a movement to unseat Michael Somare who was ill in Singapore. He was elected then by the parliament of PNG as Prime Minister with 70 of the 94 votes cast.[13][14] His position was however challenged in several ways. MPs loyal to Michael Somare challenged him in the courts and Somare himself did as well after he returned from Singapore. The Supreme Court ruled that Somare was the legitimate prime minister. This brought the constitutional crisis to a head. O’Neill refused to go. The Governor General decided in the ensuing tussle that new elections were needed [15] ([16][17]

O’Neill’s won the subsequent elections of 2012, despite all the preceding controversy. His party (PNC) did well in the elections and obtained 27 seats while it had 5 sets in the previous parliament. It was the biggest in number of seats and therefore O’Neill was asked to form the government. However PNC was far from an absolute majority: it had less than a quarter of the seats in parliament and coalition building was thus required. A broad coalition appeared to support him: 94 votes in a 119 members parliament.[18] This coalition contained three ex prime ministers, among whom Michael Somare. The latter thus supported him despite the previous bitter conflict . Somare had even threatened to throw O’Neill in jail if Somare would win the election [19]

O’Neill completed the full five year period of the parliamentary life from 2012-2017. There was ample opposition against him in the country, but he retained a firm grip on parliament, That was particularly clear when after much resistance on the government’s part a motion of no confidence was mounted. The right to do so was only granted after a Supreme Court intervention.[20] Despite that, O’Neill gathered support of 85 votes against 21 in a 119 seats parliament.[21] Twenty five MPs had by the end of 2016 crossed the floor and joined PNC and 52 MPs identified with the party.[22]

A forceful challenge was mounted in the 2017 PNG general election by Mekere Morauta,[23] yet O’Neill overcame the challenge very well. The People’s National Congress did not gain the 52 seats they occupied at the end of the previous parliament but gained the same number of seats (27) as in the 2012 election. The fluid nature of PNG politics was however evident: PNC lost 34 sitting Members, just over 60% of those PNC MPs who faced the voters. Only 21 were re-elected, but the PNC did win seven seats it did not hold before.[24][25]) As leader of the biggest party in Parliament , he was asked to form the government. This government got support of 60 versus 46 MPs. Again O’Neill showed a capacity for coalition formation.[26]

O’Neill as Policymaker

O’Neill embarked on an activist development policy that he contrasts to the stagnation of previous years. For example: he resorted to heavy borrowing, e.g. a very big loan from the Chinese Import-Export bank, to remedy the “sins” of the past.[27][28] He laid stress on the development of infrastructure, especially roads.[29] Free education and free health care were signature policies in the 2012 election. He maintained these policies after being reelected in 2017.[30][31] O’Neill claims to be committed to privatization but wants to consolidate government in natural resources projects.[32] The international stature of PNG was raised through the organization of the Pacific Games on a large scale [33] and proposing Port Moresby as the location for the APEC summit in 2020.[34]

In August 2011, the O'Neill administration announced the a new public holiday, Repentance Day, 26 August. The announcement was made eleven days before that date. The public holiday was established at the request of a "group of churches", which had approached Abal with the idea shortly before he lost office.[35]

O'Neill and issues of governance

O’Neill was referred to as a controversial prime minister when he returned victorious in 2017.[36][37] There are laudatory comments on his tenure of office,[38][39][40] but overall it has been mired in criticism because of governance issues. These issues predate his appointment as prime minister. His supporters will point to his success in business before entering politics as qualification for leadership. Opponents argue that his business success is permeated with influence in government and that his directorships in government enterprises prior to his success in politics is significant [41] Second: The commission of inquiry in the National Provident Fund of 2003 recommended to prosecute O’Neill for extorting money in return for revaluing a contract to build a high rise. A rise in the contract price was given because of rising costs as a consequence of currency devaluation and O’Neill was said to obtain a cut from this increase. O’Neill appeared for a committal court in 2005 but the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.[42] O’Neill has no objection to reopening the case. Third, his name was involved in an enquiry into irregular disbursement of massive legal fees to the law firm of Paul Paraka. Paraka was arrested in December 2013 because of fraudulent payments up to 30 million Australian dollars.[43] Opposition leader Belden Namah mentioned Peter O’Neill as responsible because he was minister of Finance at the time of the payment.[44] To this was added an irregular payment after government was said to have cut ties with Paraka lawyers in the period February 2012 and May 2013 of 31 million Australian dollars [45] O’Neill was prime minister at that time. There were various attempts by Taskforce Sweep, an anti corruption watchdog, and police officers from the Anti Corruption Unit to question O’Neill on this. He refused to be questioned and dismissed the Task force Sweep as well as the police officers involved.[46] O’Neill challenged the arrest warrant before the court and the Supreme court voided the warrant in December 2017 as defective. This was on formal grounds: officers did not follow the regulations, information was missing and there were spelling mistakes.[47][48] Fourth, O’Neill has nationalized the OkTedi mine owned by the PNG Sustainable Development Fund (PNGSDF) without compensation. The O’Neill/Dion government had immediately after taking power in 2012 the intention to obtain a bigger share of dividends from the mine, but nationalization without compensation came as a surprise.[49][50][51] He mentioned environmental damage as the main reason. BHP Biliton was the owner of the mine when it was opened, but the company wanted to close the mine when major environmental damage was due to negligence. Government was faced with a great loss of revenue and a formula was found to continue mining. BHP transferred its shares to a trust fund for the benefit of the local community (PNGSDF) . BHP was in return granted immunity from claims because of environmental damages, BHP continued to manage the mine. O’Neill considered that a mistake and revoked the immunity. Another reason given was that proceeds from the mine were disappearing abroad instead of staying within PNG. This is connected to a political rivalry with former prime minister Mekere Morauta whose political base is in that part of the country. Morauta as chairman of PNGSDF challenged the nationalization without compensation and refuses access to the externalized PNGSDF in Singapore which is meant as a Social Wealth Fund for when the mine is exhausted. The case is winding its way through the courts in Singapore. Government has gained the right to inspect the books of PNGSDP as it is a shareholder, but the issue of ownership is still undecided.[52] An arbitration attempt in Singapore failed as there was no written consent to arbitration from the PNG government.[53] Morauta brought as well a case before the courts in PNG. However, the Supreme Court decided that Morauta had no standing as a private person to bring the case and the court was also not admissible as the case was before a court in a foreign jurisdiction.[54] A fifth issue of governance is the alleged disregard for administrative regulatory control and legally required political procedures in arranging a loan from the Swiss Banking firm UBS. to obtain shares in the Oil Search company. The intention was to become through this shareholding part of a group developing the Elk Antelope Oil field. O’Neill ignored such proceduresin obtaining this loan.[55] Don Polye, his minister for the treasury refused to sign. O’Neill then appointed himself as Treasury minister. These issues led to an investigation by the Ombudsman Commission who recommended to bring O’Neill before a leadership tribunal. O’Neil welcomed the chance to clear his name. However, he procrastinated the appointment of a new Chief Ombudsman and appointed a controversial Acting chief Ombudsman. O’Neill’s lawyers challenged the powers of the Ombudsman in this case and the Supreme Court decided in favor of O’Neill.[56][57] The opposition to O’Neill on these issues was intense. University students went on strike demanding his resignation which resulted in violent confrontations with the police and closure of the university.[58] Three former prime ministers: Sir Michael Somare, Sr Julius Chan and Sir Mekere Morauta supported a motion of no confidence,. They urged O’Neill to resign.[59]

O’Neill and the Management of the Economy

PNG expected andeconomic boom when O’Neill became prime minister. This expectation was built in the first place on the LNG/PNG project that became on stream in 2014. However, the economy has made a big downturn during the O’Neill cabinets. Economic growth declined to under 3%. Foreign exchange became scarce and government resorted to printing money to pay for the fiscal deficit. The debt/GOP ratio is way above the 35% prescribed by law.[60] According to O’Neill this is a temporary setback caused by low prices for natural resources. The economy is fundamentally stable and the government’s policies are on track. Typical for his response is that the economy is sound despite economic downturn.[61][62] This view is challenged by economists who see the economic problems as emerging from policies of the O’Neill governments.[63] Firstly, the government embarked on an expansionary fiscal policy in the expectation of future income that did not materialize. It is difficult to change the expenditure pattern in sectors such as health and education. Secondly, the expectations were built on growth in the mineral resource economy. That part of the economy has the character of an enclave economy its inputs and output are geared to overseas connection. The non-mineral resource economy is most important for the well being of the mass of the people. That sector was already in recession before the downturn in prices for natural resources. It faces increasing constraints because of foreign exchange and fiscal imbalances. There is no foreign exchange for essential inputs and government leaves many bills unpaid. Thirdly, the government has lost large amounts of money in credit schemes to purchase equity in LNG/PNG and Oil Search. Debt repayments are high as foreign debt is estimated to be as high as 60%. The loyalty inO’Neil’s coalition depends to a large extent on cash payments to MPs in the form of District Improvement Funds putting pressure on government finances.[64] The most articulate critic of O’Neill is Mekere Morauta, a previous prime minister. He stresses concrete facts that are according to him not addressed: Government has difficulty paying the civil service; 70% of businesses complain of lack of foreign exchange. Government’s attempt to borrow from China will make matters worse as it adds to an already unsustainable [65]

Peter O'Neil'is since 1999 married to Lynda May Babao. They have five children: Brian O'Neill, Travis O'Neill, Joanne O'Neill, Loris O'Neill, Patrick O'Neill. It is his second marriage. He has been admitted to the Order of St.Michael and Saint George.

O’Neill and the West Papua Issue

In 2012, despite a refugee crisis between the borders of Papua New Guinea and West Papua, the country, under O’Neill, was steadfast in its support to Indonesia, which promised Papua New Guinea a bigger role in ASEAN in the future. By 2017, the Indonesian-led genocide against West Papuan natives peaked with almost 25% of the native population killed within a 50-year period.[66][67] The realization caused massive backlash from Oceania nations against Papua New Guinea's policy on West Papua. In January 2017, Papua New Guinea gave citizenship to 138 West Papuan refugees in a bid to calm tensions.[68] In September 2017, Papua New Guinea rejected the West Papuan Independence Petition in the United Nations General Assembly, to the pleasure of Indonesia. The rejection was criticized by many as a 'destruction of PNG's independence' due to Indonesian influence and a 'stark hit at the back' against West Papuan victims.[69]

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  61. ^ Freddy Mou, PM O’Neill confident about the economy Available at: http://www.looppng.com/business/pm-o’neill-confident-economy-71803 Posted on: 3/01/2018 Accessed on: 3/05/2018
  62. ^ David James, PNG economy strong despite critics Available at: https://www.businessadvantagepng.com/pm-insists-papua-new-guinea-economy-strong-despite-critics/ Posted on 1/05/2018 Accessed on: 3/05/2018
  63. ^ Depressing start to 2018; 7 billion less than promised Available at: http://pngeconomics.org/2017/12/sombre-2018-k7-billion-less/ Posted on: 31/12/2017
  64. ^ Depressing start to 2018; 7 billion less than promised Avialable at: http://pngeconomics.org/2017/12/sombre-2018-k7-billion-less/ Posted on: 31/12/2017
  65. ^ PNG economy getting worse by the day –Morauta Available at: https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/352339/png-economy-getting-worse-by-the-day-morauta Posted on: 12/03/2018 Accessed on: 3/05/2018
  66. ^ "PNG resettles hundreds of West Papuan asylum seekers". 18 March 2016. 
  67. ^ Namorong, Martyn (3 March 2017). "Can the next #PNG Government do better on West Papua?". 
  68. ^ "PNG grants citizenship to 138 West Papuan refugees". 19 June 2017. 
  69. ^ Doherty, Ben; Lamb, Kate (30 September 2017). "West Papua independence petition is rebuffed at UN". the Guardian. 

External links

  • People's National Congress Party, PNG-Integrity of Political Parties & Candidates Commission
  • The Australian: Highlander with big shoes to fill
Political offices
Preceded by
Sam Abal
Acting
Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
2012–present
Incumbent
Preceded by
Mekere Morauta
Leader of the Opposition of Papua New Guinea
2004–2007
Succeeded by
Mekere Morauta
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