- Papua New Guinea
Dramatic changes in national leadership, the final realization of the long-promised Bougainville referendum, and the painfully slow process of relocating asylum seekers from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and phasing out the Manus Detention Centre played key roles on the national stage of PNG in 2019.
While not an election year, 2019 proved to contain a tumultuous chapter in the halls of Port Moresby’s Parliament Haus. Flagging support for Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and signs of an impending vote of no confidence led the prime minister to suspend Parliament in early February, a tactical move to buy time to try and shore up support for a government on the wane. The decision was controversial but ultimately proved to be ineffective, as the three-month gap merely postponed the inevitable.
In April, with Parliament still on hiatus, members of Parliament for government and the opposition set up camp at two Port Moresby hotels, the former at the long-established Crown Plaza, located on the hill in downtown Port Moresby, and the latter at the newer Laguna Hotel near Parliament Haus in Waigani. After only a short time, several high-ranking ministers from the prime minister’s camp began to make their way to the opposition quarters, most notably Finance Minister James Marape, who would eventually be selected as prime minister. Marape initially only resigned from his Cabinet position, citing policy differences, but did not leave the government side, stating in Tok Pisin that “‘government wok mas go yet’—meaning the work of the government must continue” (Fox 2019b). Five days later, however, he made the trek to the opposition. Reports that Defence Minister Solan Mirisim had followed him surfaced hours later but turned out to be false (Tamahana 2019), highlighting the speculative nature and rushed reporting of rumors from observers in both the media and the general public.
Marape’s defection put O’Neill under tremendous pressure, leading him to talk up the unity within his group and downplay the gravity of the moment (Whiting 2019c), but more pressure was to come, as Attorney General and Justice Minister Davis Steven quickly followed Marape. Steven had his own reasons for leaving the government’s camp, stating that “important state institutions and agencies are weakened by our leadership to serve few people’s interests and needs” (rnz 2019a). With a minimum requirement of 56 mps to control Parliament, the 26 mps of the opposition that initially set up at the Laguna Hotel were counting closely as they were joined by some two dozen more parliamentary representatives within the span of eight days, from the end of April through the beginning of May. These included all five governors of the Highlands provinces (Wayne 2019a), as well as three more [End Page 587] ministers from the prime minister’s cabinet: Health Minister Sir Puka Temu, Defence Minister Solan Mirisim (as previously rumored), and Forestry Minister Douglas Tomuriesa. A significant number of those joining the opposition were members of the Pangu Party, a historic political party that was once a key ally and coalition partner of O’Neill’s People’s National Congress (pnc), which essentially fell apart as leader Sam Basil and others changed sides (Blades 2019). The wave of people and parties leaving the pnc-led coalition continued throughout May as the United Resources Party, including the ministers for police and state enterprises, joined the opposition, giving them control of at least sixty parliamentary seats (rnz 2019c).
The choice of hotels for the government and opposition to stage their meetings, internal caucuses, and press conferences can be seen as allegorical, as each represents the standing of the group based within it. The Crown Plaza is an established institution in Port Moresby, located high on the hill in the well-to-do downtown area with views over all sides of the peninsula. Like the O’Neill government and its key ally, the Pangu Party, it is recognized widely but out of the reach of most local people, and its age is evident. The opposition’s Laguna Hotel—ironically a key venue for many Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec) meetings—is a newer establishment with contemporary...