Peter ONeill: Son of a Grotesque Political System

Peter O’Neill faces arguably the biggest challenge to his Prime Ministership since 2011, as opposition numbers swell and a vote of no confidence looms.

Whatever the outcome, it is easy to get swept up in the political rhetoric now proclaiming PM O’Neill is an aberration who has led the nation’s political system astray. And, so the argument goes, the opposition has risen up to restore order.

Former Prime Minister, Sir Mekere Morauta recently remarked:

We have a government that is government by one man for one man, for his benefit and the benefit of his friends … The PNG that Michael Somare, Julius Chan, Paias Wingti, Rabbie Namaliu and others shaped has been changed profoundly and for worse in the last seven years by just one man … Papua New Guinea is sick and we get sicker if we don’t change this man. We can fix it. We have the medicine.

Statements like this, with all due respect, fundamentally miss the point.

Peter O’Neill is the son of a political system and political culture, that inscribed him with all the traits and mannerisms now being decried by opposition members. Perhaps he is one of the system’s more adept and extreme players, but certainly nothing that departs radically from the norm.

This political system mentored O’Neill from a young age to who he is today, and then rewarded his behaviour with the highest political office in the land.

Unless the opposition can reckon with this fact and instigate root and brach reform in defence of public integrity and social justice, whatever future chapters are written in PNG’s political history, the storyline will stay the same, even if the lead character has a new name.

Lets not forget that all those who joined with O’Neill to form government in the first place, were warned.

In 2002 and 2007 O’Neill came under the respective gaze of two respected legal minds, former Supreme Court judge, Tos Barnett, and the recently retired Justice Don Sawong, through Commissions of Inquiry into the National Provident Fund and the Investment Corporation of PNG.

They accused O’Neill of being part of a corrupt network of actors, appointed to administer state enterprises and statutory bodies by Prime Minister Bill Skate. The Commissioners claim that under the leadership of O’Neill’s alleged first cousin, Wandi Yamuna, and a close commercial affiliate, Jimmy Maladina, this predatory network employed executive power to defraud the bodies they were entrusted to manage.

O’Neill is accused of being a key player and beneficiary of the scams.

PNGi examined the results emerging out of these two inquiries back in 2017.

And the scandals that rocked O’Neill during his professional infancy, have only continued to grow. Last year in cooperation with The Guardian, PNGi reported on Wild Cat Developments Limited.

The ailing firm was bought by O’Neill back in 2014 from the Australian Gregory Forbes Bill. Within several years it was booming, courtesy of big ticket government contracts.

An investigation conducted by the Asian Development Bank’s Office of Anti-Corruption and Integrity found Wild Cat had won a major construction contract, as a result of fraud. Wild Cat then failed to deliver on its illicitly acquired contractual commitment. The company was sold off to Sir Theophilus Constantinou in 2016. How much O’Neill made from the deal is unknown.

PNGi put together a full timeline of the events here, and has made an unredacted copy of the ADB report available here.

Some within the current opposition group argue that this type of errant behaviour has steered the nation off a wise course set for it by previous Prime Ministers.

The evidence, however, suggests the ship has remained on the exact course set by O’Neill’s predecessors, except perhaps he has hoisted an extra sail or two.

Sir Michael Somare, for instance, was at the epicentre of a bribery scandal that shone a sobering light into his Prime Ministership.

Two Somare family friends were successfully convicted in Singapore for soliciting bribes to Sir Michael and his son, provided by a Chinese company seeking favour in the nation’s notoriously corrupt procurement system. The criminal conspirators, in their defence, argued slush funds and bribery is standard business in Waigani.

No attempts were ever made to prosecute Sir Michael and his son, despite the damning evidence used to convict his co-conspirators in Singapore.

Then there is Sir Julius Chan.

Over recent months we have been keeping a running commentary of illicit deals being hatched in New Ireland under the watch of its Governor Sir Julius Chan. A consistent theme revealed in successive audits is foreign businessmen from Asia with ties to Chan (see An Emergency on New Ireland and Good Times Fast Money in Sir Julius Chan Country) winning big contracts, through illegal procurement processes, on some occasions with the backing of Sir Julius himself.

And of course, it ought not be forgotten that it was the Chan government which left the nation at breaking point following the Sandline crisis.

The opposition also maintains that as PM O’Neill has single handedly monopolised political power for his own benefit, and the benefit of friends.

The truth is more complex.

In reality there are numerous figures in Cabinet who have been credibly implicated in serious abuses of political power, that rival O’Neill in scope and audacity.

In the pages of PNGi we have shone a light on William Duma, and his history of dubious land dealings, that reached its zenith with the Manu Manu scandal. Not far behind him are other O’Neill Cabinet notables including Fabian Pok, and Michael Nali, to name a select few examples.


Does that mean O’Neill should remain in post?


If O’Neill is toppled, should we celebrate?


But we should also be under no illusions. O’Neill may go, but the game will remain.

If the opposition is serious about creating a new chapter in political history that breaks with the past, its opening passages need to be inscribed with a wide range of seismic reforms. They must include:

  • Establishment of an Anti-Corruption Commission with wide ranging powers, and legally inscribed independence, led by an impartial and respected figure.
  • A reboot of the nation’s integrity system, including the Ombudsman Commission, Auditor General’s Office, Public Accounts Committee, RPNGC Anti-Fraud Directorate, internal auditing divisions within Departments and state enterprises, and the Financial Intelligence Unit. A focus on resourcing, capacity and integrity within all these institutions needs to be a priority.
  • A commitment to public and market transparency, through open databases and registers, including a public register of officials’ financial interests, a single web portal with all public procurement data, an online and fully searchable gazette, an online beneficial ownership database at the Investment Promotion Authority, to name a few examples.
  • Launching or reopening criminal investigations into cases that were swept under the rug during the O’Neill era. For instance, the Wildcat, Manumanu, and health department scandals, should all be in the front seat for renewed scrutiny.
  • Tackling the middle-men who fix corrupt deals, including sorting out the considerable volume of rotten apples in the nation’s legal and accountancy sectors.
  • Introduce asset-recovery tools, such as unexplained wealth orders, which can be used to deny public officials and politicians the proceeds of corrupt activities.
  • Investment in public broadcasting and civil society investigative expertise, so the nation has a well resourced and skilful professionals probing public integrity and reporting their findings to the public.
  • A risk based reform of all the slush funds, rotten government departments and defunct provincial authorities, focusing on the worst performers first.

Of course, a comprehensive list of essential reforms would be much longer. This is just for starters.

If these type of reforms do not take place, we will know from the get go that the players may have changed, but the game remains the same.