Corruption in the Government: Prime Minister O'neill clings to Power

Corruption in the Government: Prime Minister O’neill clings to Power

Papua New Guinea has been a self-proclaimed Democratic Government since its independence in 1975; however, the people are not democratically represented and corruption has limited its progress. Limited Preferential Voting is practiced in PNG; distorted by vote buying. Vote buying is a type of campaign spending where votes are purchased. Financial or material incentives are presented to the voters in order to control the electoral outcome. According to a report by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the PNG government spent over $207 million USD on the 2012 elections, or around $63 USD per voter, the highest in the world (compared to the average of $5 USD per voter). In a truly democratic election, positions would be filled by those that represent the majority of the country’s desires. Because of vote buying, the positions are given to the wealthy rather than to those that would represent the people’s needs and desires; these wealthy officials represent only the interests of the minority in PNG. 

In addition to the vote buying, corruption has plagued the PNG government. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has been adamant about holding on to his power, while some view him as a sort of dictator unwilling to abdicate his throne. Mr. O’Neill was first chosen by parliament to be acting Prime Minister in August of 2011 following Sir Michael (the founding father of independent Papua New Guinea). Sir Michael was declared to no longer be fit to hold the position due to illness. Then in August of 2012, Parliament endorsed Mr. O’Neill as Prime Minister.

After Transparency International ranked PNG as one of the most corrupt countries in the world in 2012, Mr. O’Neill declared cracking down on corruption would be a priority of the government. One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to approve the formation of an anti-corruption task force, also known as Taskforce Sweep. He hoped this would help draw in foreign investors.

In June of 2014, Mr. O’Neill was accused of fraud by the  anti-corruption task force; they issued a warrant for his arrest. He then challenged the accusation in court. In November of that year, he was referred to a tribunal of judges over separate allegations of misconduct in office in relation to a $1.3 billion loan. The hearing was scheduled for January of 2015.

The PNG government has prevented anti-corruption police from engaging a private law firm and an Australian barrister from arguing their case to arrest Prime Minister O’Neil. Matthew Damaru, director of the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate (NFACD), and his deputy, Timothy Gitua, have been seeking the arrest of Mr. O’Neill on corruption charges since June of 2014. Mr. O’Neill, however, obtained a court order preventing their warrant from being executed. The Supreme Court ordered Mr. Damaru and Mr. Gitua to seek approval from the Attorney General in order to continue using the private law firm Jema Lawyers, and Australian barrister, Greg Egan, in their fight against the court order protecting Mr. O’Neill. The Attorney General, Mr. Ano Pala, however, is also guilty of corruption.

After turning himself in to police, Mr. Pala was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. According to police, Mr. Pala allegedly tried to frustrate their efforts to pursue official corruption charges against Prime Minister O’Neill. He was charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice, attempting to pervert the course of justice, and abusing his office. Mr. Pala was installed as Attorney General in 2014 after his predecessor was fired by Mr. O’Neill following O’Neill’s arrest warrant. Police allege Mr. Pala improperly interfered in the case against Mr. O’Neill and other senior government officials after he was appointed to Attorney General in 2014. Mr. Pala is believed by police to have misused public funds and interfered with attempts to arrest Mr. O’Neill.

Denying any wrongdoing, Mr. O’Neill disbanded the anti-corruption task force (Taskforce Sweep) in 2014, effectively ending its investigation into the matter. The National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate (NFACD) picked up where Taskforce Sweep left off. NFACD found more evidence of corruption by senior government officials, issuing a warrant in July 2015 for the arrest of Treasury Secretary, Dairi Vele. Mr. Damaru brought contempt charges against the new Police Commissioner, Gari Baki, for allegedly convincing a magistrate to stay the Vele warrant. Police Commissioner Baki responded by issuing an arrest warrant for Mr. Damaru. Mr Damaru then hired Australian lawyers Greg Egan and Terence Lamber to fight the charges; however, they suddenly found themselves issued with a travel ban by the PNG Department of Immigration. The ban was overturned, and Damaru’s warrant was stayed.

University of PNG students protest on May 6, 2016. (Credit: ABC Eric Tlozek)

University of PNG students protest PM O’Neill on May 6, 2016. (Credit: ABC Eric Tlozek)

Prime Minister O’Neill clings to power during this inner struggle to fight corruption, while the majority of Papua New Guineans are opposed to his keeping his position. Recently, tired of the corruption, students at the country’s largest university boycotted classes and held the first major protests against the ongoing legal battle that has prevented anti-corruption officers from interviewing Prime Minister O’Neill. The protests came as PNG’s Supreme Court involved itself in the dispute and confronted the country’s police commissioner over his closure of the country’s last remaining anti-corruption body, the National Fraud and Anti-Corruption directorate.