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Anthony Albanese is invited to visit PNG but its citizens must first elect a prime minister

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 22/06/2022 By PNG correspondent Natalie Whiting
James Marape (left) and Peter O'Neill both say they are committed to PNG's relationship with Australia. (ABC, People's National Congress Party) © Provided by ABC NEWS James Marape (left) and Peter O'Neill both say they are committed to PNG's relationship with Australia. (ABC, People's National Congress Party)

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been invited to visit Papua New Guinea in September, but it is not clear who will welcome him.

Papua New Guineans will head to the polls in less than a fortnight for a national election that is being closely watched, given the current geopolitical tension in the Pacific region.

The most likely contenders for prime minister are the incumbent James Marape and the man he deposed, former prime minister Peter O'Neill.

For years the two were close political allies, but now they are bitter rivals and the rivalry is being played out on the campaign trail.

In the wake of the Solomon Islands security deal, Mr Marape has felt obliged to clarify that there are no plans for a military base as part of a development proposal in PNG that has garnered Chinese-government interest.

The development idea for PNG's southern coast, north of Australia, was first proposed in 2018.

It includes ambitious planning drawings that outline a possible "military base", "naval base" and port among the commercial and residential areas.

"It's just a concept — maybe military [sites] were thrown in to make the place look commercial," Mr Marape said.

"Certainly, you can take it from me, there's no military base to be set up."

Mr Marape said he had extended an invitation to Mr Albanese to visit Port Moresby in September.

"It doesn't matter whether I'm in power or not, that invitation has been placed to him," Mr Marape told the ABC.

"There's a letter going his way for him to come."

Mr Marape said he had proposed a PNG-Australia ministerial forum could be held after the leaders' meeting.

It is expected Mr Albanese will be the first foreign leader to visit the new PNG government – whoever forms it.

Mr Marape and Mr O'Neill have both been flying around the country, holding massive campaign rallies, and meeting with voters and candidates as the poll approaches.

It is the latest chapter in the political tussle between the two that started more than three years ago.

Marape vs O'Neill: The contest for PNG

On an uneventful day in April 2019, PNG's then-finance minister Mr Marape called a press conference at his office in Port Moresby and made a shock announcement: He was resigning from his ministry.

It set in train a protracted period of political uncertainty in PNG that finally ended more than a month later, with Mr O'Neill's almost eight-year tenure leading the country over and Mr Marape being sworn in as the new Prime Minister.

After three years, Mr Marape is now on the campaign trail fighting to keep the title.

On a charter plane flying from the capital, Port Moresby, to the Highlands city of Goroka for a series of campaign events, Mr Marape told the ABC he would resign as leader of his party if he lost, but he was hopeful of retaining the top job.

"I think our people will pass good judgement," he said.

"Based on past trends we may come back, but we're not taking it for granted. We are out there."

History shows incumbent governments are usually returned at election time, but Mr Marape is coming up against a well-funded and well-organised campaign from Mr O'Neill.

During his campaign rallies, Mr Marape has not only been advocating for his candidates and his party's political record, but also urging people not to allow Mr O'Neill to return to power.

"I would never ever want to go back and work in a coalition that he is leading or a government that he is leading," Mr Marape said.

"He started off well, but when power got into his head he moved away from the goalpost of serving our country and we moved into the space of personal interest."

Mr Marape came to power with big promises to "take back PNG" and make the country the "richest black Christian nation".

His government has introduced economic reforms and changes to the country's lucrative mining and resource industries, but some voters say they have not seen the changes and benefits they had hoped for.

"Richest black Christian nation has got nothing to do with really deep and big money in the pocket," Mr Marape said.

"It's about us, as a nation, having the ability to ensure we sustain life in all our service sectors, as well as getting the infrastructure worked on and getting people engaged properly in what could be a country that they're proud of.

"It's very much achievable."

Mr O'Neill said he was "naturally disappointed" to see people he had "trusted and worked with for many, many years" walk out on his government and leadership back in 2019.

He said reflecting on it now, he blamed a "lust for power" among those who wanted to be prime minister.

"I think they found it's not that easy," he said.

"The job in a country that has got many, many challenges, like Papua New Guinea, it's not easy to satisfy every tribal group in every district. 

"Every remote community around the country is very hard to satisfy with very limited resources."

Corruption, passion, violence and hope on the PNG campaign trail

Mr O'Neill's party is running more than 90 candidates in the election and it looks like he will go close to visiting every province in the country before the campaign is over

"We want to give a strong message about the party's commitment to the nation," he said as he drove to a rally in Port Moresby.

"And we'll look forward to coming back, if it's the wish of the people, to form government."

As he approached the venue, he wound down the window to greet and shake hands with his supporters.

Despite his time on the opposition benches and the allegations of corruption that have dogged his time in power, he can still draw a crowd.

"Over the last three and a half years, as many Papua New Guineans know, I have been arrested, I've been charged, I've appeared before courts, and found not guilty on many of the allegations, which were virtually politically motivated," he said.

He said the investigations had not proven any misuse or abuse of power and the issue had now been "put to bed".

"I'm not saying that there was no corruption or there were no issues of that within a bureaucracy and within the political structures, of course, but you can't be responsible for everything everybody else does," Mr O'Neill said.

Corruption is a pervasive issue across PNG.

Legislation to set up an independent commission against corruption passed in 2020 and it is being established.

Both Mr Marape and Mr O'Neill told the ABC they were committed to it and to funding it properly.

Papua New Guineans will head to the polls in July. Three weeks have been set aside for voting and one week for counting.

After the counting, the newly elected MPs will go into camps to form coalitions before the make-up of the new government is revealed. Those coalitions could prove vital in deciding who has power.

And while Mr Marape and Mr O'Neill are the frontrunners, there are others in the wings eying the top job.

As the start of voting approaches, violence has been escalating in some areas. Already, 30 people have died — some in car accidents and others shot in clashes.

What the election means for the geopolitics

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has visited PNG in the midst of the election campaign, and Australia's new government is keen to come as soon as it is over.

A local PNG outlet has reported that, while he was in PNG, Mr Wang recommitted China to an ambitious development idea on the country's southern coast, known as the Ihu Special Economic Zone.

"The bilateral meeting held was a very important one for our project," project director Peter Kengemar told Loop PNG.

The plan, which is in the electorate of PNG Foreign Minister Soroi Eoe, has been proposed since 2018.

A drawing for the proposal includes a "military base", "seaport" and "naval base" among commercial, industrial, and residential zones.

But Mr Marape said it was "purely an economic investment zone."

"There are boundaries for investments and boundaries for other sovereign matters," he said.

"So, I can give you my honest assessment, assurance rather, that it's not a military base to be set up."

The Chinese ambassador has visited the site, and some memorandums of understanding (MoU) have been signed between the proponent and Chinese state-owned companies, but the viability of the project remains unclear.

The ABC put questions to the Chinese embassy about the report Mr Wang had committed funding to Ihu.

"As a principle, the Chinese side respects PNG's decision on where and how to use the assistance China has provided," it said in a statement.

"The two sides are keeping good communication on specific projects."

There is a long way from MoU to actual development in PNG, and the project is far from becoming a reality.

"I think some of these farfetched projects need to be realistically looked at again and negotiated properly," Mr O'Neill said.

"So, I shouldn't worry too much about what has been proposed

Both Mr Marape and Mr O'Neill said they were committed to PNG's relationship with Australia.

"We have no desire to change our position on security," Mr O'Neill said.

"We are aligned with the Australians and the United States and New Zealand on that aspect.

"I think as [the Australian government] have reset the relationship with New Zealand, I think there is some resetting to do in PNG as well, and I hope we can do that constructively."

Mr Marape said he wanted all international partners to focus on commercial partnerships and developing PNG's economy.

"We're very, very close — only five minutes by boat into the Australian side in the Torres Strait waters," he said.

"That closeness must be reflected in people-to-people, business-to-business, public-service-to-public-service, and government-to-government relationship."

Video: PM set to chair first National Cabinet meeting today (ABC NEWS)


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