O'Neill in 2015
|7th Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea|
2 August 2011 – 29 May 2019
|Governor General||Sir Robert Dadae|
|Preceded by||Sam Abal (acting)|
|Succeeded by||James Marape|
|Minister for Finance|
July 2010 – July 2011
|Preceded by||Patrick Pruaitch|
|Succeeded by||Patrick Pruaitch|
Peter Charles Paire O'Neill
13 February 1965
Ialibu-Pangia, Papua New Guinea
|Political party||People's National Congress|
|Spouse(s)||Lynda May Babao|
|Alma mater||University of Papua New Guinea|
Peter Charles Paire O'Neill, CMG (born 13 February 1965) is a Papua New Guinean politician and the seventh Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, in office between 2011 and 2019. On 26 May 2019, facing the prospect of a vote of no confidence, O'Neill announced he would soon resign and that he wished for Sir Julius Chan to succeed him. An outgoing Prime Minister does not, however, have the power to appoint his successor, and the following day O'Neill delayed his own formal resignation. On 29 May 2019, O'Neill announced to the National Parliament that he had tendered his resignation to the Governor-General, Sir Bob Dadae. He was succeeded by James Marape.
O'Neill was born in Pangia, Southern Highlands Province. His father, Brian O'Neill, was an Australian-born magistrate of Irish descent. His mother, Awambo Yari, a Papua New Guinean, was 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 the first years of his youth in his mother’s village, and then his father’s urban residence 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 of Commerce at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). He then obtained a degree with honours in Accountancy from UPNG. He obtained a professional qualification and became a Certified Practising Accountant in 1989. A year later he became President of the PNG Institute of Certified Practising Accountants. 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, including at the PNG Banking Corporation when it was government-owned.
Early political career
O’Neill entered parliament in 2002 as MP for Ialibu-Pangia. He was re-elected in 2007, 2012, and 2017. This is unique as the turnover in the PNG parliament is high. Immediately after election in 2002, he became 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 he was dropped from the Cabinet. His party, People's National Congress, then left the government coalition, and O’Neill joined the Opposition. Later that year, he became Leader of the Opposition. After the final vote, the speaker initially did not recognise him and claimed Peter Yama was the Leader of the Opposition, with O’Neill then trying to mount a vote of no confidence without success. Somare in conjunction with the speaker used procedural issues to stop this. However, after the 2007 elections, O’Neill rejoined Somare’s government as Minister of the Public Service. In July 2010, he was appointed as Minister for Finance. When Somare was hospitalised in 2011 Sam Abal was appointed as Acting Prime Minister, who demoted O’Neill to Works Minister in July 2011.
Coalition formation is important in PNG politics, as no party has ever won an absolute majority and the political spectrum is fragmented. Coalitions are often opportunistic, and not guided by policies or strict party loyalties. In 2011, he joined a movement to unseat Prime Minister Michael Somare who was ill in Singapore. He was then elected by the National Parliament as Prime Minister with 70 of the 94 votes cast. His position was however challenged in several ways. Michael Somare was also Governor of East Sepik Province and the provincial government challenged O'Neill in the courts, and Somare himself also did after returning from Singapore. The Supreme Court ruled that Somare was the legitimate Prime Minister, creating the 2011-2012 Papua New Guinean constitutional crisis. O’Neill refused to leave his position, and the Governor General decided as a consequence to call new elections.
In the 2012 general election his party improved its results and obtained 27 seats, compared to 5 seats in the previous Parliament. O’Neill was asked to form government, however PNC was far from an absolute majority; it had less than a quarter of the seats in Parliament. A broad coalition appeared to support him, gaining 94 votes in the 119-member Parliament. This coalition contained three ex-prime ministers, among whom was Michael Somare.
O’Neill remained in power for the parliamentary term from 2012–2017. A Vote of No Confidence was mounted against the Government, which was granted after a Supreme Court intervention. O’Neill gathered the support of 85 MPs, with 21 in opposition. By the end of 2016, 25 MPs had crossed the floor and joined PNC, giving them a total of 52 MPs.
A challenge was mounted in the 2017 general election by Sir Mekere Morauta. People’s National Congress did not gain the 52 seats they held at the end of the previous Parliament, but gained the same number of MPs as in the 2012 election, 21 of which were re-elected. O'Neill was asked to form the government, and gained the support of 60 MPs, with 46 MPs in opposition.
O’Neill embarked on an activist development policy that he contrasted to the stagnation of previous years. He took a substantial loan from the Chinese Import-Export bank, to remedy the "sins" of the past. He laid stress on the development of infrastructure, especially roads. Free education and free health care were signature policies in the 2012 election. He maintained these policies after being re-elected in 2017. The international stature of PNG was raised through the organisation of the 2015 Pacific Games, and proposing Port Moresby as the location for the APEC summit in 2020.
In August 2011, the O'Neill administration announced 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 his office.
Relations with Australia were on an upswing when Kevin Rudd returned to power. O’Neill and Rudd brokered together the deal locating illegal immigrants to Australia on Manus Island. This deal came however to grief when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. PNG protested strongly when Australia opened a consulate on Bougainville, which could be interpreted as the recognition of Bougainville as an independent state.
Relations with Indonesia were warm under the O'Neill government. A large trade delegation of 100 businessmen accompanied O’Neill on a state visit in 2013. It did however not only involve trade, but also border issues and West Papua. O’Neill stuck to two elements that had been central in PNG’s policy towards West Papua from independence. Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua was never in doubt, and refugees from West Papua were not recognised as such. However in 2015 he made a break with previous policies: he continued to stress the sovereignty of Indonesia, but he mentioned the human rights abuses in West Papua: "Sometimes we forget our own families, our own brothers, especially those in West Papua. I think, as a country, the time has come for us to speak about the oppression of our people there." Talking about the population of West Papua as our people can be interpreted as foreign intervention by Indonesia. During the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting in Port Moresby in 2018, Indonesia was given associate member status, and the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULM) was given observer status. The ULM has however signalled its continuing interest in full membership, which O’Neill has indicated he would only support if there was full endorsement by the Indonesian government. Peter O’Neill suggests that ULM brings its cause to the United Nations decolonisation committee. This committee rebuffed, however, a petition of 1.8 million West Papuans on the grounds that West Papua was no longer a colony. The Presidents of Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands brought the case before the UN General Assembly, but PNG did not join them.
O'Neill was referred to as a controversial Prime Minister when he was returned in 2017. There are laudatory comments on his tenure of office, but overall it has been mired in criticism because of governance issues. These issues predate his appointment as Prime Minister. His supporters 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.
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. O’Neill had no objection to reopening the case.
O'Neill's name was involved in an enquiry into the 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. Opposition leader Belden Namah mentioned O’Neill as responsible because he was Minister of Finance at the time of the payment. Another irregular payment of 31 million Australian dollars occurred after the government had apparently cut ties with Paraka lawyers, when O’Neill was Prime Minister. There were attempts by Investigation Task Force Sweep, an anti-corruption watchdog, and police officers from the Anti Corruption Unit to question O’Neill. He refused to be questioned and dismissed the Task Force Sweep and the police officers involved. O’Neill challenged an arrest warrant against him before the courts, and the Supreme Court voided the warrant in December 2017 as defective. This was on formal grounds, as officers did not follow the regulations, information was missing and there were spelling mistakes.
O’Neill nationalised the Ok Tedi Mine owned by the PNG Sustainable Development Fund (PNGSDF) without compensation. The O’Neill government had stated after taking power in 2012 the intention to obtain a bigger share of dividends from the mine, but nationalisation without compensation came as a surprise. He mentioned environmental damage as the main reason. BHP Biliton was the owner of the mine when it was opened, but they wanted to close the mine as a consequence of major environmental damage due to negligence. The 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 local community, and BHP was in return granted immunity from claims because of environmental damages, while BHP continued to manage the mine. O’Neill considered that a mistake and revoked the immunity. One concern 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 Sir Mekere Morauta, whose political base is in that part of the country. Morauta, as chairman of PNGSDF, challenged the nationalisation without compensation and refused access to the externalised PNGSDF in Singapore which is meant as a Social Wealth Fund for when the mine is exhausted. The case is continuing in the Singaporean courts. The government has gained the right to inspect the books of PNGSDP as it is a shareholder, but the issue of ownership is still undecided. An arbitration attempt in Singapore failed as there was no written consent to arbitration from the PNG government. Morauta brought a case before the courts in PNG as well. 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.
He also faced an alleged disregard for regulatory control and political procedure in arranging a loan from the Swiss banking firm UBS, to obtain shares in Oil Search. The intention of this loan was to become a part shareholder in the group developing the Elk Antelope Oil Field. O’Neill ignored such procedures in obtaining this loan. Don Polye, his Minister for Treasury, refused to sign. O’Neill then appointed himself as Minister for Treasury. 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 delayed 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 favour of O’Neill.
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 of Papua New Guinea for the academic year. Three former Prime Ministers, Sir Michael Somare, Sir Julius Chan, and Sir Mekere Morauta supported a motion of no confidence and urged O’Neill to resign.
PNG was expecting an economic boom when O’Neill became Prime Minister. This expectation was built first on the LNG/PNG project that came onstream in 2014. However economic growth has declined to under 3%, foreign exchange has become scarce and the government has resorted to printing money to pay for the fiscal deficit. The debt/GDP ratio is well above the 35% prescribed by law. According to O’Neill, this is a temporary setback caused by low prices for natural resources, and the economy is fundamentally stable and the government’s policies are on track.
O'Neill's claims of economic stability are challenged by economists who see the economic problems as emerging from policies of the O’Neill government. 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 in O’Neill’s coalition depends to a large extent on cash payments to MPs in the form of District Improvement Funds putting pressure on government finances.
O'Neill has been married to Lynda May Babao since 1999. They have five children: Brian, Travis, Joanne, Loris, and Patrick. It is his second marriage. He was appointed to the Order of St Michael and St George as a Companion in 2007 Birthday Honours List.
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- Paul Flanagan, From economic boom to crisis management in PNG Available at: http://www.devpolicy.org/from-economic-boom-to-crisis-management-in-png-20160105/ Posted on: 5/01/2016 Accessed on 3/05/2018
- 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
- 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
- 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
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Peter O'Neill.|
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| Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
| Leader of the Opposition of Papua New Guinea
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| Chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation