While drama continues to develop at home, PNG prime minister touches down in Australia for historic speech

While drama continues to develop at home, PNG prime minister touches down in Australia for historic speech
  • PublishedFebruary 7, 2024

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape has arrived in Canberra ahead of a historic address at Parliament House, but a political storm is continuing to brew at home in Port Moresby.

Mr Marape’s visit comes as China continues its efforts to expand security ties with Pacific nations, with PNG’s leaders moving to reassure Australia it will not press ahead with any new policing agreements with Beijing.

On Thursday, Mr Marape will become the first Pacific Island leader to deliver a speech to federal parliament, where he’s expected to extol bilateral ties as PNG approaches the 50th anniversary of its independence from Australia.

But the prime minister is facing a looming motion of no confidence in his leadership, which could come as early as next week.

PNG is still reeling after deadly riots in January in Port Moresby claimed at least 15 lives, with devastating losses for businesses after widespread looting and arson.

As the violence spilled out across the country, people were killed in other provincial centres.

Mr Marape has indicated that he’ll largely use the address to celebrate the relationship and thank Australia for granting PNG its independence 49 years ago.

“There is no greater moment than this for me to go down to Australia and thank them, we were birthed from the hands of Australia as a nation,” Mr Marape said.

“Papua New Guineans must not take our sovereignty for granted, it could have been a different independence.”

“Our flag was hoisted up and the Australian flag was lowered, not torn down.”

Mr Marape and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are also expected to discuss Papua New Guinea’s internal security and broader defence and policing ties in the wake of the deadly unrest last month.

The prime minister was last in Australia in December to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement which will see Australia give PNG $200m to help support its internal security needs.

The funding is expected to be used to build up PNG’s police and training, as well as expand and improve PNG’s judiciary.

PNG’s Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko told the ABC that the Australian and PNG government departments were now working on implementing the pact.

“We need to see outcomes, it can’t just be a signed paper that gathers dust on the shelf and is forgotten,” he said.

A birdseye view of destruction of a building with debris covering the street outside.
Some businesses were set alight in the riots, with owners now facing massive clean-up bills.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

On Tuesday Mr Tkatchenko met with his Australian counterpart Senator Penny Wong and International Development and Pacific Minister Pat Conroy.

In a press release, Mr Tkatchenko said the trio discussed “agreed announcements” for the trip, which spanned “law and justice, immigration, climate funding, critical infrastructure investments (and) scholarships”.

He also said he “took the opportunity to reassure” them about the PNG government’s commitment to Australia as a security partner, “dispelling the misinformation that PNG is entering into a security cooperation with the People’s Republic of China”.

Last week Mr Tkatchenko created headlines after he told Reuters that China’s government approached PNG in September last year and had “offered to assist our policing and security on the internal security side”.

But he hosed down the prospect of a new agreement in the following days, declaring that PNG would stick with its traditional partners on security cooperation and suggesting it was very unlikely to sign any new police agreements with China.

Speaking to the ABC ahead of the visit, Mr Tkatchenko gave an even more definitive guarantee PNG wouldn’t sign a new policing agreement, adding that China “understood” PNG wouldn’t go ahead.

“There has been no revolt from China because we’re not supporting their policing policy, they understand where we stand on security in the region – and that is with our close traditional partners Australia, US and NZ and the like,” he said.

“I want to make this very clear. We are not pressing forward at all with any security pact or agreement with China.

“We look forward to implementing the bilateral security agreement with Australia.”

Looming motion of no confidence at home

Meanwhile, opposition MPs in PNG are doing the numbers and calculating whether to trigger a motion of no-confidence when PNG’s parliament resumes on February 13.

About 10 MPs, from both Mr Marape’s Pangu Party and other coalition partners, have resigned from government following the riots on January 10.

Veteran PNG politician Sir Puka Temu.
Sir Puka Temu resigned from the government last month, indicating vulnerability in the Marape government.(ABC: Tim Swanston)

This includes former attorney-general and Petroleum Minister Kerenga Kua.

Economics lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea Maho Laveil said prime ministers usually remain in the country when the grace period for a no-confidence vote expires.

“I think Marape leaving reflects his strength within government,” he said.

“He has the numbers at the moment.

“It remains to be seen, PNG politics is fluid and things can change as you get close to the parliament sitting.”

But veteran PNG politician Sir Puka Temu, who also resigned from the government last month, suggested Mr Marape was vulnerable.

“Politics in PNG, we say one day is a long time in politics,” he said.

“By the end of this week, the country will know and the world will know whether there’ll be some more leaders who also believe with us the issues we are raising.”

Sir Temu also criticised the timing of Mr Marape’s address to the Australian parliament, right before the no-confidence grace period ends.

“My concern is, please be a little bit more sensitive to the domestic politics,” he said.

“Why did they choose the 8th? They knew the 9th was the lapse in the grace provision.

“Did somebody go to sleep in Foreign Affairs?”

PNG MP Belden Namah has also called on Australia to withdraw the invitation to Mr Marape.

“If Australia does not withdraw its invitation, it will be seen as endorsing all that has happened in PNG under PM Marape’s leadership,” he said.

But Mr Tkatchenko lashed out at the critics, saying the visit had been organised months before the vote of no confidence was flagged, and declaring that Mr Marape had every right to represent PNG in Australia.

“Those that are complaining about Australia hosting our PM here on this historical event are pathetically and totally ridiculous in what they are saying.


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