Papua New Guinea’s parliamentarians yesterday swept aside Acting prime minister Sam Abal and replaced him, by 70 votes to 24, with another Highlander, Peter O’Neill.
This distances PNG further from the era of prime minister Michael Somare, who remains seriously ill after four months in a Singapore hospital.
It positions O’Neill to become, within a few weeks, the prime minister, until the national election due next year. It also clears the decks for the passage of urgently needed legislation.
O’Neill is likely to make it a priority to resolve the issue of Sir Michael’s health – dispatching three doctors as required by the constitution to learn whether the prime minister is incapable of returning to office, as the Somare family has indicated.
If the doctors make such an assessment, this will be conveyed via Governor-General Michael Ogio to the Speaker, who will convene parliament once more for a vote that would almost certainly formalise O’Neill’s new status.
He leads the People’s National Congress, a minority party in the governing coalition dominated by Sir Michael’s National Alliance.
O’Neill is the son of an Australian magistrate and his wife from the Southern Highlands, where he represents the Ialibu-Pangia constituency.
He switched from being leader of the opposition in 2004-07, to joining the Somare government after the last election.
A successful businessperson before entering parliament, he is strongly pro-development and a firm backer of the $16 billion gas project being built in the Southern Highlands, which is owned by ExxonMobil, Oil Search, Santos and PNG government interests.
He replaced Patrick Pruaitch as treasurer and finance minister early last year, after Pruaitch had to step down over corruption charges.
A slight cloud also remains over O’Neill, following a commission of inquiry into dealings of the National Provident Fund in 2002.
Five weeks ago, Abal reshuffled his cabinet and gave the job back to Pruaitch. O’Neill was demoted to works and transport. This move pushed O’Neill towards the opposition, and appeared to alienate him from the Somare “first family”.