The former Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, stepped down in May and was replaced by James Marape. Marape was the finance minister in O’Neill’s government for eight years, but turned against O’Neill in April. He quickly became the opposition candidate for prime minister.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) has been in political turmoil due to the low and falling living standards suffered by ordinary people. Most people work in subsistence agriculture in under-serviced rural areas. While mining and gas companies make billions of dollars from PNG’s resources, almost 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.
A key factor in the turmoil is the country’s dependence on resource extraction. O’Neill’s government borrowed $1.2 billion AUD to invest in Oil Search Limited, only to lose money when oil prices collapsed in 2014.
The investment was to lay the groundwork for a natural gas project called Papua LNG, involving Oil Search, ExxonMobil, and the French firm Total. The multi-billion dollar deal is said to require ministers to change laws to suit foreign developers, against the interests of traditional landowners. Traditional landowners have a history of using direct action to stall projects like this.
O’Neill’s heavy-handedness in pushing the deal through prompted parliament to replace him with Marape.
While Marape claims he intends to reform PNG’s approach to resources, he also assured foreign diplomats in June that his government’s priorities would not shift much from O’Neill’s. The government of PNG plays a key role in assisting foreign mining companies in profiting from PNG’s resources.
Marape has said he wants to boost agriculture and tourism to raise people up. But it isn’t possible to substantially improve people’s lives without challenging the capitalist system. Even reforms like free primary education and healthcare, brought in by O’Neill, are chronically underfunded because big business profits are left untouched.
Wealth needs to be taken out of the hands of both foreign and local capitalists to truly change things. To accomplish this, PNG needs a socialist government, democratically run by workers and the poor.
By David Elliott