Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill faces no-confidence vote as tensions spiral

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The MPs who have defected from Peter O’Neill’s government are inside this chained up hotel.

There is big silver chain with a lock on it around the gates of one of Port Moresby’s hotels. 

Key points: 

  • A group of MPs in PNG are trying to oust the Prime Minister Peter O’Neill 
  • Defectors accuse Mr O’Neill of using his power to advance his own interests 
  • An extra 1,000 police have deployed in Port Moresby in case of violence

Inside, members of Papua New Guinea’s parliament are gathering as part of a plot to oust the Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. 

The chain and lock are keeping outsiders at bay, but they also allow the movements of MPs inside the camp to be monitored. 

As numbers tighten between the opposition and government camps over who will take control of the parliament, control on the ground is necessary.

There are whispers that one MP left the hotel claiming he was going to church, only to return to the government’s camp.

Black gates locked together with chain-link and a padlock

Inside the Laguna hotel lobby, political staff members wear official lanyards that have “Alternate Government” written on them. 

Some have been sent on family errands for MPs being kept inside and to buy clothes for others. One government defector was wearing a charity fun-run shirt when he arrived.

A doctor has been brought in to treat those who need medical attention and musicians and comedians have come to entertain MPs who are spending their nights here.

Weeks of political manoeuvring have led to this point.

It started with the resignation of the former Finance Minister James Marape, who has now been put forward as the so-called Laguna Group’s Prime Ministerial candidate.

But whether they have the numbers to move from “alternative government” to actual government remains to be seen.

A group of PNG politicians standing in a group before a media pack

Mr Marape fronted the media with 41 colleagues but insists they have 57 people in their camp, which would give them a majority in the 111-seat parliament.

“The Prime Minister will come out of this group and nowhere else,” he said.

But in another hotel on the other side of the city, the Prime Minister’s camp is also claiming a majority.

Peter O’Neill said he was “very confident” that his coalition government has the numbers to continue to govern, claiming more than 60 members were locked in.

“Coalition members are very much intact and supportive of the government,” he said.

On the eve of parliament’s return after an almost three-month break, there is still movement between the camps.

Last night, as meetings were underway in the opposition camp, an MP who had earlier defected was seen walking back through the gates of the government’s hotel. 

Pressure builds following high profile defections

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

After seven years as Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill is under intense pressure in the lead-up to this parliamentary session. 

The threat to his leadership has been building for weeks.

It has been almost a month since James Marape’s shock resignation as finance minister, where he cited a lack of trust between him and the Prime Minister.

His departure was followed by another seven resignations from Mr O’Neill’s ruling party, including the Attorney General.

With the departures making headlines and rumours of more dissent and disunity, the party met for a caucus meeting last Thursday at the hotel it uses as a base.

For four-and-a-half-hours, the party’s MPs talked behind closed doors, while about 50 political staff members waited outside in the bar and restaurant. 

Then, the Prime Minister emerged victorious, shaking hands with his party members and posing for a group photo.

“[The party’s members] are stable and solid, wanting to provide the leadership that the government needs, together with our coalition partners,” Mr O’Neill said.

A group of Papua New Guinean men sitting at a table with flags on the wall behind them

But two days later, there were more resignations. Another nine MPs abandoned the coalition government.

On the weekend, the defectors combined with the opposition at the Laguna Hotel to form the “alternate government”, and more MPs followed.

The group is planning to move a vote of no-confidence in the Prime Minister when parliament returns.

But it wouldn’t be voted on until next week at the earliest.

With numbers so tight, the success of the opposition group appears to hang with one of the smaller parties still in the government coalition switching sides.

The Government has insisted it has the small parties on side.

But Thomas Pelika from the Melanesian Alliance highlighted the fluidity of PNG’s parliament when asked about the vote of no-confidence.

“Papua New Guinea is the land of the unexpected,” he said.

“So the numbers are still fluid … until the actual vote is taking place.”

The political machinations are being carefully watched in Canberra.

Papua New Guinea is Australia’s biggest aid recipient and closest neighbour.

PNG has been the focus of renewed attention from the Australian Government amid concerns about the rise of China in the region and several significant deals have been etched with the O’Neill Government, including a plan to rebuild a naval base on Manus Island.

Police and security groups raise concerns about possible unrest

A thousand extra police will be on the streets of Port Moresby ahead of the vote of no-confidence, amid concern the outcome could lead to public unrest and violence between supporters of the two groups. 

The Police Commissioner, Gari Baki, said the extra officers will be there “to ensure peace and order is maintained”.

“I am issuing a warning that trouble-makers will be severely dealt with,” he said.

The police operation is expected to last throughout the vote and for several days afterwards.

The road to PNG’s parliament house is also expected to be cordoned off.

One local security company sent out a warning to its customers about a possible risk from crowds gathering at the hotel being used as the government’s base.

It said government supporters had “verbally threatened to manhandle” any MPs trying to abscond to join the opposition, and could pose a risk to other members of the public.

The Police Commissioner Gari Baki has also appealed for political parties not to use police for escorts or to guard sites.

“I appeal to all leaders to respect the neutrality of Police and not to engage members of the Police Force for their political agenda,” Commissioner Baki said.