Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 10:19 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 10:19 | SYDNEY

PNG: A giant retires, but what next?

28 June 2011 17:30

Alexander Rheeney was a journalist with the PNG Post-Courier and a political and communications advisor to the British Embassy in Port Moresby. He is an intern with the Lowy Institute.

The family of ailing Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare have announced that the Pacific's longest serving politician has retired from public office. Somare dominated PNG's political scene after entering politics in 1968. He led the country to independence from Australia in 1975 and was Prime Minister on four occasions.

His departure will create further uncertainty within the PNG Government, with Acting Prime Minister Sam Abal, who Somare handpicked to be his deputy in December last year, facing a revolt from within the ruling National Alliance Party (NA) following his sacking of ministerial colleagues Don Polye (foreign affairs and trade) and William Duma (petroleum and energy). The party has traded on the Somare brand name but its failure to put in place a clear succession plan is partly responsible for the current instability.

Abal's announcement of new ministerial appointments enables him to get on with the job of governing the country. But the jury is still out on whether the promotion of ministers Ano Pala (foreign affairs and trade), Francis Potape (Petroleum and Energy), Charles Abel (Minister assisting the PM), Peter O'Neill (Works), Patrick Pruaitch (Finance and Treasury) and Philip Kikala (Agriculture and Livestock) will restore calm among nervous coalition partners.

Last Friday's adjournment of parliament to August gives the Government the opportunity to mend the rift which is threatening to break the NA and reconcile with coalition partners. But with Polye having his own leadership aspirations heading into the 2012 general election, the NA executive will need to tread with care.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd recently noted his concern about political developments in Australia's closest neighbor. Bilateral relations are unlikely to suffer under Abal's leadership, given he is well disposed towards Australia and had a clear working relationship with Australian ministers when he was foreign minister.

But Mr Rudd is right to worry. Political instability will distract the PNG Government and getting the attention of Port Moresby on matters of importance to Canberra will be very difficult in the next few months. It is perhaps not the best time to be discussing the reopening of an asylum seeker processing centre.

Photo by Flickr user ComSec.