The Case Against Peter O’Neill
Adam Boland | Pacifik News | June 1, 2016
Peter O’Neill has become the great survivor.
For two years, he’s avoided serious questioning over allegations that could end his time as Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea.
Amid the claims and counterclaims, it’s perhaps easy to lose track of how we got to this point. So, we’ve broken down the main issues that refuse to go away.
Almost immediately after coming to power in 2011, Peter O’Neill vowed to rid his country’s bureaucracy of corruption.
He set up a powerful crime fighting unit comprising police, prosecutors and auditors. It was known as Taskforce Sweep and it proved extremely effective.
Investigators showed they weren’t scared of anyone. Business leaders, senior officials and politicians were among those arrested. Their probe revealed shocking examples of public money being used for private purposes. Education, health and other vital projects all suffered as corruption flourished.
Arrests turned into convictions as taskforce head Sam Koim proudly declared: “We have created a momentum and other agencies are now beginning to rise up. More and more, we see prominent people are being called into question.”
One of the people about to be called into question was none other than Peter O’Neill.
The Paraka Allegations
Evidence emerged that supposedly linked the Prime Minister to fraud at PNG legal firm, Paraka Lawyers.
In mid 2013, Paul Paraka was accused of invoicing the government for work that was never done. Of almost 3,000 bills issued, 97 per cent were found to have been inflated or falsified. That added up to around $30 million in public money that was then thought to have been laundered through Australian banks. Paraka denies any wrongdoing.
Investigators say the money kept flowing to Paraka thanks to a letter of authority signed by Mr O’Neill when he was Finance Minister. He insisted the letter was forged and he had no knowledge of the payments.
But Taskforce Sweep was confident in the evidence and wanted to question Mr O’Neill. When he refused in June 2014, an arrest warrant was issued.
The Prime Minister was determined to avoid being questioned. He went to court, gaining an order that prevented his arrest.
Soon enough, Taskforce Sweep was starved of funding before finally being disbanded. The Police Commissioner and Attorney-General were also replaced.
Mr O’Neill was unrepentant: “We are going to continue to terminate everybody who is going to undermine the work of the government,” he said.
To this day, he’s avoided arrest but a smaller anti-corruption unit is again on the case, albeit with tight restrictions from factions within the police loyal to Mr O’Neill. Investigators were even locked out of their building last month after arresting the Prime Minister’s lawyer on allegations of perverting the course of justice.
The UBS loan
The Paraka scandal isn’t Mr O’Neill’s only problem.
He’s also facing intense scrutiny over the process he used to take out a US$1.2 billion loan on behalf of the country in 2014.
The money was used to buy a 10 per cent stake in Oil Search Limited.
Former Prime Ministers Michael Somare and Mekere Morauta both accused Mr O’Neill of bulldozing the deal through government agencies despite huge risks to PNG.
The country’s Ombudsman was concerned too and referred the matter to the public prosecutor who then called in the Leadership Tribunal.
But once again, the Prime Minister sought court intervention, obtaining an order to stop the tribunal from convening.
Former Chief Justice Arnold Amet says if the tribunal is ever allowed to convene, Mr O’Neill will be automatically suspended. The three judges who make up the tribunal also have the right to dismiss the Prime Minister if they find wrongdoing.
The Supreme Court will soon rule on whether the tribunal can convene.
And that brings us to the ongoing protests by university students.
For a month now, they’ve been calling on the Prime Minister to come good on his 2011 promise to shine a light on corruption.
They say that can only happen when he finally submits to questioning.