Can coalition stand test of sackings?

Editorial, Normal

The National, Thursday March 13th, 2014

 CRACKS are starting to ap­pear in the 20-month-old government of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.

Four ministers, including two coalition party leaders, have been sacked in what has been described as a “re­structuring and realignment” of the cabinet.

By cracking the whip on his senior coalition partners, O’Neill may have started a domino effect that could haunt him in the near future.

The sacking of THE Party leader Don Polye as Treasury Minister this week followed on the heels of United Resources Party leader William Duma’s dumping as Petroleum and Energy Minister two weeks ago.

While both leaders have publicly accepted the prime minister’s “prerogative to commission and decommission ministers”, their explanations seem less than convincing.

Duma was quick to quell possible tensions between URP and O’Neill’s People’s National Congress (PNC) Party by categorically denying suggestions that the prime minister had breached the Alotau Accord that guaranteed his party three ministries, including the influential petroleum and energy portfolio.

It appears the URP leader is hopeful of regaining his place in the National Executive Council but he may have to be content with another ministry if O’Neill takes him back. According to government insiders, more cabinet changes are looming and will be based on ministerial performances over the past 12 months. They insist O’Neill is merely cracking the whip over the failure by certain ministries to perform their duties. 

Leaders who have not li­ved up to the prime minister’s expectations can expect to be shown the door at the NEC. 

Nonetheless, suspicion is rife over Polye’s surprise sacking with much speculation about O’Neill’s motive, given that the day after assuming the treasury ministry, O’Neill signed off on the US$1.2 billion (about K3 billion) UBS Investment Bank loan for the Government to fund a 10.1 per cent stake in Oil Search Limited.

Was Polye kicked out of cabinet because he refused to give government clearance for the massive transaction to be finalised?

Not true, according to go­vernment insiders who maintain the Kandep MP was a destabilising factor in the Government who gave O’Neill little or no choice but to take him out. 

Whatever Polye did in the past 12 months to cause so much instability in Government will remain a mystery for most Papua New Guineans. However, there is no denial of the fact that the THE Party leader was instrumental in the removal of the former Somare regime and formation of the first O’Neill Government in 2011. Polye maintained his loyalty after the 2012 general election and provided essential numbers needed by O’Neill to remain as chief executive.

For the prime minister to unceremoniously dump him so early in the life of the current coalition is a slap on the face of this Engan leader.

Will Polye merely accept his sacking and let bygones be bygones? Or will he seriously consider his party’s future association with O’Neill’s PNC Party?

Polye faced a similar dilemma in 2011 when he walked away from former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare’s National Alliance Party and formed his own political grouping that teamed up with O’Neill and current Opposition leader Belden Namah to change the government in controversial circumstances.

That’s all history now as the former Treasurer contemplates his political future and that of THE Party, which remains the second largest coalition partner.

The recent cabinet changes show just how fragile political marriages can be and the current coalition government is no different to previous ones.

Interestingly, just 20 months after the Alotau Accord was signed by coalition leaders, O’Neill has been accused of breaching the agreement by sacking Polye and Duma and taking over their ministries.

The fact that the prime minister has the prerogative to appoint and dismiss ministers is arguable, if indeed he has breached a legitimate agreement that set the foundation for the current government.

Understandably, it was not an easy decision to sack Polye and Duma and only time will tell whether O’Neill’s gamble will pay off.