The National, Monday November 30th, 2015
WESTERN Highlands Governor Paias Wingti has been out of the political limelight for much of the past two decades.
A charismatic leader who served as Papua New Guinea’s third Prime Minister between 1985 and 1988, and again briefly from 1992 to 1994, Wingti has become somewhat of a recluse since becoming an on-and-off governor in 1995.
Wingti is a wily politician, once regarded as a master political strategist who was responsible for the second downfall of the country’s founding father and Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare in 1985.
During his heyday, Wingti was also considered one of the richest men in the Pacific Islands region.
Since 1994 when he was ousted by Sir Julius Chan, more has been heard about Wingti’s misfortunes than his famed fortune.
The 64-year-old is a member of the Jika tribe of Western Highlands.
While doing his final year in economics at the University of Papua New Guinea, he stood for election in 1977, winning to become the Member for Hagen Open.
In 1985, as leader of the People’s Democratic Movement (which had split from the ruling Pangu Pati), Wingti became the youngest Prime Minister in the Commonwealth when Somare lost a confidence vote.
Chan, who would return as Prime Minister in 1994, served as his deputy.
Wingti was made a Privy Councillor in 1987.
In 1987 Wingti returned to power with a slender majority but lost a motion of confidence the following year and was succeeded by new Pangu leader Sir Rabbie Namaliu.
Wingti returned for a further two-year stint in 1992 buthis second term was marked by an escalation of unrest in Bougainville and he was ousted by Chan in August, 1994.
He continued to represent the Western Highlands in Parliament, although he switched from the local Hagen constituency to the provincial-level electorate in 1995.
Wingti served as governor from 1995 to 1997 when he was defeated for re-election by Fr Robert Lak.
He returned to Parliament in 2002, defeating Lak to regain his seat and the governorship.
He subsequently won back the leadership of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) from Sir MekereMorauta, who had taken over after his defeat, in 2007.
However, he was defeated in his bid for re-election at the 2007 election, losing to former student activist Tom Olga, largely as a result of the new preferential voting system.
Wingti, along with fellow former Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu, were the most high-profile losers of the 2007 election.
He also lost the governorship to Olga.
The PDM also suffered a major defeat in the election, losing several seats.
Wingti nominated to contest the July 2012 general elections and defeated Olga by 112,640 votes to 89,195, a difference of 23445 votes, and was elected governor once again.
Wingti was one of the three former Prime Ministers who backed Peter O’Neill to be retained as Prime Minister after the 2012 general elections.
Nonetheless, he has continued to play a low-key role for the past three years and his rare media statements and public appearances included his open support for O’Neill during the recent bid by the Opposition to move a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
Wingti again hailed O’Neill’s leadership last Thursday during two major events in the province – the official opening of the K68 million Kagamuga International Airport Terminal and the groundbreaking ceremony for the 14km four-lane road from the airport to Mt Hagen City. “We have seen the changes in Port Moresby, we have seen major changes in Lae, we are seeing major changes in all parts of the country today.”
Wingti doesn’t mince his words, and he is right – O’Neill has delivered the goods in the past three years amid intense criticism from his distractors.
By the same token, it is time for the National Government to truly honour this former prime minister who has contributed immensely to nation-building but who continues to shy away from official recognition.
Wingti’s refusal to accept a knighthood is almost legendary and it is doubtful whether he will ever change his mind.
So why not rename Kagamuga as “Paias Wingti International Airport”.
He deserves it much more than any other past or present Western Highlands leader.