Peter O'Neill

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Peter O'Neill

Peter O'Neill May 2015.jpg
O'Neill in 2015
8th Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
In office
2 August 2011 – 29 May 2019
MonarchElizabeth II
Governor GeneralSir Michael Ogio
Theo Zurenuoc (Acting)
Sir Robert Dadae
DeputyLeo Dion
Charles Abel
Preceded bySam Abal (Acting)
Succeeded byJames Marape
Minister of Finance[1]
In office
July 2010 – July 2011
Preceded byPatrick Pruaitch
Succeeded byDon Polye
In office
27 February 2012 – August 2012
Preceded byDon Polye
Succeeded byJames Marape
Personal details
Peter Charles Paire O'Neill

(1965-02-13) 13 February 1965 (age 55)
Ialibu-Pangia, Territory of Papua
Political partyPeople's National Congress
Spouse(s)Lynda May Babao
Alma materUniversity of Papua New Guinea

Peter Charles Paire O'Neill, CMG (born 13 February 1965) is a Papua New Guinean politician who served as the seventh Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea between 2011–2019.[2] A member of the People's National Congress, he served as a Member of Parliament between 2002 and 2011, including various Cabinet positions, before being elected as prime minister. Towards the end of his tenure, he avoided a vote of no confidence by resigning his position, and was succeeded by James Marape as prime minister.[3]

Early life[edit]

O'Neill was born on 13 February 1965 in Pangia, Territory of Papua, in the present-day Southern Highlands Province. His father, Brian O'Neill, was a magistrate of Irish Australian descent, while his mother, Awambo Yari, was of Papua New Guinean descent from the Southern Highlands. O'Neill's father moved to Papua New Guinea in 1949 as an Australian government field officer (also known as a kiap) and later served as a magistrate in Goroka until his death in 1982.

Peter O’Neill spent the first years of his youth in his mother's village, and then his father's urban residence Goroka after going to secondary school. O'Neill was educated at the Pangia Primary School, Ialibu High School and Goroka High School. After leaving school he obtained a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in 1986. He then obtained a degree with honours in accounting from UPNG. He obtained a professional qualification and became a Certified Practising Accountant in 1989. A year later he became President of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Certified Practising Accountants. O’Neill became a partner in Pratley and O’Neil’s accounting firm. He combined this with a substantial number of directorships, often as Executive Chairman, including at the PNG Banking Corporation when it was government-owned.[4][5]

Early political career[edit]

O’Neill entered politics in 2002 as Member of Parliament representing Ialibu-Pangia under Prime Minister Michael Somare. As a member of the People's National Congress (PNC), O'Neil was part of the coalition government, and was appointed to the Cabinet as the Minister for Labour and Industrial Relations, then reassigned in 2003 as the Minister for Public Service. However, in 2004, he was dropped from the Cabinet, and the People's National Congress left the coalition to joined the opposition. Later that year, O'Neil became leader of the opposition, but Speaker Jeffery Nape initially did not recognise him and claimed Peter Yama held the position instead.[6][7] In response, O’Neill tried to mount a vote of no confidence without success since Somare and Nape used procedural issues to stop this.[8] After the 2007 elections, O’Neill rejoined Somare’s government as the Minister of the Public Service. In July 2010, he was appointed as the Minister of Finance. When Somare was hospitalised in 2011, Sam Abal was appointed as acting prime minister, who demoted O’Neill to Works Minister in July 2011.[9][10]

Prime minister[edit]

In April 2011, Somare fell ill and flew to Singapore for treatment. O'Neil then led the opposition in ousting Abal as prime minister. He was then elected by the Parliament as prime minister with 70 of the 94 votes cast.[11][12][13] O'Neil's claim to the position was challenged by both the East Sepik Province, where Somare is also governor, and Somare himself when he returned from Singapore. The Supreme Court ruled that Somare was the legitimate prime minister, creating the 2011–2012 Papua New Guinean constitutional crisis, as O'Neil and Somare both claimed the title of prime minister. As a result, the Governor General decided to call for new elections.[14][15][16]

In the 2012 general election, O'Neil's PNC obtained 27 seats, an increase from the 5 seats in the previous Parliament. A broad coalition appeared to support him, with 94 seats out of the 119-member Parliament.[17] This coalition contained three ex-prime ministers, among whom was Michael Somare.

O’Neill remained in power from 2012 to 2017. In June 2016, allegations of corruptions against O'Neil caused protests to erupt in Port Moresby. Clashes between students and police on 18 June forced the parliament to adjourn, intending to not reconvene until August.[18][19] However, a month later, the Supreme Court ordered the parliament to reconvene and discuss a vote of no confidence against O'Neil.[20] In the end, O’Neill gathered the support of 85 members of Parliament, out of which 21 were in the opposition.[21] By the end of 2016, 25 members of parliament had crossed the floor and joined the PNC, giving them a total of 52 seats.[22]

A challenge was mounted in the 2017 general election by former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta,[23] but this did not endanger the position of O’Neill. His party, People’s National Congress (PNC) was the largest in the outcome of the 2017 elections. This entitled him constitutionally to form the government. PNC won 21 seats. This was however substantially less than the 52 seats PNC occupied at the end of the previous parliament[22][24] He needed to form a coalition and O’Neill succeeded again in doing that: he gained the support of 60 MPs, with 46 MPs in opposition.[25] The majority was smaller than before and it eroded particularly when a debate erupted in 2018 about the benefits of natural resources projects for Papua New Guinea. The O’Neill/Abel government was 18 moths in office in 2019 and the grace period in which votes of no confidence were prohibited was over. MPs had by then defected from the government and the most prominent among them was the Minister of Finance, James Merape.[26] O’Neil resorted as before to parliamentary rules to procrastinate the vote of no confidence. He obtained a nine vote majority (59–50) to adjourn parliament. The opposition did therefore not have the necessary majority to succeed in a vote of no confidence.[27] O’Neill turned to the courts in an attempt to stave off the motion arguing that it could not be held as long as it was a case before the courts.[28] The political configuration changed fundamentally when William Duma and the Natural Resources party made a deciding move and joined the opposition: This raised the number in opposition to 62 and therefore they had a definite majority in the 111 strong parliament.[29] Paradoxically, the opposition seemed to be in disarray. First, they withdrew the vote of no confidence motion. Second, they changed the leadership.: James Marape, the former finance minister was the alternate PM of the opposition until 28 May when he was replaced by Patrick Pruaitch. This was announced by Marape and reported to be by consensus.[30][30] O’Neill then turned again to the Supreme Court and changed tack: He did not ask for a delay, but asked instead for a speedy decision on his request to stay the vote of no confidence. The courts found that there was no urgency because parliamentary business could continue without a decision on their part.[31][37] O’Neill avoids then a vote of no confidence by resigning and appointing Julius Chan as his successor. Chan refuses politely because according to the constitution the choice of a prime minister is with parliament and an outgoing PM does not have that power.[32] O’Neill hands in his resignation again and hands over to James Marape. That was acceptable as the constitutional requirement that the largest party forms the government was maintained. The reason for this was that Marape had suddenly ,joined by thirty others,rejoined the party and the government bench. The opposition was suddenly again short of numbers,. Marape was elected prime minister with 101 votes against 8 for his most prominent critic, Mekere Morauta.[33][34]


O’Neill embarked on an activist development policy that he contrasted to the stagnation of previous years. He took a substantial loan from the Chinese Import-Export bank, to remedy the "sins" of the past.[35][36] He laid stress on the development of infrastructure, especially roads.[37] Free education and free health care were signature policies in the 2012 election. He maintained these policies after being re-elected in 2017.[38][39] The international stature of PNG was raised through the organisation of the 2015 Pacific Games,[40] and proposing Port Moresby as the location for the APEC summit in 2020.[41]

In August 2011, the O'Neill administration announced a new public holiday, Repentance Day, 26 August. The announcement was made eleven days before that date. The public holiday was established at the request of a "group of churches", which had approached Abal with the idea shortly before he lost his office.[42]

International relations[edit]

Relations with Australia were on an upswing when Kevin Rudd returned to power. O’Neill and Rudd brokered together the deal locating illegal immigrants to Australia on Manus Island. This deal came however to grief when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.[43] PNG protested strongly when Australia opened a consulate on Bougainville, which could be interpreted as the recognition of Bougainville as an independent state.[44]

Relations with Indonesia were warm under the O'Neill government. A large trade delegation of 100 businessmen accompanied O’Neill on a state visit in 2013. It did however not only involve trade, but also border issues and West Papua.[45] O’Neill stuck to two elements that had been central in PNG’s policy towards West Papua from independence. Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua was never in doubt, and refugees from West Papua were not recognised as such.[46] However in 2015 he made a break with previous policies: he continued to stress the sovereignty of Indonesia, but he mentioned the human rights abuses in West Papua: "Sometimes we forget our own families, our own brothers, especially those in West Papua. I think, as a country, the time has come for us to speak about the oppression of our people there." Talking about the population of West Papua as our people can be interpreted as foreign intervention by Indonesia.[47] During the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting in Port Moresby in 2018, Indonesia was given associate member status, and the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULM) was given observer status.[48] The ULM has however signalled its continuing interest in full membership, which O’Neill has indicated he would only support if there was full endorsement by the Indonesian government.[49][50] Peter O’Neill suggests that ULM brings its cause to the United Nations decolonisation committee.[51] This committee rebuffed, however, a petition of 1.8 million West Papuans on the grounds that West Papua was no longer a colony.[52] The Presidents of Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands brought the case before the UN General Assembly, but PNG did not join them.[53] Hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in 2018 was a highpoint in international relations for Peter O’Neill as prime minister. The meeting was however dominated by disagreement. US president Donald Trump did not come to the meeting and sent his vice president Mike Pence. Pence did however stayed in Cairns, Australia and flew daily to PNG. Russia’s leader Putin did neither attend the conference. China’s highest leader Xi jinping came and stayed in Port Moresby. The meeting concluded without a joint communiqué because the US and China could not find common terms. That had not happened before at APEC. China had contributed massively towards organising the meeting, especially though the building of infrastructure. Port Moresby was decked by Chinese flags. Chinese officials also dominated the proceedings. They restricted access of the press, for example to an important sideline meeting of China and Pacific nations. Chinese officials when Rimbink Pato, the PNG minister of foreign affairs was drafting a final communiqué with his staff. The Chinese officials were escorted out of the building by security.[54] Australia moved in rapidly before the conference to claim the harbour of Manus Island to prevent this becoming a base for Chinese ships.[55] The expenditure for this conference, especially the purchase of a fleet of Maserati and Bentley mororcars, played a role in the ousting of Peter O’Neill as prime minister.[56] The conference was widely considered as a failure in diplomacy[56] Peter O’Neill considered organising the APEC meeting however a success.[57]


O'Neill was referred to as a controversial Prime Minister when he was returned in 2017.[58][59] There are laudatory comments on his tenure of office,[60][61][62] but overall it has been mired in criticism because of governance issues. These issues predate his appointment as Prime Minister. His supporters point to his success in business before entering politics as qualification for leadership. Opponents argue that his business success is permeated with influence in government and that his directorships in government enterprises prior to his success in politics is significant.[63]

The commission of inquiry in the National Provident Fund of 2003 recommended to prosecute O’Neill for extorting money in return for revaluing a contract to build a high-rise. A rise in the contract price was given because of rising costs as a consequence of currency devaluation and O’Neill was said to obtain a cut from this increase. O’Neill appeared for a committal court in 2005 but the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.[64] O’Neill had no objection to reopening the case.[65]

O'Neill's name was involved in an enquiry into the irregular disbursement of massive legal fees to the law firm of Paul Paraka. Paraka was arrested in December 2013 because of fraudulent payments up to 30 million Australian dollars.[65] Opposition leader Belden Namah mentioned O’Neill as responsible because he was Minister of Finance at the time of the payment.[66] Another irregular payment of 31 million Australian dollars occurred after the government had apparently cut ties with Paraka lawyers, when O’Neill was Prime Minister.[67] There were attempts by Investigation Task Force Sweep, an anti-corruption watchdog, and police officers from the Anti Corruption Unit to question O’Neill. He refused to be questioned and dismissed the Task Force Sweep and the police officers involved.[68] O’Neill challenged an arrest warrant against him before the courts, and the Supreme Court voided the warrant in December 2017 as defective. This was on formal grounds, as officers did not follow the regulations, information was missing and there were spelling mistakes.[69][70]

O’Neill nationalised the Ok Tedi Mine owned by the PNG Sustainable Development Fund (PNGSDF) without compensation. The O’Neill government had stated after taking power in 2012 the intention to obtain a bigger share of dividends from the mine, but nationalisation without compensation came as a surprise.[71][72][73] He mentioned environmental damage as the main reason. BHP Biliton was the owner of the mine when it was opened, but they wanted to close the mine as a consequence of major environmental damage due to negligence. The Government was faced with a great loss of revenue and a formula was found to continue mining. BHP transferred its shares to a trust fund for the local community, and BHP was in return granted immunity from claims because of environmental damages, while BHP continued to manage the mine. O’Neill considered that a mistake and revoked the immunity. One concern was that proceeds from the mine were disappearing abroad instead of staying within PNG. This is connected to a political rivalry with former Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, whose political base is in that part of the country. Morauta, as chairman of PNGSDF, challenged the nationalisation without compensation and refused access to the externalised PNGSDF in Singapore which is meant as a Social Wealth Fund for when the mine is exhausted. The case is continuing in the Singaporean courts. The government has gained the right to inspect the books of PNGSDP as it is a shareholder, but the issue of ownership is still undecided.[74] An arbitration attempt in Singapore failed as there was no written consent to arbitration from the PNG government.[75] Morauta brought a case before the courts in PNG as well. However, the Supreme Court decided that Morauta had no standing as a private person to bring the case and the court was also not admissible as the case was before a court in a foreign jurisdiction.[76] However Morauta won in Singapore. It was a disappointment for O’Neill that the Singaporean High Court decided against his claim on PNGSDP. He immediately announced an appeal and a Commission of Enquiry.[77]

He also faced an alleged disregard for regulatory control and political procedure in arranging a loan from the Swiss banking firm UBS, to obtain shares in Oil Search. The intention of this loan was to become a part shareholder in the group developing the Elk Antelope Oil Field. O’Neill ignored such procedures in obtaining this loan.[78] Don Polye, his Minister for Treasury, refused to sign. O’Neill then appointed himself as Minister for Treasury. These issues led to an investigation by the Ombudsman Commission who recommended to bring O’Neill before a leadership tribunal. O’Neil welcomed the chance to clear his name. However, he delayed the appointment of a new Chief Ombudsman and appointed a controversial Acting Chief Ombudsman.[79] O’Neill’s lawyers challenged the powers of the Ombudsman to investigate the Prime Minister as well as publish and distribute resulting information. The Ombudsman should first inform the Prime Minister in such cases. The Supreme Court ruled that the Ombudsman commission was under no obligation to inform the Prime Minister in such instances.[80] The report that O’Neill wanted to suppress came into the open in May 2019. It did not only indicate O’Neill but among others also his successor, James Marape. He was Minister of Finance when the deal was concluded;[81] Preceding this information from the Ombudsman there was news that Swiss financial regulators would look into the matter,[82] Prime minister Marape has installed a Commission of inquiry under the leadership of the chief justice and with the head of the anti corruption Task force Sweep as council. Its brief is limited to the legality of the events and it has to report within three months.[83]

The opposition to O’Neill on these issues was intense. University students went on strike demanding his resignation, which resulted in violent confrontations with the police and closure of the University of Papua New Guinea for the academic year.[84] Three former Prime Ministers, Sir Michael Somare, Sir Julius Chan, and Sir Mekere Morauta supported a motion of no confidence and urged O’Neill to resign.[85]

When Peter O’Neill resigned he was therefore on siege from several sides : not only his parliamentary majority that was at stake. He was also under threat from the Ombudsman Commission and a Leadership Tribunal may have resulted from the report.[86] Despite these issues, there was also praise for O’Neill after his resignation. Instead of facing a vote of no confidence, he was praised by James Marape, his successor.[87] William Duma who had made the definite move against his premiership praised him as well.[88]


Peter O’Neill is not apologetic about his record in office and this is especially so with respect to his management of the economy. Yet,Peter O’Neill’s loss of office was in the first place triggered by economic issues but he declared during his reign the economy regularly in order. The economy was fundamentally stable and the government’s policies were on track. Problems in the economy were due to a temporary setback caused by low prices for natural resources[89][90] He systematically defended his whole performance in an interview after he lost office. That is most notabe and controversial with respect to the UBS loan meant to acquire interests in the Elk Antelope gas field through shareholding in Oil Search. See PNG Gas He claims that investigations by regulatory authorities in Switzerland and Australia declared everything in order. "They’ve found that these arrangements were in order, except that nobody predicted the collapse of the world prices … I mean, nobody could predict it. So we were caught in a situation where we needed to sell down these shares". Oil Search is according to him a great asset for PNG and deserved to be supported.[91] He sees his policies for free education and health care as a success. He does not deny that there are problems in delivery of these services e.g. shortages of medicines or late payment of teacher salaries, but according to him "It is more of a management problem than government not prioritising",[91] His successor, James Marape, described the economy when presenting his first budget as "struggling and bleeding", and also said that the country was in "a very deep economic hole"[92] O’Neill in response claimed that the budget was based on false information published for political gain. According to O’Neill the treasurer had created a higher debt to GDP ratio simply by changing the methodologies used to inflate the number. He considers the negative view of the PNG economy as IMF inspired and the budget made up by foreign academics who even had not lived in the country.[93]

Peter O’Neill and James Marape[edit]

It seemed that Peter O’Neill would retain power after his resignation. He was the leader in parliament of the largest political party, the PNC. However, he became soon an isolated dissenter. At the end of August 2019 it came to an outburst: he protested strongly against the appointment of Ian Ling-Stuckey as Minister of the Treasury who opposed O’Neill as Shadow Treasury minister. O’Neill objected not only this appointment but condemned in general the appointment of MPS who had opposed the O’Neill/Able; cabinet, O’Neill predicted: "It will not be long before SirMekere Morauta and Opposition Leader Patrick Pruaitch join Government so be prepared to make way for them"[94] This came true in November when James Marape made another government reshuffle removing members of the O’Neill/Able cabinet. He appointed then Patrick Pruaitch to Minister of Foreign Affairs.[95] Mekere Morauta said not be interested in a Cabinet position but that he was willing to support the Cabinet as "deckhand" to the Captain Marape.[96] Marape told O’Neill in August already to leave the government benches and go into opposition. Marape declared himself no longer a member of the PNC, but of Pangu Party. He declared to be elected by people from all parties in parliament and was therefore not answerable to PNC. Marape was supported by the Speaker, Job Pomat, who nevertheless declared himself a member of PNC. O’Neill had therefore no longer a hold on his party. PNC was also no longer the biggest party as there were many defections to Pangu Party. The latter was now the biggest party and Marape could therefore claim the right to form the government as proscribed in the constitution.[97][95] On matters of policy, he condemned the repudiation of the agreement with the Energy companies about the Elk Antelope gas field.See: PNG Gas Second, he accuses the Marape government to give a false negative picture of the economy inspired by outsiders, the Australian economist Paul Flanagan and the IMF.[98]

Personal life[edit]

O'Neill has been married to Lynda May Babao since 1999. They have five children: Brian, Travis, Joanne, Loris, and Patrick. It is his second marriage. He was appointed to the Order of St Michael and St George as a Companion in 2007 Birthday Honours List.[99]


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External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Sam Abal
Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea
Succeeded by
James Marape
Preceded by
Mekere Morauta
Leader of the Opposition of Papua New Guinea
Succeeded by
Mekere Morauta
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Trần Đại Quang
Chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
Succeeded by
Sebastián Piñera