Peter O’Neill’s eight years as PNG’s Prime Minister
By Stephen Howes Peter O’Neill was PNG’s second longest serving Prime Minister, and by a long way. He was PM from 2011 to 2019, about one-fifth of the country’s history as an independent country. He may well remain a political force, and even be a future PM. But for now at least his term of office is over. How should we assess it? Certainly, no other individual has so dominated the pages of the Devpolicy Blog, which I have co-edited since its inception in 2010. Indeed, the pages of our Blog provide a rich source of materials on which to base an assessment of O’Neill’s long tenure. In what follows, I focus on domestic policy, the importance of the 2013 O’Neill-Rudd Manus agreement notwithstanding.
On the positive side of the ledger, attempts had been made before Peter O’Neill became Prime Minister to abolish school fees in PNG, but none had lasted. O’Neill did it, and it stuck. One can criticise some of the modalities and consequences (in most provinces, a massive increase in school class sizes), but getting more kids in school is a step forward.
Free education stuck in part because O’Neill was PM for so long, and that stability was itself an achievement. It enabled O’Neill to pursue long-term goals like the hosting of APEC, which, while controversial, resulted in PNG getting more foreign aid. The stability also provided the environment in which the ADB’s 2017 US$1 billion loan to fix up the Highlands Highway was finalised – a transformational project.
The negative side of the ledger is prominent. First, O’Neill borrowed heavily during his first years of office, the boom years of 2012 to 2014. That was a big mistake, resulting in a heavy interest burden today, and accentuating the impact of the downturn on government services during the post-2014 bust years.
Second, and …read more