Calls for nationwide strike after PNG government buys 40 Maseratis for Apec

Sir Mekere Morauta. Picture: RNZ

PORT MORESBY, 17 OCTOBER 2018 (THE GUARDIAN) – Papua New Guinean opposition MPs have called for a nationwide strike this week amid growing anger at the government’s decision to buy 40 Maseratis for its APEC forum next month.

The PNG government – which as well as hosting Apec is also dealing with a devastating earthquake recovery, a nationwide medication shortage, a polio outbreak and worsening TB rates in addition to generally high rates of poverty – last week imported 40 of the luxury vehicles via charter plane from Italy.

In defence of the purchase of millions of dollars worth of cars, members of government including the prime minister, Peter O’Neill, claimed it would cost the government nothing and the cars would all be sold on to the “private sector” in a public tender after the APEC leaders’ meeting next month.

Observers were doubtful of the ability of the government to sell 40 Maseratis – which had never been seen in PNG before – for the same price at which they were bought, and in a city with record high rates of carjackings. Four-wheel drives are a more common vehicle in PNG, where the roads outside of cities like Port Moresby and Lae are often otherwise impassable.

The opposition MPs Bryan Kramer, Garry Juffa, Allan Bird and Sir Mekere Morauta have called for a two-day strike this week. “People are right to be disgusted by the information that is now coming to light, and they are fully entitled to express their opposition to this blatant fraud,” said Morauta, who also called for an independent inquiry into the purchase and the involvement of the O’Neill government and APEC authority.

He pointed to other controversial APEC-related spending, which he said had all proceeded “at the expense of the health system, the education system, rural infrastructure, law and order, government finances and the economy, and employment”. “Why are we importing luxury cars for Mr O’Neill and his wantoks [extended family] to ride around in when children are dying of polio, tuberculosis and other preventable diseases?” he said.

Last week, PNG’s minister for APEC, Justin Tkatchenko, said the cars were “selling like hotcakes” and the government’s costs would be “totally reimbursed”.

O’Neill reacted to criticism of the decision to buy the Maseratis, saying all APEC hosts provided appropriate cars for leaders and it would not have been appropriate to use Land Cruisers, reported the news website Loop PNG.

Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific islands programme, told the Guardian the issue was “frustrating” and “tin-eared”, given the difficulty the PNG government had in paying for fundamental services like health and education.

“Peter O’Neill was saying this is not going to be Apec of largesse, it’s going to be a Pacific-style APEC, it’s going to be modest,” Pryke said. “If it’s going to be modest, why don’t you have a fleet of Land Cruisers? Land Cruisers are the status symbol in PNG as it is and they could easily be recycled into the PNG economy. Maseratis cannot be recycled into the PNG economy. Who would even service them?” he said.

“They’re convinced they’re going to make a profit off it, I don’t know how the hell they’re convinced of that.”

Pryke said spending on APEC was already a “lightning rod” for anger among Papua New Guineans. After paying government debt and government wages, there is often very little left over for health, education and other services for the citizens of the country.

“Service delivery is low in that pecking order and often the government just literally runs out of cash before it gets to that point. That’s why you hear all these stories about they don’t have paracetamol at the general hospital, clinics are running out of supplies,” said Pryke.