News World PNG parliament elects new PM to replace O’Neill
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PNG parliament elects new PM to replace O’Neill

james marape png
Former PM Peter O'Neill finally resigned on Wednesday, after weeks of turmoil in PNG. Photo: AAP
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Former finance minister James Marape has been elected prime minister by Papua New Guinea’s parliament after weeks of turmoil over the handling of the South Pacific nation’s resource riches.

On Thursday, Mr Marape became prime minister by an overwhelming majority of 101 votes to eight, a day after Peter O’Neill resigned having lost the support of the house after seven years in power.

Mr Marape, who hails from the poor but gas-rich highlands of the South Pacific nation, said he would focus on “taking back our economy” and proposed an overhaul of mining, forestry and fishing laws.

“We will look into maximising gain from what God has given this country from our natural resources,” he said in his maiden address to parliament.

“I have every right to tweak and turn resource laws for my country, then it will empower my citizens as well,” he told the chamber to cheers and applause.

Political instability is not unusual in the poor but resource-rich country, but Mr Marape’s resignation from cabinet in April tapped into growing concern over governance and resource benefits not reaching the poor.

Those concerns ultimately led to Mr O’Neill’s downfall.

Mr Marape told a news conference after he was sworn in at Government House that any changes to laws would not be retrospective.

But he has previously questioned an agreement with French oil company Total in April, which allows Total, Oil Search Ltd and ExxonMobil Corp to begin work on a $13 billion plan to double gas exports.

“We are not here to break legally binding project agreements,” he said when asked if he would consider reviewing another gas deal with Exxon, which critics say has failed to benefit landowners and the government.

However, he added: “If we find any project agreement … that has not fully complied with proscribed provisions of law, then we are open to reviewing and scrutinising them.”

“We are not about breaking laws. We are about honouring existing laws,” he said.

Political instability is not unusual in poverty-stricken but resource-rich PNG, but Mr Marape’s defection from the government tapped into growing concern over governance and resource benefits not reaching the poor.

Those concerns ultimately led to Mr O’Neill’s downfall.

Mr Marape and his allies have indicated they will review an agreement struck with Total in April, which allows Total, Oil Search Ltd and ExxonMobil Corp to begin work on a $US13 billion ($A19 billion) plan to double gas exports.

“Agreements and resources laws will be relooked at as a matter of priority,” Philip Undialu, a lawmaker aligned with Mr Marape, told Reuters by text message.

“It’s going to be a fair deal not necessarily radical,” he said.

Mr Marape told PNG’s National newspaper two weeks ago, in reference to the April deal, that “something is wrong somewhere when the government is not unlocking … resources for our people”.

“We have a government that wants to save the interests of corporate giants,” he said.

Business leaders in Papua New Guinea offered cautious support for the new leader.

“He was finance minister so understands need for clarity and stability in policies,” Isikeli Taureka, chairman of Kinabank and a former oil and gas executive at Chevron and InterOil, said in a text message.

“I believe he is rational and seems to lean towards respecting and grandfathering current agreements,” he said.

The political uncertainty has knocked almost 6 per cent from shares in Oil Search, an Australian partner in large liquefied natural gas developments in PNG, since the challenge to Mr O’Neill gained traction on Friday.

Business leaders and another development partner, Santos Ltd, dismissed immediate concerns but said political developments would be watched closely. Oil Search shares rose 0.4 per cent in early trade in a falling broader market.

-AAP