ROWAN CALLICK |The Australian
Peter Charles Paire O'Neill, whose mandate is such that he looks likely to remain in power for many years, stood out from the crowd in the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands last week.
The most common pattern among Pacific leaders has been that of the part-time hyper-patriot who bravely tweaks Canberra's tail from a distance when he needs a political boost at home, but then switches to compliance when face-to-face with an Australian counterpart.
Another type is more simply understood -- the sycophant who believes that the best way to lure largesse from the AusAID honeypot that will soon hit $9 billion a year is to follow the briefs from Canberra.
But O'Neill is walking a different path. His inclination is to be friendly with his big neighbour. He observes with considerable interest events Down South, as people in PNG uniquely can -- with direct access to Australian TV, radio and newspapers.
But he has his own thoughts as to how regional and global events might best be managed to suit PNG and Pacific interests.
A former successful accountant -- a great qualification for a leader in a developing country -- and businessman, he naturally leans to pro-private sector policies.
O'Neill points out that PNG is one of Australia's biggest investment destinations, chiefly but not solely in resources and energy.
He noted with approval Canberra's stance during the difficult past year, to stand back and let PNG settle its own problems, while "encouraging us to have some dialogue and resolve our issues in an amicable manner".
He was not among those who instantly attacked Foreign Minister Bob Carr for his warning that PNG would face international sanctions if it postponed its mid-year election.
He let the short-lived controversy evaporate, as he persisted with the electoral schedule.
The relationship with Australia remains "very cordial and friendly", he told The Australian in an exclusive interview. "Very much on track."
And under him the countries appear set to work more closely together on regional issues -- but as a team in which both have a say over strategy, rather than as leader and follower.
He wants to support Canberra by reopening the Manus asylum-seeker processing centre, but insists that this happen "in a humane manner", preferably through allowing the inmates a free run of Manus, and also through processing their claims expeditiously.
Whether and how this might fit the Gillard government's "no-advantage" test could prove an interesting challenge.
At the forum summit, where he made measured contributions, O'Neill also took steps to bring Fiji back into the fold -- but artfully outside the forum, from which he agreed with Julia Gillard it should remain suspended until it holds elections.
He is inviting Fiji to join talks he is hosting next month to help finalise, after eight drifting years of negotiations, a free trade agreement between the island countries and the European Union.
As PNG becomes wealthier -- its economy has been growing by more than 7.5 per cent a year since the start of 2010 -- its role in the region will change.
O'Neill has not followed his predecessor, Michael Somare, in talking of developing an aid program for the region. He is too focused on gearing up his own government's capacity to deliver basic services while balancing the books, to consider -- yet -- handing out money to the neighbours.
But it's beginning to look as if he might prove a useful partner, in the sense that implies some parity, for Canberra to discuss ideas with, and to work with, in considering its strategy for improving relations with the broader emerging world.
One area that is open to improvement in the relationship is in processing visas to visit Australia, he says. He believes that young Papua New Guineans, especially, might become usefully "exposed to the international way of doing things" through easier access to Australia.
"As the former colonial administrator, there should be some level of understanding. We give visas on arrival to Australians," he says.
"And because of our customary obligations, we don't overstay. Even in death, we make our way home."
He said Papua New Guineans were pleased to see Somare and his supporters and the judiciary "now participating in a constructive manner, so we can all provide the stability and unity the country is asking for".
Many Australians still know PNG chiefly through the bearded face of founding father Somare. They need to get to know O'Neill now.
He has in the past 18 months demonstrated a degree of political tenacity and of big-picture leadership that indicates he will be around for a long while to come.
Aged 47, he is 30 years younger than Somare, who after the recent national election acknowledged O'Neill's mastery by pragmatically swinging his National Alliance party behind him in the emerging government, thus winning for his followers a couple of ministries.
Especially after his impressive electoral victory, O'Neill is comfortable in his own skin. He went into politics after already becoming quite well-off, not, as many do in PNG, in the search for the fortune that can there accompany power.
He is a mixed-race person who is proud of both his remarkable parents -- his father, a patrol officer then a magistrate, originally from Williamstown in Melbourne, and his mother, a Southern Highlands woman in whose village he grew up immersed in her culture, too.
His political party, the People's National Congress, became at the recent election the dominant grouping in a parliament where power is otherwise highly dispersed. The PNC, which was founded by former prime minister Bill Skate, won 27 seats, while only two other parties scraped into double figures. When he formed government in August last year, through a vote in parliament, the PNC had just 10 members.
O'Neill's is no overnight success. He was elected to parliament -- whose terms are five years -- in 2002, taking on the leadership of the party almost immediately. Since then he has been both leader of the opposition and treasurer.
Why the success at the election, given the pain that PNG had to endure during the year in which senior judges declared that Somare -- who was away in Singapore for almost five months for medical treatment -- should be reinstated as prime minister?
At one stage the country had rival prime ministers, cabinets, police and army chiefs.
O'Neill said in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands that the key to his electoral success, being voted prime minister by 94 votes to 12 in the new parliament, was the stability he had created during the political impasse -- a word he prefers to "crisis".
During this difficult year for PNG, O'Neill's deputy prime minister was Belden Namah, a controversial, bold and sometimes troubling politician, a former soldier who was jailed for sedition and then pardoned by Somare.
Despite predictions that Namah -- who in June burst into the Supreme Court and ordered police to arrest the Chief Justice -- would seize the leadership as well as the limelight, either before or after the election, his party fared poorly and he was effectively forced into opposition.
"I was fighting political opponents not only within the formal opposition but also within our own government," says O'Neill. "And battling on many fronts is rarely a successful military strategy, but I had no alternative.
"Even on the last day of the last sitting of the parliament, there were manoeuvrings to frustrate the election and change the government at the final hour."
That stiffened his resolve.
The keys to passing this test?
"I was not erratic in decision-making. I kept my word when I told the nation what I was going to do. I needed to maintain my composure, and to take the country to elections.
"The country responded in a very mature manner, and the results indicated to us that the voters want stability and better leadership and delivery of services, and a firmer commitment from leaders as to their responsibilities, as custodians of the people's wishes and hopes."
He believes that his policy priorities also helped his electoral success -- because they match those of most voters: free schooling, free basic healthcare, building better schools and clinics, major works programs including the Highlands Highway and other key roads, and rebuilding airports and ports, managing through fiscal discipline the country's rapid, resource-driven economic growth, creating job opportunities especially in small and medium businesses, and tackling law and order issues, including corruption.
Already, says O'Neill, he is preparing a strong legislative program to pursue such goals.
The population, at 6.8 million, is already half again bigger than New Zealand's.
Strong growth marks PNG out as a Pacific tiger economy, with another phase of its resources boom again promising to become the engine for broader PNG growth. But O'Neill warns that "we have had many economic opportunities in the past, but we have mismanaged them because of poor leadership in politics and in the public service".
"My predecessors had unique challenges, and I wish to learn from the past but move the country forward."
For instance, he says, in the past ordinary Papua New Guineans failed to participate in the successful development of major projects, especially in the resource industry.
"This has brought in a lot of revenue over 25 years, but people ask where did all the money go."
In the future, he wants to see more ordinary citizens take up opportunities arising from big projects, to improve their own standard of living -- helped by better education and health standards, government support for training, improved infrastructure including telecommunications, with mobile phone access now surging through PNG, and cheap capital.
He believes that "corruption is stopping the growth of PNG's potential. There has been too much finger-pointing, sometimes without much evidence." Hence his determination now to introduce "a sensible method of making everyone accountable to the public and to the institutions we run, by setting up an Independent Commission Against Corruption."
Legislation is now being drafted to introduce such a commission, modelled on the tough lines of the original ICAC, which was established in Hong Kong in 1974 when the then British colony was notorious for its corruption.
To date, the Ombudsman Commission has been the chief agency tackling corruption -- but its powers are circumscribed, and it can investigate only people whose positions define them as leaders under PNG's Leadership Code.
"We want to expand this through the ICAC to cover all citizens, including those in the private sector who seem to be participants in the corruption process," says O'Neill. "It's important that we spread the net wider."
He hopes PNG -- which is preparing for visits from Prince Charles and from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury -- never repeats its annus horribilis, and that it learns from the experience.
O'Neill moved towards conciliation with the judiciary by asking the Chief Justice, Salamo Injia, to preside over the start of the first session of the new parliament.
"I'm pleased," O'Neill says, that this newly unified governance "is slowly taking shape".
But the challenges remain immense. He noted that PNG had seen better times come before, only for the country to fall backwards again.
"There are still many who remember those good times just after independence" in 1975, "and have seen the country deteriorate to the levels of the last few years because of a lack of infrastructure and of basic services, and the list goes on."
This has been due to a lack of leadership and of "proper planning", he says, "although there have been plans -- but they are literally gathering dust in Waigani", the administrative centre in Port Moresby.
"A lot of our people lost hope and trust that we leaders were capable of delivering. But now there is a generational change in the leadership, and people are expecting a big shift in the way we do business and manage the country.
"It's a time to hope again."