Papua New Guinea was the only country in the Pacific region to back China’s harsh new security legislation for Hong Kong when it was raised at the UN Human Rights Council this month. It was another sign that Port Moresby is shifting towards Beijing as inexorably as its economy is declining — despite prime minister James Marape having proclaimed, in his first parliamentary speech after taking over a year ago, that he would make PNG “the richest black Christian nation on Earth.”
The country’s rate of economic growth sank rapidly from 13.5 per cent in 2014 to a 1.1 per cent contraction in 2018, before a temporary bounce-back to 5 per cent last year. The latter came too late to save Marape’s predecessor Peter O’Neill. In June, the government was forced to seek a rapid credit facility loan of A$490 million from the International Monetary Fund, coming on top of a A$440 million loan from the Australian government last November to repay debt.
Workers in clinics and hospitals around the country — which are mostly operated in rural areas by the mainstream churches — are funded chiefly by the government. They had to wait until the start of July for their March wages, and have yet to be paid for their work since then. Ulch Tapia, the chief executive of Church Health Services, said he had hurried to deposit the cheque for March’s wages: “I hope it clears because sometimes the cheque bounces.”
According to John Leahy, the president of the PNG Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the government owes businesses more than a billion kina (A$408 million). “Failure by the national government to pay its debts is a major concern identified by chambers throughout the country,” he told the National newspaper. “It is a major issue for all businesses but for small to medium enterprises it can be crippling.”