When Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, was unceremoniously removed from office last August, the private US intelligence company Stratfor was desperate for inside information to pass to its clients, especially international companies with interests in PNG’s burgeoning resources sector.
Stratfor had one well connected operative who could provide insight on PNG politics, a Brisbane based consultant closely engaged in business in Port Moresby. “Source CN65” was quickly tasked and his subsequent reports, released by WikiLeaks, provide a direct insight into the chaotic and often corrupt PNG political scene.
CN65 didn’t mince words about PNG’s new Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. In an email to his Stratfor “source handler,” CN65 suggested the new prime minister had a keen sense of personal financial interest.
“Quite corrupt. I know him. … O’Neill is not any more pro-Western than anyone else up there. As long as he makes money for himself (he has significant business investments in mobile phones, among other things), he couldn’t really care less.”
Asked what the new Prime Minister would want from Australia, CN65 gave a succinct reply: “He’ll be interested in just one thing – money. He will be wanting increased aid from Australia, and untied aid, i.e. direct budgetary support as opposed to aid tied to particular projects and administered by Australia.”
PNG is Australia’s largest recipient of foreign aid and with more than A$480 million allocated in 2011-12.
Stratfor’s Source CN65 was revealed by WikiLeaks last week to be the former Australian Senator, Bill O’Chee. A Queensland National Party Senator from 1990 to 1999, O’Chee was the first ethnic-Chinese Australian to serve in the Australian Parliament and was also the youngest person to serve as a senator. He remains active in the Liberal National Party in Queensland.
Last week WikiLeaks began the release of more than 5 million leaked Stratfor emails, which it said show ”how a private intelligence agency works, and how they target individuals for their corporate and government clients.”
According to its website, Stratfor, ”uses a unique, intelligence-based approach to gathering information via rigorous open-source monitoring and a global network of human sources”.
Now a partner in the Brisbane based Himalaya Consulting, O’Chee has a Stratfor “A” rating for “source reliability.” Drawing on a wide range of personal political and business contacts in Port Moresby, his reporting was regarded as “unique insight” into the labyrinth of PNG politics.
After spending a day and a half with “my PNG chums, who were down for the Oxford [University] dinner at the Sydney Opera House,” O’Chee was able to provide Stratfor with an inside account of the collapse of the Somare administration, specifically the personal falling out between acting prime minister Sam Abal and foreign minister Don Poyle, both Enga, a region in the PNG Highlands, that “ripped apart the government” while Sir Michael was slowly recovering from heart surgery in a Singapore hospital.
“Everyone in the government got fed up with this, and it led to huge dissatisfaction. On top of that, Abal moved to shift Peter O’Neil from the Treasury portfolio. That was the [catalyst] for action.”
Significantly O’Chee also referred to “a group of about four or five from the political class, led by one of our business associates (won’t say who) helped put the numbers together for a change of government.” However in subsequent reports, O’Chee directly identified Prime Minister O’Neil’s most important backer as former Defense Minister and PNG National Rugby League chief, Highlands businessman Ben Sabumei.
“Uncle Ben is advising O’Neill. … It is wrong though that business put O’Neill in place: it was Uncle Ben and his Highlands circle,” O’Chee wrote.
Referring to the maneuvering that preceded Somare’s downfall, O’Chee simply observed “corruption will win the day.”
O’Chee also had contacts with the Somare camp, leading him to comment that a return to power by Sir Michael would take PNG back to “a cesspit of corruption, incompetence and mediocrity. Need I regale you with the details of my meeting last year with Somare’s housing minister who was stoned on betel nut?”
Reporting on PNG’s international relationships, O’Chee expressed the view that domestic political turmoil was unlikely to have much effect. Asked about PNG’s growing ties with China, he observed that “the links between PNG and China won’t be changed by who is in power, as China already has a substantial foot in the resources sector – Ramu NiCo and Marengo Mining, for example, as well as sniffing around PNG LNG.”
“The main factor limiting China’s ability to reach into the country is the inability of the PNG politicians to be efficient in receiving aid offers. For example, most of a US$200m loan facility remains undrawn because they can’t work out how to utilize it. The thing about Melanesia is that politicians are not pro-active, and certainly not policy active. They are instead led by people from outside. The factors that determine future direction are: first and foremost, how Australia throws aid around; and what other countries put on offer.”
More broadly O’Chee concluded: “The real challenge for PNG is that it is too corrupt to develop efficiently. … The standard of the political class is clearly lower than it was 15 years ago. The old guys got corrupt and lazy, and outdated. The newer guys have been obsessed with personal wealth, and lack the respect for the offices they hold, which the previous generation had. This, at least, was the view presented to me privately … by one of most senior diplomats.”
Leaked US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year described PNG is being trapped in ”Ponzi politics” and quoted Australian diplomats as referring to the PNG government as a “dysfunctional blob.”
In a November 2008 briefing, the US embassy in Port Moresby noted that resource revenues and Australian aid have served ”more to enrich the political elite than to provide social services or infrastructure. There are no large-scale local businessmen, but numerous politicians are relatively well off.”
O’Chee’s confidential reporting most recently informed Stratfor’s analysis of the unsuccessful pro-Somare PNG military mutiny in January, with the intelligence company describing prime minister O’Neill as “staunchly pro-business” and highlighting strategic investments by ExxonMobil, Santos and Oil Search in PNG’s growing LNG production and export sector.
Contacted about his work with Stratfor, O’Chee declined to comment on what he described as “private business.” He said he had no ties to any government and his business activities ”didn’t require advertising.” He said he had no contractual relationship with Stratfor and was not on the company’s payroll, but declined to respond when asked about whether he received any payment for his reporting or analysis.
(Philip Dorling is a contributing writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne). He is a former Australian diplomat.)