Luxury Cars While 'People Are Dying': Outrage Over APEC Summit

PNG's government has come under fire for buying 40 luxury cars while many of its citizens live in poverty.

Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit this week. Leaders from around the world -- including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Canada's Justin Trudeau, China's Xi Jinping and US vice-president Mike Pence -- will descend on PNG for meetings and negotiations on a range of economic issues.

US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin will skip the summit.

But financial scandal has erupted before the visiting dignitaries have even had a chance to crack open the hotel mini-bar, with controversy over a fleet of luxury Maserati cars purchased for some of the summit's VIPs, while regular citizens endure poverty and disease.

It has even emerged that some leaders have brought their own cars, begging the question -- why did PNG buy the cars in the first place?

(EPA/FAZRY ISMAIL)

PNG has reportedly purchased 40 Maseratis, which can retail for up to AU $300,000, to ferry leaders around.

Meanwhile, it is estimated 40 percent of Papua New Guinean's live below the poverty line of $1.25 per day, and diseases like tuberculosis and polio -- all but eradicated in developed countries -- are re-emerging.

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APEC countries generate about 60 percent of global GDP, but PNG is among the poorest of the group's members.

PNG's PM Peter O'Neill claimed there were no other options that were "deserving of APEC leaders", and the government claimed it would sell the cars to local buyers after the summit to recoup costs.

However, local activist Martyn Namorong said citizens are outraged after several world leaders reportedly chose to bring over their own vehicles instead of using the provided Maseratis.

"It makes a mockery of that expense," he told 10 daily.

Governor of PNG's northern province governor, Gary Juffa, told the ABC the money for the APEC summit could have been better spent.

“Papua New Guinea is facing so many problems insofar as health, education, law and order,” he said.

"I just think it’s a slap in the face of the people in Papua New Guinea who are suffering.”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of PNG and Solomon Islands also slammed the spending.

"We share the concern of many about the huge amount of our limited resources being expended on this event which seems designed to entertain and impress the rich and powerful," the conference said in a statement.

"Despite all the rhetoric, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. "

"APEC seems to be a manifestation of this gap as the whole of PNG watches billions being spent on appearances in Port Moresby while we experience teachers and health workers without pay and health centres without medicine... [people] are suffering and dying in order to make APEC a 'success'."

Australian warship HMAS Adelaide moored off APEC Haus in Port Moresby (NESS KERTON/AFP/Getty Images)

PNG's government has also been lashed for splashing on lavish infrastructure around the summit, including more than $70 million on a specially-constructed building to house discussions.

Around 15,000 dignitaries, staff, minders and media are expected to descend on Port Moresby, which was ranked by the Economist Global Liveability Index as 2018's fifth-least liveable city.

Namorong, a PNG activist, said a lot of the expenditure around APEC was "unjustified" and that citizens were upset at how much had been borrowed and spent.

"It's not just about how scarce financial resources have been diverted to APEC instead of basic social services, but it's a lot of borrowing as well. Resources will continue to be diverted from social services to servicing that debt accumulated," he told 10 daily.

"The minister for APEC told the country it would only cost 150 million kina [around AU $61 million], now they've admitted it will about one billion kina [AU $413 million]. For a poor country with a lot of issues around law and order, violence against women, that is a lot of resources which have been misappropriated."

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Watna Mori, writing for the Lowy Institute's 'Interpreter', said PNG leaders had done little to bring citizens into the APEC summit, despite claims the event would inject millions into the nation's economy and help put the country on the map.

"There has been little public discourse or educational forums to engage with the average Papua New Guinean, or at least the taxpaying Papua New Guinean, to inform them as to what exactly APEC is and what real benefits PNG stands to gain by quite literally putting its people’s lives on the line," Mori wrote.

"The only thing the burgeoning informal economy in Port Moresby knows is that APEC means several weeks of loss of income as they are banned from selling their goods on the roadside."

Anger over the expense of the APEC summit has led to local protests, especially as people compare the cost of -- for instance -- the Maseratis, with the costs of paying for local infrastructure and services like teachers.

Mori's piece includes a photo of locals standing on a muddy track holding a sign saying "3 Maseratis can fix this road", while PNG citizens held a one-day strike action over the costs.

“It’s a protest against the corruption associated with the hosting of APEC. It’s not a protest against world leaders, it’s a protest against our own corrupt, unaccountable politicians,” said protest organiser Martyn Namorong, The Guardian reported.

Of course, PNG isn't the only country incurring APEC expenses.

Australia will also foot millions in costs, deploying security including military jets and special forces troops, to help look after the conference.

The APEC PNG official page on Facebook advertised some of these Australian assets would do a flyover as a "demonstration of security partnership" and called the Aussie support "an important component of overall security".

The ABC reported Australia would spend upwards of $100 million supporting the PNG APEC, and had committed further millions to addressing polio and disease issues.

Australian cruise liners will also help in accommodating the 15,000 visitors, with local hotels unable to handle the influx.

Contact the author: jbutler@networkten.com.au

Lead photo: Getty