SPECIAL REPORT: By Scott Waide, RNZ Pacific PNG correspondent
It was a tumultuous week in Papua New Guinea after a 30 member delegation returned from the Coronation of King Charles III in the United Kingdom.
Papua New Guinea had, by far, one the largest delegations to the event.
While the real cost of travel, accommodation and chauffeured transport in London is still being debated, it is estimated taxpayers forked out close to US$900,000 for the London trip and a similar amount for an unnecessary public event in Port Moresby around the live telecast of the coronation.
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Public anger further exploded on social media when, Savannah, the daughter of Foreign Affairs Minister Justin Tkatchenko, posted a TikTok video showing how she had travelled first class to London with her dad and shopped at Hermes and Louis Vuitton at Singapore airport.
In a country plagued by a high cost of living, frequent power outages and high infant and maternal death rates, the video was viewed as an elitist, insensitive and a blatant abuse of taxpayer money.
Over the next 36 hours, Savanah became the subject of public anger.
She deactivated her TikTok account, but the video had already gone viral on multiple social media platforms. It did not end there.
Added more fuel
Tkatchenko, while responding in defence of his daughter, added more fuel to the controversy calling critics “primitive animals”.
This prompted a new barrage of attacks with many more people highlighting what they viewed as pre-independence, colonialist undertones expressed in the Foreign Minister’s words.
What would have otherwise been an innocent TikTok travel video by a young woman triggered a series of events that ultimately forced her father to “step aside” just days ahead of important visits by the US President, the Indian Prime Minister and other Pacific heads of state.
An attempt by Prime Minister James Marape to bring about some sense of calm was not well received when he asked Papua New Guineans to “forgive” Tkatchenko for the “primitive animals” comment.
“We are a unique blend of ethnic diversities and, as Christians, we can forgive each other,” Marape said.
“I am also offended, like some of you, but our national character is put to the test . . . and we must show the world that we can forgive those who offend us,” he added.
University students, stopped by police after marching halfway to Parliament, called for an explanation of the spending and for Justin Tkatchenko to resign.
‘Up to the people’
Across town, at the PNG Trade Union Congress office, the president of the Police Union Lowa Tambua went live on Facebook at a news conference demanding Tkatchenko’s resignation and the stripping of his citizenship.
“It is not up to the Prime Minister to ask us to forgive. It is a matter for the 10 million people of Papua New Guinea to decide,” Tambua said.
Part of the response people were demanding came in the form of a press conference late on Friday when Tktchenko announced he was stepping aside ahead of foreign state visits.
“I do not want to disturb this event. We have done all the hard work already,” he said.
“Now, it is the finalisation of the leaders arriving in the next coming days. For me to step aside is the right thing to do.
“So that we can clear the air and make sure that all these issues that have arose from misinformation, finally sorted out once and for all.”
No stranger to controversy
Justin Tktchenko, a naturalised citizen from Melbourne, Australia, and a former television host and former curator of the Port Moresby Botanical Gardens, is not a stranger to controversy.
In 2015, the opposition demanded an explanation over his involvement in a company owned by his family which had been awarded a US$7.6 million gardening contract for Port Moresby.
As Minister for APEC, in 2018, he came under fire for the purchase of 40 Maseratis costing taxpayers US$5.6 million.
The luxury cars, according to the PNG government, were meant for use by foreign dignitaries. None of them were ever used.
When publicly queried about whether the cars would be sold to recover the money, Tkatchenko famously said they would “sell like hot cakes”.
Prime Minister Marape will be standing in as foreign minister when President Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pacific leaders arrive next week.
With Justin Tkatchenko temporarily on the sidelines, a dwindling number of critics are asking if the same energy expanded on a TikTok video and offensive comments will be sustained and refocused on the exorbitant spending by the London delegation.