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“JT Must Go”: Tik-Tok Claims First Scalp in Papua New Guinea

13 Jun 2023
By Professor James Chin
On Friday 17 February 2023, Foreign Minister the Hon. Penny Wong, High Commissioner to PNG, Jon Philip, PNG Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. John Rosso and PNG Foreign Minister the Hon. Justin Tkatchenko held a press conference following the PNG Minister visit at Parliament House. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/

Papua New Guinea’s Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko has stepped down from his role for now. But elite politics and money in PNG ensure that when attention shifts once more, he will be back.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is probably the most important country in the Pacific backyard for Australia. For years, the border between PNG and Northern Australia was a source of major marijuana trafficking and some human smuggling to northern Australia. Therefore, Australia will always have an interest in what is happening in PNG.

The recent news from Papua New Guinea has therefore come as a big surprise to the Australian political class. Australian-born PNG Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko was forced to step-aside following the social media outrage over his daughter Savannah Tkachenko’s Tik-Tok video. The video, posted by Savannah, showcases a sumptuous dining experience at Singapore Airlines’ first class airport lounge and an “elite” shopping experience with luxury brands at Changi Airport. She travelled with her father to formally represent PNG at May’s coronation of King Charles.

The entire trip was funded by taxpayers. What was even more outrageous was the fact that she was not eligible for the trip as funding was only available for the spouse of the representative, not children. But what really insulted the nationals was the hashtag she used in the video, #Aussiesinlondon, suggesting that she was a dual citizen and representing Australia.

In fact, Papua New Guinea sent the largest delegation of 27 people from the Pacific at a cost of about 3 million Kina (AU$1.2 million). According to the World Bank, 40 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. Critics are right to argue that the money for the trip should have been spent improving health care, education, and other services in the impoverished country.

The outrage over the Tik-Tok video began when PNG social media users began to repost the video. The attack was especially pronounced on Twitter, so much so that her father gave an interview to the ABC in response to it. He fiercely defended his daughter from an angry backlash, calling those who attack her “primitive animals” and “useless people” with “nothing better to do.” The comments were labelled racist and insulting, and sparked protests in PNG throughout the day, as well as calls for him to resign. Any foreigners in PNG would know that at least two taboo words to describe the nationals and the country are “primitive” and “uncivilised,” especially if the speaker is a white person.

In less than 48 hours, Justin Tkatchenko (better known as JT) was forced to “step aside” to minimise political damage and made a half-hearted apology. But the timing could not have been worse. PNG was in the limelight with two recent high powered visits by India’s prime minister, Narenda Modi, and President Joe Biden. In the end Biden did not show up and was replaced by Anthony Blinken, the secretary of state.

Despite stepping aside, the outrage did not end. The leader of the opposition formally wrote to the Ombudsman to investigate the Tkatchenko case. A negative finding from the Ombudsman under PNG’s Leadership Code means he will automatically lose his seat as Moresby South MP.

Students and other civil society organisations also issued statements asking the government to rescind his citizenship and a demonstration was held in near Parliament house.

On 7  June, Tkatchenko was allowed by the Speaker to make a personal statement on the floor of Parliament. Tkatchenko reiterated his comments were not aimed at PNG nationals but to individuals who he called “social media trolls.” Twenty MPs walked out. What was more telling was the Speaker’s ruling that MPs were not allowed to ask Tkatchenko any questions or debate his apology. It was obvious that the whole thing was orchestrated to give him maximum cover.

Is Tkatchenko Finished?

While many nationals would like to see Tkatchenko sent back to Australia, this is not how PNG works in practice. Prime Minister James Marape needs Tkatchenko more than ever politically. For this reason, he was not sacked from the cabinet but was forced to simply step-aside from his foreign ministership. In fact, by stepping aside, he retained his status as a cabinet minister even though he is no longer Foreign Minister. PM Marape even asked the people to “forgive” Tkatchenko for his comments more than once.

At a practical level, it is not possible to rescind his PNG citizenship given that he is not a dual citizen. PNG laws do not allow the state to render an individual  stateless.

The most likely outcome is that Tkachenko will be given a minor post in the next cabinet reshuffle and ordered to keep a low profile for a while. Like the rest of the world, outrage on social media usually lasts only a short period of time before netizens move on to the next issue.

Tkachenko’s political career will not end as long as he keeps the Moresby Southern constituency. The referral to the Ombudsman Committee is likely to eventually end as NFA: no further action.

The whole Tkachenko story tells us something about the politics of Papua New Guinea. First, social media has become a powerful tool to mobilise the entire population, even if most of the population don’t use social media. For too long, “little people” have been ignored by PNG’s elite. If anger on social media can be translated into the real world, it will have political implications. Second, PNG’s political class will still defend their own regardless of public opinion. Tkachenko will survive this incident because he will be protected by his wealth.

Like most Australians, Tkachenko came to Papua New Guinea as a young man without money and is now a multi-millionaire with properties in Brisbane and other parts of Australia, where most of his children, including Savannah, live. Cut off from the harsh lives of ordinary people in PNG, they really can’t understand why showing off on Tik-Tok would offend others. According to their worldview, showing off their expensive lifestyles on social media is pretty normal on Tik-Tok. Tkachenko is a good example of how the political and business nexus works in PNG and how money is the dominant currency in national politics.

On this basis, the divide in Papua New Guinea is not between whites/expats and the nationals. This divide is really a class divide, ruthlessly enforced by Papua New Guinea’s elite. The Tkatchenko social media case will not last long in PNG, but it will make an interesting case study for those doing research on new media in the Pacific.

James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and vice-president of AIIA Tasmania Branch.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.