A decision by Papua New Guinea to buy 40 Maserati sports cars to chauffeur world leaders around during next month’s two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit has caused an outcry in PNG and Australia.

Critics say that PNG – one of the poorest countries in the Asia-Pacific – has far more important things it should be spending its money on, such as health concerns like polio.

The cars, which sell for about US$150,000, were delivered this week. Photos emerged of the luxury vehicles being unloaded from two charter flights from Italy, where they are made, at the airport in Port Moresby.

The government has claimed it will get the money back it spent on the cars by selling them after the APEC summit. But the news has shocked many, particularly in Australia, which is expected to spend US$70 million helping its neighbor to stage the event.

Northern Province governor Gary Joffa, a frequent critic of the PNG government, said money spent on the cars would have been better used to alleviate the country’s chronic social ills, AFP reported.

“Papua New Guinea is facing so many problems in so far as health, education, law and order,” he told Australia’s ABC. “I just think it’s a slap in the face of the people in Papua New Guinea who are suffering.”

PNG is the least developed of APEC’s 41 member nations but will host the annual summit of world leaders on November 17-18.

‘Delusional government’

Many in the country, where more than a third of the eight million population lives in poverty, were already uncomfortable with the money being spent to host APEC.

The purchase of the luxury sports cars has reinforced their concerns.

“Don’t even know where to start … This is ridiculous, our people deserve so much better. Can the whole country just boycott #APEC2018 and the delusional #PNG government!?,” Twitter user Tannah posted.

Some pointed out that the Maseratis would never reach their 240 kilometers per hour top speed on Port Moresby’s pot-holed roads, and they would be virtually useless outside the capital.

APEC Minister Justin Tkatchenko defended the decision to buy the Maseratis. “The sedans provide the level of carriage for leaders that is standard for vehicles used at APEC summits,” he said in a statement.

Tkatchenko said the cars would be sold on to the private sector after the summit and the government had already lined up buyers.

“Having vehicles paid for by the private sector is the smartest way to have use of the vehicles for APEC at no overall cost to the state,” he said.

Special Forces deployed

Australian Special Forces soldiers have been deployed to Papua New Guinea as part of a major Australian military and policing effort to help its neighbors with the summit of world leaders.

Military sources in Australia have confirmed that elite Army personnel have flown in and are in place, because of concern that PNG’s military is not adequately equipped to protect VIPs attending the summit.

World leaders who are due to attend the two-day event include US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“We have Australian Army and Australian Special Forces assisting the PNGDF [Papua New Guinea Defence Force], making sure the counter-terrorism provision of services is first class,” a senior member of the Special Forces Command was quoted as telling the ABC“We’re standing ready to support PNGDF to secure the APEC meeting and help PNG showcase the country to the world.”

Australian Navy warships will also be off the PNG coast as part of Operation APEC Assist to protect cruise ships, which will be used for temporary accommodation for the summit. 

Cruise ships are seen as particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and Australian troops are experts at boarding vessels at sea.

Meanwhile, Port Moresby is regularly rated as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and recently the Economist’s Intelligence Unit ranked the PNG capital at 136 out of 140 on a list of world’s most livable cities.

APEC represents 21 Pacific Rim economies, and its 2.9 billion people generate about 60% of global GDP. 

with reporting by Agence France-Presse