Temperatures rising in PNG

PAPUA New Guinea is in the midst of its worst constitutional crisis since gaining independence from Australia in 1975. As Inside Track predicted back in the inaugural April edition, political turmoil is making a comeback in PNG.
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Published in the January 2011 PNG Report magazine

As we go to press two politicians are claiming to be the nation's prime minister. First there is the ‘founding father', Sir Michael Somare, who flew off to Singapore in April to repair a faulty aortic valve and ended up needing two open heart surgeries due to further complications.

The restive politicians he left behind decided by August 2 there was need for change. They ganged up behind Peter O'Neill, Somare's former public service minister, then treasurer and finally works minister. With 70 votes behind them, they claimed a clear majority in the 109-seat parliament.

The Somare team was caught napping. It was an unexpected turn of events since the country was in the supposedly no-contest one-year period prior to a national election during which the government of the day was meant to be safe from no confidence votes.

It's been a cat and mouse game ever since, with a big question mark over whether or not there had been a vacancy for the prime minister's post.

On August 1 the governor general, Sir Michael Ogio, in accordance with the PNG Constitution, asked two doctors to certify the condition of Sir Michael following the surgeries in Singapore and whether he was in a position to resume his prime ministerial role. The following day this became an academic issue.

There were a flurry of attempts to keep Somare, also known as The Grand Chief, in Singapore prior to a parliament meeting on September 8, partly because that would confirm his absence for three consecutive sessions and hence a vacancy for Somare's East Sepik regional seat, which he has held continuously for 43 years.

Then when Sir Michael attended the September 8 session in a wheelchair, the speaker of parliament, Jeffrey Nape, studiously avoided Sir Michael's attempts to catch his eye so he could say something.

Nape went on to declare a vacancy for Sir Michael's seat on the grounds Somare had been absent for three consecutive sessions, including in May when parliament granted leave of absence.

Nape said the leave application had been faulty.

Only days after August 2, the East Sepik provincial government filed a special reference in the Supreme Court to question the validity in the change in the national leadership.

After September 8 this was amended to include the supposed vacancy for Sir Michael's seat.

To cut a rather convoluted story short, the full bench of the Supreme Court on December 12 decided by a narrow 3-2 margin that Sir Michael remained the prime minister on that fateful day on August 2 and that O'Neill had never taken over that position.

Further it said whether a vacancy is created in parliament was the sole prerogative of the National Court to determine.

O'Neill was ready for that outcome.

Parliament was reconvened, this time to rescind its previous leave approval for Sir Michael, and then proceeded once again to appoint O'Neill as prime minister.

This set the scene for a confrontation with the governor general. Although he had sworn O'Neill in as prime minister on August 2, this time he waited and pondered the situation and received advice from the nation's top legal bureaucrat, who was firmly supportive of the validity of the Supreme Court decision.

So the stalemate continues. But the O'Neill forces appear to be gaining the upper hand.

This political crisis strikes at the heart of the nation's democratic values.

Traditionally it has been accepted that the three arms of government - the executive, legislature and the judiciary - are of equal importance under the Constitution.

Now the legislature, as the law-making body, is suggesting it has the right to make laws that the judiciary has to accept.

The Chief Justice and the Supreme Court certainly have not had their final say so more action can be anticipated.

There is a contempt of court charge coming up against O'Neill himself for falsely alleging that the Chief Justice had secretary met with Sir Michael's son, Arthur.

And Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah will face the court again on February 13 for trying to sideline the Chief Justice earlier by suggesting he had been involved in unspecified corrupt dealings.

Sir Arnold Amet, a former chief justice and presently the ‘attorney general' in the Somare cabinet, has been warning that all members of the O'Neill cabinet could be up for contempt charges that could lead to jail sentences.

One story doing the rounds in Port Moresby suggests that Nape, parliament's speaker, fainted on reading the contempt charges after police caught up with him.

Any jail sentence of more than nine months could see current parliamentarians barred for standing for elections for three years. So the stakes remain high.

For the moment while the politicians play their intricate games, life seems to go on as usual.

But public temperatures are steadily rising and, at this stage, it remains totally uncertain if the judiciary could provide a circuit-breaker or add another spark.

Inside Track is a columnist for the PNG Report magazine.

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