Opposition grows

PAPUA New Guinea’s Parliament has rushed through the controversial Judicial Conduct Bill – triggering a widespread wave of criticism and a student protest in Port Moresby this morning. Constitutional amendments are not meant to be passed in a few days and a legal challenge is underway.
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Students at the University of PNG were first stopped by police inside the university gates this morning, according to a security update from G4S that was circulated by the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

A subsequent update about 15 minutes before noon (local time) confirmed the planned protest was not halted.

"Confirmed reports of the protest march - a huge crowd just passed the North Waigani traffic lights heading towards Parliament," a G4S manager said.

"Please avoid the area if possible."

Such a scene could be symbolic of a shift in perception against the O'Neill-Namah coalition government - after all many students openly welcomed the pioneering education policies announced by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill not long after he took the top job in August.

There are perceptions that the timing of the bill is designed to help Parliament dismiss Chief Justice Sir Injia Salamo and interfere with the various matters over the legitimacy of the O'Neill-Namah government before the Supreme Court.

According to The National, the law copped flak from Highlands regional women-in-politics president Dre Ceceli, Southern Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Berry Mini and anti-corruption and human rights activist Wilfred Kulno.

"One of PNG's leading constitutional lawyers" described the bill to the newspaper as a "vendetta" while a "political watcher" reportedly said it was a power grab.

Unsurprisingly, previous PM Sir Michael Somare and his ally Sir Arnold Amet have made their critiques.

A former chief justice and the attorney general under the previous Somare government, Amet especially singled out the following section of the new law in his statement:

"lf it appears to Parliament that a judge has failed to disqualify himself - or has influenced a proceeding - Parliament by way of a motion may refer the judge concerned to the head of state [governor general] to appoint a tribunal to investigate the breach - and provide a report to Parliament."

Amet said vesting such a power in the legislature controlled by the Executive was a dangerous precedent that "will now violate the fundamental principle of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary".

He said one of the most immediate dangers was that the act would be used to further attempt a suspension of Injia.

Amet revealed that a briefing with a legal team was underway yesterday to file "appropriate proceedings to challenge the constitutionality of this act".

"I can assure the nation and our development partners of the international community that this most dangerous challenge to our fragile democracy will not be allowed to go without the most vigorous legal challenge," Amet said.

Somare is concerned about what else could be on the cards.

Deputy PM Belden Namah previously signalled that he wanted to delay the scheduled midyear election by 12 months.

"I call on the public service, especially the disciplinary forces, to distance yourselves from this insanity by elected members of parliament," Somare said.

"You must not take part in assisting them to defer the general elections.

"I urge the disciplinary forces to not deny every Papua New Guinean the right to vote.

"We have held elections on schedule since independence and this election should be no exception.

"These members of Parliament have shown how they will wield power and the judiciary is only the beginning.

"I believe shortly they will turn their attention on the Office of the Electoral Commission."

Despite the various criticisms, one legal source provided a differing perspective to PNGIndustryNews.net upon hearing about the passing of the new bill.

He said it appeared that PNG's constitution did contain some "rather unique barriers" to judicial regulatory structures.

The source further said agencies to scrutinise judicial conduct were quite common in other jurisdictions and while they were often fairly contentious he had not heard of an example of them being abused.

On December 12, the Injia-led court found Somare was the rightful prime minister but O'Neill remains the effective PM due to overwhelming numbers in Parliament and the various laws it passed to maintain this new government.

Amet's full statement breaking down his concerns with the new judicial conduct law can be downloaded under related links and downloads to the right of your screen.

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