Happenings in Papua New Guinea
MUCH IS AT STAKE IN PNGAnthony Regan, Fellow, State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program, School of International, Political & Strategic Studies, Australian National UniversityMuch is at stake in the Papua New Guinea crisis resulting from the 12th December 2011 Supreme Court decision holding that Parliament’s August 2nd removal of Michael Somare as PM was invalid.Control of government in PNG brings access to wealth and power, and currently also involves control of resources critical to outcomes in the 2012 national elections. For those supporting Somare, his grave health problems mean this may be their last chance to gain power. For the PNG population the stakes are higher, the confrontation having potential to destroy the constitutional system.Most reports emphasise the Supreme Court decision that Somare’s removal from office was unconstitutional. That view seems to have swayed the Governor-General (G-G) who on the morning of 14th December recognised Somare as PM by swearing in his Cabinet.These developments overlook arguments for O’Neil’s right to be PM. On Monday 12 December, Parliament passed retrospective amendments to PNG’s Prime Minister and National Executive Council Act, aiming to remedy the defects in Parliament’s August appointment of O’Neil as PM. Under the PNG Constitution, Parliament is supreme, subject always to the Constitution. The amending law changed the situation ruled upon by the Supreme Court.The G-G should not have been called upon to resolve the situation, for under the PNG Constitution that office has no reserve powers. Rather, it must always act on advice and in accordance with the advice of some other authority. That authority when appointing a PM is the Parliament. Where Parliament has legislated to remedy the defect that the Court ruled upon, it is likely the G-G should have acted in accordance with Parliament’s decision.There are grounds for challenging the constitutional validity of Monday’s legislation. But decisions on such matters should be left to the Supreme Court, not to the G-G. Ideally, Somare should have sought to resolve the situation by asking the Supreme Court to declare the legislation invalid.The danger now is that both sides not only have much at stake but believe they have a constitutionally valid right to power – Somare with Supreme Court support, and O’Neil with a solid majority in Parliament. It will be difficult for either side to back down.The PNG Supreme Court has long stood out as the most respected independent institution, its rulings on constitutional crises being accepted by all sides. A worrying aspect of the current crisis is the extent to which the Court has become mired in the controversy, so much so that its ability to contribute to resolution of the evolving situation may have been compromised. If so, that would be a development with grave long term implications.Otherwise, the most dangerous aspect of the situation is the politicisation and division in the Police, with significant factions supporting both camps. Not only are the risks of violence dramatically increased, but dangerous precedents are being established.But the PNG constitutional and political systems have always been more resilient than most outsiders expect. People of goodwill from within political factions, from the churches, and from NGOs tend to emerge encouraging reason. With so much at stake for the two main groups in this case, the task of moderating influences will be especially difficult. Outcomes remain unpredictable.