Wednesday, June 29, 2011

After Somare, who?

The National Commentary


YESTERDAY dawned an ordinary sunny Port Moresby kind of day – a little on the windy side – but before it ended, Tuesday, June 28, 2011, was propelled into the annals of PNG history.

Shortly after 3pm, an announcement was made that Prime Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare was retired after nearly 50 years in PNG politics.

"Was retired", not "had retired"!

The man who has achieved so many firsts in his life has also achieved another milestone at this parting juncture – he could neither himself be present at the announcement of his retirement nor had he participated in the decision himself.

His immediate family made the decision for him three weeks ago while he still lay in the intensive care unit of Singapore's Raffles Hospital.

The announcement had been delayed in the hope that he would recover sufficiently for the family to consult him on its decision.

When that did not happen, the family decided to make the announcement to stop the speculation, to allow him time to recover fully and to make way for PNG to move ahead with the business of government without "Somare being in the way".

"We are removing our father," son and Public Enterprises Minister Arthur Somare said in Tok Pisin yesterday, "so that he is not an obstacle for PNG to move ahead".

It is a significant moment in the life of PNG when one of the longest serving leaders in the Commonwealth of Nations is removed from our midst. It is a moving time to see a firebrand politician so incapacitated on medical grounds that he cannot make the final solemn decision to retire.

Yet, the family decision is the correct one and it must be commended for it. That the family has stood together in the face of great stress and difficulty to make a decision for both their father and in the interest of the nation truly makes them our first family.

While retirement should be self-executing and, therefore, ought to automatically remove from him all necessary powers as MP for East Sepik, as National Alliance parliamentary leader and as prime minister, because he did not make the decision himself might raise some thorny legal questions.

What is to follow is not clear-cut at all.

The family action now removes the constitutional provision for three doctors to declare him incapable to continue in office on medical grounds. That provision is no longer relevant.

The action also provides a vacancy in the office of the prime minister.

The announcement by the family begins a process that will end with the election of a new prime minister of PNG.

Acting Prime Minister Sam Abal is in charge for now but how long he is to continue legally is unknown. While his reign on government, shaky at first, is strengthening and he appears focused and charismatic, this announcement will mean he must first gain legitimacy to continue in office from his own National Alliance party.

Since this situation has never before occurred, the laws have not been tested. This situation is unprecedented so that should provide government lawyers with some interesting legal gymnastics.

Parliament has adjourned to August, placing it well within the 12-month period when no motion of no-confidence can be moved in the prime minister, yet, there is no prime minister to move a motion against.

Only parliament can elect a prime minister so it is important that parliament meets as a matter of urgency and it falls to cabinet to make that decision.

Political lobbying, as expected, has begun in earnest and will continue.

The ruling National Alliance party, with 42 members, has a head-start but it might not have the advantage that the integrity law guarantees when it states that the leader of the party with the largest number will be invited by the governor-general to form government.

That provision, we would vouch, only applies at the end of a general election.

In such confusing circumstances, perhaps, a look for direction to the founding father, who now lies ill on a hospital bed in a distant land, might prove helpful.

A dangerous constitutional crisis is looming which needs averting but how to do it is the question.

What would the Grand Chief do in such a circumstance?

That unique ability of his to calmly smother all dissent, to gather differing views and extremities through consultation and consensus, to make sense out of chaos and to move all that mass in one direction, is needed again now more than ever before.

The question is: Do we have that man?

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