BY ILYA GRIDNEFF
AAP - PNG FACES a
constitutional crisis and possible civil incursions over a $16 billion gas
project, while the government struggles to pass vital legislation before the
2012 national elections.
Commentators are troubled that PNG's government appears to
exhibit uncomfortable parallels with Fiji, as constitutional amendments
mount up with time running out before the general elections.
There are concerns disgruntled Highland
villagers surrounding the ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas (LNG) project could
take up arms against the government if it fails to create two promised
A report by Dr Jim McPherson, a senior PNG public servant
of over 20 years, highlights the litany of constitutional amendments needed
before elections and the potential for violence.
"Shortage of time could lead to corrupt manipulation
of electoral rolls and increased political tensions, even unrest in
provinces," Dr McPherson said.
"PNG could quite possibly face a major constitutional
crisis like (that) seen in Fiji
or faces similar violent scenes to what happened in the Solomon Islands."
At the heart of the problem is PNG's National Alliance-led
government, which has overseen prolonged economic growth and political stability
and is now at the end of its second five-year term.
Last year the government set about creating two new
provinces, Hela and Jiwaka, in the LNG centre of the Southern
Highlands, and also in neighbouring Western Highlands.
And as PNG ramps up the LNG project - touted as the
saviour of the resource-rich but development-poor nation - there are fears that
already sporadic violence could intensify, with cashed-up and angry resource
owners buying more high powered weaponry.
"If this is not handled with care, a corrupt election
in Hela which had no legitimacy with the people of Hela, could spark an
explosion felt across the country," Dr McPherson said.
Critics who spoke to AAP accused Prime Minister Michael
Somare's government of overburdening the legislative timetable.
Even PNG's Chamber of Mining and Petroleum raised concerns
in a recent industry newsletter.
Creating two new provinces means adjusting electoral
boundaries that have remained unchanged since PNG gained independence from
Australian administration in 1975.
While Australian politicians have no say in whether their
electorate gets squeezed because of population shifts, PNG politicians have
succeeded in blocking all proposed boundary changes for more than 33 years.
"Electoral boundaries have not changed at all, I
would say variation in the size of voters to the districts, according to the
last national census, is up to 500 per cent," Dr McPherson said.
"If the next Boundary Commission recommendations are
not accepted before the election, questions will be raised about the
constitutional status of the next parliament."
Paul Barker, director of PNG's think tank the Institute of National Affairs, says electoral
boundaries must be properly defined otherwise existing social and ethnic
problems will multiply.
"PNG has been dangerously moving towards supposedly
elected leaders simply controlling funds and not representing the people,"
Mr Barker said.
"We need to improve the dreadful state of
infrastructure, service delivery and accountability in this country, not just
establish new lairs or units of ineffective administration."
To make matters even more confusing, another proposed
government bill introduces 22 women-only seats, one for each province.
With little national debate, this could increase PNG's
parliament from 109 members to at least 133, taking in the two new provinces.
The PNG government last year announced this
well-intentioned plan to give women better parliamentary representation, but in
part also to honour the legacy of PNG's only female MP, retiring
Australian-born Community Services Minister Dame Carol Kidu.
However, the Somare government in its previous term
amended legislation to abolish provinces.
Now the current Somare government wants to make more
provinces, including women-only provincial members.
These contradictions help explain in part why PNG is
sometime referred to as the "land of the unexpected" and also
highlight the shambolic nature of its nascent democracy.
Deputy Prime Minister Sir Puka Temu told AAP he was
"optimistic but also concerned".
The government will retain provincial seats and plans to
meet with key stakeholders to resolve these concerns, he said.
"The only challenge is whether by July this year, we
have the numbers on the floor of parliament to pass these important constitutional
The PNG cabinet has set up a team to prepare Hela's
administration, with a similar Jiwaka team to be discussed and then established
"I think we are on target," Sir Puka said.
But a range of issues outside the government's control are
Constitutional amendments require a vote of "absolute
majority", which is a tough slog considering consensus is rarely achieved,
sometimes even on popular issues in PNG's fractured and unpredictable politics.
Also, the government last year sat for only 29 of the
prescribed 63 days.
This year, a similar pattern of repeated parliament
adjournments has been a government strategy to avoid a vote of no-confidence
that emerged from their own frustrated backbench.
In addition, PNG plans a census in July this year, the
first since 2000.
By conservative estimates the census will be finished and
compiled by early 2011.
Whether PNG's institutions can then update the 2012
electoral rolls with the new data is highly questionable.
Dr Alphonse Gelu of PNG's National Research Institute
fears the government could rush through crucial changes that could cause more
trouble down the track.
"When are they going to give the legal effect to the
administrative set-up of those two new provinces?" he asked. "When
are they going to draw the boundaries?
"It's not a simple thing for creation of a new
province. Come 2012, there will be major problems and we will have to go back
to the drawing board."