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“Em inap nau…” (that’s enough now)

It was the end of an era for Papua New Guinea when Sir Michael Somare retired at the end of June.  Or did he?  HANK NELSON looks at more months of tumult in PNG politics.  We reproduce below a short extract of a longer article on recent political events, which you can read here

Peter O'Neill addresses the UN, September 2011 THE RUMOURS about Sir Michael’s ill-health and the disputes about his replacement may not have excited the many unemployed on the streets or in the squatter settlements on the edges of the towns, or disturbed the rhythm of the women carrying home in the evening their heavy bilums (string bags) full of sweet potatoes and wood scrounged for a cooking fire, a little heat and a lot of smoke to ward off the highlands’ chilly nights.

But the political impasse also meant the neglect of national issues that needed attention. Nearly all the indicators of welfare (health and literacy, for example) were stable or in decline.

One characteristic of the many claims and counter claims about the failure of past governments to combat corruption and ensure government services reached distant communities was, initially at least, the absence of criticism of Sir Michael’s many years in office.

Coup leaders need to justify their actions, and when Peter O’Neill has done this he has condemned the interim government of Abal. O’Neill has found a convenient target; but given the brief regime of Abal and the fact that the system he took over was long in place, the criticisms have been unfair.

The tribunal of eminent judges may have blemished Sir Michael’s record, but the public, his colleagues and rivals have been reluctant to exploit that exposure of weakness in the Grand Chief.

Given the inescapable problems to confront any new government of Papua New Guinea, perhaps we should be trying to explain why there is such competition for the prime ministership rather than accepting that intense rivalry is to be expected.

Papua New Guinea has survived nearly nine months without it being clear who holds the prime ministership and without the benefit of a disciplined cabinet.

Given the lack of violence, the possibility of long delays of cases enmeshed in the courts and the need for time for new political alliances to stabilise, it might be desirable for the process of gradually acknowledging the end of the Somare era to continue for a little while yet.

The last thing that the peoples of Papua New Guinea and those of neighbouring nations (Australia, Indonesia and the Solomons) want is a Papua New Guinea descending into violence.

But the wild, enthusiastic reception given to O’Neill on his first return to Mendi after his election as prime minister was not an indicator of a gentle acceptance of change. O’Neill and his fellow ministers were honoured with a combined police and correctional services guard and greeted with a massed audience on Mendi oval.

The enthusiasm for O’Neill and his 70–24 vote in the parliament may make the courts reluctant to stand up to the two other dominant formal and informal political forces in the country, the parliament and the crowd.

The potency of sentiment (but not the violence of crowds) has already been demonstrated when O’Neill went to his home electorate and the crowd claimed that he should be elected unopposed in 2012, at the University of Papua New Guinea where he was strewn with flowers, and at the National and Supreme courts where two sides gathered in support of either O’Neill-Namah or Abal-Somare.

With the unexpected twists in the story so far and the speed with which unpredictable crowds can gather, it is uncertain that Papua New Guinea will have the luxury of time to establish a government that has a chance to be stable and efficient.

• Read the complete article here

Hank Nelson is Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow in the School of Culture, History & Language at the Australian National University

Photo: PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill addresses the general debate of the sixty-sixth session of the General Assembly on 24 September [UN Photo/Lou Rouse]

Source: Inside Story, 26 September


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Vox Populi

Dear Readers

The majority of thinking, apolitical Papua New Guineans are today scratching their heads in disbelief.

The separation of powers that is a feature of our Constitutional democracy, ensures that the Courts provide a check and balance against the legislature and the executive.

We are asserting that the Judiciary have failed Papua New Guinea.

The Courts have for now escaped public scrutiny but they can no longer do so.

The Judiciary of PNG, as Hank Nelson points out, had a choice to confront the constitutional crisis before them in a way that promotes perceptions of their independence and promotes our faith in the separation of powers. They have failed Papua New Guinea by not dealing expeditiously with the issue of the Constitutional legitimacy of the current executive.

One of today's PNG daily newspapers reported that the Court has required one of the referrers in the Supreme Court Reference, to disprove an assertion that Sir Michael was not of sound mind or incapacitated. If this report is correct, one of the pillars of our legal system, the burden of proof, has been turned completely on its head.

With the passage of time, too much is being done to ever unwind the clock in a practical sense. So the balance of convenience once again, becomes a convenient excuse.

If the Judiciary is not for upholding the Constitution, then who is for Papua New Guinea? The last cornerstone of our Constitutional Democracy has failed Papua New Guinea.

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