APART from the 1988-1997 Bougainville conflict, Peter O’Neill's takeover of executive power from Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, and the consequent political impasse of 2011-2012, marked one of the most turbulent and perilous periods in the political history of Papua New Guinea.
It was four years ago that then prime minister Somare left PNG for Singapore’s Raffles Hospital to receive treatment for a heart condition. He was to be there for over five months.
Before he left for Singapore, Somare elevated foreign affairs minister Sam Abal, son of independence politician Sir Tei Abal, to be acting prime minister, overlooking deputy prime minister Don Polye.
At the time, Peter O’Neill was minister for works.
On 28 June 2011, Arthur Somare, son of Sir Michael and MP for Angoram, announced on behalf of the Somare family that his father had stepped down from politics for health reasons.
There was media speculation at the time about the physical and mental fitness of Somare and whether he was capable of performing the duties of prime minister.
On 2 August 2011, Speaker Jeffrey Nape declared the prime minister’s seat vacant and Peter O’Neill was subsequently appointed Prime Minister and Belden Namah his deputy under section 142(2) of the Constitution.
Peter Charles Paire O’Neill CMG, the son of Australian kiap Brian O’Neill and Awambo Yari from Pangia in the Southern Highlands Province, was appointed the eighth prime minister of PNG 70-24 in a parliamentary vote.
O’Neill was educated at Pangia Primary School, Ialibu High School and Aiyura National High School. In 1986, he graduated from University of Papua New Guinea with a bachelor of accountancy and commerce.
O’Neill was a businessman before entering politics at the 2002 general election, in which he had ousted the incumbent member for Ialibu-Pangia and veteran politician, Roy Yaki. He retained the seat at the 2007 general elections and easily retained the seat in 2012.
One of the power players in the dethroning of Somare and Abal was Vanimo Green MP Belden Namah, a logging tycoon and former PNG Defence Force officer.
Namah was instrumental in toppling the Somare regime and installing Peter O’Neill as prime minister. He rewarded himself with the deputy’s role and the forestry and climate change portfolio.
The change of government occurred amidst a backdrop of high profile shady dealing including the Julian Moti affair, the $30 million Taiwan diplomacy scandal and the Indonesian fugitive Djoko Tjandra (aka Joe Chan) affair.
At the time, most sectors of the community applauded the power swap. Even the churches flapped their wings and said it was God’s answer to their prayers for change.
But the East Sepik provincial government continued to support Somare and challenged O’Neill’s appointment before the Supreme Court under section 19 of the Constitution.
The key point of argument was whether there was a vacancy in the prime minister’s seat at the time of O’Neill’s election.
On 18 August 2011, the O’Neill-led Cabinet [national executive council] retaliated by suspending the financial powers of the provincial government, threatening to suspend it if it didn’t withdraw its court action.
But East Sepik Governor Peter Wararu-Waranaka and his provincial executive council did not flinch. Wararu stated that only Parliament could suspend the provincial government.
He said the national executive council had no power to take such action and refused to meet with the inter-government relations minister Mark Maipakai and the NEC when each separately summonsed him in writing to meet with them.
Somare maintained there was no vacancy and said he was ready and able to complete his term as the only legally elected prime minister.
In September 2011, he circulated a signed statement to the media, his first since he had been admitted to Raffles Hospital in April. It said: “Sections 142-145 of the Papua New Guinea Constitution is very clear about the election and removal of a prime minister. There has never been a vacancy in the position of prime minister.
“As elected representatives we must uphold the Constitution of Papua New Guinea and respect the independent role of the Supreme Court and, therefore, not pre-empt any judgment. O’Neill should know that East Sepik provincial government is fully acting within its right to file a Supreme Court reference under section 19 of the Constitution by questioning the legitimacy of the election.
“If O’Neill thinks that his election is legitimate, he should not feel threatened by the actions of the East Sepik provincial government. The Supreme Court reference raises legitimate questions and has a right to be heard.”
On 6 September, the member for Sinasina-Yongomugl and Speaker of national parliament Jeffrey Nape used his discretion to dismiss Sir Michael from parliament for purportedly having missed three consecutive sessions.
The dismissal notice said in part: “It is my solemn duty to advise you that by operation of section 104(2) (d) of the Constitution, your former seat, East Sepik Provincial, is now vacant.
“According to the attendance records [and minutes] of parliament, you were absent during the whole of three consecutive sittings of parliament since February 2011 without leave of parliament for such an absence. In these circumstances the constitution operates to automatically cause your seat to be vacant.
“I note that … parliament granted you leave of absence for the duration of that meeting only. Regrettably the motion of the 17 May 2011 was defective and ineffective to avert the operation of Section 104(2) (d) of the Constitution because the only leave of absence contemplated by that Section is a leave of absence for three consecutive meetings.
“For reasons best known to your advisors, no such leave was sought, and no such leave was granted. The motion of 17 May 2011 operated in respect of only one meeting of the parliament.”
Nape’s action was in direct contradiction to clerk of parliament Don Pandan’s earlier advice that Somare had missed only two sittings and his presence would avoid any termination.
“I confirm that my records constituting the minutes of proceedings of parliament as required by Standing Orders 30 for 2011 show that Sir Michael has been absent for only the June and August meetings of parliament,” Pandan advised.
“I confirm that when Sir Michael attends today’s meeting of parliament, he will avoid being absent for three consecutive meetings of parliament and thus being disqualified as the Member for East Sepik regional seat, pursuant to the requirements of Section 104(2)(d) of the Constitution.”
In defiance of Pandan’s advice, Parliament voted on the voices to accept the Speaker’s decision.
On 26 October 2011, the Supreme Court in Waigani dismissed an application by the O’Neill-Namah government to stop the Constitutional reference. The move was made by Dr Allan Marat, Attorney-General in the O’Neill government and had the support of the Speaker Jeffrey Nape, O’Neill and Namah.
It was argued that the decision to seek Supreme Court reference by the East Sepik provincial government did not carry the endorsement of the full provincial executive council members. Only 12 out of the 15 Provincial Executive Council members had attended the meeting that passed the resolution for the reference.
The Supreme Court however ruled in favour of the East Sepik provincial government that there was a quorum and the PEC meeting was in order. The decision paved the way for the reference to be heard.
The Court also warned the O’Neill government to refrain from issuing threats against the East Sepik provincial government.
On 12 December 2011, the crisis reached climax when a full bench Supreme Court sitting headed by Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia ruled 3-2 that the election of O’Neill was unconstitutional and ordered the reinstatement of Somare.
The court ruled that the office of the prime minister was not vacant, hence the election of O’Neill and Namah was unconstitutional and unlawful.
The Supreme Court decision put the office of the Governor-General in a dilemma about whether to recognise the minority (19 MPs) Supreme Court reinstated prime minister Somare or the overwhelming (50 MPs) parliamentary supported prime minister O’Neill.
Legally Sir Michael Ogio had no choice but to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision. So on 14 December 2011, Ogio installed Somare as the legitimate prime minister of Papua New Guinea.
A few hours after Somare’s swearing in, the O’Neill government, through a motion on the floor of parliament chaired by O’Neill himself, suspended Ogio and, by law, Speaker Nape automatically became acting governor-general.
In his capacity as acting governor-general, Nape proceeded to swear in O’Neill as prime minister.
However, Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of PNG who appoints the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister, had not revoked vice-regal Ogio’s commission.
On 16 December, O’Neill announced that he had the support of state institutions. Indeed, the public service, military, police and correctional service backed him and were taking directions from the O’Neill-Namah government.
On 19 December, parliament lifted Ogio’s suspension as governor-general after he admitted his recognition of Somare as prime minister was based on flawed advice. The next day, Ogio recognised O’Neill as prime minister.
“With the Governor-General now following the head of the public service and police chief in recognising Peter O’Neill as prime minister,” journalist Johnny Blades of Radio New Zealand International reported, “[Somare] appears to have lost most of his significant support bases.
“Sir Michael is refusing to back down from his claim to be the Prime Minister and insists that the constitution he helped write as PNG gained independence in 1975 must rule supreme.
“However with Sir Michael barely seen in public since impasse began, Peter O’Neill has been confidently asserting control of the public institutions. He described the Governor-general’s confirmation of his Prime Ministership as the perfect Christmas present for the nation.”
Many of those people who had avidly followed the saga would have agreed with the Supreme Court decision that the appointment of O’Neill and Namah was unconstitutional and would also agree that the affair was riddled with unprincipled and crafty strategies which were evil in nature and not of God.
Had Grand Chief Somare conceded defeat? We’ll find out in the next episode.