KEITH JACKSON | Also with information from Scott Waide & sources
PORT MORESBY – The Papua New Guinea parliament ended in chaos yesterday afternoon after Speaker Job Pomat refused a motion from opposition leader Patrick Pruaitch to suspend standing orders and allow the house to vote to remove him.
It was clear when parliament resumed at 2pm that the opposition now has a majority on the floor of the house but prime minister Peter O'Neill is refusing to concede that this means the end of his control of parliament and of the country.
As soon as question time opened Pruaitch - who appears to likely to be the new prime minister if the opposition prevails - proposed a motion to remove Pomat as Speaker.
“There are a number of motions I intend to move. One of them is to challenge your position as Speaker of parliament,” Pruaitch said, seeking leave to move the motion.
Despite the numerical strength of the opposition, Pomat told Pruaitch he would not accept the motion because parliamentary standing orders did not allow for the removal of the Speaker on a motion from the floor.
Pomat said it was up to the Speaker to decide if such a motion would be entertained.
The house degenerated into chaotic shouting between the beefed up opposition of 67 members and a heavily depleted government side of 44.
“We are not here for you to dictate on the floor of parliament,” Vanimo-Green MP Belden Namah shouted at Pomat. “We are not here for you to be the judge. There is a motion on foot. The vote has to take place.
The Speaker referred to standing orders to show he could not be removed by what he called “an unprecedented request” by the opposition.
Madang MP Bryan Kramer accused Pomat of attempting to hold on to power, saying, “You have to accept [the motion] now”.
Eventually the Speaker lost control of the house and was advised to suspend parliament.
The Guardian reported that at one point several MPs needed to be physically restrained by their colleagues and the Speaker adjourned debate after an hour saying parliament would resume at 10am tomorrow.
“The Speaker staged a coup in parliament and his actions are unconstitutional,” commentator Martyn Namorong observed.
Former MP Ron Knight, who was present in the house, said, “I really have to apologise for my wantok’s [the Speaker’s] behaviour. He has never had a chair like this. He’s a layman”.
Reuters reported that after a brief suspension, the opposition won a vote to remove O'Neill's allies from a panel that vets no-confidence motions.
“We are demonstrating our numerical strength,” MP William Duma told Reuters by text, adding that O’Neill’s leadership was doomed.
MP Wera Mori, another defector, said a no-confidence motion would be filed tomorrow.
Radio New Zealand journalist Johnny Blades recalled that, when removing Sir Michael Somare as prime minister in 2011, “O'Neill repeatedly invoked the principle of ‘parliamentary supremacy’, whereby the will of a majority of MPs must prevail.
“[But] now that the majority wants him out, he is no longer talking about the supremacy of parliament.”
It seems prime minister O'Neill is prepared to tear up the protocols of democratic government to try to cling on to power long enough to add to his dwindling numbers in parliament.
This is the man in whom Australia has vested much of its regional credibility in recent years, a man whose obduracy and ego has left PNG in a serious constitutional crisis and as an economic and social shambles.
John Paska, president of the PNG Trade Union Congress, issued a statement last night saying the question of the prime minister’s post must be put to rest.
"This means the vote of no confidence must be allowed to take place without hindrance to parliamentary process and procedures,” he said.
Paska called on politicians to concentrate on providing responsible leadership and to refrain from abusing the constitution.
"The functions of government have been severely affected by all this political manoeuvring which has demoralised the nation," he said.
“Workers will protect the integrity of our laws and the constitution of the country.
"We issue a stern warning to politicians that we shall call workers out on a national stopwork should due process and the constitution be abused or violated."