WAIGANI - The events that transpired on the floor of Papua New Guinea’s parliament on Friday 13 November again exposed the deep-seated defects in our politics.
These defects have little to do with the constitution and the system of government.
The instability in PNG’s parliament is behavioural, not institutional.
Individual members of parliament (MPs), in calculating their prospects for grabbing or holding on to power, stretch interpretations of the law, or twist the application of the law.
Every parliamentary drama over the last decade or so brings about a sense of déjà vu, raising questions about the Westminster system.
So what is the likely outcome of this latest episode?
The issues that emerged from the 13 November session are constitutional in nature, and the competent authority to interpret laws is the supreme court.
PNG MPs have developed the habit of bungling the conduct of their activities in parliament then promptly running to the supreme court to seek legal clarification, even remedial measures.
The supreme court seems to find itself doing the house-cleaning chore of parliament. This is now a common trend.
If it continues, it will diminish the apolitical functions of our judiciary as the courts become entangled in resolving parliament-related antics.
That said, parliamentary instability will remain a problem for the foreseeable future.
When MPs jostle for power, it is a sad indication of where PNG stands with its use of the Westminster system.
The most convenient scapegoat in a constitutional crisis has always been the institutional design of our system of government.
A cornerstone feature of the Westminster system of government is ‘parliamentary sovereignty’.
The parliamentary system and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty originated with what is known as the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89 where sovereign power was removed from the monarch and bestowed upon parliament.
In the British tradition, parliament’s sovereignty was the outcome of hard-won victories.
The British are overly protective of their parliament’s sovereignty. They know how it attained that independence and sovereignty in the first place.
We saw this in the rhetoric surrounding the Brexit vote of 2016, where UK voters voted to take back control of their parliament’s sovereign law-making powers from the European Union.
So what does this tradition in the British system of parliamentary politics demonstrate?
The legislature is overprotective of its powers, and will at all cost minimise intrusions by the other two arms of the government – the executive and the judiciary.
But we in PNG know full well, the chaos that happens on the floor of parliament usually spills over.
The supreme court becomes unnecessarily embroiled in interpreting basically every letter of the law. The supreme court is always expected to correct legislators’ incompetence in resolving parliamentary intrigue.
One would think that law-makers, the elected representatives of the people, would seek to minimise the role of the courts in parliament’s affairs.
This is not the case with PNG’s parliamentary system.
But how long will the courts remain apolitical and independent given the barrage of cases relating to parliamentary power plays?
If law-makers in PNG are not in the business of even understanding their roles as law-makers and working within the rule of law in the conduct of their work, what are they doing for the best part of their time in parliament?
It is not unusual to hear members of parliament describing themselves as the “deliverers of goods and services” to their voters.
MPs in PNG are mistakenly of the opinion that their primary role includes “delivering goods and services” to voters.
This ‘service delivery’ role substitutes their primary roles of understanding how legislation works and how their profession is at the heart of socially engineering society, for better or worse.
Procedures like the standing orders of parliament, even laws that are basic to the conduct of parliamentary business, are too bothersome for MPs to understand.
We end up with parliament increasingly contracting out its powers of law-making to the courts.
Almost every aspect in the conduct of PNG’s parliament seems to be written down in statute or in the standing orders. There is this obsession with spelling out virtually everything that must observed in parliamentary proceedings.
Yet this written aspect of parliamentary procedure is not enough to prevent the reckless debacles coming out of parliament.
Jack Straw, the British statesman, once observed that "the constitution of the United Kingdom exists in hearts and minds and habits as much as it does in law”.
If convention and practice are routinely part of the British experience with its parliamentary system, in PNG everything is written down.
But even where it is spelt out, PNG law-makers are not in the business of scrutinising and mastering it for purposes of regulating their conduct.
In conclusion, voters ought to understand the parliamentary system we inherited through our colonial connections to Great Britain.
Elections are not simply about voting people to parliament to deliver goods and services.
Elected representatives are law-makers, and law-making is a fulltime profession, where social engineering of society through laws is supposedly under their custodianship.
These representatives should know the law and rules of society better than the average Papua New Guinean.
As voters we are also culpable in the instability that is instigated by our representatives.
Their failure to understand how they conduct themselves in parliament reflects badly on the voters who mandated them in the first place.
Patrick Kaiku teaches in the Political Science Department at the University of Papua New Guinea