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Volatile times as rivals claim throne in Papua New Guinea: expert reactions

Police stand outside PNG’s Supreme Court. AAP/Eoin Blackwell.

Papua New Guinea’s volatile political impasse continues even after Michael Somare was today reinstated as prime minister by the Governor-General, with rival Peter O'Neill remaining holed up in Government House claiming to be the country’s rightful leader.

Mr O'Neill had been the prime minister since August, when MPs voted to replace Sir Michael, who had been unwell in Singapore for several months following heart surgery. However, on Monday PNG’s Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that Sir Michael’s ousting was an invalid act as the post was not vacant, and that he should be reinstated. Parliament yesterday re-elected Mr O'Neill, who on Monday had pushed through a police cordon of Government House with his supporting MPs. Australian diplomats were jostled and threatened by police, and automatic weapon fire was heard outside the building that night. Sir Michael, who has held the position of prime minister for about 16 years since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975, reportedly set up an alternative parliament in Port Moresby’s Ela Beach Hotel.

Expert reactions below.

Anthony Regan, Fellow, State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program, School of International, Political & Strategic Studies, Australian National University

Much is at stake in the Papua New Guinea crisis resulting from the 12th December 2011 Supreme Court decision holding that Parliament’s August 2nd removal of Michael Somare as PM was invalid.

Control of government in PNG brings access to wealth and power, and currently also involves control of resources critical to outcomes in the 2012 national elections. For those supporting Somare, his grave health problems mean this may be their last chance to gain power. For the PNG population the stakes are higher, the confrontation having potential to destroy the constitutional system.

Most reports emphasise the Supreme Court decision that Somare’s removal from office was unconstitutional. That view seems to have swayed the Governor-General (G-G) who on the morning of 14th December recognised Somare as PM by swearing in his Cabinet.

These developments overlook arguments for O’Neil’s right to be PM. On Monday 12 December, Parliament passed retrospective amendments to PNG’s Prime Minister and National Executive Council Act, aiming to remedy the defects in Parliament’s August appointment of O’Neil as PM. Under the PNG Constitution, Parliament is supreme, subject always to the Constitution. The amending law changed the situation ruled upon by the Supreme Court.

The G-G should not have been called upon to resolve the situation, for under the PNG Constitution that office has no reserve powers. Rather, it must always act on advice and in accordance with the advice of some other authority. That authority when appointing a PM is the Parliament. Where Parliament has legislated to remedy the defect that the Court ruled upon, it is likely the G-G should have acted in accordance with Parliament’s decision.

There are grounds for challenging the constitutional validity of Monday’s legislation. But decisions on such matters should be left to the Supreme Court, not to the G-G. Ideally, Somare should have sought to resolve the situation by asking the Supreme Court to declare the legislation invalid.

The danger now is that both sides not only have much at stake but believe they have a constitutionally valid right to power – Somare with Supreme Court support, and O’Neil with a solid majority in Parliament. It will be difficult for either side to back down.

The PNG Supreme Court has long stood out as the most respected independent institution, its rulings on constitutional crises being accepted by all sides. A worrying aspect of the current crisis is the extent to which the Court has become mired in the controversy, so much so that its ability to contribute to resolution of the evolving situation may have been compromised. If so, that would be a development with grave long term implications.

Otherwise, the most dangerous aspect of the situation is the politicisation and division in the Police, with significant factions supporting both camps. Not only are the risks of violence dramatically increased, but dangerous precedents are being established.

But the PNG constitutional and political systems have always been more resilient than most outsiders expect. People of goodwill from within political factions, from the churches, and from NGOs tend to emerge encouraging reason. With so much at stake for the two main groups in this case, the task of moderating influences will be especially difficult. Outcomes remain unpredictable.

Dr Ron May, Emeritus Fellow, State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program, School of International, Political & Strategic Studies, Australian National University

What we have now is a rather worrying situation, one might have expected that with the supreme court decision Somare would resume the prime ministership, [but] there would still be a problem there in so far as the vote for O'Neill clearly demonstrated that the support was with O'Neill, Somare’s own National Alliance Party is split down the middle. So if Somare was returned as Prime Minister it would be with a minority government and not long to go before an election.

What has happened, of course, is that the parliament has passed some retrospective legislation which purports to remove Somare from his provincial seat, and I gather that is a legal provision, the lawyers tell me that that is a constitutional move and that the Governor-General is bound to accept that, but it’s clearly a pretty nasty way of getting rid of Somare.

With O'Neill and Somare both there, I don’t see either of them standing down very quickly… And with the challenge to O'Neil a lot of his support comes from the highlanders in Port Moresby, and we know that highlanders tend to be volatile when it comes to political competition. So I think we have got to worry about the potential for riots spreading; there’s already been some disturbances in some of the provincial capitals.

What’s going to happen? It’s hard to say but the most optimistic scenario at this stage is the possibility that O'Neill and Somare and their supporters realise that they do have a stand-off here and negotiate some sort of working arrangement. That would enable the two to collaborate in the few months that are remaining before the election, get through what legislation is necessary to be got through like the Budget which has been postponed. Somare and O'Neill have worked together before in the past so it’s not out of the range of possibility but at the moment it doesn’t look very likely.

Dr Ray Anere, Senior Research Fellow and Acting Pillar Leader, National Research Institute of Papua New Guinea

The Governor-General is the person who would have to make a decision [about the office of Prime Minister] in light of advice he would receive, and in this case the advice would have to come not just from legal sources but from the National Executive Council (NEC) and the parliament. The judiciary cannot advise the Governor-General on [who should be Prime minister]. The Governor-General would have to take its advice from either the parliament or the office of speaker, or the NEC, all of which are controlled by the O'Neil government.

At the moment the idea of grand coalition has not surfaced as an alternative arrangement, largely because the O'Neil government believes they have the numbers, and they have followed the due process of law.

And I think what they base … their argument on is that before the Supreme Court had made its ruling, parliament had made amendments to the Act of Prime Minister and NEC to allow for a vacancy to be created, and then proceeded to vote in favour of Peter O'Neill.

So the O'Neill camp at the moment has not shown any signs of wanting to enter into a coalition arrangement with the Somari camp. The Governor-General, based on the advice he receives, could dissolve parliament and appoint a caretaker cabinet but that at the moment is a suggestion only.

Political tensions are high, particularly between the two groups, between the Somare and O'Neil camps, and there was very high tension at the Government House yesterday. But the public in Port Moresby has remained calm and orderly, there have been no disturbances or violence or protest on the streets in Port Moresby.

There’s been a protest march up in … in the Eastern Highlands province, but that did not have any serious implications as far as law and order problems in Port Moresby. So the tension between the two political camps has not spilled over into the streets or the wider public in Port Moresby. So the streets generally remain calm here in Port Moresby and we hope that the tension will be resolved amicably.

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