Judiciary intervenes to end Papua New Guinea’s political crisis
11 Dec 2020|

For the past six weeks or more, both the political system and day-to-day government operations of Papua New Guinea have been paralysed by the impact of divisions within the Marape government, and attempts to remove James Marape as prime minister.

It has taken the decisive intervention of the nation’s independent judiciary to not only pave the way for a possible (and I put it at no greater than possible) end to the impasse, but also lay down with great clarity some rules that might minimise the risk of such a crisis arising again.

It’s a pity the Australian media has largely ignored the intervention by the PNG Supreme Court because it actually provides a welcome and overdue assurance that, despite a political system that is fractured, PNG has a robust, independent and highly competent national judiciary that ensures the constitution is not breached by prime ministers, governments and parliaments.

I have written about how the judiciary is a vital part of the system of government in PNG. It has consistently ensured that proper parliamentary procedure and process are followed by the government of the day and the national parliament.

The advantages the court’s comprehensive ruling offers PNG may not be fully apparent immediately, but in my view the democratic process, and the functioning of the national parliament, will benefit over time.

The most recent decisions, issued by a five-member bench headed by Chief Justice Gibbs Salika, represent a significant defeat for the Marape government and the speaker of the parliament, Job Pomat. Equally, they are a victory for the opposition, and for former prime minister Peter O’Neill in particular.

The unanimous decisions have been accepted by Marape and his government, even though they put his hold on the office at real risk. Even more welcome is the fact that there have been absolutely zero public disturbances despite the profound impact of the decisions.

The court action initiated by O’Neill came about as a result of the speaker’s move to effectively overrule an overwhelming vote by the house just days earlier to adjourn until 1 December. Pomat recalled parliament with just 24 hours’ notice—even though the opposition has shifted to Vanimo in the northwest of PNG to prepare for a vote of no confidence in the resumed 1 December session.

The session convened by the speaker, and attended only by government members, hurriedly passed the 2021 budget, and then adjourned until April—by which time a no-confidence motion could not be moved as it would be within 18 months of the next election.

The supreme court declared that the recalling of parliament by the speaker was invalid—as was the national budget for 2021. It also ruled that the adjournment to 1 December was lawful.

The court ordered that parliament meet on Monday 14 December.

The immediate effect of this decision is that the opposition will have an opportunity to move a motion of no confidence in the prime minister, though a vote on that will take a week or more to actually take place.

The outcome of any no-confidence motion is far from certain. The numbers on the floor of parliament are close. The result might be as close as 55 on either side, though there is some evidence the opposition might be just in front.

But the position is very fluid—even more fluid than PNG politics usually is.

There can be no question the political turmoil of recent weeks could not have come at a worse time for the country.

The PNG economy is in poor shape, and nothing better illustrates that than the dire state of the nation’s finances. The projected deficit for 2021 is eye-watering—even more than the 2020 budget will end up being.

The economy and the fiscal position cannot be readily rectified. Indeed, it will take more than the 18 months remaining in the current parliament’s term to make a significant impact on either.

But thanks to the supreme court’s courageous decisions there is a pathway to restore some semblance of order to the government and the functioning of the national parliament.

The judiciary has laid down some rules that the government of the day and the parliament now have to follow. They won’t work miracles, but they provide a level of stability and certainty that PNG so desperately needs in difficult times.

There are aspects of the parliamentary democracy, and the functioning of executive government, that are in need of urgent repair. That is not going to happen before the 2022 election.

But what might happen, thanks to the judiciary, is a return to a measure of stability that has been sorely lacking in recent weeks. PNG desperately needs a government capable of starting to address the great challenges the nation faces today, challenges that have been put in the too-hard basket or simply mismanaged for too long.

An environment in which living standards are declining and business confidence is lacking, and in which the fiscal position has never been worse, is not just unhealthy, it is dangerous.

The eight million men, women and children of PNG have been remarkably patient.

That patience will continue only if the people see at least a glimmer of improvement in their living standards and the quality and availability of basic services.

That ought to be the bottom line when parliament decides who will lead Papua New Guinea into another challenging year.