6 Apr 2012

PNG government accused of deception over election deferral

3:19 pm on 6 April 2012

Papua New Guinea's opposition leader Dame Carol Kidu says she feels deceived by the O'Neill government over how it went about deferring the national elections by six months.

Parliament decided to postpone the elections from the original June polling schedule, the vote passing the house 63 to 11 following a brief debate.

This is despite repeated assurances over recent weeks by the Prime Minister Peter O'Neill that the five-yearly poll would go ahead as scheduled.

Dame Carol appears to be echoing the sentiments of many Papua New Guineans who have flooded online social media networks to voice outrage over the deferral.

Johnny Blades reports that the O'Neill government is standing by its move:


The deferral came after a report given in parliament by the minister assisting the Prime Minister on electoral issues, Waka Goi.

Mr Goi said the budget shortfall for the election was about 30 million US dollars and the electoral rolls were not ready for public inspection.

He also said security planning was not in order yet.

Dame Carol says the assumption was that the report had originated from the Electoral Commissioner.

"But my assumption was wrong, I found out afterwards. It had not come from the Electoral Commission office, and nothing was tabled so we didn't know where it came from. But it was on that report that I said two months (deferral) would be acceptable if it's considered (by the Electoral Commission) that the rolls really need a lot of work - because rolls are always quite a problem in PNG - but anyway they were not interested in a compromise. They were determined to get six months."

Our correspondent in Port Moresby, Titi Gabi, says as recently as Wednesday the Prime Minister was on local radio saying only the Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen had the authority to delay the poll.

But she says that has now changed.

Already there's people very unhappy about it, expressing themselves on Facebook and emails and what have you. Right now that's the initial reaction. Yes, we know that it's the Electoral Commissioner to make that decision, but that's changed now.

Elements within the O'Neill government - notably the deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah - had been pushing for a deferral for months.

PNG's constitution makes provision for deferral of elections in the case of a state of emergency or if the Electoral Commissioner requests more time.

Transparency International Papua New Guinea's Lawrence Stephens says the government's move is illegal.

Anybody who has half an idea of what the meaning of the constitution is all about, it is just illegitimate. The country is galvanised and angry by the decision. It becomes even more hurtful to many people who publicly accepted the assurances from the Prime Minister, on a number of occasions that this would not happen.

But the National Planning Minister Sam Basil has defended the deferral, saying incomplete common rolls are a recipe for trouble.

In my district, last week, I made it my business to call into one of my local level government offices and I found out that all the common rolls for my Bulolo district, the common rolls aren't ready. And it (the deferral) is done by law and in the constitution it says we can defer by six months to a year. We have many members in the opposition and the middle benches who support the move because they've admitted, the common rolls are not up to date.

Sam Basil says the government will need to come out and clearly explain its move.

What we have seen from the district is totally different to what the Electoral Commissioner is saying and he has run elections before. And he knows when the writs are issued, he's the most powerful man. Nobody is going to challenge him after the return of writs which means there are a lot of disputed returns. We're just trying to correct the process so that we have a good election.

However coming just a day after the government controversially suspended the Chief Justice, Sir Salamo Injia, and another top judge, the elections deferral could trigger large protests.

The suspension came after Sir Salamo rejected an application to disqualify himself from hearing ongoing Supreme Court references on the government's legitimacy.

In pursuing the Chief Justice over misconduct allegations, the government invoked the controversial new Judicial Conduct Law which it rushed through parliament two weeks ago, giving it the power to suspend judges.

Nearly three thousand University of PNG students marched to parliament against the new law and student leader Nou Vada says they are now considering another large protest action

We're all disappointed with the government, the decision of the government to use this law. As one student leader went up and said a few moments ago, the Prime Minister lied to the country on national TV.

Lawrence Stephens says many people are angry but there is a precedent for the people forcing controversial decisions by MPs to be overturned.

He points to attempts years ago when MPs tried to stop leadership tribunal rulings disqualifying them from sitting in Parliament.

The people of Papua New Guinea rose and objected and that was stopped, wisely stopped. This time it has hit the people of Papua New Guinea in an ambush. It has been rushed through, ill-conceived and no consultation with anybody other than a small group of misguided lawyers and a few members of parliament who have managed to push this through without any proper consultation with the general public.

However Dame Carol Kidu says no one knows what this government will do next.

Because only three days earlier, the Electoral Commissioner, the Police Commissioner and the Defence Commander were at a function that I was at. And all three of them said that they are ready to move forward with the election. And they actually said that in front of the shadow Foreign Minister from Australia, Julie Bishop. Three days later I hear on the floor that we're not ready and supposedly what I thought was an Electoral Commission report so I just feel there's lies, lies and more lies. The Prime Minister said no, we're not going to defer elections... lies; he said no, we're not going to implement the Judicial Act, we'll give more time for consultation... lies. This last week is a black week in the history of PNG because they did implement the Judicial Act and they referred two senior judges to a tribunal and they put the tribunal in place.

She says PNG is a very fractured society of over 800 tribes who have been held together by the Constitution.

Dame Carol says however events in PNG since last August when the O'Neill administration came to power have undermined the Constitution and without that document, the country is at risk of of becoming a dictatorship or disintegrating into anarchy.