13 Apr 2012

PNG parliamentarians appear to support original elections schedule

9:36 am on 13 April 2012

Papua New Guinea's O'Neill government appears to have backtracked on its move last week to defer national elections which was originally scheduled for June.

63 MPs voted for a motion deferring the poll by six months, citing problems around incomplete electoral rolls and security planning.

However, following a public outcry over the motion, including a public rally by nearly ten thousand people in the capital, the Prime Minister Peter O'Neill says the elections will now go ahead as originally scheduled.

Mr O'Neill, who had voted for deferral, says the vote is non-binding on the Electoral Commissioner.

But parliament's Speaker, Jeffery Nape, says that the motion, unless rescinded, stands.

Johnny Blades reports that while concerns remain about the Electoral Commission's preparedness, MPs appear to have accepted the poll will go ahead as planned.

Despite intense lobbying from the likes of deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah to have the elections deferred, the O'Neill coalition government now says it doesn't have the power to direct the Electoral Commissioner on the matter.

The Commissioner, Andrew Trawen, has stood firm that the polls must go ahead as constitutionally scheduled although he has agreed to extend the deadline for the issuing of writs for three weeks until the 18th of May.

Concern over incomplete common rolls in the Highlands provinces is behind the support of many MPs for deferral but Treasurer Don Polye says the writs deadline extension should address concerns.

"We don't want to be seen as deviating or wandering off the course of democracy or the course of following the constitution. We've given the due respect to the Electoral Commissioner, his right to make his decision independent of any influence from cabinet or parliament."

Don Polye says he is confident that the Electoral Commission is well prepared to hold the elections.

Asked about his and the Prime Minister's apparent flip flop on the deferral, Mr Polye says he voted for deferral last week knowing that it was a non-binding motion.

My voting with the other members was to show solidarity during a time when there's an impasse between one group against another group. But I did it knowing fully well that the Electoral Commission was very independent of that vote, very independent of any influence from government, it is an independent constitutional office and will do it as per its constitutional duties to run the election as scheduled, and that is really what we have done now.

Another who supports the coalition, the National Capital District Governor, Powes Parkop, says he supports this schedule.

My preference is to have the election held as soon as possible so that our people's rights, they could exercise that right because they are entitled to elect the leaders of our country for the next five years. We should not prevent or try to delay our people from exercising that constitutional right.

But Mr Parkop says the Electoral Commissioner needs to prove that he is ready to hold elections in late June especially in the seven Highlands provinces where around 60 percent of the voting population lives.

He says he's reluctant to be party to a decision that he claims will disenfranchise most of the population because of incomplete common rolls in the Highlands region.

And the Governor says it's doubtful whether candidates and the public will have enough time under the current schedule to scrutinise the preliminary common rolls as they are entitled to.

How are we just going to deprive our people the right to check the common roll in order to meet a schedule that we don't want to change. This is the dilemna that the parliament is faced with. People who protested over the last few days, I don't think they fully understand this. Some of them were influenced by intending candidates, putting the interests of the candidates higher than the collective welfare of our country.

It's unclear whether parliament will vote to rescind the motion when it resumes next week.

The Housing Minister in the O'Neill government, Ken Fairweather, says he would vote again for deferral.

We're worried about the common rolls in the new electorate that has the gas. So we want to make sure it's correct, that's all. They're saying that Hela's not ready so if that's the case, yes I would (vote again for deferral). But if they could convince me that Hela is ok, then I wouldn't bother.

Others, like Western Province Governor Bob Danaya, says there's no justification for deferring national elections.

They may have problems but that doesn't give anybody any reasonable excuse to defer elections. They've had four and a half years to prepare for this so if the Electoral officials are not ready then I think they have to blame themselves. Government has given them enough money.

Mr Danaya, who has been a minor player in the O'Neill government, says he is leaving the coalition because of his concern over the decisions of the regime, particularly the Judicial Conduct Bill and the elections deferral.

All along the Electoral Commissioner's been saying that he's ready to go ahead with the election. I believe that the sitting members of parliament have ulterior motives to defer elections. One of the main reasons is because of the ongoing court battle between the two parties who are claiming to be the legitimate government. But if we don't resolve that and go for elections, then I think it'll create additional problems during the elections. So I'm hoping that this matter will be resolved as soon as possible this month.

The opposition leader, Dame Carol Kidu, says abuses of parliamentary process by the O'Neill government are setting a dangerous precedent.

She says alarm bells should be ringing for every educated citizen in PNG about the long-term dangers of too much power in the hands of politicians and the importance of doing things the right way.

There are provisions in our constitution for all of these subsidiary laws that are being written and so we are creating a dreadful legal mess in my opinion. There are provisions in our constitution about deferring elections but we are going outside of those provisions and choosing other sections of the constitution to justify what we are doing. Now I am not saying that our constitution is set in stone. I believe that 36 years after independence it is certainly time for constitutional review. That should be done by proper processes.

Meanwhile on the issue of security, Police and Defence forces say they are well prepared for the elections to go ahead as originally planned.

Echoing this, Don Polye says the government is deploying extra security to the volatile Highlands region to ensure the election process is not disrupted.

He admits there will be challenges but says they are not insurmountable.