11 Feb 2013

Busy legislative activity in PNG as MPs extend votes of no-confidence grace period

5:08 pm on 11 February 2013

Papua New Guinea's parliamentarians passed a flurry of legislation last week, including constitutional moves that the government says will ensure political stability.

As it promised after the 2012 election, the Peter O'Neill-led government repealed various laws passed during last year's political impasse including the Judicial Conduct Act which gave government the power to remove judges.

However, as Johnny Blades reports, parliament's vote to extend the grace period protecting a government from no-confidence votes from 18 to 30 months after an election has raised eyebrows:

Only two MPs debated the final reading of the Votes of No Confidence bill before it was passed 90 votes to 14.

With motions of no-confidence also barred within the last year before an election, over two thirds of PNG's five-year parliament term is now locked down for government.

A political scientist, Dr Orovu Sepoe (formerly of the University of PNG) says it's an excessive grace period, given the behaviour the public has come to expect of politicians.

"A government has to demonstrate to its citizens that it has that integrity and accountability to stay in power by its very own actions. You can't come ahead of what the public has to say about the government's rule by stating that you have a right to stay in power without being interferred with."

The Prime Minister Peter O'Neill told parliament the move helps ensure political stability.

One parliament middlebencher who voted for the extension is the Governor of Northern Province, Garry Juffa.

He says it means a government no longer has an excuse for not implementing policies that assist the country's development.

Obviously there's a lot of outcry from the public and from concerned organisations and entities and individuals that, you know, we've given this extension and we really can't do anything now, the government can use its tremendous power to be able to do whatever it wants... that's true. But it can use its tremendous power to do good or bad. Now, it's up to us to watch and then react accordingly.

Gary Juffa says if a government then fails to perform, the public can remove it at the polls.

However Paul Barker of the Institute of National Affairs says the grace period extension signals more restraint on the function of parliament.

It is an unusual arrangement and there are not many legislatures around the world that would seem to volunteer to hand over some of their powers to the executive government. One of the concerns is that the parliament in PNG is already often considered to be just a rubber stamp, they don't really have much in the way of committees; they don't really get much of an opportunity to debate even major pieces of legislation which are sometimes just rammed through.

Paul Barker concedes that motions of no-confidence have been used mischieviously in the past simply as a means of aspiration by another group of politicians to become government.

But he says there is a need for such motions if a government is corrupt or not performing.

And quite clearly it's an untenable situation to have a minority government in power for any extended period. Having them simply protected by some arrangements, even if the majority are sitting in the opposition, really becomes a difficult and potentially confrontational situation.

The Judicial Conduct Act of 2012 was touted by the then government of Peter O'Neill as an attempt to protect the integrity of the judiciary.

But few observers saw it as anything but an attempt to sideline the Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia.

Sir Salamo had ruled against the constitutionality of the O'Neill government during its standoff with the former Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare and his group who also claimed to be government.

Now heading a coalition which includes Sir Michael, Peter O'Neill has moved swiftly to repeal this law as well as the Supreme Court Act amendments of 2012, and legislation which excluded people over the age of 74 from being Prime Minister.

Dr Sepoe says the government can work urgently when it comes to securing its own interests.

The rhetoric at the moment is that it's for the stability of the nation, it's for economic prosperity, it's for the wellbeing of citizens of Papua New Guinea. But underlying all that is the fact there's this grand coalition which has been formed with Sir Michael Somare and other key political figures with the current Prime Minister's party and they have to hold on to their power.

The former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta said the Judicial Conduct Act was a neccessary move to protect the judiciary when it was becoming too political.

But I am glad that it is moved. I think the judiciary has also a responsibility to make sure that the laws are interpreted and enforced - but not to make laws, because laws are made by parliament. I think that at the time, the judiciary was going overboard, a little bit.

However Sir Mekere doesn't support the extension of the grace period.

He says that before it was weakened in 2010, the Organic Law on Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates had achieved stability.

That stability was double-edged. If we had bad government the nation could be destroyed. But if we had good government, the nation stood to benefit greatly. There was that potential but I think the system was robust enough to counter that. Now we've gone to the other side of that coin which is the potential of changing governments regularly. And the difficult development decisions politically unpalatable are likely to be ignored.

But Gary Juffa believes the current crop of MPs, including an opposition led by the dynamic Belden Namah, has the capacity to drive much-needed development in PNG.

I can tell you that the ninth parliament is a more vibrant parliament, There are more people in there who are willing to stand up and raise issues and debate and be more aggressive in pursuing these issues. In the past we did not have that. Now there is a greater number of people who are able to stand up, and they are not bound by regionalism, they are no longer bound by ethnic or even political party identification or so forth. Many of them are bound by what they feel is the right thing to do.

However many are waiting to see if parliament shows the same urgency in moving legislation on matters such as domestic violence, land issues, law and order and corruption, before giving MPs the benefit of the doubt on the grace period extension they have passed.