Cool heads to prevail in PNG

3:55 pm on 4 June 2016

By Johnny Blades

They were branded as "evil" and "ungodly", and removed from Papua New Guinea's parliament, but after two and a half years, the carved heads are to make a comeback.

The front facade of Papua New Guinea's parliament featuring recently removed anthropomorphic carved heads on the front lintel.

The front facade of PNG's parliament featuring anthropomorphic carved heads on the front lintel. The heads were removed in late 2013. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

This week, PNG's national court ruled against the speaker of parliament's removal of cultural carvings and a totem pole from the national parliament in 2013.

The speaker, Theo Zurenuoc, had ordered their removal after claiming the cultural adornments were associated with a pagan, animist background, and therefore "evil and ungodly".

The court however concluded the removed objects were protected under the National Cultural Property Act, and ordered they be repaired and restored.

The ruling comes in the same week that Port Moresby hosted Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and other leaders in a summit of the European Union-linked African, Carribean and Pacific group.

It also comes at a time when PNG is experiencing one of its relatively frequent periods of political chaos.

The prime minister Peter O'Neill is facing mounting pressure to resign, while a cash flow crisis and other court rulings have put him on the back foot - a far cry from the relative comfort of his position in late 2013.

He might well wonder if the removal of the heads triggered some sort of hex on him.

Papua New Guinea's parliament.

The parliament after the carved heads were removed. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades


The lintel above the front face of the building featuring nineteen gargoyle-type carved heads in a row was one of a number of striking features on PNG's majestic parliament building, a massive Haus Tambaran.

The anthropomorphic heads originally represented each of the provinces in the country at independence, and hinted at the complexity of PNG as a nation of many different tribes, with over 800-plus distinct language groups.

However, Mr Zurenuoc, one of a cabal of devout evangelical Christian MPs in the house, ordered the removal of the heads in 2013 as part of his campaign "to restore, reform and modernise parliament".

"Papua New Guineans have a very close affinity to the spiritual world," he told RNZI .

"We believe in spirits, but there are good spirits and bad spirits."

Certainly, some local commentators at the time saw merit in the speaker's claim that the removal of the carvings and art work was a stepping stone to change.

But many saw it as an attack on PNG cultural heritage.

"The things that are removed, they are representing a culture. So he is trying to remove the culture" said Father Victor Roche of PNG's Catholic Bishops' Conference.

Others felt the 19 carved heads were being wrongly blamed for the transgressions of MPs themselves.

Political chaos

University students have been protesting for weeks calling for Prime Minister Peter O'Neill to stand aside to clear his name in relation to fraud allegations.

Mr O'Neill's lawyers managed to get an arrest warrant that was issued for him two years ago - shortly after the carved heads were removed from the parliament - stayed by the courts.

However, things appear to be coming to a head since fraud squad police in April made several high-profile arrests linked to the case.

The students last month embarked on awareness campaigns in the provinces to inform people about what's happening in Port Moresby, social indicators lagging across the country, and why they want Mr O'Neill removed.

These campaigns have been largely peaceful, orderly affairs, although the police response caused problems in Enga province.

Students attend a rally at UPNG.

Students attend a rally at UPNG. Photo: UPNG4PNG

The discontent with this government steadily grows as PNG's economy limps along, the government struggling to cope with a cash flow crisis and shortage of foreign exchange.

Not all of the economic difficulties are of the government's making, and it is appealing to people to stay calm and have faith that PNG's abundant resources leave it well placed for future growth.

But as parliament resumed this week, the opposition was looking to table a motion of no-confidence against Mr O'Neill, and protestors were rallying outside the house, baying for his removal.

Pressure for him to step down is growing, whether it be from university students, health workers, aviation professionals or former prime ministers.

One former prime minister in particular, Sir Mekere Morauta, has in recent months launched a fusillade of damning criticisms against Mr O'Neill.

These include takes on Mr O'Neill's handling of the economy, and the prime minister's refusal to go in for police questioning over the alleged fraud case.

House issues

The latest missive from Sir Mekere concerned the way PNG's parliament has become a "rubber stamp for the decisions taken by the Prime Minister."

He claimed people were losing confidence in and respect for parliament.

"It is also not right that District Support funds be used as a weapon to control votes in Parliament, recruit MPs to the ruling party and maintain political dominance," Sir Mekere said.

Sessions in PNG's chamber are yet to descend to the jeering and point-scoring of New Zealand's parliament.

However what is missing is serious debate and transparency around decision-making, especially since the O'Neill-led government reduced the number of annual sitting days in parliament from over 60 to 40.

A view of the government benches in Papua New Guinea's parliament.

A view of the government benches in Papua New Guinea's parliament. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

This is not the first PNG government to use parliamentary procedure in order to deflect motions of confidence and other forms of scrutiny, but the speaker's theologically-inspired "reformation" campaign reflects how far the leaders have wandered from the people.

For instance, access to medicines for PNG's majority rural population has been compromised for years due to suspected corruption in procurement by the National Department of Health for the medicines and supplies required by public health facilities.

That the government could allow sub-standard drugs to be directed to the community sits awkwardly next to the attention to detail, and expense, with which the parliamentarians got it together to collect a 400-year old Bible from America and formally welcome it to parliament last year.

It was all part of Mr Zurenuoc's campaign to make the parliament representative of PNG as a Christian state, or at least his Israelite version of such a state.

The speaker of the Papua New Guinea parliament, Theo Zurenuoc.

The speaker of the Papua New Guinea parliament, Theo Zurenuoc. Photo: RNZI / Koro Vaka'uta

This week's court ruling on the speaker's removal of the "ungodly" heads met with great relief from PNG's National Museum director, Andrew Moutu, a plaintiff in the case.

"It's a victory for common sense, and it's a victory for all of PNG," said Dr Moutu who hoped that the ruling would set an important precedent for cases to be considered in future.

Faith in the courts

The judiciary is widely seen as being independent and PNG's most robust democratic institution.

This is why anti-corruption agents sidelined by the prime minister have faith that the alleged fraud case he is implicated in will eventually be sorted out by the courts, despite the various legal challenges by Mr O'Neill to the fraud squad probe.

And as the prime minister pointed out in his response to university students' demands for his resignation, the various matters of fraud or leadership breach he is embroiled in are still before the court.

He still appears to have support in the key offices, and his staunchest supporters in cabinet have spoken out.

The Sports Minister Justin Tkatchenko echoed Mr O'Neill's claim that there was no evidence that he benefitted from the alleged fraud, portraying the fraud squad as renegades on a political witch-hunt.

"So they're not going to give him a fair hearing, they will arrest him on the spot without even questioning him, probably just like they did the Attorney-General," warned Mr Tkatchenko.

"So we know what they are about, and this is why we can't allow the process to continue when it's corrupted."

But the former chief justice Sir Arnold Amet said it was misleading of Mr O'Neill and his cabinet colleagues to contend that there was no evidence - that was for the court to determine.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill still commands a strong majority support in the parliament.

Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O'Neill still commands a strong majority support in the parliament. Photo: EMTV

Mr O'Neill prefers to keep a calm face in response to these things, as the praise he received for hosting the ACP summit this week shows.

To be fair, some of the same core complaints were being made against his predecessor as prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, at the same period in the last five-year parliamentary term, although under different circumstances.

Perhaps it is a bad omen then that what the MPs did at that point to remove Sir Michael and replace him with Peter O'Neill was ruled by the Supreme Court as an illegal takeover.

The new government circumvented the court ruling and moved legislation to render the takeover legal in retrospect.

Heads could roll

The political impasse of 2011-12 was a watershed low for PNG politics but many felt, perhaps prematurely, that it was resolved by the outcome of the 2012 general election.

Peter O'Neill has often appealed to his critics to allow him to be judged at the polls, and PNG politics is now in election mode, even a year out from the next polls.

He may well make it through.

But if the court allows for his arrest to proceed and the prime minister uses his office to obstruct it, Mr O'Neill's hold on power could quickly slip.

Mass mobilisations of recent weeks reflect how this prime minister's unpopularity has become significant.

The students have earned high praise for the peaceful conduct of their protests, and are drawing public support as perceptions grow that the government is not playing fair.

The prime minister's political enemies are waiting patiently for an opportunity to roll him, and that may present itself sooner than expected.

Like the carvings on the parliament, cool heads should prevail in this period of chaos for PNG.

Papua New Guinea parliament facade.

Papua New Guinea parliament facade. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades