PNG leader stands firm amid political crisis

10:10 pm on 19 November 2020

Papua New Guinea's prime minister has urged the public to not get caught up in the country's latest political crisis which has ended up in the courts.

Papua New Guinea prime minister James Marape.

Papua New Guinea prime minister James Marape. Photo: PNG PM media

James Marape's government appears to have staved off a vote of no confidence by quickly passing the budget on Tuesday and adjourning parliament to April.

But the move is being challenged in court by the opposition which gained a majority last week following a mass defection of government MPs.

The opposition leader Belden Namah, with a majority of MPs behind him, moved a motion on Friday to adjourn parliament to early next month when a grace period on motions of no-confidence lapses. He led calls for Marape to resign, flew dozens of MPs to his home town of Vanimo and announced he was forming a transitional government.

But parliament's Speaker, Job Pomat, subsequently ruled that the opposition's motion had been wrongly entertained by his deputy, and recalled parliament.

The former prime minister Peter O'Neill, one of the opposition MPs who are central to efforts to remove Marape, complained that the speaker's ruling was flawed.

"Flawed in the sense that in every occasion over the past forty-five years only the members of parliament can adjourn parliament by a resolution and a motion on the floor, when in fact Belden Namah on Friday moved the motion to suspend standing orders.

"When you suspend standing orders that means the standing orders do not apply. Fifty-seven members gave him the authority. That is why he moved the motion."

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. Photo: AFP

In Tuesday's sitting, parliament achieved a quorum with less than half of all MPs present, as the government passed the budget without the usual required debate. O'Neill's legal team has now filed a court application challenging the legality of the sitting, which the opposition did not attend.

"So Marape and the Speaker are making a mockery of the parliamentary system, the mandate of our people, the democracy that we have enjoyed for the last 45 years."

The embattled prime minister has summoned public service departmental heads, including the Police Commissioner and Defence Force Commander, for a special briefing.

The message he gave them was reiterated to the public at large by a prime minister who blamed the current crisis on MPs accused of indulging in cut-throat politics at a time when PNG is faced by steep challenges caused by Covid-19.

"So let me at this time encourage our citizens, don't you worry about politics that is taking place. Remain focussed at your job, leave politics to politicians, get on your life. Public servants and members of our disciplinary services are asked to remain above politics, focus on your job."

O'Neill's argument for the supremacy of parliament, that his group should prevail because it has the numbers in the house, echoes the argument he put forth during the constitutional impasse of 2011 when MPs elected him as prime minister despite the courts ruling the removal of former prime mnister Sir Michael Somare was unconstitutional.

With this crisis shaping up as another legal wrestle, Marape dismissed O'Neill's claim that Tuesday's adjournment was illegal. He said just because the opposition decided to leave the capital and form a camp in remote Vanimo, it didn't mean government operations must come to a standstill.

"Mr O'Neill and his friends in the opposite side of the house are reminded that we will play by the rule, play fair and square. And if they're not satisfied, well the court is the place where we can meet. In the meantime, government business runs, we run a government."

Job Pomat.

Job Pomat. Photo: Facebook / Office of the Speaker

Marape had the option of adjourning parliament to June, within the last 12 months of parliament's five-year term, when it's not possible to lodge a no-confidence motion. But by instead opting for April, the prime minister has given the opposition a small window for tabling such a motion.

"I would have played nasty and asked the leader of government business to push parliament into a safer time when there was no vote-of-no-confidence opportunity, for instance after July 30th, 2021," Marape explained.

"But we are not stupid at running government. We are mindful that parliament is a place of forum. The reason why we pushed parliament to April was to ensure the programmes of early 2021 take place - 2021 is an important preparation year for the 2022 national elections."

With last week's political gambit frustrated, O'Neill kept up the attack on his former close ally's government.

"We are hearing today that they are printing cheques in the Treasury, printing cheques in the Finance Department to use to politically bribe members of parliament. This has never happened before in the history of our country."

Similar accusations are flying in the other direction. The Finance Minister Rainbo Paita revealed that on the eve of his exit from government, the deputy prime minister and national planning minister, Sam Basil, oversaw a large payout from the recent Supplementary Budget prepared to meet challenges confronting an economy contracting due to the pandemic.

According to Paita, the funds allegedly went to MPs in Basil's United Labour Party.

PNG Minister for National Planning, Sam Basil, 24 February 2020

Bulolo MP Sam Basil Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Meanwhile, another one of the defectors, William Duma, the incumbent Minister of Commerce and Industry, has come back to show support for Marape again.

Last Friday, after leaving government, the MP cited concerns about government handling of the economy, yet the bulk of his United Resources Party remained with the government. Now he claims last week was a mistake made while in confusion over the opposition's move.

Duma has form, having switched sides more than once during the lobbying that preceded the ousting of Peter O'Neill as prime minister last year. The Mt Hagen MP's inveterate flip-flopping means there's no guarantee he won't change sides again, another sign that the political situation in Port Moresby remains fluid.