PNG’s experiences with a time warp

By Oala Moi

The political gods have allowed the political situation in Papua New Guinea to be distorted by a time warp..

Papua New Guineans have been affected by default because really the political history of this nation is made up of the biographies of statesmen past and present. And Papua New Guinea’s founding father Sir Michael Somare is one unlukystatesman. He has found himself at the receiving end of more than one time warp in his political career.

In 1980 and as Leader of the Opposition, he brought a constitutional reference before the Supreme Court in a bid to declare unconstitutional a decision by parliament to commit troops to Vanuatu under the Defence Force (Presence AbroadAct 1980. But Sir Michael had to prove his standing with the National Court first before bringing such a constitutional reference. Section 19 of thConstitution does not permit the Leader of the Opposition to bring such a reference. In 1982 the Supreme Court handed down its decision and refused to grant Sir Michael’s wishAll things considered, the real significance of this decision lies in its timing. The decision was handed down long after the PNGDF contingent’s return from a successful mission to Vanuatu where it quelled a civil uprising. This may explain the urgency behind Parliament’s need to move quickly on Vanuatu’s request for assistance.

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Fast forward to 30 years later and Sir Michael is going down a road only he is too familiar with. Again he faces a familiar opponent; Parliament. Only this time Sir Michael is not the Leader of the Opposition. He is an ordinary citizen fighting for his political life more than ever. Parliament has not only stripped Sir Michael of his mandate as an elected representative for the people of the East Sepik provincial electorate; it extinguished hopes for a future dig at the prime ministership after passing and invoking an amended Prime Minister and N.E.C. Act which capped the age of eligibility at 72.

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By the time the next parliament meets and if Sir Michael is returned and asked to form the next government, he won’t be a candidate for prime minister because he will be a little older than 72.

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Three months on a hospital bed can mean a lifetime in politics, and Sir Michael is fighting a legal battle at the Supreme Court to reverse the status quo. He did not need to prove his standing like before. Rather, the East Sepik Provincial Executive Council (ESPEC), of which Sir Michael is member, has done the honours by filing a special reference. It aims to determine the constitutionality of Parliament’s election of Peter O’Neill as Prime Minister.

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Sir Michael’s political future, at least in the remainder of the current Parliament, hangs on this constitutional reference. So do the events that have unfolded and which include passage by Parliament of the Judicial Conduct Act 2012.

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Parliament’s recent decisions may also be seen as political masterstrokes in the lead up to the 2012 National Election. By electing a Prime Minister during a time when the Constitution bars a vote of no confidence, Parliament may have even created a parliamentary convention in the absence of clear constitutional provisions. Even using the constitutional power permitted by Section 157 tformulate and pass the Judicial Conduct Act is just a touch of legal brilliance.

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But the growing concern remains with the judicial conduct law? It is widely perceived as a law that has given Parliament discretion to refer judges to a tribunal and stay the cases that they decided retrospective to 1 November 2011. There is real potential that we might have an Act that impinges on the doctrine of res judicata provided for by the Constitution. Unlike the Parliament of 1980, the present Parliament has been accused by opponents of mischief; using its lawmaking powers and legislating at a time when public opinion is polarized over the legitimacy of the O’Neill-Namah Government. Perhaps this is why the waters of intellectual discourse continue to become murkier by the minute.

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However, it goes without saying that the Judicial Conduct Act legislates on an important policy issuewhich is that of judicial conduct. At the global level, the issue has developed over the past decade culminating in what is known as the Bangalore Code of Judicial Conduct. Chief Justices from both common law and civil law jurisdictions had met and put together a set of values based on the codes of a handful of countries. So as a valid policy issue, judicial conduct is not unique to Papua New Guinea. Perhaps the only difference lies in the fact that, while other jurisdictions may have adopted codes that are not legally enforceable, ours is now law. But we now know that Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has deferred the Act’s implementation so that the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission (CLRC) can research the competing key policy reasons behind the law.

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As the CLRC braces itself for consultations, citizens should be reminded that they have a powerful role to play. Weren’t citizens the ones that entered into a social contract on 16 September 1975? Weren’t we the ones that gave up our executive, judicial, and legislative powers so that we could be governed by the Independent State of Papua New Guinea? And so out of the current imbroglio we should be asking, where is the wisdom in using our law making and judicial powers to make and implement decisions that are not time sensitive?

We will remain hopeful, because in our hope for the future lies our strength. It is the same hope I see every time I look into my children’s eyes.

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But as imperfect human beings, we are bound to treat the goings on with added scepticism. Let us pray that, unlike the 1980 reference, the ESPEC reference will not be overtaken by a pressing issue; the 2012 National Election for instance. Let us pray that whoever gave us time warps will now take them back so that judicial and legislative decisions can now be made and implemented in real time.

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