High stakes and hijinks in PNG politics

Port Moresby parliament building front, by Steve Shattuck

Henry Ivarature

A tense battle of political wills is taking place in Papua New Guinea, and it is unlikely to end anytime soon, Henry Ivarature writes.

Ever since James Marape orchestrated Peter O’Neill’s resignation as Papua New Guinean (PNG) Prime Minister in May 2019, he knew his time in office hung on two political threads – the 18-months grace period from political challenge that occurs after taking office, and the success in fending off the constitutional reference filed by Opposition Leader Belden Namah on the legality of his election. The grace period ends on 30 November 2020.

Marape was O’Neill’s finance minister and a member of the People’s National Congress (PNC). His decision to gradually purge O’Neill’s PNC members from cabinet and force them from the middle benches to the opposition unwittingly united O’Neill and Namah with a single mutual interest – to unseat Marape. Namah was O’Neill’s right-hand man when he overthrew Prime Minister Michael Somare in August 2011 in controversial circumstances.

Namah, with O’Neill backing him, mounted his political challenge on 13 November 2020. Namah with 12 cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Sam Basil, and a majority of members of parliament (MPs) took control of parliamentary proceedings. Namah suspended Parliamentary Standing Orders, changed the composition of the Parliamentary Business Committee by replacing government MPs with opposition MPs, and adjourned parliament to 1 December 2020 by 57 votes to 37.

They planned to overthrow Marape in a no-confidence vote when parliament reconvened. Boasting of his numerical strength, Namah called on Marape to resign as he lacked numbers to stay in office. Namah was so confident of replacing Marape that he called on Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison to postpone his visit until after a new prime minister was elected. Despite this, Marape and his remaining cabinet members continued to prepare the budget for tabling in parliament.

In an astounding twist of events, Marape and his government outwitted Namah’s attempt to wrestle political power off him. Marape capitalised on the Speaker of Parliament Job Pomat’s decision to recall parliament on 17 November. Apparently, the acting speaker had erred in allowing the opposition leader to adjourn parliament until 1 December. On 15 November, the speaker rescinded the deputy speaker’s ruling and announced the recall of parliament to sit on 17 November.

The opposition MPs had been flown to Vanimo on 14 November to guard against defections, so they were caught off guard by this decision. Marape used the absence of opposition MPs, stranded in Vanimo, to undo the actions of the opposition and escape the planned no-confidence vote, at least for now.

During the 17 November sitting, Marape and 50 government MPs were the only ones present. They ‘express’ passed the 2021 Budget of PGK19.6 billion without debate. They also amended the membership of the Parliamentary Business Committee by replacing opposition MPs with their members. Parliament was then adjourned to 20 April 2021, giving the government five months of breathing space.

The opposition’s decision to fly out to Vanimo on 14 November and return for the 2 December session of parliament did not consider the ‘risks’, including the possibility of a recall of parliament at very short notice. While the opposition adjourned Parliament on 13 November, the speaker announced his ‘careful consideration of the chair’s ruling’ and ‘opinion’ on the afternoon of 15 November. As far as the speaker was concerned, parliament was still in budget session. Why did he wait until a day before parliament was to be reconvened to recall parliament? Had he issued his decision on the day the adjournment was made, the opposition would have received adequate notice to prepare itself.

Initially, parliament was recalled to sit at 2pm and then moved forward to 10am, thus making it impossible for the opposition MPs to fly into Port Moresby in time for the session. The speaker’s action deprived the opposition of the chance to challenge Marape on the floor of parliament and debate the 2021 Budget.

Most importantly, the speaker’s actions resulted in the absence of 60 MPs from parliament. Their absence denied 50 per cent of the PNG population a voice on the 2021 Budget debate. With the budget out of the way and parliament having sat and adjourned, the need for Marape to launch a court challenge of Namah’s motions, as he planned, is obsolete.

As it currently stands, Marape and Namah have evenly outwitted each other on the floor of parliament. But this is not the end of the jostling for political power. It may be decided by a review of the speaker’s decision or the hearing on the legality of Marape’s election as prime minister. It could also be decided by future no-confidence votes. The five-month adjournment of parliament to 20 April 2021 has significantly reduced the window for a no-confidence challenge. However, it’s possible that parliament may be recalled earlier than planned.

The opposition, as expected, has filed a Supreme Court Application on the legality of the speaker’s decision to recall parliament. It remains to be seen whether Marape will accept the decision of the court if its ruling is not in his favour. In a previous case, O’Neill ousted Somare in August 2011, and the court later ruled that the ousting was illegal, but O’Neill ignored the ruling.

Marape’s tenure as prime minister is not safe. To stay in power, he must consolidate and protect his numbers. He will do this by strategically managing parliamentary sittings and adjournments in order to reduce opportunities for votes against him.

Namah and the opposition will not rest, especially with the 2022 elections on the horizon. Until then, the country will remain in a state of heightened anxiety and political instability.

In periods where no-confidence votes are expected, it is not unusual for large sums of public cash and resources to curry favour with MPs. MPs are already courting the two sides to maximise the benefits for themselves and their electorates. Additionally, Marape has sacked some ministers that went to join opposition and has not announced a deputy prime minister. Horse-trading and lobbying will continue unabated as the opponents battle it out. As Prime Minister Marape has said, this battle ‘is not over until it’s over’.

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