By Ash Pemberton
The Papua New Guinean government has backed down in the face of a society-wide revolt over its new power to suspend judges. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the law would not be implemented until public consultations were carried out.
Thousands of students from the University of PNG rallied in Port Moresby on March 23. Students said in a statement that the law undermines the constitution by removing the separation between the government and courts.
Seven big trade unions joined the call to repeal the law on March 28, the Post-Courier said that day. The Community Coalition Against Corruption and the PNG Chamber of Commerce also opposed the law.
Students from the University of Technology in Lae began an indefinite boycott of classes on March 29, Radio Australia said that day. Prisoners also threatened a mass breakout from jails if the law was not repealed, PNGPerspective.com said the day before.
The law was enacted on March 22 in response to a long-running dispute between a section of PNG’s elite and O’Neill’s supporters over the government’s legitimacy.
Judges became targets of the government after the Supreme Court ruled in December that O’Neill had unconstitutionally deposed former PM Sir Michael Somare, who had been absent from the country for months due to illness.
Parliament later passed a law legalising O’Neill’s government. A week-long stand-off developed during which Somare and O’Neill both claimed to lead the legitimate government.
Since Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio ended the stand-off and declared O’Neill prime minister, Somare and his supporters have waged a campaign to regain power.
Somare admitted ordering the failed military coup against O’Neill on January 26, AFP said on January 28.
Somare has been a dominant figure in PNG politics since the country’s independence in 1975, serving three terms as prime minister. His last term was marked by higher-than-usual corruption and nepotism, leading to rising unpopularity among the public and alienating many parliamentarians.
O’Neill has tried to present himself as a reformer, but he is a veteran politician who has been accused of corruption in the past. His government includes ministers who served under Somare.
Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia, Justice Nicholas Kirriwom and Justice George Manuhu were asked to resign by deputy PM Belden Namah on March 20, AAP said that day.
Injia, who headed the Supreme Court that ruled O’Neill’s government illegal, was recently charged with trying to pervert the course of justice over his handling of the estate of a dead judge. Manuhu was accused of colluding to protect Injia.
Kirriwom was targeted by Namah over the contents of a leaked memo in which Kirriwom called for his colleagues to fight back against the O’Neill “regime”, PNG Exposed said on March 13.
O’Neill’s government has been under fire from sections of the PNG elite since it took power in August last year. Some elites were upset by O’Neill’s talk of giving landowners more rights to wealth from mining and his promise to curb the corruption that flourished under Somare.
O’Neill has since backed away from these promises and resorted to undemocratic methods to fend off attacks by Somare supporters.
The dispute is expected to come to a head in national elections scheduled for June. However, Namah expressed his desire to postpone elections for a year, the Canberra Times said on March 5. He later said he had no power to stop the elections.
Australian foreign minister Bob Carr threatened sanctions against PNG if elections did not go ahead in June. Carr was forced to back away from the threat, but his comments reflect Australia’s colonial attitude towards PNG, which was under Australian rule until 1975.
Since independence, the PNG state has operated as a conduit for the enrichment of foreign companies, especially Australian companies. PNG’s corrupt elites feed off the crumbs of these foreign operations while ordinary people live in poverty.
The latest example came on March 29 when the government announced it would send soldiers to Southern Highlands province to end landowners’ protests that stopped Exxon Mobil’s $15.7 billion gas project.
On January 24, 60 people were killed and 42 homes were destroyed in the area by a landslide, believed to have been caused by work on the gas project, IPSNews.net said on March 9.
Executives of key union groups responsible for vital services in the country have strongly recommended that when Parliament meets next Tuesday it must repeal the Judicial Conduct law as its first business of the day.
Seven members of the main unions PNG Power, the PNG National Airlines Employees Association, (NAEA) National Doctors Association (NDA), the PNG Bankers and Financial Institution Workers Union (PNGBFIWU), Telecommunication Workers Union, nurses and the Public Employees Association (PEA)made the call after holding a meeting at the PNG Trade Union Congress headquarters yesterday morning in relation to the issue.
They resolved that parliament on Tuesday puts on notice as its first business of the day to repeal the act.
“MPs must make it their priority to repeal the Act and take the proposed Act back to the public and stakeholders including the civil society, private sector, unions and credible organisations to make their recommendations on the bill,” they jointly stated.
They further urged Chief Justice Salamo Injia to step aside and allow an independent inquiry into allegations of his misconduct to uphold the integrity of the judiciary.
The union executives also called for the resignation of the Chief Ombudsman and commissioners for being silent and ineffective in relation to the allegations against the Chief Justice. The union executives previously warned of a course of action to be taken before Christmas last year over the political impasse. They now further warn that the current government must not defer the 2012 elections.
“Let the current MPs face the General Elections and allow the people to vote in their choice of good leaders according to the constitution,” they said.
The union executives included the President of PNGTUC, Michael Malabag, President of PNG Bankers and Financial Workers Union (PNGBFWIA) Anton Sekum, President of PNG National Doctors Association Joe Pomat, President of National Airlines Employees Association Joseph Kimat and General Secretaries of PNG Power, PNG Telecommunication Workers Union and the Nurses Association.
Students from the University of Technology in Lae will boycott classes tomorrow following absolute majority support gained by the Students Representative Council (SRC) for the Judicial Conduct Act to be repealed.
The SRC on Monday this week announced that it had given its full backing to their sister universities around the country to condemn the newly passed Act.
Unitech SRC President Joe Kaowai said students at the university have expressed their full support to their collegues at Univeristy of Papua New Guinea.
Mr Kaowai added that the SRC feels that the passing of the Act is going to detrimentally affect the future of students and all citizens of the country in the future.
He called on the Government to revisit its decision on the passing of the law. He said the student body has questioned why it took only three readings and a day before the Bill was passed, which was in itself historic. Mr Kaowai said the bill was trying to remove some of the powers of the judges cleary implicated that the Government wanted to control the judiciary system.
Their actions alone in passing the Bill will affect the whole nation – maybe not at the present time but sometime in the future, he said.
He mentioned that the negative response published in the two newspapers yesterday has not gone down well with students in the country’s prime tertiary insitutions.
The president also questioned why there were not any awareness and public consultation done or discussions before the Bill was passed.
Mr Kaowai said as a student body, they had a neutral stand as like their sister-institutions in the country.
He reiterated that if the Government persisted with gazetting the Bill, students from all institutions in the county will rise in action, which will see a mass boycott of classes in all the universities.
The action he said is likely to happen sooner because of the already received negative response from Prime Minister Peter O’Neil.
A concerned citizen, who phoned in to the Post-Courier to express his views, questioned why business houses and university students were against it.
The caller who wanted to remain anonymous said why all these institutions did not make any noise when a Supreme Court judge took out a permanent restraining court order against the police.
This he said was one of the serious issues which the elites of this country had overlooked.
A meeting of the Community Coalition Against Corruption and social network partners has congratulated the students of UPNG who showed leadership in expressing the concern and anger of many parts of the community following the passing of The Judicial Conduct Bill on Wednesday; 21st March 2012 by Parliament. The Police were also commended for ensuring the students’ safety.
Those present unanimously agreed that the Bill is firstly: unnecessary, and secondly: is an attack on the principles and the spirit of the Constitution. Like putting players in a team in charge of the Referee, it gives the Parliament direct control over the Judiciary, infringing on the sacred rule of the Separation of Powers of the 3 arms of Government (contravening Section 99 (3) of the Constitution).
Whilst we are aware that the Judiciary may be fallible and not beyond reproach, there are procedures and protocols already firmly in place to address issues of Judicial impropriety by existing independent bodies outside of the three arms of Government. Additionally, we share concern with aspects of the performance of these independent bodies; however we do not accept that the enactment of this legislation is justifiable under these circumstances. It is also a duplication of process.
Parliament is fallible and not beyond reproach. IF THE JUDICIARY IS NOWANSWERABLE TO PARLIAMENT THEN WHO IS PARLIAMENT ANSWERABLETO?
We share the community outrage at the manner in which the Bill was enacted. There are Parliamentary procedures for passing of any legislation; in this case these were not respected. These procedures should involve intelligent debate and wide consultation and not a 45-minute stampede!
The fact that the legislation passed is retrospective raises huge concerns. It is simply unacceptable to change the rules after the event. Furthermore, the legislation has implications on Court decisions made since the 1st November 2011, now and into the future.
THE CCAC AND ITS PARTNERS AGREE WITH THE STUDENTS OF UPNG THAT THIS LEGISLATION MUST BE REPEALED IMMEDIATELY.
By Gabriel Lahoc
The Papua New Guinea University of Technology (Unitech) students have thrown their support behind their colleagues from the University of Papua New Guinea and have called on the government not to gazette the controversial Judiciary Bill.
A student signature collection exercise is underway in campus to gather more than two-thirds of the Unitech student population.
It will allow them to stage a boycott of classes to protest the passage of this controversial bill, which is yet to be signed by parliament speakers Jeffrey Nape before it can be gazetted.
Unitech student representative council president Joe Kaowai said the student body was neutral and did not support the government nor the opposition but wanted a wider consultation and more time for debate before the passing of the bill.
He said the bill’s effect was sensitive which should not go unchallenged, as it would affect everyone in the country.
“If it means for us to sacrifice we will sacrifice, we know it’s election time but we don’t want things to get out of hand,” Kaowai said.
Unitech held a forum last Friday on campus which was attended by a SRC representative from UPNG and some law students, who explained the issues behind the bill which was rushed through parliament in a space of 24 hours.
Kaowai described the bill’s passage as the fastest bill in the nation’s history and called on Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to revisit the bill, as the student body after studying its effects believed that it was for the interest of a few people and would consequently weaken the judiciary.
“We are a developing nation and cannot follow the examples of other nations,” SRC forum coordinator Wale Molumi said.
“The consequences will be detrimental and we will do anything under the sun to save the nation.”
SEVERAL thousand demonstrators have converged on the entrance to the University of Papua New Guinea to protest against new laws that give parliament the power to effectively suspend judges.
The protesters, many of them students at the university, say they will march on government offices unless Prime Minister Peter O’Neill or his deputy, Belden Namah, come to collect a 4000-signature petition against the law.
While there is a heavy police presence outside the campus, police are mostly unarmed. Senior officers have been negotiating with the protest leaders to keep them on the university grounds.
The law was rushed through parliament on Wednesday, a day after being introduced.
It has received much criticism in PNG and has been interpreted as a way for the government to move against PNG’s chief justice, Sir Salamo Injia.
By Andrew Pascoe*
The cards seem firmly stacked against optimism on the streets of Papua New Guinea at the moment. It’s a bad sign in an election year, with little confidence evident that the outcome will correct our Pacific neighbour’s course from the particularly rocky path it’s taken in recent months.
But here — like elsewhere in the developing world where obscene power disparity is mobilising the masses — a wellspring of resistance is brewing.
In the past two years, a plethora of political blogs and Facebook chatter has sprung up, fulfilling a watchdog role the government and mainstream media have been deemed incapable of.
The targets of the new media vanguard are corruption, incompetence, and multinational corporations that get a free ride by the government at the expense of PNG’s downtrodden masses.
Potential for exploitation stands to reach new heights in coming years, with mammoth new projects in the pipeline including ExxonMobil’s $US15.7 billion LNG project in the Southern Highlands, and a growing Chinese interest being courted.
However, a growing web buzz representing savvy, pissed off Papua New Guineans is showing promising signs of being able to hold dodgy corporates to account.
Daily dispatches on Papua New Guinea Minewatch and LNG Watch blogs, for instance, have exposed an alleged whitewash by the government and ExxonMobil over a landslide near its major LNG project last month that killed at least 25 people.
“I want to be a middle man between the government and ExxonMobil, so that the landowners’ grievances about the project cannot be overlooked,” LNG Watch’s Stanley Mamu said. “The landowners at Bougainville had no middle man, and it caused a war.”
Meanwhile, PNG Exposed’s campaign for justice over a ferry that sank in January, claiming 200 lives, contributed to the government ordering an independent investigation into the tragedy. The Act Now! site is taking online activism a step further, galvanising a previously suppressed citizen voice via email campaigns a la Avaaz and GetUp!
But the burgeoning movement’s most prominent force is a Port Moresby betel-nut street vendor.
Martyn Namarong’s politically charged, plain-talking blog gets up to 3000 hits a day, a not-insignificant figure in a country where only 60,000-70,000 people have Facebook accounts.
In 2011 Namarong Report also became a key source for news media both domestic and international, as its coverage of the January military “coup” by a retired colonel proved.
“I can say that some of us, well particularly myself, shaped the story when the mutiny happened,” Namarong told me in Madang. “I created the Twitter hashtag #pngcoup, and everybody called it a coup. And it wasn’t a coup. We framed it that way because we knew the vast majority of Papua New Guineans would not back it.” Indeed, the attempt fizzled out almost immediately.
The government is slowly coming to grips with the threat: it recently advertised for staff for a social media department, and earlier this month issued a threat that people spreading “misinformation” faced arrest. The anti-censorship backlash was mushrooming at the time of print.
Prime Minister chief-of-staff Ben Micah made the comments “following recent circulation of anti-government information via text messages on mobile phones, email messages and comments being posted on social network site, Facebook … [designed] to destabilise the government’s firm control of the country.”
Is this the beginning of a Melanesian Spring? Namarong thinks Papua New Guinea is not there yet.
“The thing is those ideas haven’t crystallised in people here,” he said. “But internet use is growing, Facebook’s going to grow exponentially, and that change is going to come quicker. I now think if there has to be change in this country, it’s probably going to come in the next five to 10 years.
“The people of Papua New Guinea now have the upper hand over all those people who have been cheating them because some of us are willing to, you know, dispel all the bullshit.”
*Andrew Pascoe is a freelance journalist from Western Australia. He is currently researching dimensions of civil society in Papua New Guinea.
By PAUL OATES
Opposition Leader Sir Mekere Morauta said today that the Somare Government is very scared of losing power.“It is clearly doing everything it can to make sure that the Opposition’s planned motion of no-confidence is killed,” he said.
“A band of royal visits to Cairns using the aerial PMV (Falcon Jet) which cost the public K130 million to buy – Somare is yet to disclose the operational costs of his PMV – has been going on over the last two weeks to court the Speaker.
“The visits were led by Father Somare and concluded by Son Somare.”
The Opposition Leader said that he was sure the Speaker was fully aware of his duty and obligation under the Constitution to process the motion and let the people’s representatives decide by voting, democratically, as provided for in PNG’s laws.
“I urge the Speaker to withstand the onslaught of rogues who are asking him to disobey the Constitution.”
Sir Mekere has called on Members of Parliament in the current Government ranks and the public to speak out and urge the Speaker to allow the motion to be tabled.
“The Opposition intends to re-submit the motion on Tuesday and expects the Speakerto table it and to adjourn Parliament for a week,” he said.
“PNG Party will lead the march to oust this evil arrogant Government.”
Mekere Morauta KCMG MP
Leader of the Opposition and Member for MoresbyNorth-West