University students in parts of Papua New Guinea are refusing to go to class, in protest at the government’s new Judicial Conduct Law.
Students have joined trade unions in calling on authorities to repeal the controversial law, which gives the government the power to sack senior judges.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has suspended the application of the law while the Law Reform Commission holds an inquiry into its scope.
Joe Kaowai, from Lae’s University of Technology , told Radio Australia the majority of the country has not been consulted about the law.
“They are trying to influence the judiciary arm of the government, ” he said..
“They don’t want independence so what we want, what the students want, is for these three arms of the government to remain independent.
“We are talking and fighting on behalf of the silent majority of this country.”
The secretary of the Papua New Guinea Commission of Inquiry into the sinking of the MV Rabaul Queen says hearings will begin after Easter.
The ferry sank off the coast of Morobe province almost two months ago and although disaster officials now put the death toll at 220, estimates of the number who died have ranged from 100 to more than 300.
Plans for an inquiry at an estimated cost of about six million US dollars were announced within days of the sinking and commissioners appointed but Mathew Yuangu says the government had to find the money before work could begin.
“Commissions of Inquiry are not necessarily budgeted items. The government has to source money from other projects that are under the budget to bring up the amount or the cost of the inquiry. So basically it’s not a budgeted item so they had to look for money somewhere.”
Mathew Yuangu says the schedule of hearings will be made public next week.
A controversial law giving parliament the power to suspend judges will not be implemented for another nine months to allow for proper consultation with the public, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill is expected to announce in a speech.
The announcement, expected tonight, comes amid threats of a nationwide prison breakout and a mass student boycott of classes to protest the law.
Mr O’Neill is expected to announce implementation of the Judicial Conduct Bill 2012, which passed parliament a week ago, will be delayed and it, along with other constitutional reforms, will be put to the public.
Over a nine-month period, PNG’s Constitutional Law Reform Commission (CLRC) will engage in a public discussion in 20 provinces before parliament decides whether to implement the law, CLRC chairman Gabriel Kapris said.
“It will allow the public to give their views,” Mr Kapris told AAP.
“Not just the Judicial Bill but other bills and amendments that have gone through parliament.
“The commission will then give its report, independent of politics, to the parliament.”
Mr Kapris said he had been told by Mr O’Neill in a meeting earlier in the week the law would be put on hold.
A spokesman for Mr O’Neill, Daniel Korimbao, said the PM was expected to give a speech at the University of Goroka on Thursday and “there might be something about it in that”.
The law is controversial because it appears to the public to be a “nuclear option” in what appears to be a continuing dispute between the government and Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia.
Announcing a temporary halt on the law at a university comes as little surprise from the media savvy Mr O’Neill.
On Friday, several thousand students at the University of Papua New Guinea staged a marched on Morata Haus – the home of the PM’s office – to voice their anger at the bill.
Those same students staged a boycott of classes on Thursday.
“Our doing this is for the best interest of the nation,” student council president Emmanuel Issac said.
Prison officials are also on high alert after a man claiming to be an inmate of one of PNG’s 20 prisons called a local radio station and threatened a mass breakout unless the law was repealed.
In 1979, 1000 prisoners escaped their cells to protest then Prime Minister Somare’s decision to pardon his justice minister, Nahau Rooney, a day after she had been sentenced to eight months for contempt.
The current government has been at loggerheads with the chief justice since soon after it took office.
It failed three times to have him removed from overseeing the constitutional challenge into how the O’Neill government took office.
In November, a month before losing the case in a 3/2 decision, and again in January this year, the government tried and failed to have Sir Salamo removed from office pending an investigation into his handling of court finances.
Three weeks ago Sir Salamo was arrested and charged with perverting the course of justice but the court soon after issued a permanent stay on proceedings, saying the police investigation was an abuse of process.
Soon after taking office by overwhelming parliamentary vote last year, the O’Neill government passed a series of amendments to the nation’s governing laws – including giving parliament power to unseat a sitting PM who has been out of the country three months,
Mr O’Neill was elevated to the top job after parliament mounted a vote to dump then PM Sir Michael Somare, who was out of the country for five months undergoing several heart operations.
The constitutionality of those laws is before the court, with a decision expected on Monday.
The Morobe Provincial Government yesterday declared that it will once again fight the controversial Judicial Conduct Bill 2012 in the Supreme Court claiming that the bill in itself is unconstitutional.
And at the same time it called on the Opposition to lodge a complaint with the General Secretary of the Commonwealth of Nations to suspend the membership of the Government of Papua New Guinea.
Governor Luther Wenge yesterday announced that he would seek endorsement from the Morobe provincial executive council (PEC) today and file court proceedings against the bill which he claimed had subordinate the third arm of government.
The firebrand governor on national issues took the stand claiming that the Constitution of PNG had established Three Arms of Government included the Executive, Legislator and Judiciary and none of the three were superior or inferior to the other.
“The constitution establishes the obligation and the extend of its obligation of the three arms of government. It also gives power and the extend of the power to all the three arms of government. The legislator which is one of the three arms of government cannot pass the law to subordinate the other,” Governor Wenge stressed.
He further added that the Legislator would not give itself power to receive evidence of misconduct and ask the Governor General to appoint a Leadership Tribunal to deal with members of the Judiciary.
The governor who was also an acting Judge said according to the Organic Laws on Leadership Tribunal and the Constitution, the Ombudsmen Commission had the authority to deal with Judges, MPs and the bureaucrats.
Governor Wenge said the Organic Law and Constitution of PNG have not yet changed and such legislation to subordinate a constitutional arm of the government would not go unchallenged.
He further stressed that the Judicial Conduct Bill was in itself an inferior law and therefore was subject to the Organic Law and the PNG Constitution.
“As long as the Bill is contrary to the Constitution, it is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court or sometimes we call the Constitutional Court is to declare that the Bill is unconstitutional,” Governor Wenge said.
Upon basing the grounds on the Morobe provincial government’s intention to seek the Supreme Court Reference, Governor Wenge called on the National Government to repel the bill to save the country and save legal costs. Meanwhile, the Morobe Governor also urged the Opposition to lodge a complaint with the Commonwealth of Nations so that PNG government’s membership would be suspended.
Mr Wenge said the Opposition would place a record on the Commonwealth of what the PNG government had done to the Commonwealth System of Government.
“This act has challenged the government system of the Commonwealth Nations and I call that PNG’s membership to the Commonwealth should be suspended. It is like the Fiji military coup where the Fiji government was suspended and it should happen to PNG,” the former acting judge said.
Governor Wenge also announced that he supported the University students and the Unions with other likeminded PNG citizens to fight the controversial bill, tooth and nail.
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.
Papua New Guinea government moves against judiciary
By Patrick O’Connor
The Papua New Guinea government of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill last week passed antidemocratic legislation that effectively allows it to sack judges who are deemed not to be “impartial.” The Judicial Conduct Bill has triggered widespread opposition. Several thousand university students marched through Port Moresby last Friday in protest, prompting O’Neill to make a televised address defending the legislation.
The law is designed to intimidate the judiciary and target one judge in particular—Supreme Court Chief Justice Salamo Injia, who last December ruled that O’Neill had unconstitutionally removed the previous prime minister, Michael Somare. This ruling triggered a still unresolved political crisis in Port Moresby. O’Neill refused to relinquish power, while Somare insisted that he remained the rightful prime minister. For a time there were rival cabinets, governors general and police chiefs vying for power. O’Neill prevailed after securing control of the state apparatus, including the military, which suppressed an attempted takeover by Somare supporters in January.
The O’Neill government is now attempting to consolidate power by suppressing its opponents within the judiciary. It has repeatedly attempted to remove Chief Justice Injia. On March 6, the judge was arrested and detained, but the courts subsequently issued a permanent stay on the charges, describing the police investigation as an abuse of process. Three senior police—commissioner Toami Kulunga, deputy commissioner Simon Kauba and superintendent David Manning—were brought before the Supreme Court last Thursday on contempt of court charges. The police put on an extraordinary show of force, with the Post-Courier reporting a “huge presence” of officers, “many fully armed and in battle gear,” in and around the courtrooms.
The O’Neill government retains the backing of Canberra and Washington. The prime minister has close ties with Australia. Since taking office he has urged closer military ties between PNG and its former colonial ruler, and has invited a contingent of Australian Federal Police agents into the country. Somare had attempted to develop relations with rival powers, above all China, which had significantly increased its economic, diplomatic and military presence in PNG.
Somare’s manoeuvres became untenable as Washington announced its “pivot” to East Asia, provocatively seeking to uphold its strategic dominance in the region against Beijing’s growing influence. PNG is located strategically just east of Indonesia and north of Australia. Exxon-Mobil’s $16 billion liquid natural gas (LNG) project has heightened the Obama administration’s interest in the country.
The Australian government has backed all O’Neill’s manoeuvres against Somare and his supporters. Richard Marles, parliamentary secretary for Pacific Affairs, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that the Judicial Conduct Bill was “fundamentally a matter for PNG.” He added: “I actually think it’s important that, in a way, the international community does cut PNG a bit of slack here.”
Marles’s remarks again demonstrate how Canberra cynically utilises rhetoric about “governance” and “democracy” to destabilise and remove targeted governments in the South Pacific, while it quietly backs the nefarious activities of pro-Australian administrations.
The O’Neill government has turned to increasingly authoritarian forms of rule. Last month the prime minister’s chief of staff, Ben Micah, announced a crackdown on “subversive” activity on the Internet.
“The military, police and the National Intelligence Organisation and other pro-government civilian networks are monitoring all attempts to destabilise the government’s firm control of the country,” Micah declared. The International Federation of Journalists and the Pacific Media Centre denounced the statement for “appearing to criminalise the personal use of phones, email and social networking websites without a clear legal mandate.”
The government has attempted to suppress all interference with the Exxon-led LNG project, by far the largest investment in PNG’s history. The US energy giant announced on March 16 that it was suspending work on part of the project due to a dispute with local residents in the Southern Highlands, who have demanded greater financial compensation, the construction of a local road and the upgrading of the local health centre and community school.
Earlier this month, hundreds of people from the Southern Highlands travelled to Port Moresby and staged a demonstration outside the prime minister’s office. The ABC reported that heavily armed police then “swarmed on the crowd firing shots into the air and using tear gas and brute force to clear the area.” A local journalist was confronted by a policeman armed with an M16 rifle, who showed a hand grenade and threatened to “blow him up” unless he left the area.
The police then declared that all landowner gatherings would be deemed “unlawful assemblies.” O’Neill also told the National newspaper yesterday that he would convene a special cabinet meeting to “make tough decisions” to protect the LNG investment, including declaring a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands and deploying the military and additional police to the area.
In recent weeks, senior government ministers indicated that elections, due by June this year, would be postponed until 2013, to give the prime minister more time in office. O’Neill, however, has since insisted that the constitutional requirement to hold an election by June would be respected. O’Neill’s statement was clearly issued in response to the Australian government laying down the law on this question. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr earlier this month declared that if elections were not held “we’d have no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea [and] consider sanctions.”
The statement was obviously intended as a shot across O’Neill’s bow. Notwithstanding its support for the PNG government, Canberra is concerned about the implications of the ongoing political crisis in Port Moresby for its economic and strategic interests, and hopes that a national election will stabilise the situation.
The Australian government is working closely with Washington. Bob Carr, in his first discussion with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after being sworn in as foreign minister, canvassed the situation in PNG. He told journalists on March 14:
“She was cautiously pleased with the suggestion out of Papua New Guinea that they will adhere to that five-year election cycle… And she recognises Australia’s lead role in the South Pacific, although she points with pride that America is spending more there and doing more there than ever before.”