STORIES of shipwreck, real and imagined, have a special place in the archive of human misery. The notion of being lost at sea, frail souls at the mercy of the elements, taps into our most deep-set fears. Witness the barrage of remembrances of the Titanic, a century on, and the media frenzy around the grounding of European cruise ship the Costa Concordia on the Italian coast in January this year.
Three weeks after the Costa Concordia came to grief, with the loss of 32 lives, it was still making international headlines, overshadowing news that a heavily loaded island ferry vanished in wild seas off the Papua New Guinea coast somewhere around dawn on February 2.
For a while it seemed the story of the MV Rabaul Queen was destined, like the ferry, to sink almost without trace, obscured by the bluster of the continuing maelstrom of Papua New Guinea’s political crisis and by early reports that now appear to have grossly underestimated the loss of life.
Almost three months on, the truth of the tragedy – together with disturbing questions about the conditions on board the ship, its safety systems and those of PNG’s maritime protocols more broadly – is surfacing in the testimony of witnesses summonsed to hearing rooms in Port Moresby and Lae.
Over the past two weeks, more than a dozen survivors have quietly provided raw firsthand insights into what is shaping up as one of the nation’s most devastating recent tragedies.
George Turme, a 20-year-old university student, was the first to testify to the inquiry before Commissioner Warwick Andrew, the Australian judge heading the investigation at the request of the PNG government.
Turme swears he was in the company of more than 500 other passengers on that wild, doomed overnight voyage from the island of New Britain to the mainland port of Lae – crammed shoulder to shoulder, packed onto the heaving decks so tight that sleeping, even sitting, was impossible for most.
Turme spent most of the voyage squashed into a toilet area with other men, who assembled around the decks trying to give more protected space in the interior to women and children who spilled across the floors (there were only 50 seats on the whole vessel). It was an act of gallantry that would backfire horribly when the ship capsized.
According to the ship survey certificate presented to the inquiry, the Rabaul Queen could carry a maximum number of unberthed passengers of 295, and up to 15 crew – a total of 310.
If Turme’s estimate that there were more than 500 people on board – and it is one shared by several witnesses in sworn testimony to the inquiry into the disaster, but which outstrips passenger lists drawn from official manifests by about 50 – then well over 250 souls were lost when the Rabaul Queen sank in up to 3000 metres of water.
The true toll may never be known, not least because the lack of records for the infants carried onto the ship by their mothers, and who could not save themselves or be saved.
Turme tells of the desperate, dark hour before the ship sank, as it listed heavily to the left – several witnesses were worried that the Queen seemed to be out of balance right from the time she departed Kimbe wharf.
Around dawn someone – maybe a crew member, though it was impossible to tell as they did not wear uniforms – called on him and about 20 other men to go to the starboard side and try to balance the ship as it negotiated its way through the notoriously treacherous Viliaz Strait, which separates New Britain from the mainland. They tried to lean out over the right side of the ship as the big waves came. ”We look out for the strong wind. So when the waves hit the ship we all bend to the right side and try to balance it,” Turme told Commissioner Andrew.
Once, twice, when really big waves came in, they succeeded in keeping it upright but then ”another strong wave come, came and hit the ship”. It struck the back of the vessel on the starboard side and the Queen began to roll over to the left. Turme and the men with him all leapt into the water as she capsized.
A strong swimmer, Turme kept himself afloat in the dark, oil-slicked seas, swimming desperately away for a few minutes before turning back to see a couple of black life rafts, and climbing aboard one.
”When the vessel went down people were crying and shouting for help, so we tried to rescue some of them, mothers and children. Some of the children were already floating on top of the sea … they were already dead.”
In less than 10 minutes the Rabaul Queen sank under the waves. Turme and another 17 survivors – all adult men, no women or children found their way to the raft – were crowded into his lifeboat, riding the waves and the wind through the dawn and into the next afternoon. The lifeboat held no water, food or medical provisions – just a whistle. Turme and a couple of others vomited.
Lucille Pongi, a mother and housewife from Lae, had also made her way into one of the life rafts. She was a Rabaul Queen veteran, having made the voyage at least 10 times before. This was always the busiest time of the year for the ferry – with a new school term about to begin, students, families and teachers were returning to the mainland after spending Christmas visiting wantoks (extended family) in their island homes. Pongi had worried about overcrowding on previous trips, and recalled for the commission that when she had complained to a crew member a few months earlier – asking how many passengers were aboard – she had been told that the ship took 500 passengers. The man had said, ”We normally take more than that”, she said.
On this trip she was travelling with her sister and her niece. They had already endured a sickening night of wild weather travelling from Rabaul, at the eastern tip of New Britain island, down to Kimbe at the western end.
When the exhausted passengers were ordered off in Kimbe for a couple of hours to allow the ship to be cleaned, refuelled and loaded with more passengers and cargo for the last leg of the journey to Lae, some thought better of continuing the journey. Many persevered though, fearful that they would forfeit their 350 kina ($A160) fares, or have to pay a fine to delay the journey.
Pongi was tempted to join them – indeed her son came to speak to her on the wharf at Kimbe because he was so worried. ”He said ‘Mummy, do you wish to travel?” He had heard there was a cyclone warning in Fiji and wild seas forecast through the PNG islands. ”Look at the waves – you still wish to continue?”
As her sister wanted to push on, Pongi felt compelled to continue. But she was not happy. ‘
‘I tell you it was so crowded, more than what we normally … had on board. There was no space. You just crampled like that when we were sitting down. There’s no place to stretch your leg, to sleep or rest your bag. We had to, you know, just sit up like this all night … there were so many people on board.”
Another passenger, a man, had told her that when he boarded a woman standing with the manifest and counting heads had told him:
”You are the last one, and the total is 500-something.”
Unable to sleep, she became worried when she heard a strange whistling noise sometime in the dark of the early morning. She roused her sister. Something was not right. ”I think the ship has a hole in it.” Her sister said: ”Well, you’ve got funny ideas.”
But, Pongi told the inquiry, ”the ship was unbalanced, leaning toward the left”. Soon after dawn she was screaming at her sister:
”Dianne, don’t sleep, get up, we’re in trouble. Get the crew to give us a life jacket and get us prepared.”
But the life jackets, when she found them, were padlocked in a wire cage – a claim also made by several other witnesses.
Pongi said she she was ”calling out for the people to give us the life jacket because I knew it was about to sink and I was standing there when the waves hit the ship and it just capsized.
”I was under the water for some time and I don’t know … I had my eyes open and it was like a movie I was watching, under the water inside the sinking ship. I was swimming, trying to, you know, find my way out.
”I could see men, women and children, you know, struggling and then some children were … drowned already, they were just floating.”
People struggled to open sliding glass doors. Somehow she escaped.
”I had a prayer, I said thank you Lord. If you wanted me to die, I could have died already in there.”
She grabbed a ”little rainbow bag” that was floating in the water and clung to it for maybe an hour before finding her way into a lifeboat. Her sister and niece also survived.
Determining the true passenger numbers is one of the central preoccupations of the inquiry. Other main areas of investigation emerging in questioning so far relate to the condition of the vessel; its cargo load; access to life vests and life rafts; the competency of the crew; the weather conditions and processes for the issue of weather warnings (it emerged that the National Weather Service had no internet because the responsible department had not paid the bill); and the competency and oversight of the National Maritime Safety Authority (NMSA).
One passenger witness, architect Roderick Voit, claimed he saw a brown beer bottle thrown from the wheelhouse into the sea soon after the ship left Kimbe wharf.
Insurance and marine survey specialists have given evidence of concerns about the condition of various vessels in the Rabaul Shipping fleet, and one inspection document from 2006 noted that some life rafts were missing – apparently taken for servicing.
Another witness, Roby Naigu, officer in charge of the NMSA, raised concerns about the man at the helm of the Rabaul Queen when she foundered, Captain Anthony Tsiau. Naigu said he believed Tsiau had previously run two ships aground – though his knowledge of this history was challenged by the defence. ”This is the third one, Rabaul Queen, under his command. I believe we would have saved this Rabaul Queen incident if … as an authority we were alerted to this past issue of the same captain who has sunk two other ships already.”
He had also had a confrontation with Tsiau two years earlier after accusing him of inappropriately loading dangerous goods – canisters of oxygen and acetylene – aboard the Rabaul Queen, a matter that had flared into a confrontation and later a legal dispute with the ship’s operator, Rabaul Shipping Ltd.
On the question of passenger overloading, the integrity of manifests has been closely scrutinised. The inquiry has already heard from one passenger who was not listed on any manifest.
The managing director and major shareholder of Rabaul Shipping Ltd, and operator of the Rabaul Queen, Australian-born veteran seaman Captain Peter Sharp has conceded under questioning by counsel assisting, Queensland lawyer Mal Varitimos, that there were up to 376 passengers and crew on board, plus infants.
Sharp has been the focus of intense local anger and personal threats over the tragedy. Three of his other ships were torched in Bougainville shortly after the Rabaul Queen sunk.
Meanwhile investigations by PNG authorities to identify all the people on board, including a public appeal for family and friends to come forward, led to estimates of 453 people on board including children, 230 of whom had been rescued; four bodies located; and 219 listed as missing.
Sharp – who has pledged to fully co-operate with the inquiry – told the inquiry that the Japanese-built, 42-metre vessel had specifications that it could carry 358 adults. This figure appears in some of the insurance and certification documentation tended to the inquiry. He insisted under close questioning that the ship was not overloaded, quoting a provision in the Merchant Shipping Act that a passenger vessel is not overloaded if it does not exceed its load marks as determined on the hull.
”The vessel was operating safely,” Sharp told the commission. He said in loading the vessel his crew would ”basically look at the load line. If they’re not over the load line they consider they are not overloaded.”
More hearings are scheduled to continue at ports along the Rabaul Queen route, and a report is due to be presented to the PNG government by June 30.
Statement by Minister for Public Enterprises Rt Hon Mekere Morauta, KCMG MP
I have spoken previously about the areas where this waste and neglect, and indeed corruption, was most prevalent and caused the most damage – in the State Owned Enterprises supervised by the Independent Public Business Corporation under the stewardship of the suspended Member for Angoram and his outrigger Mr Glen Blake who during that time claimed to be (and probably still is) the Somare family financial adviser.
Since we were elected in August last year, much of the focus of my efforts, as Minister for State Enterprises, has been on finding out how big a mess the State Owned Enterprises are in; and where they have lost money, how that money was lost, where the money went to, and to try to get as much of that lost money back as we can.
Mr Speaker, this is public money we are talking about, which should have been used for the benefit of all Papua New Guineans, building roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, but which instead has been frittered away, wasted, lost through incompetence, or in some cases, simply stolen.
We quickly discovered that one of the worst State Owned Enterprises in this respect was Motor Vehicle Insurances Limited, which we all know as MVIL. Mr Speaker, MVIL has a vital function within government and as the third party motor vehicle insurer, it must maintain large financial reserves in order to pay out insurance claims for years into the future.
This made MVIL a tempting target for highly dubious so-called “investment managers” from overseas to extract a large slice of MVIL’s investment funds, 96 million kina, and place that money at the disposal of these “investment managers”, initially in a bank account in a New South Wales country town. Regrettably, Mr Speaker, the “investment managers”, Woodlawn Capital Pty Ltd, appear to have been ably assisted by the then Managing Director of MVIL, Dr John Mua, in their endeavours to extract money from MVIL.
When this 96 million kina was “invested” with Woodlawn in July 2009, Woodlawn Capital Pty Ltd had been incorporated for only a few weeks; it was a classic “two dollar company” – that is, it has a paid up share capital of only two, one dollar shares; it did not hold any financial services licence which, under Australian law, every such investment manager must have; and it had no other funds under investment.
It would seem ridiculous for any rational businessman to invest any funds, let alone 96 million kina, with such a company with no history, no backing and no licences, but that is what Dr Mua and MVIL did in 2009.
Mr Speaker, this has not been an easy task, but we are not giving up. And unfortunately, in this we have not always been assisted by everyone at MVIL.
We required Woodlawn to repatriate the total funds to PNG and terminate the investment arrangement, but we received nothing but obfuscation, delay and a refusal even to give us the most basic information about how much of the original investment of 96 million kina is left, or where the funds may be held.
We have complained to the corporate regulator in Australia, ASIC, about Woodlawn’s actions in claiming to hold an Australian Financial Services licence when it did not, and dealing with investment monies when unlicensed. These are clear breaches of Australian securities law.
Mr Speaker, we had been most concerned that all or nearly all of the 96 million kina invested with Woodlawn over two years ago may have been lost. A couple of months ago it appeared that Woodlawn was suggesting it would return only a few million dollars, perhaps only 10 or 15 percent of the original investment , to MVIL. It would be a sad day for Papua New Guinea if we were to lose about 80 million kina to crooked investment advisers overseas – money which should be available for the benefit of the people of PNG and improving their living standards. This is the sad legacy of the Somare regime’s years of waste, neglect and corruption.
However, Mr Speaker, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. With the totally un-cooperative approach from Woodlawn, we had no option but to instruct our legal advisers in New South Wales to commence legal proceedings against Woodlawn and its two directors, McNamara and Breen, to recover the money they had illegally obtained.
Following the institution of legal proceedings, I have now been informed that the New South Wales Supreme Court ordered the remaining MVIL investment portfolio frozen, so Woodlawn and its directors cannot deal with those funds, and Woodlawn has been required to give full information about the current value of the MVIL investments managed by Woodlawn.
While this may sound positive, it is not all goods news. Legal action is expensive, and it is possible, or likely, that more legal action will need to be taken before we get our money back. Also, while we do not yet know precisely how much money is left, it seems that it could be somewhat less than 30 million Australian dollars, which would mean a loss of about one quarter of the original investment two and a half years ago, since 96 million kina then equalled about 40 million Australian dollars.
Of course we are not conceding that this money is necessarily lost – we will do everything we can to pursue Woodlawn for the full value of our investment and the damages we have suffered, but we obviously do not know yet how successful we will be.
This MVIL saga is, Mr Speaker, another example of the Somare regime’s scandalous misuse of public funds – not as newsworthy, but just as bad in its own way, as the Falcon jet fiasco. The people of Papua New Guinea deserve better, and we are making sure they get better than that, by making these most strenuous efforts to get back this money which has been extracted from the public purse.
By Todagia Kelola
THE new Board of the Motor Vehicle Insurance Limited (MVIL) has been able to recoup only K9 million out of the K100 million that was [fraudulently] invested in Australia.
Chairman of the Board Bonny Igime in a statement said out of the fraudulent K100 million investment that the MVIL made with Woodlawn Capital Ltd of Lismore, NSW Australia was executed on July 22, 2009, my Board has manage to recoup only K9,187, 260 back into PNG. The money is now with the Gadens Lawyers Trust Account in Port Moresby waiting to be remitted back into MVIL.
“When the Government of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill appointed me as Chairman of MVIL I assured the nation that I will vigorously pursue the K100 million being siphoned off into Australia and bring it back into PNG. The money rightly belongs to the 7 million people of this country, who own MVIL through the government, and the people have the right to know what has happened to their money.”
In late February this year Mr Igime took the Board and management to Australia and met with the executives of Woodlawn Capital Ltd in Brisbane.
“We asked Woodlawn executives where they kept the money and what is the current net asset value (NAV) of the investment. Woodlawn kept evading our questions and came up with an excuse that a substantial amount of MVIL investment was lost during the global financial crisis a few years ago. We didn’t buy into their argument. We suspected that something was seriously wrong with the investment and that we must independently investigate and find out soon. Coincidently, at about the same time the former CEO of MVIL John Mua called me on numerous occasions and begged me not to bring the money back to PNG. He said the money was safe in Australia and that MVIL has a lot of liquid cash sitting in the banks in Port Moresby and does not need the K100 million. That’s when my sensitive nature tells me that something is seriously wrong with the investment and we must investigate.”
The Board engaged Gadens Lawyers in Sydney and Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) accounting firm to conduct a thorough investigation into all the accounts of Woodlawn Capital in Australia and ascertain the net asset value of the investment. With our instructions Gadens Lawyers successfully obtained an interlocutory order in the New South Wales Supreme Court thus freezing all the accounts of Woodlawn. The Supreme Court order effectively froze all the accounts of Woodlawn being kept by various financial institutions in Australia.
He said their forensic accountants conducted an audit into the frozen accounts and uncovered AUS$24 million being kept in those accounts, which is equivalent to K50 million. The K50 million plus the K9 million already brought into the country amounted to K59 million. The question is, what happen to the balance of K41 million?
The investigations have uncovered a shocking truth that Woodlawn Capital at the time it received the money from MVIL was not licenced to conduct business as a financial investment company. Woodlawn did not hold a valid Financial Services License (FSL) under the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC). This is indeed a serious crime under the Australian laws. ASIC is the Australian government watchdog that regulates, monitors and oversees all financial and investment activities in Australia. The K100 million investment was a fraudulent transaction between the executives of MVIL and Woodlawn with the intent to defraud MVIL because Woodlawn was not licensed to receive the money at the time.
The investigations have uncovered another shocking truth that some people were using the K100 million like a petty cash. Numerous unexplained withdrawals were made on the K100 million over the entire period of the investment from July 2009 to as recent as January 2012.
For instance, the following withdrawals were made on MVIL accounts in Australia in 2011 and early 2012.
BANK ACCOUNT NO. DATE CURRENCY WITHDRAWAL AMOUNT
Westpac 467559 5/5/2011 AU$ 1,500,000
Westpac 467559 30/6/2011 AU$ 2,000,000
Westpac 467567 8/7/2011 AU$ 300,000
Westpac 467559 14/7/2011 AU$ 300,000
Westpac 467567 14/7/2011 AU$ 300,000
Westpac 467559 16/8/2011 AU$ 3,000,000
Suncorp 4157414 15/9/2011 PGK 24,872,335
Westpac 467559 21/9/2011 AU$ 1,000,000
Westpac 467559 27/9/2011 AU$ 1,197,540
Westpac 467559 14/11/2011 AU$ 227,000
Westpac 467559 13/1/2012 AU$ 440,142
According to correspondences between the executives of MVIL and Woodlawn we have uncovered that the former CEO of MVIL John Mua was the only authorized representative of MVIL who can authorize or instruct Woodlawn for any transactions to be conducted on the accounts in Australia. And therefore, I am calling on John Mua to come out and tell the Government and the people of PNG about the irregular and unexplained withdrawals made on the K100 million being kept by Woodlawn. Our lawyers and forensic accountants are following the money trail and we will get to the bottom of the missing K41 million and the nation will know about it.
Read more about the Woodlawn scam and the Somare family:
Paul Paraka, the lawyer at the centre of the K780 million Finance Department fraud*, has recently been paid another K30 million in suspicious circumstances.
By Sam Basil
Paul Paraka Lawyers have gone at great length to suppress the tabling of the Finance Commission of Inquiry by obtaining a Court Order in Alotau on a Saturday, which is now collecting dust in the National and Supreme Court registry. The Finance Inquiry looked into funds paid out in Court Judgements when Paul Paraka Lawyers was briefed out by the State on a retainer basis to act for the State in legal suits.
In late 2006, when Mr Bire Kimisopa was appointed as the Justice Minister, Paul Paraka Lawyers contract was terminated. Mr Paraka took the State to Court for some outstanding bills which were quantified by the Court as around K6million plus. That amount was not paid out as the State appealed the Orders of the National Court and there are some restraining orders issued by the Supreme Court which are understood to be still current.
Notwithstanding, on 17th February 2012, a Second batch of payments under the Court Judgments was paid totalling K45,585,468.73.
Among the payments made by finance department on 17 February, a staggering amount of K30million was paid to Paul Paraka through his various web of law firms:
- Paul Othas Lawyers K6,000,000
- Harvey Nii Lawyers K6,000,000
- Sino & Company K6,000,000
- Jack Kilipi Lawyers K6,000,000
- PKP Nominees Ltd K6,000,000
On 20th February 2012, a letter jointly signed by Messers Melton Bogege (Financial Controller) and Yeme Kaivila (Senior Accountant) of Department of Finance was sent to Bank of South Pacific Limited stating that the payments made to the recipients enumerated above were based on the instructions of Paul Paraka Lawyers whom they claim has valid Court Orders and outstanding bills. The two officers further justified in the following terms:
“The payments were based on a valid Court Order and appropriate audit process was carried out and clearance from the Solicitor General. The Department of Finance had no right to question such authority, and facilitated the payment on the endorsement and approval of the Secretary for Finance”.
We understand there are some Supreme Court Orders in place restraining the payments to be made to Paul Paraka Lawyers.
It appears that BSP did not want to release the funds and Mr Paraka went to great lengths with numerous letters justifying the payments and even issued veil threats to BSP staff if they refuse.
Eventually, BSP appears to have released the payments as apportioned by Paul Paraka Lawyers.
A valid complaint was made by the Solicitor General’s Office to the National Fraud Squad and Task-Force Sweep to investigate this matter. When investigations commenced and a search warrant was obtained to search and obtain documents at BSP, PPL went to the District Court and filed an application to set aside the search warrant and conceal the whole thing.
We have obtained documents from the District Court Registry at Waigani which confirms that Mr Paul Paraka has filed an application to set aside the search warrants and further for a permanent restraining order to restrain any investigations into those allegations. In his affidavit in support of the application, he admits receiving those funds but for work undertaken in the past. He deposes in his affidavit that there is no stay order and relies on a number of Court orders which were superseded by a latter Supreme Court Order staying the orders and the entire proceedings of OS 876 of 2006.
Numerous visits and attempts have been made to the respective authorities who are investigating this matter to drop this case. The case officers were threatened and even intimidated. There were a number of threats on the Chairman of Task-Force Sweep, Mr Sam Koim.
Now, the intelligence information we are picking up is that these people are colluding with some police officers to fabricate and frame up some criminal charges against Mr Sam Koim to tarnish his name and further intimidate him because of his refusal to back-off when initially approached. This is dangerous and we take it very seriously. We call on the Police Commissioner whether he is aware of this and if so, can he deal with those officers who allow themselves to be manipulated by people with malicious intentions.
If Paul Paraka Lawyers was paid on a legitimate Court Order based on some purported outstanding legal fees owed by the State, why not seeking a recent legal clearance from the Solicitor General instead of going straight to finance department because Finance Department is not the authority that does the legal clearance on Court Judgements, legal bills and interests?
If the payment was legitimate, why using different law firms instead of Paul Paraka Lawyers? It makes the transactions very suspicious. These Law Firms have colluded to launder money to the benefit of Paul Paraka Lawyers. The legal firms who received the payments on behalf of Paul Paraka were not entitled to the payment yet allowed themselves as conduits to syphon public funds. This is money laundering.
If the payment is legitimate and Mr Paraka has nothing to hide, why not allowing legitimate authorities to investigate and establish the authenticity of such payments and ensure that a fraud has not been committed? Why is he filing applications to set aside search warrants which is very preliminary stage of the investigations, issuing threats and visiting the officers investigating him. He has received public funds and that is subject to public scrutiny. What has he got to hide?
The O’Neill/Namah Government had been very hard on fighting corruption and we cannot be hypocrites preaching one thing and doing the opposite. This is a very recent payment made a month ago and I strongly urge the Task-Force Sweep to get to the bottom of this. I am prepared to face it if I am implicated. The Prime Minister has also given his word on this when he announced the establishment of Task-Force Sweep.
We call on the PNG Law Society to investigate the law firms involved and immediately take some actions on this matter.
We are also calling on the Solicitor General or the Registrar of the National and Supreme Court to institute contempt proceedings against those people who orchestrated the payment in full knowledge of the existing Supreme Court Orders.
We as a Government will support Task-Force Sweep all the way. The Country is too big for any one individual person, whether in Government or opposition or any citizen of this country.
Martyn Namorong reports on the latest developments:
Following yesterdays mass public protest against the O’Namah Regime:
1) Speaker Nape has refused to entertain Prime Minister’s instructions for Parliament to consider rescinding motion to defer elections. But Parliament’s motion is not binding on Andrew Trawen who as Electoral Commissioner is a constitutional officer not subject to directions from Parliament in the regard of complying with the motion
2) The Supreme Court per Mogish, Kariko and Manuhu JJ found that prima facie, there was an appearance of unconstitutionality and illegality in the Judicial Conduct Act and stayed the act’s enforceability pending final outcome of the Supreme Court Reference by the Morobe Provincial Gavman
3) Consequently, suspension of Kirriwom J and Injia CJ pursuant to s 5 of the Judicial Conduct Act were stayed by the Supreme Court per Mogish, Kariko and Manuhu JJ pending a final pronouncement of the constitutionality of the Judicial Conduct Act. This effectively means Kirriwom J and Injia CJ can preside over the case of the Prime Minister’s legitimacy tomorrow.
In the Lawyers’ Offices
4) Parliament may now try to counter the Supreme Court’s move. But how? All eyes on legal advisors
Eoin Blackwell, AAP
Papua New Guinea’s electoral commissioner has approved a new election schedule but Speaker Jeffery Nape says the commission must recognise parliament’s vote to delay the poll by six months.
Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen on Wednesday issued a revised schedule to the five-yearly electoral program, with the polling set to begin as expected on June 23.
He said the schedule had been approved by Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio.
But Mr Nape, PNG’s enormously powerful Speaker, threw up a potential roadblock as he opened Wednesday’s parliamentary session.
He said cabinet alone did not have the power to overturn last week’s vote to defer the poll by six months and Mr Trawen must obey parliament’s order to defer.
“Parliament has been intimidated by (cabinet) and the judiciary,” he said.
“Parliament is supreme. (The) action taken by (cabinet) and the electoral commissioner is unlawful.”
Mr Nape said he was seeking legal advice over who had the final say on when PNG will go to the polls.
The Speaker’s statement came about two hours before Mr Trawen’s revised schedule was sent to journalists and less than 24 hours after Prime minister Peter O’Neill backtracked entirely from the vote to delay.
Mr O’Neill, with members of cabinet in tow, told protesters in Port Moresby on Tuesday that elections would go ahead as scheduled, backed by Mr Trawen, who has been a staunch opponent of the delay.
Mr Trawen agreed to a three week delay for the issue of writs but said the poll would go ahead as scheduled in late June.
The date of PNG’s five-yearly election has been up in the air for months, with parliamentarians saying they fear the poll will be unfair because of potential fraud in the electoral rolls.
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s session, MPs were invited to a briefing on electoral preparedness attended by Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga and Defence Force Chief Francis Agwi.
And what a glorious day it was as the Sun beat through the cloudless sky and scorched all life in Port Moresby. The streets were largely deserted and the few who ventured out carried on rather nervously. Port Moresby’s notorious traffic jams were nowhere to be seen and for once the city looked like the most livable place on earth.
Angau Drive in Boroko with its lush vegetation had a slow stream of pedestrians, much to the annoyance of street vendors who prop up stalls near the footpath. The roundabout near SP Brewery did not have its usual scrum of vehicles puffing out toxic fumes.
Along Kennedy Drive where mobile giant Digicel is headquartered in Papua New Guinea, a mother escorts her child back from Gordon’s Secondary School. They’re both immersed in conversations about the Constitutionality of the Judicial Conduct Act and Parliament decision to postpone elections (sic).
The Gordons main bus stop and market area is unusually slow as a small crowd mingles around waiting for buses or buying mobile phone credits.
The largest city in the South Pacific, Port Moresby, had been shut down for Occupy Waigani, a protest organized to demand that Parliament rescind its decision to interfere with the Judiciary and to postpone the elections.
At around 10 am, students from the University of Papua New Guinea are all gathered on campus for their march to Sir John Guise stadium. As news filters that the University students were moving, a vocal crowd of predominantly teenage primary school boys leaves the stadium and heads towards the Government Offices at Waigani. The boys are stopped by police opposite Morauta Haus – the office complex that houses the Prime Ministers Department.
Back at the stadium a live band performs to a growing crowd of about 5000 people. Everyone is waiting for the arrival of the University Students.
An hour later the Students enter Independence Drive. The students were advise to March to the stadium instead of taking public transport. It is a lesson learnt from Tahir Square that once a small group with great legitimacy takes the streets, the sympathetic public joins the queue. And it worked as the students marched to Waigani with a 5000 strong crowd.
Sir John Guise stadium was now packed with about 10 000 people. Many Port Moresby residents had never seen such a crowd. This crowd serves as an ominous warning to Port Moresby based politicians as the clock ticks is way down to Election Time. One protestor described the crowd as the largest she had seen since the 1991 South Pacific Games held at Sir John Guise stadium.
The rhetoric began on stage and the crowd cheered “RAUSIM! RAUSIM! RAUSIM!” [Rescind! Rescind! Rescind! In Tok Pisin] as various speakers called on the O’Namah Regime to rescind its recent decisions. Unionists Michael Malabag and John Paska address the crowd first. Legal expert Dr John Nongorr then articulates the unconstitutionality of these changes in Tok Pisin. No doubt Dr Nongorr had done an excellent job in Tok Pisin.
As Dr Nongorr speaks, the O’Namah Regimes’ convoy enters the stadium. Opposition Leader Dame Carol Kidu also makes her way in. As the O’Namah entourage came to a standstill at the stadium, they were booed by the crowds.
The politicians make their way up the stadium and there is minor chaos on stage as seats are being sought for them. Dr Nongorr then continues his rhetoric and then Presents a synopsis of the Petition. Prime Minister O’Neil is presented the petition by Unionist Michael Malabag while the UPNG Student President Emmanuel Isaac presents another to Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen. The Trawen Petition calls on the Electoral Commissioner to go ahead with the elections as scheduled.
Here are the outcomes of Occupy Waigani at Sir John Guise stadium: [as summarized by ActNow]
- The issue of writs is officially postponed until May 18th (Mr Trawen said so!)
- Today’s Parliament sitting is postponed to 10am tomorrow
- The Judicial Act will be repealed as long as Injia and Kirriwom step down (Mr O’Neil said so)
- The issue of today’s march will blow over and people will forget (Mr Namah said so)
- Mr O’Neil wound down his window and waved royally to all of us gathered at the Sir John Guise Stadium when leaving.
- Mr O’Neil stated clearly that ONLY the Electoral Commissioner has the authority to delay or not the 2012 National Elections therefore he can’t give assurance that elections will run according to schedule
- Mr O’Neil stated CLEARLY that he will repeal the Judicial Act if Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia and Justice Nicholas Kirriwom step down.