PNG constitutional excitements

Last August the Parliament of Papua-New Guinea designated (recommended for appointment) Peter O’Neill as prime minster. Yesterday the supreme court ruled that designation, and subsequent action by the governor-general, was illegal because there was no vacancy for the parliament or the governor-general to fill. Both the sitting prime minister and the former prime minister are now claiming the office.

13 thoughts on “PNG constitutional excitements

  1. Thanks for this, Alan. I had been meaning to get around to something on PNG.

    The PM before all this started, Michael Somare, was out of the country for health reasons. Is the constitution not clear on who takes the acting PM role in such a case?

    There was an opinion piece in the SMH this morning that said that PNG institutions had remained “rock solid” during this situation. But that seems pretty optimistic at this point.

  2. in August Somare was not expected to survive the month. His family announces his resignation although Somare himself was incapable of being consulted or resigning.

    The parliament and governor-general filled the purported vacancy in August. The supreme court has now declared there was never a vacancy and that therefore Somare never ceased to be prime minister.
    Neither O’Neill (the other claimant) nor Somare show any sign of relenting at this point.

  3. The Somare cabinet was sworn in today by the governor-general. The displaced O’Neill cabinet then purported to suspend the governor-general and is now treating the speaker as acting governor-general. The rival governments have each named their own police commissioner.

    This is a pretty sad way to trash the country’s enviable record of constitutional democracy.

  4. One would think a leader’s family would be a trustworthy proxy in announcing that leader’s resignation (assuming they don’t make like Mrs Woodrow Wilson). I note that the UK statute for declaring a regency when the monarch is unavailable, gives the prince/ queen consort a vote (alongside the Privy Council) as to whether to declare the throne vacant.

  5. Even if the court was right and Somare didn’t resign after all, how can the GG reinstate Somare knowing O’Neill has now the confidence of the parliament?

  6. The court’s order was not for the governor-general to reinstate Somare,it was that the prime ministership was never vacant. Acting on Somare’s advice the governor-general then swore in Somare’s former ministers.

    The situation is complicated because the parliament has entered a pre-election period where votes of no confidence are not permitted. Meanwhile the O’Neill supporters have purported to pass retrospective legislation removing Somare as an MP and the supreme court has announced contempt charges against O’Neill and the speaker.

  7. Yes, ironically a rule change designed to promote stability (a time-bar on votes of no confidence in close proximity – compare French Fifth Republic’s ban on two general elections within 12 months) is having the opposite effect, and promoting instability.

    Of course a directly elected president can laugh off a legislative vote of no confidence (see: Clinton, WJ) but for a PM whose sole democratic claim to legitimacy is having earlier possessed the confidence of that same legislature, retraction of same is hard to survive politically, no matter what the law says.

    “… The City Watch is two thousand strong, sworn to defend the castle, the city, and the King’s peace.” “Ah, but when the Queen proclaims one king and the [lord chancellor] another, whose peace do they protect?”

    – George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996)

  8. I am just deeply uncomfortable with the idea that a decision of the highest court can be defied with impunity by prime minister or parliament. It seems to me that you strike directly at the rule of law when you defy the supreme court. And I do not have words for the folly of an unlawful cabinet purporting to suspend the head of state.

  9. Thanks, Alan and Tom, but finding one answer opens another: the lengthy constitution of PNG does not only have a crucial time-bar on votes of no confidence, I’ve found also s. 142.5.c about a medically unfit PM who may be removed from office by the head of state – so this subsection wasn’t used?

    Is the ruling itself published somewhere?

  10. That is not quite what the supreme court decided. They decided whether the action of the Soamre family in submitting a resignation without his consent or knowledge was a lawful resignation. As Bancki has said, the PNG constitution does have a procedure for removing a disabled head of government. It does not involve proxy resignation and was not invoked during Somare’s illness.

    Let us imagine that Presidents Kennedy or Reagan had survived assassination attempts, in a condition incapable of governing but also incapable of consenting to a resignation.Would anyone really advocate an informal resignation contrary to law should be accepted in that circumstance, especially when a valid disability procedure exists?

    Tom’s analogy to the UK Regency Act does not really apply because that is for a temporary disability, not permanent abdication.

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