Peter O’Neill at the heart of PNG’s new constitutional crisis
Little light has been shone on the undemocratic nature of Papua New Guinea’s current constitutional monarchy, but the ongoing legal battles of the Prime Minister expose institutional troubles that deserve global attention.
“[Constitutional crisis] is brought on by people trying to do things with constitutional powers which need to be considered carefully by the courts and it appears to be an assault on democracy, an assault on the constitution.” Lawrence Stephens of Transparency International
The PM’s evasion of legalities has contributed to intra-police conflicts. Last April, the Police Commissioner Gari Baki shut down the Fraud and Anti-Corruption squad and suspended its Chief Superintendent Matthew Damaru. Commissioner Baki’s action immediately followed the squad’s arrest of several high-profile government officials tied to the ongoing investigation into the PM. Among those apprehended were the PM’s lawyer Tiffany Twivey Nonggorr and Justice Bernard Sakora, who allowed the hearing of PM’s case to be delayed.
Superintendent Damaru was later granted by the court the right to return to duty, but the police officers loyal to Commissioner Baki ignored him and even threatened to investigate the judge who gave him the court order. In a press conference, Baki declared, “I’m taking this hard line because I want these officers to know that there is only one commissioner in this constabulary. And that is me.”
While Baki denied the connection between his actions and the anti-corruption squad’s arrests, former Attorney General Kerenga Kua believes otherwise. He observed that Baki’s evasive, authoritarian behaviour resembled that of O’Neill. He told Pacific Beat:
“Right now, the Prime Minister is acting untouchable, and now his commissioner has learned that behaviour and he’s imitating that behaviour in trying to make himself an untouchable person.”
He further stressed the need for rationality, because “the head of the police force leads a group of men that has important consequences to the nation”. The shutdown of the anti-corruption unit conveniently stopped trials against members of the PNG parliament earlier this month.
PNG’s Supreme Court has since intervened to reopen the anti-corruption unit. Addressing the sense of entitlement of senior police officers, Deputy Chief Justice Gibbs Salika said their expectation of early notice of arrest was a total “fallacy”. The Supreme Court has also dismissed an appeal by O’Neill and his finance minister that restricted the police investigation on both men. However, difficulties of arresting O’Neill persist.
Despite massive student protests, O’Neill refuses to step down. Protests against the PM’s interference in the investigation had sprung up, in tandem with the Supreme Court involvement. Students at two major PNG universities – University of Papua New Guinea and University of Technology in Lae – staged peaceful demonstrations by boycotting classes. Last Thursday, they sent a petition calling O’Neill to step aside from public office to comply with investigation procedures. In response, the PM stated he has “no intention of either stepping aside or resigning”.
Protesting university students continue to demand the PM’s resignation. One student leader emphasised the protesters’ cause: “We’re talking about morality – not [just] legality”. With PNG’s general election just one year away, the crisis presents a cumbersome democratic challenge to a suffering nation.