Peter O’Neill at the heart of PNG’s new constitutional crisis

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill pauses before Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill. (Credit: Reuters Tim Wimborne)

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill pauses before Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. (Credit: Reuters Tim Wimborne)

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

Peter O’Neill, the PM of Papua New Guinea, lies at the heart of the country’s new constitutional crisis. A major corruption scandal two years ago implicated O’Neill in a number of schemes, including government mismanagement, fraudulent payments to a law firm, and a range of questionable international dealings. PNG’s National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate sought his arrest over the official corruption allegations, but O’Neill disputed the arrest warrant in court. To this day, his legal battles have been raising tensions.

Police officer chains gate shut at PNG's National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate. (Credit: ABC Eric Tlozek)

Police officer chains gate shut at PNG’s National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate. (Credit: ABC News Eric Tlozek)

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.”

University of PNG students protest on May 6, 2016. (Credit: ABC Eric Tlozek)

University of PNG students protest on May 6, 2016. (Credit: ABC News Eric Tlozek)

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”.

Students at the University of Papua New Guinea demand the Prime Minister's response to anti-corruption petition. (Credit: ABC News Joy Kisselpar)

Students at the University of Papua New Guinea demand Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s response to an anti-corruption petition. (Credit: ABC News Joy Kisselpar)

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.