Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 19:25 | SYDNEY
Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 19:25 | SYDNEY

Plus ça change in Pacific politics


Jenny Hayward-Jones


18 November 2011 14:39

Just when the Pacific was looking relatively stable — a new and confident government in Papua New Guinea; Solomon Islands hoping a positive rating by the World Bank would improve investor confidence; Vanuatu's Prime Minister managing to hold on to his job continuously since May this year — the region's politicians have injected more uncertainty.

Papua New Guinea's Acting Prime Minister Belden Namah took a curious decision to suspend the Chief Justice, Sir Salamo Injia, on the basis of allegations of misconduct and mismanagement. The decision sparked a constitutional crisis as the chief justice stood his ground and instead ordered the arrest of the acting prime minister and Attorney-General Allan Marat on contempt of court charges. 

Bill Standish has explained the intricacies of this situation in this fine pieceWith Prime Minister Peter O'Neill otherwise occupied in Hawaii, it seemed PNG was once again heading towards political crisis. The situation appears to have been calmed by the orderly submission for arrest and then release on bail of the acting PM and attorney-general, and the government's revocation of the order to suspend the chief justice.

But the saga has created unnecessary tension between the executive and judiciary while the judiciary is considering the legality of the way the government came to power. Whatever the ultimate decision of the chief justice and regardless of the real reasons behind the acting prime minister's decision, the government gained nothing and will now be tainted by this incident.

Danny Philip, the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, resigned ahead of a no-confidence motion that looked certain to defeat him and has been replaced by Gordon Darcy LiloThe protests that followed his election by the parliament hint that he may not be the most popular choice. But it would not be the first time that a politician accused of corrupt activities held the top job in Solomon Islands and so does not necessarily prevent Darcy Lilo, long a key power-broker in Honiara, from being an effective leader.

In this unfortunate confluence of instability in the region, tiny Nauru has to win the contest. The Nauru parliament has elected its third president in under a week. While the consequences of political instability in Nauru are arguably not as significant as in the vastly more populous Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, it is hardly conducive to building confidence in the nation's ability to address the needs of its people.

These events are of course not as threatening to the health of democracy in the Pacific as the prevailing situation in Fiji. In fact, they prove that the democratic process works and political crises can be resolved without recourse to violence, which is undoubtedly positive. What is troubling about them is that they suggest a continuing inclination to provoke instability to achieve political advantage.

Changes of leadership during election cycles are not uncommon in the Pacific nor are they inherently negative developments, but they don't help international perceptions of the region or encourage confidence in economies.

The events of the last few weeks highlight an inherent tension in parliamentary politics in the Pacific. Constitutions and parliamentary standing orders allow governments to be thrown out and replaced without reference to voters. This flexibility permits both poor and good leaders to be replaced and the make-up of coalitions to be altered – for good or for bad. Removing or constraining this flexibility would be anti-democratic. 

But strong oppositions which hold governments to account are also vital to the effective functioning of parliamentary democracy. As long as provoking instability to achieve or stay in office is more attractive than acquiring and practicing the skills to pressure the government from the opposition benches, the integrity of parliamentary politics risks impairment.

Photo by Flickr user hopscotch_mom.