Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:06 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:06 | SYDNEY

PNG, land of the unexpected


Jenny Hayward-Jones


3 August 2011 14:38

It is often said that anyone who confidently predicts the future in PNG politics is a fool. I have been following the political turmoil in Papua New Guinea over the last few months but did not anticipate the shock election of Peter O'Neill as Prime Minister yesterday.

Public attention had been focused on the turbulence within the former governing National Alliance Party. The dramatic turn of events in Parliament yesterday will leave many National Alliance members scratching their heads.

O'Neill was, until yesterday, the Works Minister under Acting Prime Minister Sam Abal, and before that the Treasurer under Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare. He was elected PM after the Opposition persuaded a number of unhappy Government members to join them in moving a motion to declare the office of Prime Minister vacant and the Speaker of Parliament allowed a vote for a new Prime Minister.

While votes of no-confidence in Prime Ministers were once a regular occurrence in Papua New Guinea, this is the first time a vote for a new Prime Minister has been held while the incumbent was unwell. Under Papua New Guinea's constitution, the Prime Minister...

...may be removed from office by the Head of State, acting in accordance with a decision of the Parliament, if the Speaker advises the Parliament that two medical practitioners appointed by the National Authority responsible for the registration or licensing of medical practitioners have jointly reported in accordance with an Act of the Parliament that, in their professional opinions, the Prime Minister is unfit, by reason of physical or mental incapacity, to carry out the duties of his office. (Section 142, clause 5[c].) 

To date, only one medical practitioner (Somare's personal physician) has examined Somare but the Governor-General was expected to appoint two medical practitioners to report on Somare's health. The lack of clarity around Somare's health has raised some doubts about the legality of yesterday's vote, and it could yet be challenged. Papua New Guinea rarely misses an opportunity to prove its reputation as the 'land of the unexpected' and there could be more surprises to come.

If, however, O'Neill continues in the job of Prime Minister and appoints a new cabinet, this will represent a break with the Somare era in PNG politics. O'Neill has an opportunity to make some credible cabinet appointments and start to recapture public confidence in government. 

With a number of highly ambitious and prominent members of parliament backing him, O'Neill will also need to manage high expectations within his cabinet. He will have to act quickly to assert the authority of his government and deliver real outcomes from the promises of great wealth that are on offer as part of PNG's resources boom — before the country begins to gear up for important general elections due in mid-2012.

Photo by Flickr user Contando Estrelas.