Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 10:32 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 10:32 | SYDNEY

What Somare and O'Neill hath wrought


Jenny Hayward-Jones


2 February 2012 08:31

Papua New Guinea has just paid an economic price for its political instability, with Standard and Poor's downgrading its credit rating from B- to B-. The short-lived military mutiny created headlines around the world. It was enough to convince the ratings agency that there was now increased political risk in PNG.

Australia has an interest in the security of PNG most obviously for geographic and development reasons (PNG is our nearest neighbour and second largest recipient of aid) but also for economic reasons. A fact often not mentioned in reporting on PNG is that the country is our 15th largest trading partner.

Politicians in PNG on both sides of the impasse do not appear to have fully grasped the consequences of their actions. While Somare's direction of the attempted mutiny last week was irresponsible and damaging, Peter O'Neill's refusal to talk with Somare's camp about a resolution to the impasse is also unhelpful. Both men have a responsibility to the nation to resolve their differences, ensure the government of PNG is able to serve the people and be legally constituted, and portray the image of a stable democracy to the rest of the world.

The ABC's Sean Dorney is right that Australia does not have to worry about an imminent catastrophe in PNG. The country has been through numerous crises before and come out on the other side.

But what is different about this crisis, as Sean points out, is the potential long-term damage that has been done to respect for PNG's constitution and courts. Whatever the weaknesses of PNG's governance (and there are many), the integrity of the constitution and the independence of the courts have long been held up as great strengths of the country.

Prime Minister O'Neill undoubtedly has the support of key agencies of state and importantly has a majority in the parliament, which enables him to govern. But as long as the Supreme Court's 12 December ruling stands and as long as Michael Somare refuses to concede, O'Neill's leadership has a cloud hanging over it. 

O'Neill and his Government have snubbed the Supreme Court and argue that parliament is the supreme interpreter of the constitution. O'Neill has popular support for this approach but it sets an unfortunate precedent for governments of the future, who may choose also to ignore the courts and the constitution to achieve objectives less honourable than O'Neill's.