On 14 June, as a boycott of classes in protest against PM Peter O’Neill continued, around 40 students at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) covered themselves in mud to signify “haus krai” - mourning for fellow unarmed students who were shockingly shot by police on 8 June. Although there were no fatalities, several were taken to hospital with serious injuries, and the shootings drew local and international condemnation.
Following the shootings, the national Opposition and other observers expressed concern and scepticism at the Government, the police and the PNG Ombudsman Commission’s ensuing announcements of an investigation into the events of 8 June. Former attorney-general and current Opposition MP Kerenga Kua questioned the effectiveness of those inquiries - in particular, the prospect of the police force investigating its own members.
In an interview with Pacific Beat, Kua also said that the opposition had instructed lawyers to file court proceedings, to order the recall of Parliament for the purpose of addressing the multiple issues behind the student protests. A recall of parliament would allow for a vote of no-confidence in PM O'Neill and his government to go ahead (a vote of no-confidence must take place a minimum of 12 months before the 2017 election writs are returned, on 27 July next year).
Kua described a no-confidence vote as the only way to legally resolve the standoff between student protesters and PM O’Neill. Post Courier reported on 17 June that the Opposition had formally submitted a Supreme Court application for Parliament to reconvene before the 27 July; yesterday, Loop PNG reported that the Supreme Court will hear the Opposition-filed no-confidence motion on the morning of Friday, 1 July.
VOTE OF NO-CONFIDENCE, #4
MP Ken Fairweather, a member of the People's Progress Party and PNG's ruling coalition, is one of the members of parliament who has signed the latest vote of no-confidence against PM Peter O'Neill. He told Post Courier on 7 June:
"Well I signed the vote, I can’t do more. I’m disgusted with Government including my party leader Ben Micah [...] Peter is a friend, he is a good Prime Minister though it is the state of the economy that I am protesting against. And also those MPs surrounding him especially Richard Maru for the PMIZ issue."
Fairweather criticised the government for mismanaging the nation’s economy - suggesting that excessive borrowing, waste, and failure to provide foreign exchange is creating a fatal economic environment for businesses, including his own. (For more on this crisis, read Paul Flanagan’s comprehensive analysis of PNG’s economy for AFR online here).
PNG's Opposition filed this, their fourth motion of no-confidence in the O’Neill government, on 31 May; previous motions to remove O’Neill failed to pass due to apparent inconsistencies and a lack of the required number of signatures (the previous motion contained two signatures controversially ruled invalid by then acting speaker, Aide Ganasi).
In regards to the three prior attempts to have a no-confidence vote, Post Courier reported that Opposition leader Don Polye said:
"For political reason all three notices of vote of no-confidence motion attempts were rejected while the fourth one was avoided through the adjournment even without the notice of the Government caucus.Therefore we argue that Parliament must be in session before July 27.”
“We want the Court to direct that the Parliament reconvene so that the motion can be debated because the recent incidences like the students’ protest, the mismanagement of the economy and the PM’s incapability to run the country by abusing and suppressing the processes needs to be addressed because the people have lost confidence in the Prime Minister.”
Johnny Blades of Radio NZ pointed out that the previous motion of no-confidence was vetted by a parliamentary committee stacked with supporters of O’Neill; his People's National Congress has lured dozens of MPs from less-resourced parties, to become the largest party in the PNG national parliament.
Within parliament, O’Neill has been dismissive regarding Opposition questioning about the true state of the economy and his own government’s responsibility for it. His government has also moved legislation to reduce the number of annual sitting days in parliament from over 60 to 40 - reducing the number of opportunities parliament has to hold the government to account.
REDUCED DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY TO PARLIAMENT
Radio NZ’s Johnny Blades spoke to PNG's registrar of Political Parties, Alphonse Gelu, who admitted that the reduction in sitting days had eroded parliament's effectiveness:
"You know, the demise, diminishing number of members in the opposition; the number of sitting days; and the inability of the opposition to hold the government to account; there's a number of things, and most importantly the debate on very important legislations that go through parliament.”
Dr Gelu helped develop legislation to revise the Organic Law on the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates, which would limit the movement of MPs from political parties which they entered parliament in. This would essentially remove the main method used by O'Neill to radically reduce his opposition within parliament since the 2012 election.
But in the lead up to the 2017 election, that legislation has not made it onto the parliamentary agenda. Moreover, the main parties in the coalition government have affirmed their commitment to O’Neill - including the People's Progress Party, led by Ben Micah. Micah, who holds the Petroleum and Energy ministerial portfolio, said this in March:
"My commitment to prime minister O'Neill and our coalition partners, the National Alliance and the United Resources Party, is unshakeable until the writs are returned in 2017.”
FLOUTING BASIC STANDARDS OF GOVERNANCE
Public anger and frustration with the leadership of PM O’Neill and the state of the nation’s democracy can be attributed to a number of factors:
- Budget constraints, with ensuing cuts to health and education services in a nation facing multiple public health challenges and an ongoing drought
- Public servants not getting paid and unreliable amenities infrastructure (e.g. regular power blackouts occur in main cities Port Moresby and Lae)
- Peaceful public protests being legally prevented by police, with a provincial police commander even calling on government to ban Facebook and social media as it facilitates public organisation
- Complex and serious economic troubles after the end of PNG's resources sector boom and the accruement of massive government debt (O’Neill even came under fire from Opposition MP Don Polye for taking out a US$1.2 billion loan with Switzerland's UBS without parliamentary approval)
But Opposition MP Kerenga Kua told Radio NZ’s Johnny Blades that beyond concerns about those other issues, PM O'Neill’s lack of adherence to basic standards of governance is what most concerns many - especially the student protesters. Since 2014, O’Neill’s has been refusing to stand down to allow police to probe his role in a major corruption case that involved alleged illegal state payments worth around US$30m to a law firm (Paraka Lawyers).
"Here's a prime minister who is facing a warrant of arrest. Instead of stepping down, he's still sitting in the chair and throwing all the state resources into defending himself."
“And the sad thing is even the courts are buying into it."
Kua accused PM O’Neill of using “all manner of trivial applications” through the courts to frustrate and delay the case on technicalities, for as long as possible. He said even parliamentary procedures and rules were being abused to this end - leader of government business James Marape had alleged that a previous Opposition motion of no-confidence forged Kua’s signature.
Kua flatly denied his signature was forged and pointed to Marape’s claim as a diversionary tactic; whilst Marape told media he would refer the opposition to police for attempting to abuse procedures of change of government through forgery, fraud and deceit.
POLICE SHOOTING OF STUDENTS: STUDENTS DEMAND JUSTICE
Heated disagreement (and in some cases fighting) amongst university students at various campuses over whether they should return to classes continues, but those committed to the boycott at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) say they want a commitment to justice for the victims of the police shooting before they return to studies.
More than 20 students were injured on that day, and several are still in hospital after they tried to march to parliament in a show of support for the planned vote of no confidence against PM O’Neill’s government - now scheduled to be heard on 1 July. At least four of the injured taken to hospital were in a critical condition.
The government has tried to characterise student protests as being engineered by self interested non-students; however, the main UPNG student body has led the boycott. Still, in the aftermath of the shootings, PM O’Neill again insinuated external influence, announcing an inquiry that would seek to uncover external influences driving student protests. No apology was forthcoming.
UPNG’s SRC president Kenneth Rapa denies that they have been influenced by anything other than their determination to hold the government to account for their abuse of power, and welcomed the government's announcement of a Commission of Inquiry.
But, Rapa insisted, it must be conducted by a non-government affiliated, independent body (such as the Catholic Bishop Conference of PNG and Solomon Islands or The Commonwealth). He also said the terms of the inquiry must be broadened to include:
- An inquiry into why a referendum was not allowed to be conducted in May for students to decide on protest action against the prime minister.
- An inquiry into all decisions by the UPNG Senate and Council relating to this issue since day one.
- An inquiry into who ordered the police shooting last Wednesday at the UPNG Waigani campus and surrounds.
- An inquiry to establish whether the O'Neill-led Government had breached human rights found in the National Constitution and the United Nations Charter on Human Rights.
UPNG’s SRC also wants the UN and international community to hold PNG to account, for not adhering to universal human rights. (A number of international human rights advocacy organisations condemned the shooting).
For many students, the boycott continues, whilst the nation waits to see if the last opportunity to oust the O’Neill government through a no-confidence vote will be successful.
Words by Pauline Vetuna.
Image 1 - UPNG4UPNG
Image 2 - A student wounded in the June 8th police shooting, being carried by fellow students. (BBC News report still)
Image 3 - UPNG SRC President Kenneth Rapa, at the June 8th march, surrounded by fellow students and addressing the police. (UPNG Student video still)