Fresh elections could pave a pathway to PNG prosperity
The events of the last twelve months in Papua New Guinea have been extraordinary and unexpected – even by the standards of the ‘Land of the Unexpected’.
The Prime Ministership has been declared vacant. The Governor-General has been suspended. The Chief Justice has been arrested. Governments have been declared invalid. The judiciary and the legislature have been in dispute.
As startling as these events may be, in the midst of this turmoil, in many ways, PNG deserves considerable credit.
Events in PNG started with the country being presented with a diabolically difficult situation not of its own making. A sitting Prime Minister, who has been the great figure of PNG history, Sir Michael Somare, fell seriously ill resulting in months of incapacity and uncertainty about his ability to return to his duties. Indeed it came to the point where his own family issued a press release indicating that his time as Prime Minister was likely over.
This turn of events was not the fault of Sir Michael, nor was it the fault of Peter O’Neill. It was a turn of events that any country would find almost impossible to handle.
What has followed has clearly tested the boundaries of the Constitution, but just as clearly Peter O’Neill has had the overwhelming support of the Parliament.
Throughout the whole ordeal what has mattered have been votes in Parliament and decisions of the Court, and what has not mattered has been the end of a gun. Law and politics have been allowed to play out free from the threat of people bearing arms taking control.
This could have been so very different.
Despite a couple of flutters, both the police and the military have stayed at arm’s length and demonstrated considerable maturity. This in turn has allowed the Papua New Guinea public to get on with life as normal.
And through it all government has functioned. An ambitious agenda of free education is being implemented. A ground breaking debate on women’s participation in politics and society has occurred. A successful Australia-PNG Ministerial meeting in October has allowed the bilateral relationship to progress.
In its most testing hour PNG has held its nerve and that is a very significant achievement.
That said the political situation in PNG remains unresolved. It is now patently clear that resolution will only come when PNG’s sovereignty is placed where it ultimately resides – in the hands of the people – by the holding of an election.
The elections in PNG are due in June/July this year. They cannot be delayed without going beyond the Constitution. And precisely because of the strain under which the Constitution has been placed it is utterly essential that the Constitution now be respected and the elections held on time.
There have been concerns expressed in PNG about the readiness of the PNG Electoral Commission to hold elections on time, in particular the state of the electoral roll.
It is not easy to run an election in a country with some of the most remote communities on earth, where hundreds of different languages are spoken, and where there is no road network connecting the capital with the nation’s other major cities. Australia is there to help, providing unprecedented support for these elections that includes election experts, computers, and helicopters – in all a very substantial package of assistance.
While election preparations in PNG have never been perfect, what can be said is that they are at least as well advanced now as they were at the same point during the 2002 and 2007 election preparations.
A lack of election preparation is not an excuse for delay.
Australia welcomes the comments of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and many other political leaders in PNG giving assurances that the elections will be held on time.
These elections will not only resolve a political impasse in PNG. They come at a time when the country is at a crossroads.
PNG’s economy is experiencing a boom. With nine consecutive years of economic growth, PNG has powered through the global financial crisis being one of the fastest growing economies in the world. At the same time a new generation of younger, post independence politicians, is coming through the ranks with a vision of how a modern PNG fits into a more connected global village.
All of this makes these elections the most important in PNG’s history and Australia stands with our neighbour and our friend in helping to ensure they occur.
Timely elections will cleanse the past, establish a fresh government and truly set PNG on a path toward a very bright future.
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