Often described as “an island of gold floating on a sea of oil”, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the top ten resource-dependent economies in the world. But robust economic growth rates have not led to any decrease in PNG’s poverty rate over the last 20 years.
Although the benefits of economic growth are not reaching the vast majority of the population, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has repeatedly cited the need to create a stable political environment to boost foreign investor confidence. Since ascending to power, O’Neill has endlessly promoted “political stability” to justify a daunting array of anti-democratic measures which cynics perceive as a thinly veiled attempt to prolong his own leadership.
First, he has amended the Constitution to extend the period during which any vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister is prohibited, from 30 months previously to now a total of 43 months out of the 60-month (5 year) term between elections. A second change has been to reduce the minimum number of parliamentary sitting days to just 40 days per year, and to increase the number of MPs who must sponsor any motion for a vote of no confidence. A further proposed constitutional amendment would require that in the event of a vote of no confidence against a Prime Minister, the subsequent Prime Minister must be a member of the same political party as the outgoing Prime Minister.
Further measures include sacking the Treasurer and Attorney-General, as well as Ministers for Petroleum & Resources, Higher Education and Industrial Relations, all within the last three months. Although such action could be perceived as undermining political stability, the reason given in each case was the need for stability. In the case of the Treasurer, his sacking followed his opposition to a proposed loan that would raise national debt to a level he felt to be irresponsibly high. In response, O’Neill appointed himself Acting Treasurer and unilaterally approved the loan. The Ombudsman has since referred O’Neill to the Public Prosecutor for alleged misconduct in bypassing proper parliamentary processes for approving the loan.
The Attorney-General was sacked for opposing O’Neill’s proposed Constitutional amendment relating to votes of no confidence. Just days earlier, O’Neill had commended the Attorney-General as one of the best-performing Ministers.
More worryingly, O’Neill has also disbanded the anti-corruption Task Force he had himself set up. This occurred immediately after it recommended police action on evidence that O’Neill had improperly authorised approximately USD30 million in payments to a law firm. O’Neill further sacked the Police Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner who signed the arrest warrant against him. The National Court recently granted a permanent stay against the disbandment of the Task Force.
O’Neill’s fixation on political stability is all the more curious given that he took power in controversial circumstances which precipitated a constitutional crisis. The Supreme Court had ruled that O’Neill had failed to meet constitutional requirements when claiming the Prime Ministership. In response to this decision, O’Neill imperilled the separation of powers by increasing parliamentary power to remove members of the judiciary. However, he repealed this legislation after a public outcry and the resolution of the constitutional crisis at the 2012 election.
In any event, O’Neill now enjoys unprecedented support on the floor of Parliament, and the Opposition retains only 3 seats out of the total 111. Several former Opposition members have crossed the floor since the election, stating that it was necessary because O’Neill made it difficult for opposition MPs to access funds for their constituencies.
By punishing any traces of dissent within the ranks of government, dismissing senior officers exercising independent oversight of prime ministerial action, and removing any effective voice of Opposition on the floor of Parliament, O’Neill has seriously curtailed the public’s right to information which could properly influence their vote. In the words of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, each of these measures appears to be an “unreasonable restriction” on the right to “free expression of the will of the electors”. Adhering to human rights principles of transparency and accountability is particularly crucial in a young and fragile democracy seeking to strengthen the rule of law.
Foreign investors have responded to this ongoing corrosion of democracy by continuing to call for “stability” – no doubt music to the Prime Minister’s ears, but a setback for the country’s adherence to human rights.