THE CANBERRA TIMES
In the meantime, a grim farce persists, and worsens. On paper there are two prime ministers - one of whom, Peter O'Neill, has the support of parliament and most of the bureaucracy and machinery of government, such as it is in that troubled state.
The other is the former prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, the old chief, father of the nation, whose family announced his retirement when he was seriously ill, and unable to communicate, in the middle of last year.
Parliament, which in an ordinary constitutional setting is the master of its own affairs, declared Sir Michael had forfeited his seat and his right to be prime minister. Then the third arm of PNG government, the Supreme Court, declared Sir Michael had not been properly deposed and had to be reinstated.
The PNG Governor-General swore in Sir Michael and a cabinet of his nomination, but, almost simultaneously, the national parliament, where Mr O'Neill has the numbers resolved to depose Sir Michael properly, and to put up Mr O'Neill as prime minister.
When the Governor-General failed to do so, parliament purported to suspend him, and appointed its Speaker acting Governor-General. If only to emphasise that the judicial arm cannot be allowed to escape from similar conflicts of disloyalty, Mr O'Neill has now purported (again) to suspend the nation's chief justice for misconduct related to his management of the court's affairs.
Likewise judges of the court have refused to entertain some cases on the basis of the defiance of its judgments. Sir Michael seems generally to accept that he holds office, if he does even that, without power, other than of a pulpit.
But he periodically lurches into foolish and dangerous behaviour, such as purporting to appoint or dismiss officials, leading to the sheer, if dangerous farce of an attempted mutiny - some would say coup - a fortnight ago.
It is to a degree King Lear as farce - with Sir Michael threatening his legacy and place in history by the way in which he now plays the ''very foolish fond old man ... not in my perfect mind''.
It might even be funny - in the manner of the revolving doors in comic Latin American banana republics 80 years ago - were not it also tragic. PNG has critical problems, but not the time or the need for this sort of tomfoolery.
As it happens a number of chance catastrophes illustrate the problems of the vacuums at the top. Two weeks ago, about 25 people were crushed by a quarry landslip, near a natural gas drilling operation in the Southern Highlands.
The response of the PNG bureaucracy was about as good as one might expect, given the way in which the national infrastructure has broken down and the political leadership was distracted by mutinies, legal manoeuvres and miscellaneous posturings, but it is almost impossible to avoid the feeling that the help given to victims was inadequate.
And only days later, a ferry carrying about 350 people sank in seas off Lae; more than 110 people appear to be still missing, probably drowned. Combined with a major aircraft disaster a few months ago, other weather and seismic disasters, the recent (and natural) downgrading of the nation's credit, and the continuing crisis of providing any sort of effective healthcare, education, community services or law and order on the ground in PNG, outsiders can be forgiven for scathing remarks about the lack of leadership and control.
Many Australians watch these developments with mounting concern, if with some diffidence about doing anything that will be condemned as ''neo-colonial'' or paternalistic, or otherwise as efforts to attempt to take control. PNG must ultimately solve its own problems, but it could use some disinterested help.
It is not merely a matter of the political, economic and social stability of PNG being a vital national interest for Australia. It is also a reflection of our common history and association, and long and genuine relationships between peoples.
But, as many observers have lamented, Australia and PNG have been increasingly growing apart. Fewer and fewer Australians are very knowledgeable about, interested in, or seem to care much about our close friend and nearest neighbour.
That is in part because Sir Michael has taken any criticism badly and rejected offers of help, except on his terms. The farce of its current politics, and some of the mysteries of Melanesian tribalism and ways of resolving conflict - and perhaps the attractions of brighter, more cosmopolitan lights - helps the indifference.
Our Pacific neighbours are in trouble, but we are doing too little, as big brother or as good neighbour, to help out, to broker peace and better government, to soothe wounds and to promote genuine and enduring friendship.
Photo: First PNG elections 1964. Keith Jackson takes a vote somewhere out of Chuave