EDITORIAL | Canberra Times
THE PEOPLE OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA have had both the best and the worst that the nation's political and constitutional system has to offer over the past year.
Last Friday, after a general election, Peter O'Neill was voted in as Prime Minister by an overwhelming majority, 94 votes to 12. Parliament met rather earlier than it should have with polls not yet declared in a number of seats, but that could not have affected the outcome.
It was probably not without significance that the week of the opening of parliament was an anniversary - a year since Mr O'Neill ousted Sir Michael Somare as prime minister after a declaration by a majority in parliament that Sir Michael, ill and unconscious while slowly recovering from heart surgery in Singapore had forfeited his seat by absence, and thus the prime ministership.
Thus began a year of constitutional upheaval that will probably be remembered most - by outsiders, including Australians, and PNG citizens - as a year of wasted time, inaction and serious delay in addressing PNG's fundamental problems.
Sir Michael, the nation's first prime minister in 1975, one of the national fathers and big chiefs, has stayed in politics for much too long. Even his family had announced, during his illness, that he was quitting politics.
However, soon after the formal deposition, he had fresh wind and insisted that he had not been deposed in the manner that the nation's constitution required. He challenged his sacking and, by majority, judges of the PNG constitutional court agreed and ordered that he be re-sworn as prime minister by the governor-general.
Months of political and constitutional confusion and farce followed. After the governor-general swore in Sir Michael and a cabinet he nominated, Mr O'Neill, with a firm grip on the numbers in parliament, had parliamentary confidence in his leadership affirmed, then sacked the governor-general and appointed a new one, who recognised him, and he continued to govern.
The national bureaucratic machinery, independent officials and the military and police continued to recognise Mr O'Neill as prime minister, and followed instructions from his ministers.
This did not stop a mischievous and foolish Sir Michael from occasional acts of vandalism of a threadbare government fabric, such as purported appointments of new police and military commanders, followed by abortive ''coup'' attempts, and the general chaos, pathos and bathos which naturally followed the comic opera operation of a nation in which there were generally at least two people in every official role. The last thing PNG needed was to be a local joke and an international laughing stock.
A somewhat more dangerous development occurred from anger within the Mr O'Neill government at the actions of the constitutional court and hot-headed beliefs that the judges - or some of them - could have reached their conclusions only because they were corrupt.
There were efforts to sack or force judges to stand down, purported criminal investigations into what were very unpersuasively claimed to be dodgy judgments and, ultimately, a confrontation in court between the Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia and the then deputy prime minister, accompanied by troops. Sir Salamo conducted himself with all of the dignity he could muster, but many think that some of the problems stemmed from the impracticality of his original judgment.
Mercifully, the nation was moving towards election and there seemed an informal consensus that the election would resolve the matter. (Even the Chief Justice seemed to agree, judging from his apparently approving presence at the parliamentary swearing in on Friday).
PNG elections are always rowdy and nearly always produce a big turnover of members and parties, and this one was no exception. After elections, there are always intense periods of negotiations between different parties - none, indeed no two, even close to having numbers in its own right.
It is one of the glories of Melanesian politics that your worst enemy today might be your best friend tomorrow - and that there is little ideology. There is, moreover, a check and balance by virtue of geography and the fact that even the very ''big men'' in the system have control only over limited areas of land, clans and interests: national progress occurs only when enough of these interests can agree.
In any event, Mr O'Neill has formed what is pretty close to a national government, with last month's enemy Sir Michael in his cabinet, as well as another old soldier of PNG affairs, Sir Julius Chan.
For the time being things may settle down and there may be some actual attention to pressing needs of the nation, not least over education, health, infrastructure, natural resources (particularly timber), law and order, and political corruption.