TODAY’S EDITORIAL IN THE
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
THE STAND-OFF BETWEEN Papua New Guinea's parliament and its judiciary reached a dangerous flashpoint last week, which can only dismay the country's well-wishers in Australia.
The rights and wrongs of the legal and constitutional points involved are too arcane for all but a few specialists to grasp fully. What is clear is that both sides of the political contest at the bottom of it are resorting to force.
The action of the Deputy Prime Minister, Belden Namah, in storming into the Supreme Court at the head of a posse of police, to order the arrest of the chief justice, Salamo Injia, for sedition is outrageous. Namah is not the instrument of the law, nor are powers of prosecution on other laws such as sedition part of his ministerial responsibilities.
It was a snap, unilateral political arrest. The police, legal agencies and lower courts should have no bar of it but it appears they have. Five months ago Namah gave amnesty to some armed soldiers who had tried intervening in politics. Now he sees sedition in a private emails between two judges.
Similarly, some police associated with the officer appointed as police commissioner by the ousted prime minister Michael Somare made a disturbing intervention. They blocked access to the parliament on Friday to prevent Peter O'Neill, who replaced Somare in August, recalling MPs to reaffirm parliamentary support for his leadership. This is a contest between the law, as the highest court interprets it, and the parliament. The constitutional dilemma remains.
O'Neill convened parliament and retains its confidence, gaining extra emergency powers. The chief justice remains on the bench, despite government efforts to suspend him, and the court's ruling that the ousting of Somare was invalid also stands.
Fortunately, this parliament is in its last weeks, as elections are due next month - a resolution in practical terms. Debate will continue whether Salamo was right to push things on such fine points of parliamentary procedure, knowing political chaos could result, when the voters have an early chance to decide. The Supreme Court's important role against political misconduct now seems greatly weakened.
That PNG gets a fair and well-run election on schedule is supremely important. In its 37 years of independence from Australia, it has stuck to the constitutional schedule assiduously, despite many problems in holding elections in such difficult terrain.
Politics have been debased at times by bribery and intimidation but elections have delivered political change accepted by all.
O'Neill has headed off a push from within his ranks to delay the vote. He and his colleagues must now apply all possible resources to ensure an honest, transparent election.
The next parliament will present a tremendous opportunity for PNG's 7 million people. The ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project centred on the southern highlands will start deliveries to foreign customers in 2014. In its first year, it will boost gross domestic product by 20 to 25 per cent. Already, development work has given PNG the seventh highest growth rate in the world. The revenue streams will mightily boost the government's resources.
But much of the population still lives a subsistence lifestyle, growing and catching food, barely touching the modern economy except in the odd cash sale. How to connect that LNG revenue and other resources from tax-paying activity with that subsistence village world is the job of the government.
It means steady painstaking work in extending roads and boat jetties, harnessing communication leaps such as the spread of mobile telephones, improving security on roads and in market places, and building human capacity through schooling, health services and adult education.
We can only hope the next parliament focuses more on these policies and less on squabbling over the spoils of office.