27 Apr 2012

PNG PM's latest elections guarantee cautiously accepted

4:19 pm on 27 April 2012

Papua New Guinea's trade union leaders, churches and civil society groups met with Prime Minister Peter O'Neill on Thursday and received assurances that the elections would go ahead on time.

The unions had threatened widespread strike action in protest over the government plans to defer the elections, originally scheduled for June.

Despite a parliament vote earlier this month to defer the elections by six months, Mr O'Neill had made repeated reassurances that the motion was non-binding and that the Electoral Commissioner had the final say on the matter.

Johnny Blades reports

The Electoral Commissioner Andrew Trawen has announced that the elections will proceed as originally scheduled with the writs to be issued in mid-May.

But claims persist from MPs that the Electoral Commission has failed to complete the common roll in time, amid signs of an ongoing battle with some members of Mr O'Neill's coalition pressing for a delay in the poll.

However the president of the Trades Union Congress, Michael Malabag, expressed satisfaction over the Prime Minister's latest guarantee:

"We will be reviewing our stand, but look, if the guarantee of the elections is May 18th there is nothing to benefit if we are going to withhdraw services because everything was dependent on what was going to happen. Now we have got a guarantee of May 18th, the Judicial Bill is before the courts, so basically there is nothing else for us to keep pushing, but then it will be dependent on all my trade union affiliates."

As well as outrage over the possibility that PNG's five-yearly election would be deferred, the groups have been protesting laws passed in parliament which the O'Neill government say are an attempt to regulate the judiciary.

All of those laws have been challenged in the court and a stay issued on them while a series of Supreme Court references on the legality of Peter O'Neill's parliamentary election as Prime Minister continues.

The former Attorney General, Madang MP Sir Arnold Amet, says the O'Neill coalition is desperate to hang on to power.

Once you've got some whiff of power, you're not likely to let it go in a hurry. And that's what's continuing to happen. We're changing the ground rules as we're going along. We're trying to intimidate the judiciary, we're threatening them with criminal prosecution, trying to muzzle their powers with the Judicial Conduct Act amendment, amendments to the Supreme Court Act last week, which all in my opinion are fundamentally flawed and unconstitutional because they're purporting to enact those legislations with insubordinate laws when the Supreme Court has made rulings based on constitutional supremacy.

Effrey Dademo of the non-government group, Act Now, says the public has had enough of the way the government is operating.

The general feeling on the streets now is just that they want elections to proceed, they want to go polls. But it almost seems like everyone's helpless. That's the feeling I get because I see people saying we're frustrated, I hear people saying we're frustrated but if it comes down to it being deferred for a longer period, what's going to happen? And that's something I find really hard to predict.

While the NGO community has cautiously accepted Peter O'Neill's reassurances, the public appetite for political change is reaching an all-time high approaching the planned elections.