Craving a PNG compromise

As the constitutional crisis continues to rage in Papua New Guinea, both claims to the prime ministership are showing little capacity to find a compromise.

Lowy Interpreter

Today marks day five of Papua New Guinea's constitutional crisis. The country has two prime ministers, two cabinets, two governors-general and two police commissioners.

Both Michael Somare and Peter O'Neill have fair claims to the prime ministership. PNG's Supreme Court has ruled that Somare, who was a dominant prime minister from 2002 until he became ill in April this year, is the legitimate head of government, in accordance with the constitution.

Peter O'Neill has the numbers on the floor of parliament – a crucial element of the capacity to govern – and since he took office in August, appears to have generated a degree of popular support that the Somare government had lost after nine years in power.

General elections are due in June 2012. The prize of prime minister and the power and financial resources that come with occupying the government benches are a huge advantage in what is likely to be one of the most competitive and expensive campaigns in PNG's history.

The egos and ambitions of both men and the desires of their respective cabinets to occupy those government benches suggest neither will back down quickly. But the deadlock must be broken. One man must step aside or both must compromise. Somare has an opportunity to leave office gracefully – in the national interest – after a somewhat ignominious departure in April when he was suspended for misconduct in office.

He could safeguard his legacy by acknowledging it is time for a younger generation to govern PNG. Alternatively, O'Neill could recognise the supremacy of the constitution, cede office to Somare and proceed to run an election campaign on his merits and as 'the prime minister who was robbed of office'. Both approaches would garner some public support and sympathy.

At the moment, neither option looks likely. Calls by Church leaders to mediate a meeting between the two leaders have been rejected. Both sides are digging in.

A possible alternative is a national unity government or grand coalition that could govern in 'caretaker' mode until election writs are issued. As things stand, it seems unlikely Somare and O'Neill would agree to this because both would have to compromise and cede an advantage each perceives they have.

But there are advantages to this solution. Ministries could be shared equally among both cabinets or the cabinet could be extended temporarily to satisfy both sides. The budget and other vital legislation could be passed quickly. While it could increase the bounty available to members on the government benches prior to elections, it could also remove the political advantage that the dominant party has in the campaign, which would be no bad thing.

A level playing field might just make for a better outcome in many constituencies. It might also restore some public and investor confidence in PNG's political system after the damage wrought this week.

Successive PNG governments have failed to deliver benefits to the population from the country’s immense resources wealth. Both sides in PNG would do well to remember that the growing youth population of their country is unlikely to tolerate politicians who pursue their own ambitions at the expense of the people. PNG needs a government that can convert revenue from natural resources into improving health and education for all and providing opportunities for young people.

Australian journalists have speculated on what Australia can do to help. For our nearest neighbour, 15th largest trading partner, second largest aid recipient and former colony, the Australian nation should bear some sense of responsibility. But there is little, if anything, Australia can do in the current impasse. So far, the public reaction has been peaceful.

If the deadlock is prolonged and triggers some violence, there may be some calls for assistance to maintain law and order – particularly if the division among PNG's police means they cannot respond effectively. Even in this situation, Australia may only be willing to offer the assistance of its existing Australian Federal Police advisers in PNG.

This crisis has been brought about by PNG's politicians and ultimately has to be solved by them. While the Australian government can certainly encourage both sides to agree to talk to each other, Australia can really only watch with interest and hope for the best.

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.