Hela by-election must proceed

The National,Tuesday June 14th, 2016

ELECTORAL Commissioner Patilas Gamato is bound by law to proceed with conducting the by-election for the Hela Regional seat left vacant by the death of Governor Anderson Agiru in May this year.
Gamato had earlier promised that the by-election would be held after the mourning period as a mark of respect for the late Agiru who was much revered by his people.
With six weeks remaining before the July 25 deadline, the onus is on Gamato to begin the by-election process by announcing the date for the issuing of writs.
It is also imperative that the O’Neill Government provide the necessary funds for the Electoral Commission to conduct this crucial by-election, which will ensure the resource-rich province continues to be fairly and adequately represented in Parliament by a duly-elected governor.
It is fair to say that the Hela people are split on whether to hold the by-election or not.
The supporters and sympathisers of the late governor are seemingly opposed to immediately replacing their fallen hero and would rather wait another 12 months to elect Agiru’s successor in the 2017 general election. They believe that holding the by-election just two months after Agiru’s death is disrespectful of their great leader.
On the other hand, there are those who want the by-election to proceed, not only because it is constitutionally correct but, emotions aside, Hela must move on. Moreover, they believe that the Office of the Governor belongs to the Hela people and wasn’t tailor-made for the late Agiru.
While the opponents of the by-election, which include influential figures within the O’Neill Government, are adamant that the by-election is a waste of time and money, they really don’t have a choice.
By law, the Hela by-election must proceed as the precedent has been set with the current by-election for the North Bougainville seat left vacant by the death of the late MP and state minister Steven Kama.
Thus, it is legally binding for the Electoral Commission to conduct the by-election while it is inexcusable, deliberate or otherwise, for the Government not to provide the necessary funds.
As one of our commentators said last week, the current situation in Hela is an analogy between its strongly embedded cultural heritage and the Constitution.
“Hela people are at the crossroad as they decide whether to allow their culture to rule over what governs their existence and that is to simply abide by the Constitution.”
The Electoral Commission is empowered under Section 106 of the Constitution to fill a vacancy in Parliament if it occurs more than 12 months from the date of the issuing of writs for the next general election. By the same token, a by-election cannot be held if the vacancy occurs within the stipulated 12 month period.
It is important that the Hela people are given the choice of a by-election to elect a new governor who will not only continue to build on the solid foundation set by the late Agiru but also ensure there are no disruptions to the delivery of essential government services over the next 12 months.
Indeed, there are many outstanding development projects and social issues, including law and order matters, which need to be addressed by a duly-elected governor who has the people’s mandate.
There have been suggestions that an acting governor be appointed or elected within the current provincial assembly, which comprises Members of Parliament and Local Level Governments.
However, that may be deemed illegal and open to challenge in court.
There is currently a court case challenging the purported removal of Agiru by another Hela MP last year.
Indeed, it is in the best interests of the Hela people that a by-election be conducted as soon as possible to elect a new governor.
It is imperative that Electoral Commissioner Gamato issue the writs before July 25 to satisfy the constitutional requirements of the by-election.
It is likely that Gamato may face political pressure to forego the by-election but that will be against the law and also compromise the independence of the Electoral Commissioner’s Office.
Interestingly, a refusal by the political leadership to endorse and financially support the Hela by-election could result in a major constitutional crisis.
Such a scenario should be avoided at all costs amid the current university student crisis.