The National, Monday July 15th, 2013
By ANDREW MAKO
The notion of “stability” in PNG has often been used by many governments to increase their political longevity in Parliament, and to quash any attempts to overthrow them.
This is a narrow definition of political stability, which is elusive at best and been “achieved” in many ways that undermined parliamentary democracy and lessened the power of the Parliament or the legislature over the years.
Constant change in government is disruptive to socio-economic development and should not be encouraged.
However, in PNG the executive government’s practice of amassing power, particularly in the last decade, at the expense of the legislature, the second arm of government, is in itself undemocratic, and impedes the separation of power between these two arms of government.
Since 1977, PNG has only had coalition governments – small parties coming together to join a party which had won many more seats (although on average less than 30 percent of total seats contested across PNG) than the other parties.
Successive coalition governments have been fragile and, until the last decade, haven’t lived out their full terms of five years in Parliament.
In the PNG Parliament, the balance of power that ultimately determines the lifespan of a government lies with the middle and backbenches of the Parliament.
This is where “unattached” MPs are seated. By “unattached”, I mean those MPs who either are not in government, or at least, not occupying portfolios in the government.
They are not powerbrokers in the coalition.
History shows that ensuring the support of the middle and backbenchers has been an important goal for any government.
If a coalition government can successfully “shut out” the middle and backbenchers of the Parliament, it can ably last a full term of five years.
This was brought to the fore in the last decade under Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare’s two terms of government.
How did previous governments control the middle and backbenchers?
Formal attempts were made by the executive government during the early 2000 to bring stability into Parliament to “control” the middle and backbenchers.
The government headed by then prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta enacted the Organic Law on Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates (Olippac) in 2000 which required that all MPs voted along party lines, including in an event of a change in government.
For a decade, Olippac successfully “controlled” the power shifting forces of the Parliament until 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled that the particular provision (compulsory voting along party lines) of Olippac was unconstitutional.
This ruling rendered Olippac ineffective as far as “controlling” the middle and backbenchers was concerned.
The middle and backbenchers of Parliament have since become the key powerbroking force in PNG’s political landscape.
Before the 2010 Supreme Court ruling (from 2002 to 2010), the coalition government headed by Sir Michael enjoyed nearly a decade of political “stability” in the history of this nation.
This was largely due to Olippac.
Other measures included gagging of debate in Parliament, and “appeasement” of the middle and backbenchers by promises of privileges such as easy access and timely release of District Services Improvement Programme (DSIP) funds and other funding streams such as the Provincial Services Improvement Programme (PSIP).
But during this period, a dangerous precedent was set as far as the balance of power between the executive government and the legislature was concerned.
The former amassed powers by eating into the latter’s in its quest to control the occupants of the middle and backbenches.
Yet, there will always be disgruntled middle and backbenchers and this “powder keg” is ready to explode when the conditions are ripe.
This became apparent at the end of the last decade after the Olippac was quashed by the Supreme Court in 2010.
In 2011, when the Opposition finally had a breakthrough in having its voice heard in Parliament, it moved for a change in government when Sir Michael was undergoing medical treatment overseas.
A majority of the middle and backbenchers crossed the floor, joining the Opposition to form a new government.
How is the government currently dealing with power-shifting forces in Parliament?
This is the situation the current coalition government inherited following last year’s national election.
Given the legislative void, the executive government faces a mammoth challenge in retaining its parliamentary support.
The current coalition government cannot use the same tactics as its predecessor mainly because:
- Parliament now has a Speaker who is “resilient”, and has proven that he cannot be easily influenced to gag Parliamentary debate;
- Promises of privileges to “appease” the middle and backbenchers can be ineffective because, like in 2011, they can easily cross the floor to form a new government and;
- The coalition government has announced that it will be a transparent and responsible government.
So to ensure political “stability” or for the coalition government to live out its full term in Parliament, the executive government had to further lessen the powers of the legislature by amending key legislation including specific sections of the supreme law of the land, the Constitution.
An example of such legislative change enacted in recent months was the extension of the grace period to 30 months (from 18 months).
The government announced recently that further legislative changes will be made to ensure political “stability”.
The proposed Constitutional amendments require a mover of a motion of no confidence against an incumbent prime minister or government to give three months notice in advance, an increase from one week.
The mover has to obtain the signatures of one-third of the MPs, up from one-tenth.
The minimum number of sitting days of Parliament is to be reduced from 63 to 40.
The nature of the proposed legislative changes is such that the demarcation of powers will again be negatively impacted – more powers will be amassed by the executive government at the expense of the legislature.
Essentially, this will lessen the noise the middle and backbenchers could make against the government.
The Opposition has condemned these proposed legislative changes. But, it is powerless to prevent change given it now has just six MPs.
The departed MPs say they do not want to miss out on bringing development to their electorates.
This is a diplomatic way of saying they do not want to miss out on privileges enjoyed by government MPs such as timely and easier access of DSIP and PSIP funds. Those still in Opposition claim their development funds have been withheld.
What has been happening in Parliament and the actions successive executive governments have taken since the last decade is due to the “fear” incumbent governments have of being ousted by the (minority) opposition when their very own middle and backbenchers rise against them.
How can this dilemma be addressed?
This calls for a bipartisan approach that could introduce radical political reforms to be passed by Parliament which would bring meaningful solutions.
Reforms that would turn political “stability” in PNG on its head are needed.
- Andrew Anton Mako is a research fellow under the Economic Policy Research programme at the National Research Institute. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of NRI or any political party.