Look and think before you leap

Editorial, Normal

The National, Thursday July 11th, 2013

 WATCHING one’s back has been the private nightmare of every powerful figure since Julius Caesar stared into the eyes of his best friend who had plunged the fatal final dagger into his body and whispered: “Et u Brute (And you too, Brutus)”.

So it is perfectly understandable the move by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to amend the Constitution in two places in the name of stability even when he heads, without question, seemingly the most stable government in PNG’s history.

Every government that has fallen in PNG’s turbulent political life has been the workings of a “brutus”, a lieutenant breaking ranks from within to engineer the downfall of his master.

O’Neill should know. It was he, who Michael Thomas Somare used to call “son”, who had engineered the downfall of the Somare administration from within on Aug 2, 2011. 

Somare’s first loss of office in 1981 was engineered by Iambake Okuk, the Highlander who broke ranks with the Highlands bloc in 1973 to hand independence on a silver platter to Somare.

Somare’s second loss of government in 1985 was engineered by his Deputy Prime Minister, Paias Wingti. Wingti’s own demise came about in 1988 when his own Mt Hagen brother Paul Pora decided to pit his crucial five MPs with Sir Rabbie Namaliu using the principle of “in the Highlands singsing area there is always one leader, not two”.

This trend has been consistent throughout in every change of government through a motion of no confidence and we are certain that is what has motivated O’Neill to seek far surer solace in the protection of the law rather than the security of numbers on his side of the floor in Parliament which he now enjoys.

Other prime ministers have also turned to the Constitution before with mixed results. Sir Rabbie successfully moved to extend the period between formation of government and when a motion of no confidence could be moved to from six to 18 months.

His successor Wingti in 1993 tried to manipulate the Constitution by a shock resignation and re-election the next day in order to turn the hour glass over and restart the grace period count, and lost the gamble. The Constitution ruled, his ploy was not in compliance with the spirit of the Constitution. Put another way, it was not as intended by the fathers of the Constitution.

After his own political coup d’état, O’Neill moved fast  with the numbers on his side and the full support of the current Opposition leader Belden Namah, then his lieutenant and deputy prime minister, to make changes to various sections of the Constitution to consolidate their positions.

Even when those changes were ruled unconstitutional by the courts, they used Parliament to openly challenge the authority of the judiciary, creating a Constitutional impasse.

All of this is now history and pretty much water under the bridge because upon taking government after the 2012 general elections, O’Neill’s  government of “unity, reconciliation and reconstruction” moved with all haste to amend those  “mistakes” to restore the Constitution.

With even more numbers now filed on the prime minister’s camp, it will be a simple walk in the park to change the Constitution, unless of course the Opposition leader is successful in gaining a stay. 

It is uncertain too at this stage whether the judiciary wants to enter into that exclusive preserve without infringing upon the independence of the Legislature.

We agree wholeheartedly with the prime minister that political stability is needed. Look at the period between 2002 and 2012 when one government continued in office. 

The biggest continuous economic growth in PNG’s country occurred, so much so that a global depression in 2008 did not hit as hard as it could have. The reason: stable government.

What we urge is that O’Neill must be extremely careful he does not make another “mistake” this time  by tinkering the Constitution.

Political stability he has today and by all intent and purpose looks like he can carry it to the elections in 2017 and beyond.

Managing the many in his camp will determine whether he survives unscathed. At the same time, those in government must resist the greedy temptation to challenge the PM and change government.

We feel that changing the Constitution now could leave a dangerous loophole behind, beyond this government and this prime minister for a person or group less well intentioned to exploit, to the detriment of us all. 

Also, tinkering with the Constitution once too often also has another unintended effect: It loses its credibility. We do not want that.

Perhaps it is best to remain vigilant and ensure nobody turns “brutus”. That vigilance does have a powerful calming effect all around and is an integral part of the democratic process.