Use OLIPPAC to curb instability

Focus, Normal

The National, Tuesday July 31st, 2012

DAYS before the Supreme Court’s verdict on July 7, 2010, people expressed fear that a decision against the OLIPPAC would send PNG back to the types of uncertainties that were known during the pre-OLIPPAC days. 
Whatever the reasons and causes for concern, the OLIPPAC remains the best starting point as solutions are considered for the way forward. 
The collective remains of the OLIPPAC after July 2010 still offer a credible basis to start. 
The Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Commission (IPPCC), as a centre to oversee and regulate the activities of political
parties, is critical for future efforts to strengthen political parties. 
Its specific task to register and work closely with political parties is a better scenario than leaving them to survive based on the appeal of individuals and their ambitions. 
A good chance for the IPPCC office to operate successfully really depends on a proper working relationship with other public institutions it collaborates with. 
The office of the speaker of parliament, the PNG Electoral Commission and Ombudsman Commission and the public prosecutor’s office are among the main offices that the IPPCC should consider the key allies in its operations. 
Apart from the OLIPPAC, there are other ways or methods that have been suggested either to strengthen political parties or entice stability in parliament. 
Surprisingly, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, the first beneficiary of the OLIPPAC as a prime minister between 2002 and 2007, tried to introduce other mechanisms alongside the OLIPPAC to shore up his position when his reign was supposed to have been guaranteed by law. 
His government first sought an extension of the grace period from 18 to 36 months in 2003. 
The government then floated the idea of a grand coalition. 
I personally believe that a lasting solution rests with a politically conscious public more than any mechanisms. 
Grand coalition
Having a grand coalition, or an amalgamation of all political parties on the floor of parliament, was one proposed solution well before the OLIPPAC came onboard. 
In fact, the concept was suggested prior to independence by a senior administrator to suit a different political setting where it was thought to be a workable strategy to rein in all political parties and micro-nationalist movements and guide them as a unified bloc towards independence. 
The idea was to sporadically surface again after independence, but by then it was a suggested solution to curb the chronic instability of coalition governments. 
Incidentally, this suggestion arose during the 2002-07 parliamentary term while the OLIPPAC was already in force – just as is the case today among certain opinion circles. 
Upon close scrutiny, having a grand coalition is not a solution for the country. 
It goes against the principle of checks and balance which is fundamental to a Westminster model of government. 
At the very least, the role of the opposition in theory is to offer alternative views or perspectives on policies or decisions suggested by the executive arm of government. 
The judiciary has the opportunity under the doctrine of “judicial review” to evaluate, and where deem necessary, invalidate activities of the legislature and executive arm of government. 
Other than that, the public has no other recourse to the decision-making process, apart from resorting to dissident activities.  
Vote of no-confidence
and dissolution
of parliament 
Section 145 of PNG’s National Constitution caters for the vote of no confidence. 
This practice works well in established parliamentary democracies, particularly where political parties have reputations that they need to protect in the public domain. 
For weak parliamentary democracies such as PNG, a vote of no-confidence can easily be abused where reasons to justify such a vote can be easily concocted with less scrutiny by the public. 
The use of or threat of a vote of no-confidence against sitting governments was a feature of virtually every parliamentary term since the 1980s. 
Consequently, government business was continually preoccupied by games of political survival. 
Prime ministers and cabinets struggled to procure support to stay in office, while those outside did everything possible to dislodge the government. 
It has been suggested on more than one occasion that a successful vote of no confidence should lead to an immediate dissolution of parliament and, therefore, a precursor to fresh elections. 
This was supposed to create deterrence against the abuse of the vote of no-confidence. 
This suggestion has been around in PNG for some time, and was even raised during Sir Michael’s reign from between 2002 and 2007.  
The cause of instability in PNG is not the existence of the no confidence clause but rather its abuse.
The deterrence of having an early election is both an unlikely proposition and potentially damaging for the country. 
Since political survival is a priority for parliamentarians, they might as well serve out a full parliamentary term with the “devil they know” (an unpopular prime minister) rather than exposed themselves prematurely to early election competition if they were to support successful votes of no confidence. 
This situation can cause more harm to parliamentary democracy since MPs will feel helpless given that the only recourse that they can take to remove an unpopular or minority-supported prime minister (ie a vote of no-confidence) will now serve as a threat to unseat them too. 
Contesting elections in PNG is also a very expensive exercise. 
It often takes a full five-year parliamentary term or more to recoup the costs of the previous election. 
In addition, the fact that there is a high turnover rate of MPs gives reason for MPs to avoid a shortened parliamentary term since there is no guarantee of re-election. 
Moreover, it is a logistical nightmare as well as costly exercise for the PNG Electoral Commission to be conducting elections at unscheduled times. Slush funds to registered political parties represented
in parliament
Another suggested solution to address parliamentary instability in PNG is to allocate the slush funds (presently the DSIP) to political parties rather than individual MPs as is presently the case.
On face value, this solution makes sense in that the incentive to join a party is present. 
Otherwise, it may still face problems in the country. 
First, independent MPs are not directly catered for in this proposal. 
Perhaps the general assumption exist that independent MPs will eventually joint parties in order to have access to the slush funds. 
They cannot be discriminated against based on a need to join parties since to do so would be unconstitutional. 
Consequently, this might then spawn an increase in tiny parties (perhaps one man) on the floor of parliament so that the slush fund is more directly accessible. 
Another limitation foreseen in this proposal is that it is difficult to imagine MPs changing a practice where slush fund allocations will now leave “their hands” and go to parties for the sake of strengthening political parties. 
The DSIPs are the most visible means by which MPs have in their hands to direct serve their constituencies. 
Again, there is little space for moral consideration since what is at stake is political survival – and they cannot possibly support a change that would threaten their very own existence in parliament.  
A way ahead
The three suggested solutions discussed – including the OLIPPAC – have all been top-down exercises. 
This means that the target people are those in the upper echelon of society; in this case the MPs as well as party officials. 
The majority of the population predominantly in electorates is not included in these exercises. 
This amounts to an interesting but difficult challenge where guiding the behavior of MPs through laws and procedures is supposed to have a trickle-down effect so as far as political stability is to be enticed. 
This is a lop-sided strategy since parliamentarians basically react to their voters more than any reference to laws, as evident by the general attitude towards the OLIPPAC. 
A concerted effort, therefore, is needed to address the problem of parliamentary instability in all its inherent facets. 
That should mean that measures aimed at the voting public are the other necessary component that cannot be ignored. 
Hence, a bottom-up approach is just as important in addressing the problem of parliamentary instability. 
The government should endeavour to have measures in place to shore up civic education on the role of MPs and parliament – among key topics. 
This, I believe, is an issue worth further consideration. 

lDr Henry Okole is a senior research fellow at the National Research Institute. The views expressed are his and do not represent the views of the NRI.