Waigani’s House of Cards

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The National, Wednesday October 21st, 2015

 COMMENTARY by ROBERT SALMON-MINAK

 JUST three years ago, the PNC-led Alotau Accord appeared to be the new tablet upon which PNG’s political landscape was to be shaped. Foes were shut out, projects pencilled in, backs scratched and favours returned. Impasse hatchets were buried … or so it seemed.

Soon one of the engineers of the impasse was booted out of Vulupindi for refusing to sign on the controversial UBS loan deal. Another one was disciplined and a couple got floored with jabs. The boat did not rock. All seemed good.

A series of criminal allegations levelled against the prime minister failed to tear down his dominance. Instead they were met with determined resistance through judicial means, coupled with bureaucratic bullying. Another impasse ensued. PNC rolls on. 

As days turned to weeks and months, optimism turned to pessimism and hope to despair. Belden Namah’s voice waned to that of an estranged bedfellow with sour grapes. Polye’s contribution from the Opposition has also been dwarfed by the fanfare of the flamboyance with which the PNC-led coalition has rolled out the exorbitant infrastructure projects. The Pacific Games, seaport face-lifts, city roads metamorphosis and K15 million incentives to MPs to use in their electorates. Everything looked grand and glorious. 

Despite shortfalls in projected commodity prices, the PNC-led Cabinet refused to review the budget for the year. The nation largely staggered through though as the Government creatively accounted for the short term fiscal and economic fractures. Individuals enlightened in such matters, especially from the world of academia, have flagged the Government of the need to revisit its spending habits, but the dictates of politics weighed heavily on the Government’s wisdom. 

By the middle of 2015, the Government appeared stable. Polye had previously raised hell on four occasions declaring that he would move to oust PM O’Neill. O’Neill laughed it off on each occasion. So far, Polye has become a victim to his own calculated folly. If Namah had a habit of calling O’Neill to resign at every pin drop, Polye’s weakness is that he can’t stop proclaiming a pending no confidence motion every Parliament session. Polye is at it again. On any normal occasion it would be treated as another of Polye’s rants. But this time, there is a catch.

Enter the Houdini of PNG politics – Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare. He is like a shark when it comes to politics. The man can smell blood and time it to the kill zone. On an August morning in 2012, incumbent Prime Minister Peter O’Neill was flanked by Sir Michael and two of our former prime ministers who are now MPs. The setting was the Jackson airport. The picture was splashed across the two dailies’ front pages. Politics is a funny beast. There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics. The picture said it all. 

This last month, it is clear that Sir Michael (far from being a spent force) has been playing his political cards in the background. Publicly, he filed a multi-million kina claim against the State for stripping him his prime ministership. Treasury paid him in haste a negotiated settlement of K2.5 million, as a peace offering to an aging politician. Somare had other ideas. 

Soon after, her referred the PM and the whole engineering team behind the 2011 impasse to the Ombudsman Commission. Among them was Governor-General Sir Michael Ogio. The G-G could be immune from prosecution but did Somare make a schoolboy error of judgment? I seriously doubt it. 

What happens at the OC is not his concern, what the everyday guy or girl hears on the street when they wake up to the morning news is the punch he is looking for. There is an old African tale that says, when you wound an elephant, kill it. If you let it live, it will settle its score with you. 

Sir Michael has been in the news lately, in media events engineered by him. On Monday (Oct 12), Sir Michael announced his resignation from the National Alliance party, a week after the conclusion of a party caucus. The feeling is in the air. The intention is obvious. The writing will be on the wall … or will it wane?

Sir Michael has never been the type to wane and fade. The toll biology has taken on his body appears to have left his political genius unaffected. He is the master that is pulling the puppets at Waigani in the game played at the House of Cards again. October 27, 2015 is the day all these is geared towards. Parliament will then determine whether O’Neill’s house of cards weathers the storm that is brewing or will it fall like dominoes in one of the world’s greatest comebacks of all time.

Here is what to watch as the days roll on to D-Day. It is most likely Sir Michael may become a party leader to one of the key parties in the opposition, preferably Pangu party or the PNG party. Sam Basil or Belden Namah will be wise enough to create room for the Grand Chief. That will happen as soon as his divorce from NA is formalised. Soon, a number of the pro Somare MPs from the NA will flock to the party Sir Michael leads. Alternatively, if a motion for no confidence is allowed in Parliament and the NA is still with PNC, the caucus will vote to align themselves with the alliance that has the momentum. The NA will not want to lose out to the Opposition this close to the elections. They will be very calculating. Pruaitch has learned his ropes well it seems so far.

It appears that coalition partners have been flexible lately, in terms of their allegiance to the Alotau Accord. There have been meetings at a number of towns in the last few weeks between government coalition members, the Opposition and back bench PNC MPs. Nothing is concrete at this point in time. However, the political ground swell away from the Alotau Accord is said to be ballooning. 

If the move clicks into gear, a number of seasoned players’ names have been mentioned. Polye and Basil, it appears are happy to change government. They need the numbers now, not the portfolios. The other former prime ministers in parliament have been silent lately. It has not been specified whether PM O’Neill had Autonomy talks with Sir J or not. Paias Wingti has been the enigma in all this since he won back the Governorship of Western Highlands. Regardless, it appears a mix of young and seasoned heads appear bent on a transition of power. 

However, O’Neill will never go down without a fight. Let us not forget that he is in the driver’s seat at the moment. He has demonstrated energy, vigour and has not hesitated to add personal flavour to a number of national agendas since his mandate in 2012. He is not new to the power game. He was the shepherd of the Sir William skate regime and the chief engineer of the 2011 impasse. He knows what it takes to get there and fight to keep it. He has demonstrated to be a ferocious battler with a cool head. It would be a mistake to underestimate the Anglo Saxon DNA wired veins that run the blood across his neurological pathways. He has served his apprenticeship under Sir Michael during the NA era. He has the numbers now. To expect him to lose this game when the momentum is on his side is to bank on an illusion. Work needs to be done. And he will be there to defend at every battle front. Here is where the battle lines will be drawn.

Somare was a master at manipulating parliamentary process. Every time a motion was mooted against the NA regime, the speaker worked in concert with the Government to refuse the motion, adjourn Parliament or find some parliamentary convention to protect government. O’Neill was there. He will be there this time. The Opposition will have to overcome the speaker hurdle. The Notice must go through a committee in Parliament. O’Neill will be there. The Opposition must negotiate that. Before all that happens, O’Neill will use the State apparatus to raise funds and, most likely, pay outstanding DSIP funds to MPs. That carrot has worked like clockwork for O’Neill. We will have to wait and see if MPs will succumb to the allure of the dough.

However, the man whose face is on the money is no rookie. He may never carry the scars of the power theft of 2011 with him to heaven, but he looks like the guy who will never go down without fighting! He wants to settle the scores here and now. He may, if he has his way. If O’Neill survives this scare, he will be guaranteed five years, all other factors being equal. 

Some would love to see the O’Neill-led coalition serve five years. Others desire change. There are various reasons for and against. But the Waigani house of cards does not stack up or fall, according to opinion polls. The Waigani game is played by 111 MPs only and the benchmarks they use to align their support is not necessarily the ideals we would hope for in an ideal democracy. Politics is a dynamic animal that mutates according to the political relationships of the day.

However if it plays out, all citizens of this democracy would hope that stability in government is intact regardless of the outcome. One of PNG’s founding fathers defines stability of government thus: “Stability of government is not the continuity of one government for a long period, but the mature transition of government from one to another.” That is the essence of an evolved democracy. Stability does not need one set of politicians to flourish; instead regardless of who comes into power, if stability remains unaffected, that is the hallmark of a mature democracy. 

Well folks that was a sneak peak at how, I think, the house of cards will stack up in the next few weeks. Whether you are for government, the Opposition, in between or don’t care, I believe you share with me in the hope that stability in all facets of our democracy continue regardless of the political hype. 

The feeling is in the air. The intention is obvious. Bring on October 27, 2015.

 

  • The author is a private lawyer. The views shared here are his own and are not of this newspaper. He can be contacted on email: salmonminak@gmail.com
 

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