Does political stability consolidate an irresponsible government? PNG 2012-2018



Proponents of political stability argue that stability is necessary for the government to design and implement political programs to bring about development and provide a favorable business environment, and that the change of government disrupts the implementation of development programs. . This view may have some relevance for Papua New Guinea (PNG). From independence in 1975 to 2002, successive votes of no confidence removed prime ministers and sometimes replaced the entire executive. No government has ever had the chance to fully implement its policies. In 2002, Ben Reilly noted that Papua New Guinea’s unbroken record of democracy has not been accompanied by economic development. Figure 1 shows how unstable PNG politics were prior to 2002. Between 1975 and 2018, even though PNG only had nine national elections, there were 15 changes in the prime minister’s position, many more than the six times prime ministers have been removed from office after the election.

Figure 1: Number of Years Prime Ministers Have Been in Office

Source: Adapted from Gelu (2005: 86), additions made for 2003-2018. The figure excludes acting prime ministers.

Other scholars are of the opposite opinion. They argue that political stability is only a symptom of a much deeper problem. For example, Jon Frankel and his co-authors argued in 2008 that political instability in Melanesia is the result of MPs who view access to elective office as the main avenue for power and wealth, and the result of ‘a struggle by those deputies who do not control resources to oust the executive. The members of the executive controlling the resources are then forced to resort to corruption, coercion and all kinds of embezzlement to stay in power. Given this state of affairs, political stability would quite simply allow the embezzlement of an irresponsible government to continue.

PNG has had relatively stable governments since 2002, but it’s important to look at the era of political stability to put PNG’s case in perspective. I am looking at three executive actions in the second consecutive era of political stability from 2012 to 2018, namely: extending the grace period; the appointment of department heads; and the allocation of funds from the District and Provincial Service Improvement Program (DSIP / PSIP).

Extension of the grace period

The red bars in Figure 2 show the total number of constitutional amendments made by various prime ministers. (The blue bars indicate the term of office, as in Figure 1.) The period between 2011 and 2018 stands out for two reasons: first, the O’Neil government amended more provisions of the Constitution than any other government, and second, the coalition government has succeeded in amending controversial provisions where others have failed. One of the most controversial amendments was the extension of the grace period (the period during which votes of no confidence are not allowed).

Figure 2: Amendments to the Constitution by each PM

Source: Paclii (update 13e May 2018)

Prime Minister Michael Somare tried unsuccessfully to push for a further extension of the grace period to 36 months after his coalition came to power in 2002. Peter O’Neill used his numerical superiority to increase the grace period. grace after the 2012 elections, from 18 months to 30 months. Since 60 months ago in the five-year term, 42 months (30 after the election and 12 before the writs were issued) were then covered by a grace period, leaving only a short window of 18 months where the prime minister could be challenged. The minimum parliamentary sitting time has also been reduced from 63 days to 40 days per year. This meant the opposition only had 60 days within the 18-month window to remove the prime minister. After the first 30 months ended, the government used reduced sitting days to avoid a vote of no confidence. As the 12 months remaining before the issue of the writs approached, Parliament was adjourned. The next parliamentary session was to fall well within the grace period, thus eliminating any chance of a vote of no confidence. The Supreme Court declared this adjournment and this amendment invalid. Parliament met but the Prime Minister successfully overcame the vote of no confidence.


Initially conceived as discretionary electoral funds in 1984, these funds reached their peak in 2013. K 10 million was allocated per year to each of the deputies representing one of the 89 electorates / districts opened through the DSIP; K 5 million per electorate for each provincial deputy (via the PSIP); and K 500,000 for each local government. The relevant legislation and directives governing these funds do not specify the specific dates and amounts to be remitted to the respective MPs. The government has been accused of exploiting this void by deliberately withholding DSIP and PSIP funds from opposition parliamentarians, while releasing the funds to MPs who support the government. For example, in August 2016, the governor of Oro province, Gary Juffa, who was critical of government decisions, claimed that the national government had only released K1 million for Oro province instead of 10 million K (i.e. 5 million K each for the two electorates open to Oro). Sam Basil, Bulolo District MP Belden Namah, Vanimo Green MP and others made similar statements. A month after Peter O’Neil formed government in 2017, Sam Basil led 12 other Pangu Pati MPs to switch to the government side. When Pangu joined the government, Basil explained that the move was driven by the need of his MPs to be able to access DSIP funds, which he said could have been denied had they remained in opposition.

Politicization of the civil service

The O’Neil government ensured oversight of senior appointments by replacing the role of the Public Services Commission with the Ministerial Executive Appointments Committee, chaired by the minister responsible for the relevant ministry. Senior appointments are made with the expectation that the appointee will support the government. This factor featured prominently with the dismissal of then-police commissioner Toami Kulunga in 2014, when he approved Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s arrest warrant for alleged illegal payments to lawyers. by Paul Paraka. Geoffrey Vaki has been appointed Chief of Police. When Vaki found himself embroiled in a contempt of court case for plotting to prevent the arrest warrant from being served on the prime minister, Gary Baki was appointed police commissioner. Gary Baki prevented the Prime Minister’s arrest by reviewing high-profile cases.


The three cases discussed above show that political stability in an environment conducive to corruption makes government less accountable. Political stability is preferable, but not a sufficient precondition for development. Strengthening the judiciary and related institutions such as the Ombudsman Commission should be the focus. Political instability is a symptom, not a cause, of the lack of development in PNG.

This article is based on a presentation at Pacific Update 2018 (Panel 5A). Watch the live replay or view the presentation slides.

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