Part One: Constitutional Amendments & Discretionary Funds
While many people are happy to see O’Neil go, it is important to assess how this one man became almost invincible. Many seem to forget that he is only the second PM to ever complete a full 5 year term in parliament, and successfully defeat a vote of no confidence in 2016. But the cost is a K20 billion loan, weakened legislature to the extend best described as “legislature on her knees”, and great deal of loss of confidence in the public sector. As we get caught up in the ascension of Marape and the hope of better PNG ahead, we must not forget the lessons we must avoid. So how did O’Neil become alsmot invincible? This is first of three parts, investigating factors that gave rise to O’Neil’s rise, causes for his fall, and challenges ahead.
To understand what led to Peter O’Neil’s downfall, first you have to know why he succeeded in completing a full Parliament term, from 2012 – 2017. O’Neil is only the second prime minister to complete a full parliamentary term since independence in 1975. The other prime minister to have completed a full term is Michael Somare, from 2002 to 2007. All other prime ministers since the first post-independence in 1977 were removed either through a vote of no confidence, or resigned as vote of no confidence became eminent. The success of Peter O’Neil can be attributed to several factors explained below, and the undoing of the same factors may help explain his downfall.
- Amendments to the Constitution to prevent vote of no confidence
Peter O’Neill used his numerical majority (MPs) to increase the grace periodafter elections in 2012, from 18 months to 30 months. Grace period is the set period after elections and before the next election where a vote of no confidence is not allowed. Since there are 60 months within the five-year term, 42 months or three and half years (30 months after 2012 elections and 12 months before 2017 elections) were covered by grace periods, leaving only a short 18-month or one and half year window where the prime minister could be challenged. In addition to that extension of grace period, the minimum parliamentary sitting days – mandatory number of days the parliament must meet in a year – was reduced from 63 days to 40 days.
After the first 30 months grace period was over, the O’Neil government used the reduced sitting days to avoid a vote of no confidence. They spread the limited sitting days over 2015 to mid-2016, and would adjourn whenever the opposition seemed to push for a vote of no confidence. As the 12 remaining months before the issue of writs in July 2016 for 2017 elections drew near, parliament was adjourned to 2ndof August 2017. The next parliamentary sitting August was scheduled to fall well within the grace period (12 months before 2017 elections), eliminating any chance of a vote of no confidence. The Supreme Court ruled this adjournment and amendment invalid in 2016 and ordered the parliament to re-convene to dealwith the vote of no continence. The parliament met but the prime minister successfully overcame the vote of no confidence, and a few weeks later, the next 12 months grace period before the 2017 elections started.
Why did O’Neil fall:The Supreme Court ruling that the amendment was unconstitutional is a very important factor, because after the return of writes in 2017 elections, the grace period would only last for 18 months, 12 months less than the grace period in 2012. The grace for 2017 post-elections ended in January of 2019, and though parliament was adjourned twice to avoid vote of no confidence, first on 1stJanuary 2019 and again on 7thMarch 2019, the MPs began resigning from Peter O’Neil’s People’s National Congress (PNC) and the coalition in general. On the 29thof March 2019 the prime minister did not have the numbers to adjourn the parliament any more, and he resigned. James Marape was elected as the new prime minister on 30thMay 2019, five months after the grace period expired.
2. DSIP/PSIP funds
Electoral development funds (the same is referred to as discretionary funds) played a big role in maintaining O’Neil in power. Though these funds were around since 1984 (K10, 000 back then), the amount given to MPs increased exponentiallyas a result of high commodity prices after the 2000. By 2013, K10 million was allocated per year for each of the MPs representing the 89 open electorates/districts through the District Services Improvement Program (DSIP) funds; and K5 million per electorate for each provincial MP through the Provincial Service Improvement Program fund (PSIP), that is, K5 million multiplied by the number of electorates in a province. The Administrative Guidelines 2013 governing these funds do not state the specific dates and amounts to be given to the respective MPs. The government has been accused of exploiting this vacuum by deliberately withholdingthe DSIP and PSIP funds belonging to MPs in the opposition, while releasing the funds to MPs who support the government. For instance in August 2016, the governor for Oro Province, Gary Juffa, who was critical of the government decisions, claimed that the national government only released K1 million for Oro Province instead of K10 million (K5 million each for the two open electorates in Oro). Sam Basil, the MP for Bulolo Open, Belden Namah, the MP for Vanimo Green Open, and others made similar claims as they missed out on their K10 million DSIP components. A month after Peter O’Neil formed government in 2017; Sam Basil led 14 other MPs from Pangu Pati to cross over to the government side. As Pangu joined the government, Basil explained this decision as being driven by his MPs’ need to be able access DSIP funds, which he claimed may have been denied had they stayed in opposition.
Why did O’Neil fall:As the country ran into high debts (officially K20 billion), and low commodity prices affected the country’s budget, the government decided to cut these funds to K2 million per MP starting in 2017. There was no official announcement on whether this decision has been changed. This may have removed the motivation for supporting the government, as well as the fear MPs had of risking moving to the opposition as in the previous term.
Part Two will look at the Politicization of Appointment Committees, Marginalization of and Grievances of Resource Rich MPs & Corruption Scandals
Read Part Two, Clink here: https://academicnomad.home.blog/2019/06/14/how-great-was-the-fall-part-two/