Speaker Nape becomes 'kingmaker' but for how long?

30/08/2011 12:45

National parliament speaker Jeffrey Nape in his National Alliance Party (NA) colours 

at a party convention. 


When the dust settles from the celebration or disappointment of ushering in a ‘new’ government one PNG politician will have reason to keep smiling – Jeffrey Nape, the speaker of PNG’s National Parliament.

While the all-conquering National Alliance Party (NA) lost the top job with its members wounded and scattered on both sides of the House, he played his cards right and retained his job.

The NA was instrumental in ensuring his elevation as head of the legislature in 2004 and then in 2007 and he repaid the party with an iron-grip on parliamentary proceedings. The Sir Mekere Morauta-led Opposition's attempts to move votes of no confidence were suppressed, debates on government policies and decisions were gagged and long parliament adjournments vetted. But on August 2 the party’s favorite son jumped ship and was instrumental in the election of the O’Neill-led government, a move that added to his growing reputation as a kingmaker in PNG’s complex political landscape.

But how impartial should the Office of the Speaker be in this often unpredictable political atmosphere? In other Westminster parliamentary democracies such as Australia speakers strive and are expected to carry out their roles with impartiality, shunning political activities that could bring their office into disrepute. In the UK Parliament a speaker becomes apolitical by resigning from their political party immediately after his or her election, consequently maintaining the sanctity of the chair.

However in PNG it seems as speaker you can create your own definitions of ‘impartiality’. This practise recently caught the eye of former PNG chief justice and attorney general in the toppled NA government, Sir Arnold Amet, when he questioned the legitimacy of the O’Neill government. Sadly Sir Arnold did not lift a finger as the former government’s chief legal officer during the numerous times Nape acted in a spirit of ‘non-impartiality’.

Last year the Supreme Court nullified the election of former vice regal Sir Paulias Matane and expressed concern that it was the third time it had to intervene in PNG parliament proceedings in recent years. Nape presided over Sir Paulias’ failed election, overlooking advice by the Justice Department secretary for him to be acting governor general. The high court ruled Nape acted unlawfully, giving the Somare government a rare opportunity to relieve him of the job. But maintaining the status quo was in the party’s and the then coalition government’s interest so it was business as usual.

It is close to a month since Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and his government entered office and it would be natural for them to feel obligated to the controversial speaker. However the nation’s interest should now take precedence. It is time to review the office of the speaker with a view to strengthening it and making it independent of the government of the day. The UK model could be an alternative or to promote true independence of the chair, the speaker is directly elected by the people.

In 2003 a UNDP-funded report on the PNG National Parliament made a number of recommendations which pinpointed areas that needed institutional and capacity support. On the role of the speaker, the report recommended that the office be strengthened and made more independent. It is time for the O’Neill government to revisit that report and act on its recommendations. This will ensure PNG ‘s next speaker after the 2012 general election strives to maintain the integrity of the chair and allows parliament to undertake one of its basic democratic functions – to keep the government of the day accountable.