Politics

The separation of powers and how it played out last month


[This is written for secondary school students and others who asked about it.]

The Westminster  system of Government we adopted in 1975, adheres to the principle of the separation of   powers.

This means the three arms of government – Parliament, the Judiciary and the executive can’t interfere with each other’s decisions.

They are  independent, free functioning arms of government  that uphold the  laws of Papua New Guinea. The courts can’t tell the parliament what to do. The PM and his Cabinet can’t be dictated to by the courts and  parliament can’t make the courts and the executive do its bidding.

But over the four decades, the system has been put to the test.  Pushed to its limits by aggrieved politicians and bureaucrats, the three arms appear to  have always survived the pressure.

In recent years,  the courts have become like a  principal, adjudicating over disagreements brought to the office  from the classroom  and the playground.  It has become like the last resort, used by those within the government system to prove or disprove interpretations of law or settle disputes arising from either one of the other two arms of government.

Former Chief Justice Sir Arnold Amet, who saw  his share of politicians running to the courts

Three weeks ago,  a five man  supreme court bench handed down a ruling related to  matters of parliament.

The supreme court reference from opposition leader, Belden Namah sought to clarify if sections of the constitution were breached when the speaker unilaterally accepted the withdrawal of  Peter O’Neill’s nomination as Prime Minister on the floor.

On May 19th last year, Peter O’Neill resigned as Prime minister leaving a vacancy in the  top post.   On the 30th parliament  was recalled and the speaker called for nominations for the PM’s post.  Enga Governor, Peter Ipatas nominated James Marape and Patrick Pruaitch nominated Peter O’Neill.

After O’Neill accepted the nomination, Rabaul MP, Dr. Allan Marat  nominated Sir Mekere Morauta.  Immediately after  the speaker closed nominations, Peter O’Neill withdrew his nomination leaving just Marape and Sir Mekere.

The nomination and withdrawal caused confusion and uncertainty. 

But the court found, through its interpretation that while there was  room to raise those concerns on the floor of parliament – which is , the appropriate forum as per the principles of separation, nobody questioned the decision by the speaker to accept the withdrawal  of nominations.

What happened then in that short space of time in parliament on the 30th of May 2019,  and in the minds of those present  is left to interpretation.  It could have been that the urgency to elect a new Prime Minister rendered questions over O’Neill’s nomination withdrawal unnecessary.

Those decisions were brought to the courts for interpretation.

The Court made a ruling that it could not make a decision on matters of parliament and,  upholding the principle of the separation of powers, the five judges basically said,  the speaker exercised his authority  within the realm of parliament.  

And therefore the matter was non-justiciable… meaning the courts could not make a decision as it was not in their power to do so.

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