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Monitoring Report: Papua New Guinea

Student unrest and National political machinations

Student Protests

Classes at the University of Goroka resumed the week commencing 08 August 2016, after an eight-week boycott of classes, while classes at the University of Technology in Lae are set to resume tomorrow, 29 August 2016. A month ago, under pressure from the government, the UPNG administration put a proposal to staff concerning the resumption of teaching at UPNG. It involved completing Semester 1 this year and running trimesters in 2017, in order to complete both academic years without generating an unworkable bulge. Although staff voted against the proposal it was unilaterally imposed upon them a week later.

The schedule, which may prove difficult to implement, sees classes for Semester 1/2016 resume on 05 September. Semester 2/2016 will commence 07 November with classes running right through to 19 December and resuming again 16 January 2017. The intention is to conclude Semester 2/2016 by mid-March 2017, and then commence Semester 1/2017 in April next year. Historically elections have been held in the non-teaching mid-semester break, but the proposed arrangements would see the campaign period, polling and counting all happen during semester 1/2017. Some staff have already raised concerns about this and students may likewise object in due course.

There is very little free space within the revised academic calendar and further delays to the resumption of teaching would make the revised arrangements unworkable. There are a few immediate hurdles that have to be overcome in the next week or so. In the first instance the government needs to provide tickets and fund students to return to Port Moresby. Indeed, despite a recent media announcement by Professor David Kavanamur, Secretary for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology, that his department had allocated the necessary funding and that students could collect their tickets from Air Nuigini offices around the country, reports are emerging that many students remain stranded. Failure to supply the promised airline tickets would almost certainly result in further court action.

Students have also indicated that their return to classes is dependent on a successful reconciliation ceremony taking place ahead of the resumption of classes. That reconciliation ceremony is scheduled to take place on Friday 02 September 2016. Colleagues at UPNG have indicated, however, that any attempt by the university or the government to arrest or otherwise penalise students, including SRC members, who were not directly involved in arson and other serious crimes, could lead to further student unrest and undermine the proposed reconciliation meeting.

There are also significant cost implications associated with the revised academic calendar, given a significant proportion of teaching staff are paid on a casual or contract basis. In order to complete the current academic semester alone UPNG will need supplementary funding. To date the government has only committed K12 million in additional funding, and while this will cover the recurrent salary bill, it will not provide for the addition staffing resources – contract lecturers, tutors and the like – nor support students’ return to campus. It also remains to be seen whether students will in fact return to class given that their demand that PM O’Neill step down and submit to police questioning remains unmet. Also at issue are their unmet demands in relation to the student shootings which preceded the suspension of Parliament.

National Politics

As expected, PM O’Neill overwhelmingly defeated the much anticipated Vote-of-No-Confidence on Friday 22 July 2016. In the wake of the failed vote the opposition announced its intention to mount a new motion of no-confidence, without naming an alternate Prime Minister, when Parliament resumed in August. No such attempt was made during the August Parliamentary sitting.

Meanwhile the situation in Hela remains tense, with landowners continuing their blockade of PNG LNG project sites. Earlier this month, on 05 August 2016, Inter-Government Relations Minister Sir Leo Dion announced that the government recognised Philip Undialu (MP for Koroba-Lake Kopiago) as the duly-elected Governor of Hela Province. Francis Potape (MP for Komo-Magarima) immediately announced that he would challenge the determination in court. Both men had claimed, since 05 July 2016, to rightfully hold the position after they had each been elected different factions of the Provincial Assembly.

Coinciding with the announcement disgruntled landowners forced a shutdown of the PNG LNG projects sites including the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant, Hides gas to electricity site, the Nogoli Oil Search camp and the well pads, demanding that the government honour their outstanding commitments to the Hides landowners. In response 50+ mobile squad personnel from Port Moresby were deployed to Komo to secure the various LNG assets. The government also sent a high level delegation, led by the Chief Sectary Isaac Lupari, Tari-Pori MP and Finance Minister James Marape, Koroba-Lake Kopiago MP and Hela Govenor Philip Undialu, Mineral Resource managing director Augustine Mano and Kumul Holdings Limited managing director Wapu Sonk to negotiate with the landowners. They sought to reassure landowners that all outstanding commitments would be honoured once the landowners had been properly identified.

The following day PM O’Neill announced on the floor of Parliament, that there would be no by-election in Hela in view of the fact that the 2017 general election is less than 12 months away. Yet, Section 106 of the constitution in fact provides for a by-election in the event of a vacancy, unless the vacancy occurs “within the period of 12 months before the fifth anniversary of the date fixed for the return of the writs for the previous general election”. In this case the vacancy occurred in April, some 16 months before the fifth anniversary of the date fixed for the return of the writs for the previous general election – so a by-election is in fact required. The decision has further divided the troubled province. O’Neill also sought to justify the decision saying “We have (also) received reports from police that they are unable to provide proper security for that by-election because of a lot of tribal fights are happening in that province. It is necessary for us to only appoint an acting governor through the assembly when it convenes after parliament ends. There will be an acting governor until 2017.”

Just yesterday, Governor Undialu announced on Facebook that the Hela Provincial Assembly would meet next week to discuss and recommend a State of Emergency (SOE) for the province. Should this happen the NEC has power to suspend the Provincial Assembly and assume executive control of the province. Documents leaked in May contained a proposal by the Chief Secretary that the NEC should seek to declare a period of national emergency in response to various law and order crises around the country. Section 246 of the PNG constitution provides for an extension of the tenure of Parliament and Governor-General, during a period of declared national emergency, provided that Parliament votes by an absolute majority to extend its term of office. There are some who allege the national government has deliberately fuel the tensions in Hela for precisely this purpose.

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