Earlier this year, Sir Michael Somare travelled to Singapore to receive medical treatment. Sir Michael was granted ‘sick leave’ by the PNG Parliament for this purpose. Sir Michael was absent from PNG for five months and his deputy, Sam Abal, assumed the position of acting PM in his absence. There was widespread media speculation at that time about the mental and physical status of Sir Michael (now 75 years old) and whether he had the capacity to continue to perform the duties of PM.
During Sir Michael’s absence, Parliament in August this year voted under section 142(2) of the PNG Constitution (Constitution) to appoint Peter O’Neill as PM and Belden Namah as deputy PM. This election was promptly challenged before the Supreme Court by way of a reference under section 19 of the Constitution by the East Sepik Provincial Government. The key issue was whether a vacancy had arisen at the relevant time to enable the election to be held.
On 12 December 2011, in a 3 to 2 majority decision, the Supreme Court determined, among other things, that:
- there was no legal vacancy in the office of PM at the time Peter O’Neill was elected. Therefore, section 142(2) of the Constitution as relied upon by Parliament did not apply and the election of Peter O’Neill was unconstitutional and void;
- the Speaker’s decision to declare a vacancy in Sir Michael’s seat as member for East Sepik Regional was unconstitutional and void. Accordingly, Sir Michael remains the current member for that electorate; and
- Sir Michael is to be immediately reinstated as PM.
The Supreme Court’s decision has since been disputed by Peter O’Neill and other members of Parliament who argue that a subsequent amendment to the Prime Minister and National Executive Council Act 2002 had automatically resulted in a vacancy in the office of PM and that Parliament’s decision to re-affirm Peter O’Neill as PM in those circumstances should prevail.
The Governor General, Sir Michael Ogio, was subsequently suspended by the National Executive Council (chaired by Peter O’Neill as PM) after his initial decision to recognise Sir Michael rather than Peter O’Neill as PM. Sir Michael Ogio’s suspension was lifted on 19 December 2011 after he purported to revoke his earlier decision and reinstated Peter O’Neill as PM. The head of PNG’s Defence Force, Brigadier General Francis Agwi, has publicly ruled out the possibility of military intervention.