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Evisceration of reserve powers causes chaos on PNG

By David Flint - posted Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A key principle of the Westminster system may be found in the saying sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill:

"The Crown is important not so much for the power it wields, but for the power it denies others."

In his rush to force Papua New Guinea into premature independence, Gough Whitlam allowed the new country to be burdened by an inadequate constitutional system. This nominally keeps the Crown, but removes all of the reserve powers. So Papua New Guinea was to remain a constitutional monarchy, but one without any of the safeguards the system normally provides.


Worse, there is an attempt in the document to codify the various conventions. Even if accurate, this stops their development to cater for new situations. It can also make them justiciable, that is potentially subject to legal action. This slows down the process, and makes it legalistic. As we shall see, there is also an attempt to answer some of those many problems of government which are best solved informally and pragmatically.

At least part of the reason for his haste was that Gough Whitlam seems to have been far too eager to comply with the demands of the Russian communists, and not only against so-called Australian colonialism. Under his government, Australia - alone among the Western powers - even recognized the brutal incorporation of the Baltic States into the now defunct USSR.

Mr.Whitlam's error is the key to understanding the current crisis in Papua New Guinea.

It all began when the Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, went to Singapore in late March for heart surgery. Because of complications, he was unable to return until September. The outlook was so gloomy that his son announced that he had retired. But then Sir Michael claimed he had not been consulted about that announcement and said he would continue.

Back in Port Moresby, a number of MPs believed he was no longer capable of leading the country. Section 142 of the Constitution answers how this is to be done. In fact, the Papua New Guinea Constitution has the answer for far too much and where it is needed, no answer. It is extraordinarily detailed, indeed, too detailed.

This section says that a Prime Minister can be removed by The Queen acting on the advice of Parliament. But for Parliament to act, the Speaker must table certificates from two medical practitioners that in their professional opinion the Prime Minister is unfit, by reason of physical or mental incapacity, to carry out his duties.


It is extraordinary that the Constitution would go into such detail. Where a leader is deemed by his colleagues to be unfit for office in Canberra or in London, a practical solution is soon found. However, there is one Australian example which should not be emulated. That was when the behaviour of a federal leader of the opposition suggested that he was in the early stages of dementia. To get him out of the way, he was installed as the Chief Justice of New South Wales. Did they think nobody would notice?

In any event, the Constitution prescribed how this should be done. Under the rules of interpretation it was clear that no other way existed to force the Prime Minister out of office for being unfit. The alternative, a vote of no-confidence, is only available within a limited time under the Constitution.

In the absence of medical evidence, the Leader of the Opposition moved a motion in Parliament on 2 August declaring the Prime Minister's office vacant and his seat unrepresented. The Speaker, Jeffery Nape, should have of course ruled this out of order. He did not and the motion was passed.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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