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Reflections of a student leader: 2011 - Political intrigue and digital activism

28 May 2018   |   Analysis   |   By Nou Vada

Turmoil in the National Parliament coincides with Nou Vada taking a more prominent role in traditional and digital media. Students find their loyalties tested as duelling Prime Ministers try to wrest power from one another and appoint their own competing administrations.

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    At the University of Papua New Guinea, 2011 started with a Student Representative Council in place. As well as being an active member of it, I was also an occasional editorial writer for Papua New Guinea’s biggest newspaper. I also started blogging, as a collaborator with the NGO ActNow!

    It was only natural that I became the unofficial press officer for the SRC.

    The first half of the year was rather quiet. That was until a fateful day in August.

    On the 2nd of August, Sir Michael Somare was ousted as Prime Minister from within his own government by Peter O'Neill, the member for Ialibu-Pangia.

    At the time, we had been actively building a case for the government to restore scholarship allowances for students. Peter O'Neill was the only parliamentarian who had shown support for our idea.

    When he became Prime Minister, one of the first things he did was visit his alma mater at the invitation of the SRC. Mr O’Neill had once been a member for the SRC during his years as a student. His visit was fitting – it felt like a victory for students.

    Then the turmoil in parliament ended up in the Supreme Court of PNG.

    The next few months – from August to December -- were some of the most suspenseful times in the history of Papua New Guinea.

    As the dispute dragged on, we became less and less sure of which political opinion best reflected the mood of the student body.

    Sir Michael Somare was adamant that he was still the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. He and his cabinet appointed heads of departments and government agencies.

    Mr O'Neill, enjoying support from the majority of parliament, forwarded his own appointments.

    PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill at Commonwealth Leaders Meeting 2011

    Prime Minister Peter O'Neill represents Papua New Guinea at the Commonwealth Leaders Summit in Perth, Australia, 28 October 2011
    Picture: Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr

    For some time in the country, between 2011 and 2012, we effectively had two governments.

    Two of everything. Two Prime Ministers. Two Police Commissioners. Two military chiefs. Two Attorneys-General. But we had one Supreme Court, which ruled in December 2011 that Sir Michael was the legitimate Prime Minister of PNG, and that Mr O'Neill's appointment was unconstitutional.

    It was amazing.

    Amazing still: the police and the army were effectively fractured between the two factions. One group of police attempted to enforce the Supreme Court decision by preventing Mr O'Neill and his members from entering the Governor-General's office to be sworn in.

    The Governor-General momentarily recognized Sir Michael’s appointment by the courts - only to be sacked by parliament, triggering the Speaker to ascend to the Acting Governor-General's role, to swear in Prime Minister O'Neill and his faction.

    Governor General Sir Michael Ogio toasts Sir Michael Somare after swearing him in as Prime Minister, 14 December 2011.

    Governor General Michael Ogio toasts Sir Michael Somare after swearing him in as Prime Minister, 14 December 2011.
    Picture: ABC News/Liam Fox

    There was a confrontation within the military, which resulted in the O'Neill-appointed Brigadier-General being placed on house arrest by the Somare-appointed Brigadier-General.

    At this time, I started running the Edebamona Blog, joining my close friend Martyn Namorong from the Namorong Report, in an effort to create an alternative media movement in PNG.

    We wanted to be different from the anonymous blogs that were around at the time, by running our blogs openly.

    The students got out of the benches when the Judicial Conduct Act was passed by parliament. It was designed to penalise and remove judges from the bench, by decisions of the cabinet and the parliament. It was passed as a direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision to recognise Somare over O’Neill.

    We were faced with a serious philosophical dilemma: we had to support the Supreme Court, and by doing so, support the reinstatement of a government that many of us had protested against in 2010.

    We collectively decided that we were not going to be involved with political personalities, but would support the courts from political assaults.

    This article is the second in a series based on a speech that the author gave to students at the University of Papua New Guinea in 2017 in conjunction with Transparency International Papua New Guinea. The previous instalment covered the author’s experiences in 2010. Follow @auspngnetwork to be notified when the next instalment is published.