PNG'S OPPOSITION OBJECTS TO GAG ON BUDGET DEBATE

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By Neville Togarewa

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 18, 1998 - The National/Map)--- The Opposition yesterday boycotted the vote on the 1998 Budget after the Government gagged debate on this year's money plan, The National reports.

Angered by what they described as a dictatorial move, Opposition Leader Bernard Narokobi and his senior partners also gave notice to the Government that they would withdraw their support to Parliament's bipartisan approach to the Bougainville peace process.

They said they would also vote against the controversial bills to set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption and a Government Caucus Committee.

Mr. Narokobi and his 36 MPs stormed out of the House at 4.20 p.m. when the Government, using its numbers, prevented further debate -- through a vote of 62-27 -- on the K2.7 billion ($US 1.5 billion) budget after Finance spokesman Bart Philemon presented the Opposition's reply.

The Government move also prevented shadow Planning and Implementation Minister Moi Avei from replying to Sir Mekere Morauta, who spoke for more than 10 minutes after the Lae MP.

Amid shouts of "corruption" and other insults directed at the Government, Mr. Narokobi led his men out of the Chamber, with East Sepik Governor Sir Michael Somare slamming the door after him.

Only Sir Pita Lus remained -- for more than one hour -- trading insults, ignoring Speaker John Pundari's attempts to bring him and the House to order, ignoring his two warnings and daring any government MP to come and remove him.

Mr. Narokobi called a press conference immediately where his senior partners condemned the Government and said the Opposition would have nothing to do with the "worst budget in 23 years."

They said the Government must accept full responsibility for the budget's expected adverse impact on the people.

"Today is a very sad day (for Papua New Guinea) when the Government has denied Members of Parliament their right to speak on the budget on behalf of their people. As a result, the Opposition has collectively moved out. I believe this is a total and absolute cover-up of corruption," Mr. Narokobi said.

"Obviously, the Government cannot tolerate truth. They are hiding behind fantasy, dishonesty and outright lies, deception and foul play .… We will lead a rebel government if they continue to deny us the opportunity to govern by democratic means."

Sir Michael said he had never witnessed a government gagging debate and preventing MPs from speaking or debating a budget in his 36 years as an elected leader, and accused the Government of using its superior numbers "to sabotage and suppress the Opposition."

Former Deputy Prime Minister and Pangu leader Chris Haiveta said: "If this is a sign of things to come, then we can be sure that the ICAC Bill and other constitutional bills will be passed the same way.

"We cannot allow this to happen. The Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business (Transport Minister Vincent Auali) must allow debate on important matters like the budget."

Komo-Magarima MP Alfred Kaiabe said: "The Opposition is the only check and balance (in Parliament) and if it is not allowed to speak, then democracy can no longer exist."

Bougainville MP John Momis said: "They are a bunch of cowards, a corrupt lot. What they've done contravenes all parliamentary conventions."

Speaking to reporters after the adjournment, Treasury and Corporate Affairs Minister Iairo Lasaro said the 1998 money plan was a "very tight budget," that Sir Mekere had covered everything in his statement on behalf of the Government and while Members could argue the whole day, the fact was that the budget had been passed and whatever they said would not change the figures.

He described Mr. Philemon's reply as "very reasonable and fair."

The Government was happy with the Opposition's reply and would take note of it in the next budget, said Mr. Lasaro.

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