PNG’S LUTHER WENGE: A CHAMPION AMONG HIS PEOPLE

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PNG’S LUTHER WENGE: A CHAMPION AMONG HIS PEOPLE

By Sam Vulum

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business, June) – Luther Wenge, the governor of Morobe province in Papua New Guinea, may not have the makings of a charismatic public orator or the genius of using the media to his advantage, but he appears to have become a hero and champion among his people.

He is a straight shooter, a no-nonsense outspoken politician who sticks to his guns until he gets what he wants.

Whenever Wenge has the opportunity to speak publicly, he makes the most of it and he ensures his views get prominence and constant play in the media.

These have earned him the reputation of a maverick who speaks his mind over important issues, mainly involving people's rights and the constitution.

With his background as a lawyer, who served as a magistrate and judge before entering politics, Wenge is seen as a protector of people's rights and a defender of the constitution.

These, combined with his strong patriotic views, had influenced his legal challenge and eventual successful court victory against the State over the constitutionality of Australia's Enhanced Cooperation Programme (ECP) in PNG.

About 154 Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers and about 60 other officials had been in PNG since September under the A$850 million ECP.

A full Supreme Court bench, led by Chief Justice Sir Maru Kapi, ruled in Wenge's favour, saying several key provisions of the ECP Act were invalid under the PNG Constitution.

They ruled that certain provisions undermined the authority of PNG's Police Commissioner and Public Prosecutor, and the rights of PNG citizens to redress under the law.

Speaking to ABC Radio after the court victory, Wenge said: "I'm not saying that Australians shouldn't come here. They are good friends. They're certainly our good friends, a long-time friend. There's no question about that. But whatever dealings it has in Papua New Guinea, Australia must be consistent and in compliance with the law.

"I think whoever drafted the ECP treaty, for reasons known to themselves, came up with a legislation to defeat the spirit of the constitution in Papua New Guinea. I don't think that should happen. And I don't think the Australian community would want an organisation which comes up with a law or with an act in contravention of the Australian law. I don't think so. In a civilised society, the laws are there to protect the rights of citizens and we must respect the law.

"The law must be upheld to the highest level within Australia, within Papua New Guinea, within anywhere in the international community, the law must be upheld to the highest level."

Australian police personnel and other officials have since left the country while the PNG and Australian governments are working to revive the programme.

Officials of both countries would be discussing the issues highlighted by the court decision in the ECP agreement.

One of the sticking points has been the immunity provision for the Australian officers.

Despite the court ruling against immunity, the Australian government is firm that immunity must be applied.

The Howard Government said it would not allow its police or officials to operate in PNG without immunity from prosecution.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says Australia's long-term assistance for Papua New Guinea is essential and his government will redouble efforts to have Australian police returned there.

Howard says the government is trying to find a way around the Supreme Court decision.

"We're not going to give this exercise away because it's becoming a bit difficult, because in the long run there has to be a change and Australia has to play a major role in bringing about that change," he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said he hoped the legal impasse could be resolved with the PNG Government.

"We might find it's better to bring them back and send them back again when the legal problems have been fixed," Downer said.

" I particularly say that because it could be quite difficult to fix the legal problems."

Relations between Australia and PNG have been tense since the Howard Government insisted the A$300 million a year Australian taxpayers give to PNG was spent directly on aid projects.

They suffered a further setback in March when PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare was subjected to a humiliating security search at Brisbane Airport.

The ECP programme has been in line with Australia's interventionist policy in the South Pacific which it adopted after the September 11 attacks in the United States, fearing instability in its small islands neighbours could create havens for drug traffickers, people smugglers and terror groups.

Australian troops have been sent to the Solomon Islands and police to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.

Meanwhile, after having scored a decisive victory, Wenge has returned to court to force Prime Minister Somare to appoint a deputy prime minister.

The nation has been without a deputy prime minister for 12 months since the prime minister sacked Esa'ala MP, Moses Maladina, last year.

Wenge believes the prime minister has no right to keep that important position vacant for that long, even though the appointment is the prime minister's discretion.

Steeles Lawyers, Governor Wenge's legal advisors, filed the proceedings in the Waigani National Court in Port Moresby in May.

Wenge is seeking orders from the court to declare that the prime minister has a duty and responsibility to advise the head of state as to who should be appointed deputy prime minister and that duty includes providing that advice within a reasonable time of the vacancy arising.

Wenge argues that 12 months is not a reasonable period of time to wait.

Section 143 of the constitution and section 3 of the Prime Minister's Act 2002 places the responsibility on the prime minister to appoint a deputy.

June 30, 2005

Islands Business Magazine: http://www.islandsbusiness.com

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