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Legal experts say PM couldn’t just ‘step aside’

By Simon Eroro PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, Jan. 4, 2011) – In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Acting Prime Minister Sam Abal yesterday announced that Sir Michael Somare was on holiday and would resume duties whenever he thought was appropriate for him.

Mr. Abal’s statement comes almost a month after Sir Michael flanked by Mr. Abal and other senior ministers of the cabinet announced in December 2010 that he was voluntarily "stepping aside" as Prime Minister (PM) to allow for investigations into his misconduct in office charges. Yesterday the "stepping aside" tune was changed to that of him (Sir Michael) being on "holiday" which by law meant, he could resume duties at the end of his holiday period. While the Prime Minister is on holiday, an Acting PM holds the fort until the Chief Executive Officer of the land returns to the office.

Legal experts have advised that the Constitution does not allow for the Prime Minister to step aside from performing his statutory duties if the PM does that, it could be deemed as resignation from office or that the office of the Prime Minister is vacant. Unless the PM is referred to a leadership tribunal, he cannot step aside although some quarters argue that it is "not illegal" for the Prime Minister to step aside and that "if he steps aside from office and goes on holiday, it’s the same thing."

In this case, Sir Michael had been referred to a leadership tribunal and is deemed suspended from office as soon as Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia announces a tribunal to conduct investigations into his alleged breaches of none and late lodgment of returns to the Ombudsman Commission. Mr. Abal resumed duties and called on all line departments and agencies to crank up and start delivering the services through the implementation of the 2011 national budget.

The public service is required to resume duties today and the first cabinet meeting of the year will be held at Loloata Island Resort on January 7. Chief Secretary Manasupe Zurenuoc had taken out a full-page advertisement in a weekend newspaper recalling the public service to work. Mr. Abal said Sir Michael has "taken leave" and it was normal in PNG for the Prime Minister to resume anytime, he said in apparent response to Post-Courier article yesterday that the Chief could return to office sooner than later.

Meanwhile, the Opposition has labeled the Government as a "bunch of confused lot", misinforming the country whether Sir Michael "took leave from work" or "stepped aside" before the Chief Justice appointed a tribunal, claiming it was an illegal move from bad advice.

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