PNG PM Legally Challenges Referral To Leadership Tribunal

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O'Neill defends self against misconduct allegations

By Liam Cochrane

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Dec. 9, 2014) – Papua New Guinea's prime minister has begun a two-pronged legal challenge against a leadership tribunal set up to investigate allegations of misconduct.

The move comes even though Peter O'Neill initially welcomed the chance to clear his name.

The leadership tribunal is a quasi-legal body established to investigate allegations Mr O'Neill flouted normal borrowing procedures when securing a $1.3 billion loan from investment bank UBS so PNG could buy shares in Oil Search.

Mr O'Neill denied wrongdoing, saying the loan was in the national interest and had been approved by the cabinet-like National Executive Committee.

The leadership tribunal was established when PNG's Ombudsman and Public Prosecutor independently considered the allegations and found there was a case to answer.

It was then formally established by the chief justice, with the power to dismiss, suspend or fine leaders found guilty.

On Friday, the National Court heard a challenge to the constitutional authority of the public prosecutor to refer the prime minister to a tribunal.

Mr O'Neill is seeking a permanent stay on proceedings.

Justice Catherine Devani requested the three leadership tribunal judges – from PNG, Australia and New Zealand – be included in the case.

The matter was adjourned to December 16.

In a separate but related move last week, Mr O'Neill's lawyers expanded the scope of a case involving the ombudsman.

In May, the Ombudsman Commission directed interest payments on the UBS loan should be frozen.

The National Court allowed a temporary stay on that directive, allowing interest payments to be made and avoiding PNG defaulting on a major international loan.

On Wednesday, Justice Colin Makail referred six questions about the Ombudsman's powers to the Supreme Court for legal interpretation.

While most of the questions refer to the loan repayments, the Supreme Court will also consider "whether the Ombudsman Commission had lawful authority, power and jurisdiction to ... refer a leader for misconduct in office."

The regular fixture of the Supreme Court does not resume until February, making it unlikely the matter would be resolved before January 26, the date set for Mr O'Neill's leadership tribunal.

In 2010, Papua New Guinea's current treasurer, Patrick Pruaitch, took a similar legal course to challenge his referral to a leadership tribunal.

He received a temporary stay on proceedings that has lasted four years.

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