As Vanuatu waits to see how the government proposes to frame its referendum question(s) concerning the proposed constitutional amendments, we would do well to pay close attention to the drama unfolding in Papua New Guinea.

The crux of the current political standoff between Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and his adversaries is a moratorium on votes of no confidence during the 12 months preceding an election.

If it cannot push a vote through before August, Parliament is legally barred from holding another before next year’s general election.

This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the acting Speaker Aide’s adjournment of Parliament was unconstitutional. Parliament must reconvene no later than tomorrow. The Opposition is confident it has sufficient numbers to win a no confidence vote.

Even in the face of growing political opposition, it seems that Mr O’Neill will use any means at his disposal to hold on to power.

His allies are already talking openly about invoking emergency powers in order to counter a threatened stoppage in some critical services.

This would—not coincidentally—have the effect of allowing the Prime Minister to dodge a vote for just long enough to enter the no confidence ‘dead zone’, and give him another year of government largely unhindered by his fellow parliamentarians.

Ignoring the whys and the wherefores of PNG politics, whose convolutions make Vanuatu’s intrigues pale by comparison, there’s an important lesson to be learned here: You have to write the rules with the worst case scenario in mind, not the best one.

Those powers that seem so necessary in one’s own hands can quickly become a threat in someone else’s.

Reducing the number of votes of no confidence is without a doubt a desirable thing. But using the law to do it is an admission that other means have failed.

Pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim once wrote, “When mores are sufficient, laws are unnecessary; when mores are insufficient, laws are unenforceable.”

That’s taking things a bit far, but it’s useful to reflect that what we really want to change are the motivations and priorities of our politicians and their supporters.

Because if we don’t continue to reform our political culture, no amount of legislation is guaranteed to save us from political crisis.

Some would argue that putting legal restrictions on the number and frequency of no confidence votes is a pragmatic reflection of the fact that politicians won’t change their stripes any time soon.

That may well be. But all the more reason to ensure that a proper balance is maintained between a government’s desire to stay a sober course and an opposition’s desire to right a misguided one.

Some of the proposed amendments simply raise the bar, making it harder to snap votes to materialise out of nowhere. MPs are required to sign a motion all at once and in the presence of a truly neutral Speaker. These measures are commendable, because they act in support of transparency and democracy.

But setting arbitrary times when Parliament can vote out a government hasn’t helped Papua New Guinea. Arguably, it’s simply given an unpopular PM another stick to fend off the Opposition with.

If we take PNG’s experience as a guide, then measures to make the role of the Speaker less partisan and more objective are probably useful, but arbitrary limitations on the timing of a no confidence motion arguably add sand to the gears of democracy to with little discernible gain.

But that’s just one example.

The point of this column is not to advocate for or against any particular set of amendments. The point is that we need to learn from the experience of other nations in order that we can say from time to time, ‘There but for the grace of God go I….’

Dan McGarry

Media Director

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