Australia concerned at PNG election delay

Australia urged Papua New Guinea to reconsider a decision to delay national elections but stopped short of calling for sanctions.

Papua New Guinea's parliament voted Thursday to postpone the polls for six months, with Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah reportedly warning Canberra against intruding on the election process.

"To see elections suspended by six months is very disappointing," Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said on Friday.

"We hope the decision will be reviewed and it's premature to talk about sanctions. There's some time to go before we have that on the agenda."

The Australian government, which had previously cautioned against delaying the elections which were due to be held in June, was "disappointed and concerned" at the move, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a statement Thursday.

Gillard said Canberra had received previous assurances from PNG's government that the elections would be held on time and hoped it would now "give this decision further consideration."

Politics in PNG have been in turmoil since late 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's rise to power -- via a parliamentary vote while then-leader Sir Michael Somare was recovering from illness in Singapore -- was illegal.

Somare, who has dominated politics in his country for decades, believes he is still the leader of the Pacific nation of 6.6 million people, and fresh elections were viewed as a way of resolving the dispute for good.

PNG's parliament decided Thursday that elections would be suspended for six months, with Namah reportedly saying they had to be delayed to ensure security in the volatile Southern Highlands and due to incomplete electoral rolls.

But Gillard said Canberra had provided "substantial practical support to enable elections to proceed as scheduled", including 30 Australian Civilian Corps personnel to PNG's electoral commission and an air support mission.

Australia rankled its northern neighbour in March when Carr said Canberra would "be in the position of having to consider sanctions" if PNG failed to hold democratic elections in mid-2012.

"We'd have no alternative but to organise the world to condemn and isolate Papua New Guinea," Carr told Sky News at the time, before backtracking on his comments.

In a speech to parliament Thursday, Namah warned Australia not to threaten PNG, an impoverished Pacific country on the cusp of a resources boom which is expected to double its GDP within 30 years.

"Whatever Mr Bob Carr says about sanctions, I want to say this: do not threaten the independence of this country," Namah said, the ABC reported.

Carr said Friday Australia respected PNG's independence and did not want to seem to be interfering, but it was a "bad habit" to delay elections.

"We respect their sovereignty but we've got a commitment to seeing the countries in this region stick by a democratic formula."


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