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We stand with Florence

I don’t always like my job, but I always love it. There are times when relating the news of the day is fraught with tension, and unpleasant in the extreme. But as long as we publish without fear or favour, I can reconcile myself to the stress.

But every now and then, you get a story of real courage and—yes, I’ll say it—heroism like that of Florence Lengkon. Her courage has catalysed a response that gives me hope for this country. Not only have people stood with her in opposing the bullying tactics of a small number of out-of-control people, but they’ve also united in their opposition to all violence against women.

This morning, someone posted a photo of Florence spontaneously helping another victim of violence. The incident took place months ago, and she never expected any recognition or reward; she was just doing what she knew to be the right thing.

People are right to be inspired by her example. If everyone had her courage and her kindness, the world would be a much better place. The Daily Post is proud to tell her story. I’m proud. We stand with Florence.

Florence Lengkon was forcibly removed from her place of work, assaulted, threatened and made to apologise for comments made on social media critical of the behaviour of local taxi and bus drivers.

The Bullying Stops Now

This sh*t has to stop.’

Such intemperate language rarely appears in these pages, but in this particular case, it’s a bit of an understatement. These were spoken by the person who informed us of the reported abduction down at the seafront yesterday.

Florence Lengkon has bravely stood up against what appears to be a clear case of mafia-like violence and intimidation, and we stand with her. Her story, which appears in today’s newspaper, is far, far too common.

We can show compassion for the difficult circumstances, agree that nuance is required to fully understand the tensions and solutions to a complex question of economic and social justice. We can admit there are good reasons people are angry.

But first, we have to stop threatening and beating people.

It is utterly, criminally reprehensible for any man—for any reason—to strike any woman, let alone the slip of a girl who features in the headlines today.

And for what? Because she called some taxi and bus drivers ‘big headed’ and ‘unprofessional’.

Words are simply not sufficient to describe how despicable, how cowardly and how damaging this kind of behaviour is. Such actions bring shame to the nation.

What Ms Lengkon described to us yesterday was unacceptable in any society, under any circumstances. Just as we did with corruption in politics, the perpetrators must be found and made to face the consequences.

There’s no point waiting for the police. This bullying has to stop now. And the way it stops is for people to stand together. Continue reading

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous 'storian' in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

Remembering Cyclone Pam

A boy runs for cover as a heavy wave breaks outside Port Vila's market house.

I remember the shell-shocked feeling that first morning, the packs of young men wandering nervously through the town, the anxious, almost giddy feeling as we tried to understand what it was we’d just gone through.

I remember the smiles in the wreckage. The incredible hospitality that people showed to us as we took their photo and tried to convey to the outside world just how desperate things were. A man with no house remaining, still welcoming us like a lord in his manor. A grandmother who’d walked 10 kilometres with her brood, smiling proudly even though she didn’t know yet whether she still had a home to go to.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember the uncertainty in the eyes of the children. Their world had changed, quite literally overnight. They had no context for the shock they’d just undergone, no experience to compare this with. Lord willing, they will never see anything comparable again. I remember how they soldiered on without a word of complaint.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember a small boy up in Malapoa waetwud. He’d donned a spare pair of work gloves, and was doing his best to help the men dig out from devastation.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember a board member of the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People, standing in the wreckage of their office, tears streaming down her face. But still unbent, defiant.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember three year-old Rachel. Holding a rake in her hands, defiantly standing on the bare foundation of her home, which had been washed clean when a municipal water tank broke and inundated her small community, destroying seven households.

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous 'storian' in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous ‘storian’ in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

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Getting off the grey list

In 1989 the G-7 group of countries decided it was time to act together to address the increasingly serious problem of money laundering. They created what became known as the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, or FATF. Prompted as they were by the extraordinary boom in illicit cash brought about by America’s love affair with cocaine, the measures weren’t taken particularly seriously by tiny tax-haven nations such as Vanuatu.

Then came September 11th, 2001. What had been seen as a first-world problem suddenly became a global concern. No longer just a pastime for drug lords and tax cheats, money laundering was identified by the USA as a prime source of financing for terrorism. In the months immediately after the terror attacks on New York, a series of measures were brought into play that made it clear that the world was going to play along to the anti-money laundering tune.

In 2002, Vanuatu was faced with a choice. It could either clean up its act, or it could lose the ability to trade in US dollars. The consequences of failure were dire, to say the least. Within months, a number of offices with dozens of nameplates on their door disappeared.

In fairly short order, Vanuatu drafted a legislative and law enforcement framework that quelled the international community’s worst fears, and got the country moved from the infamous grey list of ‘non-compliant and uncooperative jurisdictions’. In fact, Vanuatu went above and beyond the call of duty, and drafted a regime that would prove onerous actually to implement.

This decision would come back to haunt the country. Continue reading

Learning to Govern Again

What does a culture of corruption actually look like? Vanuatu.

It’s often difficult to see exactly where the rot sets in. The pressure of corruption is often quiet and always insidious. It impacts on public institutions, on their ability to manage themselves, to plan and to perform useful work.

Corruption creates a culture of impunity. Bad deeds go unpunished; good deeds and hard work go unrewarded. Each is as dangerous as the other.

2015 will almost certainly go down in the history books as Vanuatu’s annus horribilis, a year so bad we hope it will never be repeated. Between the cyclone, the drought, the collapse of government and the failure of critical infrastructure, it’s hard to see even a glimmer of light.

But we need to understand that it was a long time coming. Arguably, it all began in the days immediately after Walter Lini’s ouster, when the deposed leader and his confreres stripped the government offices bare before their departure.

Over the years, Vanuatu’s leaders have developed and defined a style of government that may have worked on the village and family level, but has condemned the country to failure. Continue reading

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Cooking the Goose

It‘s easy to cast aspersions at the people who stood down on the wharf road yesterday and threw stones at a bus full of visitors. That kind of behaviour is unacceptable under any circumstances. No amount of frustration can justify such violence and intimidation.

The costs of such behaviour are difficult to calculate, too. There’s the immediate loss of approximately 5 million vatu daily in tours and activities that get booked by passengers before they arrive. There’s the knock-on benefits derived from staff income being spent closer to home, including bus and taxi fares.

Then there are the indirect costs. The lost fares for those very drivers whose frustrations have boiled over. The opportunity cost to the countless shops, handicraft vendors and duty free suppliers in and around town. The shifting perception of cruise operators, which might lead them to question their significant investment in Vanuatu as a destination.

Goodwill is priceless, and if we fritter that away simply because we can’t manage a single high-traffic location, then we really have to ask ourselves some basic questions about the direction this country is going in. Continue reading

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A Prayer for Fiji

The first survey flights are done, and although there has been welcome evidence that many communities in Fiji have survived intact, the number of towns and villages that have been obliterated is distressingly large.

While we can take comfort that Suva, Nadi and other international ports of call are more of less intact, the numerous smaller islands in Winston’s path, along with the lower part of Vanua Levu, have clearly been devastated.

On Viti Levu, Lautoka, Ba and Tavua all sustained significant damage, and the evidence from elsewhere is that numerous shoreside communities have simply been wiped away by the combination of record-strength winds and a massive storm surge.

None of us who experienced the power of cyclone Pam’s winds can remain unmoved by the photographic and video evidence emerging from the overflights of Fiji’s affected areas. The images are depressingly familiar. The blasted landscape, the corrugated metal roofing dotting the countryside like confetti, ships run aground and ashore, whole hillsides collapsed. Entire villages have been left without a single domicile standing.

This cyclone is the strongest storm ever to strike the Fiji islands. Clearly, Winston’s relief and reconstruction effort will be similar in scale to Fiji’s economy as Pam’s has proven to ours. Continue reading

Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas is the new Prime Minister of Vanuatu. The only candidate nominated at the opening of the 11th Parliament, he was elected with 44 out of 52 votes.

‘The people want change’

The people want change’ — that was the core lesson that newly elected Prime Minister Charlot Salwai took from the January 22nd general election. With over 60% of its members new to Parliament, it seems clear that change is what we’re getting—whether we like it or not.

But there’s change, and then there’s change. Let’s hope we get the good kind. If the composition of the Council of Ministers is any indication, we’re headed for an administration that takes the business of doing government seriously.

Led by veteran politicians such as Ham Lini and Joe Natuman, balanced with technocrats in such key ministries as Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Health and Education, and leavened with a few fresh faces, this new coalition seems to have a decent balance of experience—political and professional—ability and energy.

But will the centre hold? Can we have what Lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu called, ‘Unity at last’?

Perhaps the most important virtue that this new cabinet will need is moral probity. Several of its members have already shown themselves to be capable of putting the good of the many ahead of the good of the few. But it’s one thing to mean well, and another to do well.

As the saying goes, handsome is as handsome does. Continue reading

More shots from the morning of the 2016 Vanuatu General Election.

Strengthen the Electoral Commission

The members of the Vanuatu Electoral Commission managed a small miracle when they wrangled this snap election to a mostly successful conclusion. Were it not for the valiant efforts of the Commission members and the staff of the Electoral Office, things could easily have gone wildly awry.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. To do so would be flirting with disaster.

The Electoral Commission is not a beast that wakes every four years, runs a national election and then sleeps again. Far from it. There are municipal and provincial elections to be run, there is the electoral roll to be managed, there is the review of electoral districts and voting processes to be considered, and last but certainly not least, there is the long-delayed research into future voting procedures to correct the problems that inevitably arise during elections.

The Electoral Commission and the Principal Electoral Officer have done well—better than well, actually—in the face of chronic staff and budget shortfalls. But that’s only because of the stalwart, hard-working and principled people who fill the ranks.

There is no substitute for having the right people in the right positions, but their mandate and their abilities can be enhanced by taking a few simple measures. Continue reading

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The Price of Politics

Throughout Vanuatu and across the region, an outcry has arisen over our inability to keep international air travel safe. The prospect we face now—the possibility of only one remaining carrier willing to land at all, and only when the airstrip has been swept clean of debris—is a national disgrace.

It’s scandalous, too. Even knowing that our airstrip is more than half a decade past its use-by date, some were still willing to treat the airport upgrade as nothing more than a political football. Looking back over the past months, it’s hard to see if concern for traveler safety ever came into the picture.

It didn’t have to be this way. In August of 2014, the Bauerfield Airport Rehabilitation Committee, or BARC, was struck with a mandate to compile and detail the known issues concerning the airport, and to recommend a way forward.

A March 2015 report on the status of the airport, presented to the National Trade Development Committee by the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office stated: “The runway was last resurfaced in 2000 with an estimated design life of between 8 to 10 years…. The runway pavement, the stop areas and thresholds are currently deteriorating and urgently need an overall pavement overlay.”

The biggest danger here, cited by Air New Zealand as they announced their suspension of service, is FOD – Foreign Object Damage. The new Airbus and Boeing aircraft that modern carriers use have larger, more powerful jet engines, and if one of these were to suck up even a few pebbles, the results could be disastrous. Our airstrip and approach areas are currently crumbling, creating an imminent threat of FOD.

But that’s not all. The Daily Post was recently informed that one of AVL’s most senior air traffic controllers’ contract had not been renewed. We don’t know whether this is related to the decades-old communications and navigation equipment at the site, or whether it’s a separate—and equally troubling—issue. But the combination of a lack of experienced operators and sub-standard equipment is another issue that is worrying, to say the least.

Cap all this with the fact that, if something were to happen at Bauerfield, we would be working with fire safety systems that have been found similarly lacking.

It should never have come to this. Continue reading