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Gail Kelly is right

Statements by ex-Westpac CEO Gail Kelly at a CARE fundraising event in Melbourne have caused a minor firestorm here in Vanuatu. On July 28th, Ms Kelly provided a litany of examples of sexual abuse, violence and subjugation of women in Vanuatu, which she characterised as “staggering,” according to the Guardian Australia.

The response in Vanuatu was outrage.

Men and (to a much lesser degree) women alike castigated Ms Kelly, claiming that she was uninformed, that she had no insight into traditional values and was grossly misrepresenting the situation.

It is true that when such issues are put under the microscope, they look appalling, especially when crime, prejudice and systematic bias are piled up side by side with one another.

That’s because they are appalling. Continue reading

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‘Fake’ Names, Real Concerns

The issue of ‘kiaman’—or fake—names is a perennial topic both on social media and off. On one side are those who insist that everyone should stand up and hold their opinion proudly. On the other side are people who worry that merely sharing their thoughts will land them in hot water.

Truth be told, opinion among the staff and management of the Daily Post is mixed, too.

Without utterly discounting one side or the other, it would nonetheless be useful to challenge a few of the arguments, both for and against.

Some commenters have equated anonymous speech to unsigned letters to the editor in this newspaper. That comparison is not correct. Our editorial staff know the identity of every writer; it’s a requirement for publication. And we are responsible for everything printed in our newspaper. If a legal complaint is made against the letter, we’re as much on the hook as the writer of the thing.

That’s not the same as when someone posts a comment on social media. In high volume discussion groups, it’s simply not possible to police every single comment in real time. Most of these groups are administered by volunteers who have neither the time nor the inclination to read every single comment and every single post.

Nor should they have to. Continue reading

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DRAWING THE LINE

The space where kastom and the law overlap has seldom been a peaceful one. From the earliest colonial days, land, law and kastom were gunpowder.

Historian Howard Van Trease writes of the plight of Ni Vanuatu in the years immediately following the 1906 Condominium. He recounts how Edward Jacomb, a British civil servant, ultimately advised Ni Vanuatu to resist attempts to alienate their land with force, as the Joint Court was powerless to help them.

When a plantation operator was murdered on Epi in 1911, the event “evoked an outcry for the administration to instigate much harsher measures to reduce the threat against Europeans….”

Fast forward 100 years, and the problems of today bear a striking resemblance. The rule of law still doesn’t reach all the way out to the islands. The concept of land ownership and entitlement is still cloudy, and misunderstandings still lead to disagreements.

Disagreements still sometimes lead to violence.

The most striking example of this, of course, has been playing out on Tanna near Bethel village. There is much yet to be understood about the issue, and because some aspects of the dispute are already before the courts, we need to tread carefully.

Likewise, the widely held sense of outrage and search for kastom resolution needs to be treated with sensitivity.

But some things are already clear. Continue reading

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Neither Fear nor Favour

I first began to worry about the future of journalism in Vanuatu back in 2011, when Marc Neil-Jones was attacked in his office at the Daily Post by a minister of state and others.

At the time, I quoted him: “’I’ve been deported, jailed and beaten up before. This isn’t the worst I’ve seen.’

“‘I am getting a bit old for this, though,’ he added wryly.”

Marc will be retiring at the end of this year, and I will be taking his place.

The largest part of my job will be preserving and protecting the legacy of the institution that Marc has built in the face of significant adversity.

Inside the newsroom at the Daily Post are reporters who have worked their beat since before independence. They are storied, wise and, surprisingly, not a bit jaded by their decades of service.

When I was being interviewed for the position of media director, I said that I felt that we had moved on from 2011. I felt that using the threat of violence to intimidate the media was no longer in the cards.

It was gratifying, therefore, to meet with the prime minister and several senior ministers of state to discuss the state of the media on Monday. Continue reading

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The reason for rules

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

There are days when it looks like this country is committing slow, deliberate suicide.

As an ex-smoker, I have a vivid sense of how that feels. You know it’s going to end in tears. At best, you’ll be struck down years before your time, clutching your chest and knowing it wasn’t worth it. But more likely, it ends in indignity as you cough your lungs out, slowly losing the battle to breathe, while others look on at you with a mixture of pity and loathing.

Yet still, you light up and smoke. The incremental pain of staying hooked is nothing to the agony of quitting. Until that fateful day when you realise that if you want to live, you have to set some limits.

This country has a habit, and painful as it might be, it needs to quit. We cannot—not must not, not should not—we cannot continue using bureaucratic and political appointments as rewards.

I’m not saying we need to stop because it’s wrong. It is, but this is not a bully pulpit. In fact, morality be damned. The problem is that this path is guaranteed to end in tears for everyone. Continue reading

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Business as usual?

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

Moana Carcasses wants changes to the VIPA Act. That might be a good idea.

Back in 2013, when Moana Carcasses was prime minister and acting minister of Trade, Cooperatives and Ni Vanuatu Business, he put a stop to the issuing of so-called D2 business licenses. These are the licenses needed to run a retail/wholesale shop.

Mr Carcasses was reacting to a widespread—and largely accurate—belief that some investors were flouting the intent of the VIPA Act, which reserves certain sectors and occupations to Ni Vanuatu. Now, two years later, he wants to review his decision.

He’s right to do that as well.

It’s clear today that a blanket ban on issuing D2 licenses has done little to remedy the situation. On the contrary, it has stifled the diversity of shops and retail goods in Port Vila.

During a public meeting earlier this week, about 40 of the usual suspects turned up to comment. The Chamber of Commerce (or VCCI) sent a delegation, and local merchants and manufacturers showed up to check on things.

The feedback, if well-intentioned, was predictable. A VCCI representative trotted out the tired assertion that the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority can either promote or regulate business, but not both. This is just wrong. Responsible business promotion requires regulation. Continue reading

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Action and Reaction

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s true in politics as well as physics

“Toktok no tumas. Aksen nomo.” These words, originally attributed to the famous—or infamous, depending on who you talk to—politician Harry Iauko, capture in simple and direct terms the nation’s growing impatience. People are rightly asking when are we ever going to see the benefits we’ve been promised for so long?

It should come as no surprise then, that in word and deed, the current government is intent on moving forward, and moving fast.

The more cynically minded among us could remark that the 2016 general election is just around the corner. But, after all, that’s what politics are all about. This is quite literally a popularity contest, and voters are right to ask, “What have you done for me lately?”

So nobody should be surprised when the minister of Public Works redirects earth-moving equipment from their current sites in Ambae and Maewo and has them sent to his home island in Pentecost.

Nobody who’s travelled the roads in Pentecost can deny that they are in desperate shape. Traffic comes to a complete halt after a heavy rainfall because of the lack of infrastructure.

But that’s not to say the roads in Ambae or Maewo are any better. And here’s where action and reaction become difficult to manage. Continue reading

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Power play

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

UNELCO’s star rose considerably in the days and weeks after cyclone Pam. Consistently rated among the best power companies in the Pacific islands, the utility exceeded even these high expectations, restoring electricity and water to critical locations sooner than expected in many cases.

Yesterday, the company confirmed that they had finalised a plan to complete the handover of Port Vila’s streetlights in time for Independence celebrations this year. In the past the municipality struggled to provide this service reliably. Now, the utility has promised more lighting for longer hours using more efficient technologies.

Soon, it will begin extending its power grid in Malekula to an estimated 300 new households.

But in spite of these successes, it still tries to duck around its responsibilities to the Utilities Regulatory Authority, and has reportedly appealed directly to politicians instead.

A 2004 World Bank report identified issues with the company’s tariff calculation methods. It recommended that an independent body be established to oversee power generation and water supply.

The Utilities Regulatory Authority made a number of missteps in its early days, but has since enhanced and regularised its operations, thanks partly to significant assistance from the Australian government’s Governance for Growth programme.

In spite of this, UNELCO seems unwilling to recognise the regulator’s authority. Continue reading

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UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

More than three months after cyclone Pam devastated the country, much remains to be done. Governor General of Australia Peter Cosgrove’s visit to Port Vila and Tanna highlighted the continuing need of Vanuatu’s affected population.

Anyone who claims that Tanna has received an unfair amount of aid has only to visit the island to see how wrong they are. The destruction on the island was widespread, and even now, signs of damage are everywhere. Lenakel hospital is still struggling with the after effects of the cyclone, and continuing health issues in the communities only compound the problem.

Melmel Lawawa, from south Tanna, is barely one year old. She has an extensive skin infection and has just arrived in hospital. Her family home was destroyed during the cyclone. While the family has received food support, they have yet to receive tools or materials to help with the reconstruction of their home. She lives in cramped, unsanitary conditions, and now her suffering is adding to the workload at the hospital.

But Lenakel hospital is also facing challenges with water and sanitation. Several large capacity fibreglass water tanks were blown off their bases and sent careening down the hillside by the cyclone’s unprecedented winds. Staff at the hospital claim they’re doing what they can, but current water capacity is severely limited, sometimes running out by lunchtime. Continue reading

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Anything less than defeat is a victory

Originally published on the Pacific Policy Blog.

Last week’s Solomonic decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group to cut the baby in half and boost the membership status of both the ULMWP and Indonesia is an example of the Melanesian political mind at work. Valuing collective peace over individual justice, group prosperity over individual advancement, and allowing unabashed self-interest to leaven the sincerity of the entire process, our leaders have placed their stamp on what just might be an indelible historical moment.

Last week marked the first time the indigenous people of West Papua were not entirely defeated. And that, in itself, is a victory.

Thousands gathered to celebrate in Timika and elsewhere in the western half of the island of Papua. Praise for Manasseh Sogavare’s depiction of the decision as a ‘test‘ of Melanesia’s respect for human rights was widespread. Domestically, his role in the decision seems to have bolstered his standing as a statesman and leader.

But a more dry-eyed look at the process reveals a cost that will undoubtedly prove quite high for proponents of West Papuan independence. David Robie’s depiction of Papua New Guinea and Fiji’s stance on the issue as a ‘betrayal‘ is starker than many others, but it’s not wrong.

Voreqe Bainimarama’s disingenuous insistence that Indonesia’s territorial integrity cannot be challenged begs the question of the legitimacy of Indonesia’s continuing occupation—one which, notably, the UN has still to answer. Likewise, Peter O’Neill’s insistence on ‘mandated’ representation for the Melanesian peoples of West Papua would be laughable if it weren’t so callous. The whole reason that the people of West Papua are seeking legitimacy through the MSG is because they are disenfranchised at home.

Sato Kilman took advantage of the clouded complexion of the domestic political scene to keep his proverbial head down, sending only a senior administrator to the Honiara summit. In fairness to him, from a tactical perspective he really had no choice. From a strategic perspective, his handling of the issue could only leave him weakened. Social media commentary in the Solomons was particularly unkind, portraying Vanuatu’s PM as lacking the nouse to stand with Mr Sogavare, letting down West Papua ‘at its hour of greatest need.’ Continue reading