Practical Policy

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Election season is well underway. For most people, it’s unrolling as it always has. The usual gifts are handed out to the usual suspects. A chief receives a free vendor stall at the Independence ceremonies in exchange for delivering his community’s support. A prospective candidate rounds up a few dozen friends and spends an evening doling out kava and chatting. An MP tours from village to village with a truckload of pots, pans and bags of rice. A prospective MP buys the truck itself.

Generally, these transactions are notably free of platform or policy discussions. The tradition doesn’t really work that way. It’s not that candidates don’t have agendas; they do. Nor are they hiding anything, necessarily; it’s just that, at this level, they don’t play the policy game.

As they’ve done for thousands of years, leaders invest their time and wealth in buying the support of the dominant personalities in their community. They do so by the most direct means possible: bags of rice, pots and pans, a favour here, a favour there. It’s simple, direct and tangible for all involved. The price of a vote is lamentably low, but that’s just a reflection of the value voters put in today’s government.

Occasionally, though, there arises that rarest of political creatures, a candidate with a conscience, and a policy platform to prove it.

On the off chance that there might be one or two out there this year, and on the even offer chance that they’re looking to this column for inspiration, I offer the following….

Distinguish between policy and practice. For example, taking a stance against chronic corruption and incompetence in government is good and all, but that’s not a policy. That’s called doing your job. By all means raise the standard (please!), but that alone is not enough for voters.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic, but running as an ethical candidate is no mean feat here in Vanuatu. First, the continuum of honesty must be traversed. Convincing people even to come to a meeting that doesn’t feature free kava, entertainment and possibly a beer or two to round out the experience requires a rare mix of leadership, moral suasion and sheer obstinacy. Then, every single assertion made on the podium needs to be reinforced privately:

“You know that promise about ending vote buying? I meant it.”

“Of course, you did. Silly business that, expecting someone to deliver votes for… I guess the current price is 5000 vatu each…?”

“No, I really meant it.”

“Oh yes. Wouldn’t doubt it for a second. So… 4500 each, and maybe you could help out with my boy’s wedding?”

“I told you, I will not buy a single vote. There should be no one in the voting booth except the voter and their conscience.”

“Ah, I see. Why don’t you buy me and my five friends a shell and we’ll talk about this some more….”

Yes, establishing oneself as a principled and ethical candidate is a terribly difficult business. It’s necessary too, but that ethics alone won’t get you elected.

If you’re going to be the kind of candidate who offers nothing up front, you’d better make sure it’s clear to voters that their patience will be rewarded. You will eventually be required to bring home the cargo, and it better be more or less as you promised. More importantly, it better have direct, measurable value to your constituents.

Legal reform is terribly important. Equally important is administrative reform and accountability. We all yearn for MPs and ministers who take the job of governing seriously. The ones who currently do are rare gems indeed. But the deplorable truth is that it’s not a vote-winning policy. The Family Protection Act and Land Reform Summits are commendable undertakings, but they attract as many detractors as supporters. Keep these things under your hat except among friends.

So what works? A chicken in every pot.

  • Improvements in infrastructure are key right now. Imagine being the one telling voters that they can now phone their family in the islands thanks to your efforts. Something like that has value. Now imagine doing the same with small-scale rural power generation. It can work village to village, but imagine taking it on nationwide.
  • There’s still tons of work to do where communications are concerned. Community Internet is a winner, as are low-cost laptops for children.
  • Lower-cost transport is a tougher prospect, but one that everybody benefits from.
  • End primary school fees. Really. It’s entirely possible to do this. The only hard part is convincing your parliamentary colleagues that just reducing them a bit won’t suffice.
  • Housing in municipal areas is being completely neglected. Owning this initiative is a guaranteed winner if you’re running in Vila or Santo.

Vanuatu desperately needs honest, ethical and competent candidates to contest this election. But voters also need to know that their vote is worth more than the bag of rice they’re being offered. Unless a candidate can promise voters more tomorrow than they’re getting today, all the competence in the world won’t get them elected.