Just Desserts – Reprise

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

Last week, I wrote about how our parliamentarians have yet to embrace the roles and responsibilities which they were elected to perform. Everyone is so intent on getting into government – or staying put, once there – that they ignore most of the political tools available to them.

On Thursday last week, distracted by a looming no-confidence vote, Parliament passed dangerously flawed legislation amending the Employment Act. The changes included improvements in maternity leave, adjustments to employer liability when a staff member resigns on short notice and changes to the way annual leave accrues.

But what got every employer’s knickers in a knot was a change to how severance is handled. The rate of accrual was increased by 300%. Worse, every worker, no matter how short their employment or the circumstances of their departure, is to be eligible.

The outcry was immediate, irate and, occasionally, irrational. Many employers immediately sacked all their staff, paid out whatever severance was due and re-hired everyone, sometimes at reduced rates calculated to discount the increased severance. Others requested that their staff resign, avoiding severance payouts entirely.

Expat workers were needlessly affected. In spite of being ineligible for severance, employment offers were shelved, contractors were shuffled between companies, salaries cut. Businesses closed briefly to process the artificial staff turnovers.

None of this was necessary. Not now at least, and in some cases not ever.

The source of this mini-crisis stems – again – from a dysfunctional system of governance which we have all neglected in our pursuit of expedience.

In order to achieve the force of law, these amendments had to pass through the Council of Ministers and be read (and voted) twice in Parliament. In many nations, the first reading would simply introduce the Bill, which would then be sent to committee in order for consultations and negotiations to take place.

In Vanuatu, both readings happened back to back. The entire business was completed in next to no time. I’ve received uncorroborated reports that 2 or 3 MPs, among them Moana Carcasses Kalosil and Ralph Regenvanu, abstained. Everyone else present voted in favour.

This is a classic case of government serving politics, instead of politics serving government. So distracted were all our MPs by their own internecine quarrels that they passed a broken Bill, without more than a moment’s reflection on the costs.

Before we comment further on the mote in our brothers’ eye, let’s admit something else: We are none of us blameless in this.

The media rightly complains that proposed bills are not commonly released to the public. The Chamber of Commerce has a valid beef that they were not consulted. Likewise local trade unions and civil society. But did we have to wait for a crisis like this to complain?

And why did I have to resort to anonymous sources to get copies of the Amendments, the Act and commentary on the vote itself? The lack of transparency and accountability is astounding.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we are all complicit in a culture of complacency, timidity and expedience that has hamstrung governance in Vanuatu.

Everyone acts with the best of intentions. Minister Crowby is not to be faulted for wanting to improve the lot of ni-Vanuatu workers. Nor is the media for their immediate – if partly ill-informed – reaction to the vote. The Chamber of Commerce should be commended for organising a well-attended meeting of business owners and government.

The fact remains, though, that to date there has been no methodical analysis conducted on the Amendments. Public reaction has been out of scale with the problem, and in some cases perpetuates the very abuses that caused the crisis in the first place.

Some have lobbied the President not to sign the Amendments into law. That is anti-democratic, unconstitutional, and unnecessary.

Section 77 of the Act clearly states that the Minister has broad powers to exempt any group from most elements of the Employment Act. Lawyers I’ve spoken with agree that Minister Crowby is well within his rights to exempt businesses from the changes until such time as Parliament has undertaken appropriate remedial action.

And the CoC’s Chicken Little pronouncements concerning Vanuatu’s apparent weakness in the face of global recession are not borne out by the facts. The consensus among experts I’ve spoken with directly contradicts this view. Vanuatu is in fact better positioned to ride out the coming storm than most developed nations.

Tourism is increasing. P&O cruises have increased their capacity and the frequency of their visits to Vanuatu. Pacific Blue has lowered its fuel surcharge and put on extra flights. Air Vanuatu has new flights from overseas to both Vila and Santo. Projections indicate that Australian tourist numbers will increase, though per capita expenditure might fall slightly. At worst, we’re looking at a wash, more likely, a modest boost.

The fading Australian dollar will result in lower prices on most imported goods, and fuel prices are showing every sign of falling even further. The Reserve Bank and its commercial cousins are not overly exposed to the credit crisis. Credit defaults might increase slightly due to recent rises in interest rates, but there’s no cause for immediate concern.

If we’re going to settle things satisfactorily, business needs to offer a more measured response. Without a doubt, several of these amendments could push some businesses under and drive others away, but let’s keep things in perspective here.

Frankly, the biggest danger our institutions face right now is a crisis of confidence. While we must absolutely act to protect business interests, confidence is built as much through the process as the result. Panicking won’t help anyone.

There is no quick fix for our culture of complacency, venality and expedience. The bottom line is this: We all need to slow down, do our respective jobs properly and well, respect the governance structures we have, and talk to each other.

For better or worse, we’ve got the government we deserve. It’s up to us now to demonstrate that we deserve better.