The Price of Democracy

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

As I write this, Vanuatu’s members of Parliament are plodding through the Government’s budget bill. It’s an unusual second consecutive week of work for our MPs, and though everyone is intent on seeing the job completed, they’re giving the work the attention it deserves.

Opposition members have kept cabinet ministers on their collective toes. Following a salvo of incisive questions from across the floor, Finance Minister Molisa sent his staff back to the Ministry with instructions for more detailed briefing materials. The lights were burning into the small hours at Finance.

Measured in strictly procedural terms, progress may be slower than Speaker George Wells might want, but the Opposition, looking revitalised and with a newfound sense of purpose, has been… well, doing its job, to be frank. That’s a refreshing – and timely – first.

It may seem silly to outsiders, but I’m not the only one here who’s taken some encouragement from these few weeks of Parliamentary process. After years of listening to the same tiresome tirades against do-nothing politicians, we are at last seeing something genuinely newsworthy in Vanuatu politics: A thorough and detailed investigation of how the nation spends its money.

There’s a little bit of wonkery to this story, procedural details that have passed largely unremarked by the general public. Here it is in a nutshell:

The Government decided to tidy up its affairs this year, putting additional expenditures from last year onto the books in a supplementary appropriation. Funds for Health, PVMC, back-pay, the Agriculture Development Bank and a fleet of new ministerial vehicles combined to push urgent, unforeseen expenditures over the 1.5% cap that Finance legislation had placed on them. In order to retroactively bring these expenses into the fold, the Government pushed through a one-time increase in the discretionary limit to 4.2%, bringing the total to slightly more than 500 million vatu.

Wait a minute – Ministerial vehicles? MP Ralph Regenvanu rightly questioned their designation as urgent and necessary expenses. He has a point, too. But equally important is the Government’s decision to bring these payments into the light of day. By submitting its past profligacy to Parliamentary scrutiny and making it clear that such retroactive increases will not recur, it was able at least to secure the integrity of the process.

As it passed the required amendment, Minister Molisa assured MPs that the change to 4.2% would be reverted via new legislation to be introduced immediately following consideration of this year’s budget. This would require an extraordinary session, but that had been accounted for in the planning. Better to keep MPs around for a few more days and see the job done right than to work – literally – in half measures.

The Opposition had their own agenda, too. Following a realignment that left veteran parliamentarian Sato Kilman in the fore, they embarked on a concerted and effective campaign, forcing the Government to defend its policy priorities and the spending they entailed. MPs Moana Carcasses Kalosil and Ralph Regenvanu were often in the thick of things, posing informed and detailed questions concerning Government’s spending priorities. They arrived in the House prepared, with notes in hand, and maintained an unprecedented level of cohesion in opposing those spending measures they felt did not meet the standards they set out.

PM Natapei’s coalition, itself demonstrating a high degree of unity and preparation, has carried every vote so far. But the heightened scrutiny required that they spend longer than originally planned on the appropriation bill. And here’s where it gets interesting.

The law states that budget bills can only be considered in ordinary sessions of Parliament, so the extraordinary session scheduled to follow (to revert the changes to the supplementary spending limits) wouldn’t do. All right, then, said Government, we’ll just tack a second ordinary session onto the first, and then add an extraordinary session after that, should we need one.

What with the robust scrutiny the budget bill is receiving, it appears they do. So the Parliamentary marathon seems set to continue.

Some will no doubt moan about the cost, but I say it’s worth every penny. In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen Parliament working quite as well as it is right now. Government is taking steps to keep future hands out of the cookie jar, and what’s more has owned up to the crumbs on the counter.

For their part, the Opposition have done what a good Opposition is supposed to do – they’ve challenged, pushed, prodded and demanded answers. To its credit, Edward Natapei’s government, most notably Finance Minister Molisa, have stood up to the scrutiny and held their ground.

The result? Our parliamentarians seem (at last!) to be moving beyond a musical chairs approach to government and taking the role of governing seriously.

No doubt everyone’s feeling a little weary right now, and some may be grumbling about the expense and inconvenience of keeping Parliament in session into another week. I say we stay the course. Government is doing its job. This, truly, is the price of democracy, and if you ask me, it’s money well spent.