A Biddable Man

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

I met a clear-eyed and intelligent woman once. Her work was demanding and she took pride in doing it well. Her strength of will and ambition put her at odds with many more traditional types, so when she decided it was time to marry, she chose someone who wouldn’t attempt to clip her wings.

Her marriage amounted to the safest of bets.

The man she chose was nice enough, unfailingly smiling and courteous, but I found it difficult to respect him. He was one of those individuals who completely subordinated himself to others. Whatever his wife did was fine by him. I might have liked them both better if she hadn’t taken advantage of the situation and treated him like baggage.

Now, before we judge this woman too harshly, let’s recognise that this recipe is precisely the kind of match that many men in Vanuatu consider most desirable. If some consider a biddable wife to be a wise choice, why not accept that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose?

It makes us cringe because we know in our heart that it’s wrong. No matter who dominates, male or female, the inherent inequality of the relationship can’t be healthy.

Marriage – or any other relationship, for that matter – should be predicated on respect between equals. It should challenge us to be better. It should require us to be more than we already are. We derive strength and support from it, but we should be required to provide the same.

Many of the most capable and interesting men and women in Vanuatu have singularly benefited from their spouse’s sacrifice and support. Their advice and counsel may go unremarked by others, but it’s always there. Their consistency and moral guidance push their partner to greater heights than they might have achieved alone.

Notwithstanding the protestations of certain members of Vanuatu’s Electoral College, the role of the President is closer to this silent supporting role than that of any other leader.

Now, the Constitution states quite succinctly that the President “shall symbolise the unity of the nation.” That’s an interesting – if somewhat reductive – definition, but it’s been superseded by the popular conception of the President as a moral guide and elder statesman.

Indeed outgoing President Kalkot Mataskelekele raised the bar significantly when he attempted to stimulate a national dialogue on Constitutional review. Much as a considerate spouse might broach certain topics over the dinner table, he suggested that the time was right to begin considering whether existing governmental structures adequately met Vanuatu’s needs.

There’s no doubt at all that President Mataskelekele has very strong opinions on the matter, but to his credit, he recognised that the role of the President was to stimulate a national debate, not to dominate it. We need to be challenged by such ideas, but must be allowed to go wherever – and however – we choose.

We never appreciate just how much we all need a partner to keep us from going astray as in those times when we are most challenged by circumstance. There’s little doubt that Ham Lini, in choosing to support Mataskelekele’s bid for the Presidency, closely measured the likelihood of being able to rely on him, should events demand. Sure enough, two most contentious pieces of legislation to come out in recent years have spurred intervention from the President.

One suspects that when the Family Protection Act was referred to the Supreme Court, it was motivated by the desire to demonstrate to the entire nation that the ideas contained therein were completely in keeping with Vanuatu’s legal heritage. Thus, a contentious bill was finally, irrevocably legitimised in a way that no Parliamentarian could have done.

More interestingly, President Mataskelekele’s referral of the recent amendments to the Employment Act bought Parliament enough time to reduce its potentially devastating impact. Strictly speaking, it is not the President’s place to step into the political arena. He should by rights have left the PM and his cabinet to sort things out. But given the intransigence of the parties involved, Mataskelekele’s intervention was a useful and timely improvisation. An unjust law was held back without any minister losing face.

It’s only when push comes to shove that the President’s role becomes crucial. As the counselor of last resort to the nation as a whole, his moral guidance is critical to the health of the nation. It’s not surprising, then, that more than one PM has hoped to place a biddable man in the nation’s highest chair.

There is little doubt, for example, that Commodore Bainimarama was glad of a biddable President when he felt the need to abrogate Fiji’s Constitution.

The greatest danger a leader will ever face is himself. No one enjoys being stood up to, and we certainly don’t want anyone to oppose for opposition’s sake, but in times of crisis somebody has to be able to save us from ourselves.

This is the President’s most crucial role. As attractive as it may be to have a biddable man in the role, we cannot afford too many ‘useful improvisations’. Let us hope that President Iolu Abil is not as amenable as some may intend him to be.