[This column was originally published in the Weekend edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post.]
Just yesterday, Minister Regenvanu was kind enough to respond to my column of last week, in which I expressed more than a little impatience at his silence over the March 4 attack on Marc Neil-Jones. He thanked me for my views and asked, “But who’s done more for good governance and transparency in Vanuatu: you or me?”
It’s a fair question –more than fair, actually– one that bears serious consideration.
My first instinct was to reply, “Your colleague beat the crap out of my friend. I said something about it; you didn’t.” That has the benefit of the truth, and it’s a fairly good summation of how I felt at the time I was composing the column.
But it’s not at all satisfying, nor does it do anything to further the goals that I know Minister Regenvanu shares with me and with an ever-increasing number of voters.
More importantly, tit-for-tat point-scoring rhetoric only contributes to the decline of political dialogue, making enemies and sowing confusion in the very places where clarity and unity should be most easily achieved.
So let’s dig a little deeper and see what more we all could be doing to make things better.
First off, let me state that any man of principle who embarks on a career in politics is a better man than I. (Any woman of principle who does so is probably a better man than any of us.) From the very first step, compromises must be made. As I said in last week’s column, the calculus of power is byzantine and counter-factual.
If you’re looking for easy answers to anything, look elsewhere. If someone promises you easy answers, don’t trust them. They’re either naive or they’re deceiving you. To his credit, Minister Regenvanu made a point of not promising anything but the sweat of his own brow during his election campaign.
In my afternoon convos over kava, I’ve often said that politics is a muddy road, so throwing out a politician for having soiled his feet is silly and wrong. It’s the ones who roll around in the middle of it like pigs in a slough – these are the ones we should be objecting to.
It’s easy for someone like me, who won’t even qualify for citizenship for another two and a half years, to sit on the sidelines and imagine that I could outplay those on the field. So it’s healthy to consider from time to time what things look like from the ground, to understand the pressures and exigencies that impose themselves from minute to minute.
The price is a heavy one. It’s impossible, in politics at least, to have friends without having adversaries. If you don’t have any rivals, that’s because you don’t have any power yet. So every choice, every compromise comes laden with the knowledge that, even if you’ve pleased some people, you’ve upset a few others. Victories are measured in inches and the goal line is often miles away.
The question then –the impossible question– is this: When do you stand and when do you sidestep? Which are the battles that must be fought, and at what cost?
Conventional wisdom has it that, following MP Iauko’s assault on Daily Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones, PM Kilman was handcuffed by the fact that removing Iauko from his portfolio would effectively topple the government. So, like it or not, this marriage of inconvenience had to continue.
To make matters worse, the prospect of a successful prosecution was vanishingly small. There was nothing to indicate that the Public Prosecutor and the Police wouldn’t be just as ineffectual in this instance as they’d been on countless occasions in the past. Not only would a powerful man be given grounds for vengeance, he’d likely have the means and opportunity to exact it, too.
Better, then, to bide one’s time and wait for an opportunity further down the line. Iauko’s rather incendiary rise has not made him a lot of lasting friendships, and anyway, his countless pre-election promises would soon be coming home to roost. Why fight an overt battle, possibly at significant cost, to achieve something that Iauko seemed to be perfectly capable of doing to himself?
Viewed through the lens of political calculus, there’s some merit to this line of reasoning. One could even be so bold as to argue that the baroque architecture of parliamentary rules and precedents that govern behaviour in other nations using the Westminster form of government are neither appropriate nor desirable here in Vanuatu.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s consider what might happen if things played out differently.
What if PM Kilman had required his Minister for Infrastructure and Public Utilities to resign his portfolio, pending a police investigation? He’s shown he’s capable of moving inconvenient Ministers out of the way. At the same time as the Iauko scandal was unfolding, he manoeuvred the Labour party out of power. This in retaliation for having signed an Opposition confidence motion.
In that case, the immediate goal was to remain in power, to live another day in order to achieve the policy goals that comprise the very reasons for governing in the first place.
Let’s apply the same logic to the Iauko debacle.
On the one hand, sharing power with people who care nothing for policy and are willing to fight every minute of every day for a bigger piece of the pie, people who, more to the point, are willing to stop at nothing… well, you have to ask yourself: Are you making things better or worse? On the other hand, you can’t get into government without them, and they know it. More to the point, perhaps it’s better to have them using these tactics against others than against you.
As the author of the Godfather famously put it, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
The problem with this equation is that it allows the worst excesses to continue unchecked. In other words, there will never be a better calibre of MP in this country, because the others either drag them down or elbow them aside. You either learn how to scrap or you don’t play at all.
So how do we improve governance, then? The only way to maintain one’s integrity is to be able to exert enough power over the other players to force them to play nice. And there’s no way to gather that much power, because of the disunity and distrust that’s endemic in Vanuatu’s political landscape.
It would take a grand, unifying goal, something about which the entire population of Vanuatu could agree, to achieve –even momentarily– the kind of unity of purpose and energy that Fr. Walter Lini managed during the first days of the Republic.
What if taking a stand, even allowing a government to fall, were enough to galvanise such a movement? What if it could be made clear to voters that there are certain kinds of behaviour that simply cannot be tolerated, and that this behaviour is the cause of so many of Vanuatu’s afflictions?
That’s not an easy task. Many voters don’t think in terms of policy and long-term reward. Some are willing to choose self-gratification over nation-building every time. Given Vanuatu’s voting districts, you don’t need more than a few hundred of these to get yourself in the running. Pony up a bit of cash to run some stalking-horse candidates and you can split the vote small enough to get in with the support of a single village.
So the risk, then, is that you take a principled stand, try to galvanise the electorate into an unprecedented level of support, only to find yourself standing on the sidelines, come Election Day plus one.
Worse, you could actually succeed in garnering an unprecedented level of the vote, only to discover that you’d been equaled by, and forced to share power with, the very kind of candidate you were elected to turf out.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I’ll say this again, in all sincerity: A principled man who’s willing to walk that muddy road is a better man than I, because I would always take that principled stand, keep my conscience clear, and fail entirely as a politician.
That may sound back-handed to some. It’s not. Life is a complex and messy thing; there are no simple answers. And sometimes staying pure and principled means staying powerless.
For my part I’m willing to abdicate that power, because once in a while things need to be said at any cost.
It’s easy for me to say this, but I don’t say it lightly. I say it because others can’t:
If a Government Minister resorts to political violence and coercion and the government takes no action to remedy this, that government deserves to fall.