Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post
Right after Sato Kilman stage-managed the ouster of Joe Natuman’s government, Wan Smolbag debuted their latest Youth Drama group play. The title, Yumi Stap Wea (Where Are We?) is the same question several MPs must have been asking themselves in the whirlwind of changing allegiances.
One of the plays was tightly scripted, engaging and thought provoking. It avoided easy answers to long-standing problems in Vanuatu, and took a dry-eyed look at some of the key difficulties that we face as a country.
The other gave us a new Prime Minister.
Rumours began swirling about a possible return to power for Mr Kilman during his April trip to Jakarta. On the sidelines of the Asia-Africa Conference, he unexpectedly announced that Vanuatu would soon open an embassy to Indonesia. This was quickly batted back by Joe Natuman and members of cabinet, who reiterated their strong pro-West Papua stand and stated that the minister had spoken without authority.
Widespread speculation has it that Mr Kilman’s Jakarta announcement served as an act of faith to Jokowi, who then rewarded him with the support necessary to topple the government. Given the remonstrations and blandishments that Mr Widodo has bestowed of late on Melanesia’s—and Australia’s—heads of government, this scenario is entirely plausible. It would seem to be quite important to Indonesia’s political and military establishment to make sure that any support whatsoever of West Papuan independence should exact a high price.
Mr Kilman’s long-standing willingness to stand closer to Indonesia than other Vanuatu politicians has been the subject of extensive and heated commentary in Vanuatu.
An informal scan of social media shows that the majority of the online commentariat is angry not only with Mr Kilman, but also (and in equal parts) with the faithlessness of their MPs. Special attention was paid to Morking Stevens, Tony Hosea and Samson Samsen, whose last-minute switch gave the Opposition the numbers they needed to carry the vote of no confidence.
And because no plot is complete without a twist, the Government-cum-Opposition took advantage of a seemingly insignificant bit of Parliamentary business to organise their own counter-motion. Because the whole saga unfolded during a regular session of Parliament, it could not be dissolved immediately—standard procedure for any new prime minister wishing to lock the proverbial door behind him.
And in a further twist, wrangling over cabinet positions among the victors meant that there was no time to elect a new Speaker of Parliament—again, standard procedure for any new government. This meant that the Natuman/Lini camp were able to lodge a motion of their own in short order and have it duly scheduled by an amenable Speaker.
Nearly universal disapproval was expressed that Vanuatu’s politicians appeared to be returning to their accustomed games while the country was still in the throes of dealing with cyclone Pam. Only yesterday, the final food shipments were sent to the Shepherd islands, and disaster response workers newly returned from Tanna report that circumstances there are still far from good.
To date, politicians have for the most part allowed disaster relief and reconstruction efforts to proceed unobstructed. The result has been that senior bureaucrats have by and large been able to distribute what goods we have to the most needful without fear or favour. We hope this continues to be the case.
Last year, when Mr Natuman and Ham Lini joined with other veteran politicians to form their government, they characterised it as a return to the ‘old’ Vanua’aku Pati, which had unified the country at a time of need and provided a decade of solidity before the wheels finally came off. It is widely reported that Mr Lini in particular is anxious to protect his older brother’s legacy and to add his own to it. Indeed, the scuttlebutt was that one of the compromise positions was that Mr Lini switch places with Joe Natuman as a way of keeping the current cast of characters on the government side.
Kevin Spacey has nothing on us, it seems.
But structural defects in Vanuatu’s parliamentary system are such that the opposition needed only to suborn a relatively tiny number MPs in order to bring down the entire house of cards once again. Kevin Spacey has nothing on us, it seems.
To top off all of this drama, there is a third power play still in motion. Nineteen MPs, including the new Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil, face bribery charges in Magistrate’s court. While few expected any serious penalties to result, Mr Natuman’s contentious and unprecedented attempt to treat political bribery as an actual crime is approaching its climax.
It has not escaped MPs’ attention that this latest no confidence vote was scheduled for the day before several politicians—widely considered to be of negotiable virtue—had their much-anticipated day in court.
That gambit may fail, now. But the way in which it fails will be just as important as the fact that it does. If the Public Prosecutor is once again cowed into a failure to prosecute public figures, or worse, to withdraw the charges completely, then we can only conclude that our politicians have successfully created a culture of impunity for themselves.
If, on the other hand, key witnesses withdraw or change their testimony, then the potential still exists, in theory at least, that there might be enforceable legal limits on the elected officials’ behaviour. Given that the hop-scotching member for Santo Rural, Samson Samsen, was widely rumoured to be a key witness for the Natuman government, this is arguably the more likely outcome.
In any case, this particular show has been rescheduled. Correctly citing parliamentary privilege, the court has moved the appearance to the 23rd of June, after the current session of Parliament.
If there is any cause for optimism to be found in this week’s theatrics, it comes from the disadvantaged youth at Wan Smolbag. They, at least, have learned to work closely together to tackle some of the very difficult issues we face as a nation. And tickets are free, so the cost of the drama is much more affordable.