Learning to Govern Again

What does a culture of corruption actually look like? Vanuatu.

It’s often difficult to see exactly where the rot sets in. The pressure of corruption is often quiet and always insidious. It impacts on public institutions, on their ability to manage themselves, to plan and to perform useful work.

Corruption creates a culture of impunity. Bad deeds go unpunished; good deeds and hard work go unrewarded. Each is as dangerous as the other.

2015 will almost certainly go down in the history books as Vanuatu’s annus horribilis, a year so bad we hope it will never be repeated. Between the cyclone, the drought, the collapse of government and the failure of critical infrastructure, it’s hard to see even a glimmer of light.

But we need to understand that it was a long time coming. Arguably, it all began in the days immediately after Walter Lini’s ouster, when the deposed leader and his confreres stripped the government offices bare before their departure.

Over the years, Vanuatu’s leaders have developed and defined a style of government that may have worked on the village and family level, but has condemned the country to failure. Continue reading

Cooking the Goose

It‘s easy to cast aspersions at the people who stood down on the wharf road yesterday and threw stones at a bus full of visitors. That kind of behaviour is unacceptable under any circumstances. No amount of frustration can justify such violence and intimidation.

The costs of such behaviour are difficult to calculate, too. There’s the immediate loss of approximately 5 million vatu daily in tours and activities that get booked by passengers before they arrive. There’s the knock-on benefits derived from staff income being spent closer to home, including bus and taxi fares.

Then there are the indirect costs. The lost fares for those very drivers whose frustrations have boiled over. The opportunity cost to the countless shops, handicraft vendors and duty free suppliers in and around town. The shifting perception of cruise operators, which might lead them to question their significant investment in Vanuatu as a destination.

Goodwill is priceless, and if we fritter that away simply because we can’t manage a single high-traffic location, then we really have to ask ourselves some basic questions about the direction this country is going in. Continue reading

Strengthen the Electoral Commission

The members of the Vanuatu Electoral Commission managed a small miracle when they wrangled this snap election to a mostly successful conclusion. Were it not for the valiant efforts of the Commission members and the staff of the Electoral Office, things could easily have gone wildly awry.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. To do so would be flirting with disaster.

The Electoral Commission is not a beast that wakes every four years, runs a national election and then sleeps again. Far from it. There are municipal and provincial elections to be run, there is the electoral roll to be managed, there is the review of electoral districts and voting processes to be considered, and last but certainly not least, there is the long-delayed research into future voting procedures to correct the problems that inevitably arise during elections.

The Electoral Commission and the Principal Electoral Officer have done well—better than well, actually—in the face of chronic staff and budget shortfalls. But that’s only because of the stalwart, hard-working and principled people who fill the ranks.

There is no substitute for having the right people in the right positions, but their mandate and their abilities can be enhanced by taking a few simple measures. Continue reading

The Price of Politics

Throughout Vanuatu and across the region, an outcry has arisen over our inability to keep international air travel safe. The prospect we face now—the possibility of only one remaining carrier willing to land at all, and only when the airstrip has been swept clean of debris—is a national disgrace.

It’s scandalous, too. Even knowing that our airstrip is more than half a decade past its use-by date, some were still willing to treat the airport upgrade as nothing more than a political football. Looking back over the past months, it’s hard to see if concern for traveler safety ever came into the picture.

It didn’t have to be this way. In August of 2014, the Bauerfield Airport Rehabilitation Committee, or BARC, was struck with a mandate to compile and detail the known issues concerning the airport, and to recommend a way forward.

A March 2015 report on the status of the airport, presented to the National Trade Development Committee by the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office stated: “The runway was last resurfaced in 2000 with an estimated design life of between 8 to 10 years…. The runway pavement, the stop areas and thresholds are currently deteriorating and urgently need an overall pavement overlay.”

The biggest danger here, cited by Air New Zealand as they announced their suspension of service, is FOD – Foreign Object Damage. The new Airbus and Boeing aircraft that modern carriers use have larger, more powerful jet engines, and if one of these were to suck up even a few pebbles, the results could be disastrous. Our airstrip and approach areas are currently crumbling, creating an imminent threat of FOD.

But that’s not all. The Daily Post was recently informed that one of AVL’s most senior air traffic controllers’ contract had not been renewed. We don’t know whether this is related to the decades-old communications and navigation equipment at the site, or whether it’s a separate—and equally troubling—issue. But the combination of a lack of experienced operators and sub-standard equipment is another issue that is worrying, to say the least.

Cap all this with the fact that, if something were to happen at Bauerfield, we would be working with fire safety systems that have been found similarly lacking.

It should never have come to this. Continue reading

Sey ‘Was Fully Justified’

Once again PacLII has proved itself an invaluable public legal resource by making all Appeal Court judgments available online within 24 hours of their being handed down.

The decision that has fixated everyone’s attention is Criminal Appeal Case 12 of 2015, titled Kalosil v Public Prosecutor. The judgment brings together six different appeals by the imprisoned MPs in this year’s bribery case.

The appeals on all sentences and convictions were dismissed.

The decision was written by a panel of four judges, led by Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek. It first considered the core facts of the case—that shortly before 21 October, a Hong Kong resident named Fong Man Kelvin sent half a million US dollars to the Pacific International Trust Company, or Pitco, as it’s known locally.

Shortly afterward, the equivalent of US$ 350,000 was transferred to Moana Carcasses, who was then leader of the Opposition. Much of that money was subsequently distributed in Vt1 million chunks to numerous MPs.

Before another month had passed, a motion of No Confidence was tabled in Parliament, featuring the signatures of all the appellants. Continue reading

‘Nobody is above the law’

The words of President Baldwin Lonsdale will resound for some time to come in Vanuatu.

Yesterday, Vanuatu achieved something that still eludes many so-called developed countries. In a first not only in its own history, but arguably in Melanesia and in the Pacific, it set an example that, with a little luck and perspicacity, will keep future law makers from becoming law breakers.

Politics is a difficult, even dirty game, involving hard decisions. And hopefully, nobody is labouring under the delusion that all remaining politicians are unblemished paragons of virtue. But this country has successfully drawn a line, saying in effect, ‘Thus far, but no farther.’

We have not dealt with the problem of bartering cabinet positions for political support. We have not reconciled the judgment with kastom gift-giving and settlement ceremonies. We have not dealt with dozens of other ways in which our elites have sought advantage in the past.

But in respecting the trial process, the courts and the judges, we have preserved a critically important bastion of righteousness in public life.

Many people disagree with the decision that the Appeals Court upheld yesterday—and not simply out of mere allegiance to the affected parties. But as our leaders have done in the past, we trust and expect them to abide by the decision of the highest court in the land.

As Moana said when the initial verdict was handed down, “Respect the decision.” Continue reading

Against Intolerance

It’s possible that the only lesson we can learn from Paris is regret.

Regret for the countless beloved dead. Regret that our sentiment didn’t reach to Beirut, to Damascus and beyond. Regret at the backlash we know is coming.

One of the first measures French President François Hollande was the closing of the borders. Ostensibly, this was to prevent more attackers from joining in the wave of terror still roiling Paris at the time of the announcement, and to prevent the perpetrators from fleeing.

But implicit to this measure is the assumption that foreigners did this; that no true Frenchman could do such a thing.

The ideological fight is being imported into France, that’s true. It is the extension of the ongoing war waged by extreme Islamists who oppose what they call the imperialism of the morally decadent West.

This is classic al Qaeda methodology: hit the soft targets, terrorise the civilian population and drive western governments to further abridge the freedom of their own people in order to destabilise and disrupt government, society and culture alike.

Drive foreign governments to strike harder against the Muslim peoples, creating more resentment and hate, and more soldiers for radical Islam.

This particular series of attacks was aimed at Paris’ youth. Continue reading

Yumi, yumi, yumi

Reaction to last week’s prison sentences for the vast majority of MPs convicted of bribery and corruption consisted of equal parts sorrow and approval among the overwhelming majority of Ni Vanuatu. Only a tiny minority expressed glee or happiness at the downfall of some of the country’s most senior and heretofore respected politicians.

Fewer still complained of injustice.

Quoting from other judgments, Justice Mary Sey described the crime of bribery as “cynical, deplorable and deeply anti-social”, “intolerable in a civilised society”, and “inexcusable”, and wrote that “this Court, on behalf of the community, denounces the commission of the offences of corruption and bribery….”

She went on to assign prison sentences to all but one of the guilty parties.

Some people have—rightly—commended Justice Sey on her legal acumen, her refusal to allow the trial to lose momentum and, above all, her utter fearlessness in the face of intense pressure.

We can all take a little credit for her success. Continue reading

Silence becomes consent

In the weeks after it became known that more than a dozen MPs were being investigated for allegedly giving and accepting bribes, we accepted the reluctance among our leaders to comment on an issue currently before the police.

When MPs and their political backers were formally charged under the Leadership Code and the Penal Code, we expected them to stay quiet until the issue was resolved in the courts. But when people said they were unfairly targeted, we respected their right to do so.

When Sato Kilman included many of the accused into his government—and into his cabinet, too—following the no-confidence motion against Joe Natuman’s government, we were given pause.

It’s traditional in parliamentary democracies for MPs under any kind of cloud to clear their name before assuming—or resuming—a cabinet position or similar post.

Unusual as the situation might be, we accepted and respected Mr Kilman’s forceful assertion that all of the accused were innocent until proven guilty, and that no action would be taken until the courts had spoken.

When he allowed Mr Willie Jimmy to continue as Finance Minister even after he had pled guilty and been convicted, we watched with incredulity, but remained silent, even though Mr Jimmy’s continued presence in the position is of questionable legality. After all, we reasoned, things would get sorted before too long.

Even when a guilty verdict on criminal bribery charges was handed down, we still didn’t call for action, taking in good faith Mr Carcasses’ public call to “respect the judgment” and to uphold the process of the law.

But in the face of government officials taking actions that, in the words of the President, are “unlawful” and against the public interest, we are left with no option but to speak.

Mr Kilman’s support for his friends and colleagues is understandable, and many would say commendable. But there is a limit. Past a certain point, failure to speak, failure to act is no longer an act of moderation or restraint, it is an act of toleration.

And past a certain point, toleration is consent.

More and more as the hours and days tick by, Mr Kilman’s silence and inaction is betraying him. What may have looked like strength is looking more and more like an inability to counsel or constrain his own government members.

No formal statement on any of this has come out, save a brief assertion that pardons are a presidential matter and that the Prime Minister had no comment.

Associates of the Prime Minister who have acted as informal proxies in the past have stated unequivocally that Mr Kilman was neither consulted nor informed of the decision to promulgate a letter of pardon. Nor presumably has he assented to the attempted ouster of the Ombudsman, of the Clerk of Parliament or any other rumoured actions against parties involved in the bribery case.

Vanuatu is rapidly becoming a laughingstock in the international community. The ABC are featuring our national unravelling on the nightly news. TVNZ has labelled the country “an embarrassment”. Even the BBC is discussing the President’s “anger” at the situation.

This country needs unity and leadership now more than ever. And still the Prime Minister fails to act.

President Baldwin Lonsdale has used his office to draw a moral line in the sand, and to disown Mr Pipite’s actions. Sato Kilman can no longer remain silent. As the nation’s leader, he must act, and act promptly.

Past this point, silence becomes consent.

It can’t happen here—yet

All of us, at one time or other, have looked at some new horror emerging on the news ticker from other parts of the world and quietly counted our blessings, whispering, ‘That could never happen here in Vanuatu.’

A story came across the wire yesterday from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. We’ve re-run it in today’s paper. Mathieu Batick, a twenty-five year-old ni-Vanuatu seasonal worker, was convicted of assaulting a woman and remanded for sentencing.

It’s another story that could never happen here, but that’s no reason to celebrate.

The New Zealand Herald recounts how an astute police officer, realising that a group of revellers had disappeared into an alleyway, reversed his patrol vehicle and checked to make sure everything was all right.

Turning into the service lane, “the headlights shone on a man with pants down standing over a drunken woman who lay on the ground yelling: ‘Leave me alone.’”

Consequently, Mathieu Batick had two charges laid against him: assault with intent to commit sexual violation and indecent assault.

Not only did Mr Batick deny any wrongdoing, he told a probation officer that if he’d done the same thing back in Vanuatu, it wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

The Herald tells us that the woman was drunk and alone and, having just left a bar, was trying to find her way home to Napier at 3am.

Mr Batick admitted that he put his arm around her and touched her inappropriately before he and a friend pulled her into the laneway.

The story is remarkable particularly because it might have been so much worse. The judge is quoted as saying the arresting officer performed “outstanding police work” in spotting and stopping the act before any rape actually occurred.

In Vanuatu, that kind of police work is unheard-of.

The Family Protection Act of 2008 states unequivocally that police must investigate any acts of violence against women or children. It further states that police must enter a domicile if they have a reasonable suspicion that domestic violence is being committed.

Not ‘should’, not ‘may’, but ‘must’.

Our police have a legal duty to protect the public, and are required to take extra care in protecting those most vulnerable to violence and sexual coercion.

We can equivocate and evade, we can hem and haw and hedge all we like; nothing changes the fact that, here in Vanuatu, a woman walking alone at night is in danger. And the police almost certainly won’t help her. It’s not even certain whether her friends would keep her safe, especially in light of Mr Batick’s blithe assertion that pulling a drunken woman into an alley and having his way with her is no big thing.

In many respects, everyone in Vanuatu can rightly be proud of our largely peaceful and harmonious society. But in this respect we should hang our collective head in shame. We need to ask ourselves, ‘how can we make what happened in New Zealand happen here?’