Brexit, pursued by a bear

What do Britain’s EU exit vote, Donald Trump and Vanuatu have in common? Too much, actually.

When Great Britain turned its back on Europe, markets reacted predictably, shedding trillions of dollars in value. Japan’s Nikkei exchange, among the first to open after the vote result, suffered its biggest loss in over a decade and a half, knocking nearly 8% off its value in a day.

Media have been all over the calamity, reporting the unintended consequences of the UK’s knee-jerk rejection of Polish plumbers. Likewise, the international commentariat have made hay from the unprecedented—some say unforeseeable—rise of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate in the upcoming US election.

Many have asked, but few have answered: how did we get here, anyway?

People have been griping about immigrants since the dawn of time. I’m pretty sure that any self-respecting classical scholar would be able to dig up a Roman rant against those shifty Gauls tramping all over traditional Republican values and stealing Roman jobs.

Donald Trump has been angling for a seat in the Oval Office since 1998. But as long as we were willing to listen to reason, he never stood a chance. Nor did the ideas propounded by the UK Independence Party, or UKIP.

Social media changed that. The sudden flood of counter-factual, exclusionist, biased, fear-mongering noise—don’t call it information—that floods our Facebook timelines has subverted our conception of how things are, and how they could be.

This isn’t accidental, nor is it new. Continue reading

Rising Buddha, Perching Crane

Chinese triumphalism may seem strident at times, but it’s not entirely unwarranted

The development of China in recent decades is best considered as geography, not landscape. The combination of market forces with what was coyly labelled ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has achieved something previously unimaginable.

At the end of nearly a century of conflict and unrest culminating in the Cultural Revolution, it was hard to picture China at peace, let alone prospering.

Today, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

Most people still think that China’s great wonders are the Forbidden City and its Great Wall. But these are dwarfed by its current transformation.

The pastoral arcadia that characterised its classical landscapes is gone.

Where cormorants once preened on posts on the Yangtze’s shores, the horizon is now punctuated by steel construction cranes perched atop half-completed buildings.

They are almost literally everywhere. In the suburbs of Hefei city, I counted 32 of them outside my train window. Continue reading

No apologies, but open eyes

As it does every couple of years, China has invited media professionals from across the Pacific islands to pay a two-week visit to their country.

Part junket, part professional development exercise, the tour is clearly designed to soften views concerning China and its engagement with the rest of the world.

And in important ways, it’s working.

Only one of the Pacific islanders has visited China before, but the first days in Beijing offer some predictable experiences.

In almost comical irony, no photos are allowed at the entrance to the Xinhua News Agency building. One photographer is politely but firmly asked to delete two shots he’s already taken.

Asked why, a minder simply laughs, apparently in appreciation of the absurdity. He says, “I don’t know,” in a tone suggesting that there’s no point in him inquiring.

But the number of unexpected events is, well, surprising.

The delegation is met by senior officials within the Foreign Affairs and Commerce Ministries, and though it’s nearly impossible to judge progress from a single meeting, delegation members were left with the impression that they were being taken seriously.

Even if taken only as a matter of protocol, the level of official engagement is far higher than seen in visits to western nations. Then again, the respective roles of media and government are far more closely aligned in China than elsewhere. It could just be the done thing.

Nonetheless, it was refreshing to have a serious discussion about Chinese lending and commercial activity in the Pacific with people in a position to speak with authority. Continue reading

The reporter is not your friend

[Originally delivered as a speech on World Press Freedom day]

The reporter is not your friend—and you should be glad of that.

Well, okay, the reporter can be your friend, but she’s the honest friend who tells you yeah, your butt does look big in that. He’s the friend who stands between you and that bully and says, ‘You don’t have the right to speak to her like that!’ And then turns to you and says, ‘And neither do you.’

The reporter is the friend that tells you what your other friends are saying about you. Whether you want to hear it or not.

The reporter is the friend who tells you what you did was wrong, and who still visits you in jail. They don’t hate you when you don’t agree; they don’t like you just because you do.

It never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt for people to see their name in the headline. Good news or bad, it’s a shock.

And it never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt to put your name in the byline day after day. By far, the response to the work we do at the Daily Post is positive. But when the response is negative, you feel it deeply. Continue reading

Aside

We stand with Florence

I don’t always like my job, but I always love it. There are times when relating the news of the day is fraught with tension, and unpleasant in the extreme. But as long as we publish without fear or favour, I can reconcile myself to the stress.

But every now and then, you get a story of real courage and—yes, I’ll say it—heroism like that of Florence Lengkon. Her courage has catalysed a response that gives me hope for this country. Not only have people stood with her in opposing the bullying tactics of a small number of out-of-control people, but they’ve also united in their opposition to all violence against women.

This morning, someone posted a photo of Florence spontaneously helping another victim of violence. The incident took place months ago, and she never expected any recognition or reward; she was just doing what she knew to be the right thing.

People are right to be inspired by her example. If everyone had her courage and her kindness, the world would be a much better place. The Daily Post is proud to tell her story. I’m proud. We stand with Florence.

The Bullying Stops Now

This sh*t has to stop.’

Such intemperate language rarely appears in these pages, but in this particular case, it’s a bit of an understatement. These were spoken by the person who informed us of the reported abduction down at the seafront yesterday.

Florence Lengkon has bravely stood up against what appears to be a clear case of mafia-like violence and intimidation, and we stand with her. Her story, which appears in today’s newspaper, is far, far too common.

We can show compassion for the difficult circumstances, agree that nuance is required to fully understand the tensions and solutions to a complex question of economic and social justice. We can admit there are good reasons people are angry.

But first, we have to stop threatening and beating people.

It is utterly, criminally reprehensible for any man—for any reason—to strike any woman, let alone the slip of a girl who features in the headlines today.

And for what? Because she called some taxi and bus drivers ‘big headed’ and ‘unprofessional’.

Words are simply not sufficient to describe how despicable, how cowardly and how damaging this kind of behaviour is. Such actions bring shame to the nation.

What Ms Lengkon described to us yesterday was unacceptable in any society, under any circumstances. Just as we did with corruption in politics, the perpetrators must be found and made to face the consequences.

There’s no point waiting for the police. This bullying has to stop now. And the way it stops is for people to stand together. Continue reading

Remembering Cyclone Pam

A boy runs for cover as a heavy wave breaks outside Port Vila's market house.

I remember the shell-shocked feeling that first morning, the packs of young men wandering nervously through the town, the anxious, almost giddy feeling as we tried to understand what it was we’d just gone through.

I remember the smiles in the wreckage. The incredible hospitality that people showed to us as we took their photo and tried to convey to the outside world just how desperate things were. A man with no house remaining, still welcoming us like a lord in his manor. A grandmother who’d walked 10 kilometres with her brood, smiling proudly even though she didn’t know yet whether she still had a home to go to.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember the uncertainty in the eyes of the children. Their world had changed, quite literally overnight. They had no context for the shock they’d just undergone, no experience to compare this with. Lord willing, they will never see anything comparable again. I remember how they soldiered on without a word of complaint.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember a small boy up in Malapoa waetwud. He’d donned a spare pair of work gloves, and was doing his best to help the men dig out from devastation.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember a board member of the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People, standing in the wreckage of their office, tears streaming down her face. But still unbent, defiant.

Cover candidate for Island Life Magazine.

I remember three year-old Rachel. Holding a rake in her hands, defiantly standing on the bare foundation of her home, which had been washed clean when a municipal water tank broke and inundated her small community, destroying seven households.

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous 'storian' in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

But most of all, I remember the sound of children playing amid the devastation, the normal sounds and rhythms of life, the sonorous ‘storian’ in the shade of the broken banyan tree. The laughter. The warmth of living.

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

A Prayer for Fiji

The first survey flights are done, and although there has been welcome evidence that many communities in Fiji have survived intact, the number of towns and villages that have been obliterated is distressingly large.

While we can take comfort that Suva, Nadi and other international ports of call are more of less intact, the numerous smaller islands in Winston’s path, along with the lower part of Vanua Levu, have clearly been devastated.

On Viti Levu, Lautoka, Ba and Tavua all sustained significant damage, and the evidence from elsewhere is that numerous shoreside communities have simply been wiped away by the combination of record-strength winds and a massive storm surge.

None of us who experienced the power of cyclone Pam’s winds can remain unmoved by the photographic and video evidence emerging from the overflights of Fiji’s affected areas. The images are depressingly familiar. The blasted landscape, the corrugated metal roofing dotting the countryside like confetti, ships run aground and ashore, whole hillsides collapsed. Entire villages have been left without a single domicile standing.

This cyclone is the strongest storm ever to strike the Fiji islands. Clearly, Winston’s relief and reconstruction effort will be similar in scale to Fiji’s economy as Pam’s has proven to ours. Continue reading