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

‘The people want change’

The people want change’ — that was the core lesson that newly elected Prime Minister Charlot Salwai took from the January 22nd general election. With over 60% of its members new to Parliament, it seems clear that change is what we’re getting—whether we like it or not.

But there’s change, and then there’s change. Let’s hope we get the good kind. If the composition of the Council of Ministers is any indication, we’re headed for an administration that takes the business of doing government seriously.

Led by veteran politicians such as Ham Lini and Joe Natuman, balanced with technocrats in such key ministries as Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Health and Education, and leavened with a few fresh faces, this new coalition seems to have a decent balance of experience—political and professional—ability and energy.

But will the centre hold? Can we have what Lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu called, ‘Unity at last’?

Perhaps the most important virtue that this new cabinet will need is moral probity. Several of its members have already shown themselves to be capable of putting the good of the many ahead of the good of the few. But it’s one thing to mean well, and another to do well.

As the saying goes, handsome is as handsome does. Continue reading

BJ Skane is Gone

Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers.’ — Abbie Hoffman

B. J. Skane was the quintessential gadfly. She pestered, questioned, challenged and often infuriated everyone around her. But we are diminished without her.

In preparing this column, I scanned over a hundred pieces that B. J. wrote for the Daily Post over the past couple of years. Topics range from West Papuan cultural legends The Black Brothers to attacks on the folly of the Black sands fish factory (remember that?), to yachting rules, to ground-breaking court cases.

B. J. was a terrier with a story. Once she’d got her teeth into something, there was no letting go. For better or for worse, she would immerse herself in the arcane details of her topic of the day, and she would not relent until she felt she could explain it in perfect detail.

For anyone attempting to edit her work, this proved a fascinating challenge. No one could gainsay her desire to tell all of the truth, whether we wanted to hear it or not. There are few of us here who did not—at least once or twice over the years—feel a momentary desire to hide under the desk when B. J. walked into the newsroom.

But she was rarely, if ever, wrong on the facts. 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