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

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?’


With friends like this…

While Tony Abbott was boasting about his story-telling capabilities as he entered the Leaders’ retreat at the Pacific Islands Forum, his cabinet were busy drumming up derision with jokes about climate change. Classy.

The ABC and several other news agencies have reported Mr Dutton’s soon-to-be-infamous quip that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.”

The Liberal government’s blasé, even callous indifference to the plight of their nearest neighbours is enough to make even Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s sulk look mature and considered.

To add injury to insult, Fairfax Media obtained leaked drafts of the Leaders’ statement, traditionally circulated once the conclave is complete, showing that a proposed goal of limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees was struck from the document.

Kiribati President Anote Tong has said that anything less than this constitutes a betrayal of small island states.

Earlier on, Mr Tong raised the possibility that smaller states might leave the Forum if it no longer served their interests. Couple this with Mr Bainimarama’s insistence that Australia and New Zealand take their leave, and it becomes clear that, once again, Australia’s apparent dearth of insight into its own neighbourhood leaves it rudderless, clumsily knocking the china off the shelves.

Maybe it is in fact time for a re-think on how Pacific island states align themselves.

Arguably, New Zealand may be forgiven for its occasional lapses into introspection. But aside from economic aid, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what Australia has done to earn its place as a citizen of the Pacific neighbourhood.

Now, let’s be fair. We can’t for a moment pretend that Australia’s largesse isn’t critical to the region’s development. But what with Nauru’s imploding democracy, Manus on the edge of anarchy and shambolic relations with PNG generally—to say nothing about the utter vacuum where its climate policy should be—there are more than a few Pacific islanders rolling their eyes today and wondering just how much more of this so-called help they really need.


Gail Kelly is right

Statements by ex-Westpac CEO Gail Kelly at a CARE fundraising event in Melbourne have caused a minor firestorm here in Vanuatu. On July 28th, Ms Kelly provided a litany of examples of sexual abuse, violence and subjugation of women in Vanuatu, which she characterised as “staggering,” according to the Guardian Australia.

The response in Vanuatu was outrage.

Men and (to a much lesser degree) women alike castigated Ms Kelly, claiming that she was uninformed, that she had no insight into traditional values and was grossly misrepresenting the situation.

It is true that when such issues are put under the microscope, they look appalling, especially when crime, prejudice and systematic bias are piled up side by side with one another.

That’s because they are appalling. Continue reading