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

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

Dissolution is no solution

An increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that the only way out of the current political impasse is via dissolution of Parliament. While it may prove to be the only workable option, that doesn’t mean it’s what we need, let alone what we want.

Prime Minister Kilman finally spoke to the people of Vanuatu Monday, confirming that he had asked the President for Parliament to be dissolved on the 16th of October.

The President had already made his perspective clear: Dissolution must be seen as a last resort.

He’s not wrong. Contrary to Mr Kilman’s protestations, it is within the President’s purview to defer—if not outright deny—such a request. Presidential powers are largely ceremonial, but they’re deliberately vague precisely because he is expected to exert a moral influence on the country and its leadership, especially under extraordinary circumstances.

In Vanuatu today, our circumstances are nothing if not extraordinary.

Dissolution is a defeat. It is an admission that Parliament has failed to do its job. Continue reading

It takes 1.5 to tango

The Pacific Islands Forum has once again demonstrated that it cannot represent the interests of both the developing and the developed world. The climate change ‘commitment’ in final PIF communiqué was watered down (sorry) from supporting a limit of 1.5 degrees average global temperature rise to ‘1.5 or 2’ degrees.

If there were any lingering doubts about whose Forum this really is, they’ve now been put to rest. It’s time the real island states in the Forum either send Australia and New Zealand packing or find another grouping that is willing at least to allow them their own voice.

This is no longer a matter of principle; it’s a matter of survival.

Our front page yesterday featured a story about a two year-old Tannese girl who died, in part because of the after-effects of cyclone Pam and the ongoing El Nino-induced drought. She and her fellow villagers were reduced to eating Nipatem, a local vine. It grows as a weed in gardens, but when boiled it is sweet to chew. It’s of very limited nutritive value; the fibre has to be chewed, then spit out, somewhat like sugarcane.

Students and staff at Tongoa’s Nambangasale School have no choice now but to walk all the way down to the seashore every day to wash. There’s only barely enough water to drink. Nearby Tongariki is even worse off. It has no streams or rivers. The water tank at Craig Cove is dry.

Private charities like WITA Aid are doing what they can to mitigate water shortages in the Shepherds group. And while CARE, Save the Children, UNICEF, Oxfam and others do their best to address both safe access to water & sanitation and food security, they are ultimately hamstrung when privileged nations refuse the play their part.

In the absence of global action, all they can do is offer comfort to a dying planet. Continue reading

Humble Beginnings

In an exclusive interview, Manasseh Sogavare describes his long personal journey to the top

Asked how he started his career, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare laughs wryly.

“I entered public service as a toilet cleaner and tea boy,” he chuckles. It was, he says, “a tough, rough beginning.”

“And I learned from that.”

If Mr Sogavare’s example is any guide, there are few shortcuts in life. “What I got is through hard work, and basically I worked my way…. I worked my way up through public service…

in all my life in public service, I worked in the Inland Revenue division.

“I started as toilet cleaner in the Inland Revenue Division and localised the Commissioner of Inland Revenue post in twelve years.

“I got all the degrees along the way, and all the promotions.”

He smiles in recollection. “The people that I’d salute along the way: ‘Good morning, sir!’ … the people with white socks—these were colonial days—I’d welcome them into the building and direct them to their desk.

“Three remained when I became Commissioner of Inland Revenue, and the role changed to ‘Good morning SIR!’”

He snapped a smart salute, mimicking how they would receive him, and then allowed himself an amiable laugh. Continue reading

‘Fake’ Names, Real Concerns

The issue of ‘kiaman’—or fake—names is a perennial topic both on social media and off. On one side are those who insist that everyone should stand up and hold their opinion proudly. On the other side are people who worry that merely sharing their thoughts will land them in hot water.

Truth be told, opinion among the staff and management of the Daily Post is mixed, too.

Without utterly discounting one side or the other, it would nonetheless be useful to challenge a few of the arguments, both for and against.

Some commenters have equated anonymous speech to unsigned letters to the editor in this newspaper. That comparison is not correct. Our editorial staff know the identity of every writer; it’s a requirement for publication. And we are responsible for everything printed in our newspaper. If a legal complaint is made against the letter, we’re as much on the hook as the writer of the thing.

That’s not the same as when someone posts a comment on social media. In high volume discussion groups, it’s simply not possible to police every single comment in real time. Most of these groups are administered by volunteers who have neither the time nor the inclination to read every single comment and every single post.

Nor should they have to. Continue reading

Business as usual?

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

Moana Carcasses wants changes to the VIPA Act. That might be a good idea.

Back in 2013, when Moana Carcasses was prime minister and acting minister of Trade, Cooperatives and Ni Vanuatu Business, he put a stop to the issuing of so-called D2 business licenses. These are the licenses needed to run a retail/wholesale shop.

Mr Carcasses was reacting to a widespread—and largely accurate—belief that some investors were flouting the intent of the VIPA Act, which reserves certain sectors and occupations to Ni Vanuatu. Now, two years later, he wants to review his decision.

He’s right to do that as well.

It’s clear today that a blanket ban on issuing D2 licenses has done little to remedy the situation. On the contrary, it has stifled the diversity of shops and retail goods in Port Vila.

During a public meeting earlier this week, about 40 of the usual suspects turned up to comment. The Chamber of Commerce (or VCCI) sent a delegation, and local merchants and manufacturers showed up to check on things.

The feedback, if well-intentioned, was predictable. A VCCI representative trotted out the tired assertion that the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority can either promote or regulate business, but not both. This is just wrong. Responsible business promotion requires regulation. Continue reading

Anything less than defeat is a victory

Originally published on the Pacific Policy Blog.

Last week’s Solomonic decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group to cut the baby in half and boost the membership status of both the ULMWP and Indonesia is an example of the Melanesian political mind at work. Valuing collective peace over individual justice, group prosperity over individual advancement, and allowing unabashed self-interest to leaven the sincerity of the entire process, our leaders have placed their stamp on what just might be an indelible historical moment.

Last week marked the first time the indigenous people of West Papua were not entirely defeated. And that, in itself, is a victory.

Thousands gathered to celebrate in Timika and elsewhere in the western half of the island of Papua. Praise for Manasseh Sogavare’s depiction of the decision as a ‘test‘ of Melanesia’s respect for human rights was widespread. Domestically, his role in the decision seems to have bolstered his standing as a statesman and leader.

But a more dry-eyed look at the process reveals a cost that will undoubtedly prove quite high for proponents of West Papuan independence. David Robie’s depiction of Papua New Guinea and Fiji’s stance on the issue as a ‘betrayal‘ is starker than many others, but it’s not wrong.

Voreqe Bainimarama’s disingenuous insistence that Indonesia’s territorial integrity cannot be challenged begs the question of the legitimacy of Indonesia’s continuing occupation—one which, notably, the UN has still to answer. Likewise, Peter O’Neill’s insistence on ‘mandated’ representation for the Melanesian peoples of West Papua would be laughable if it weren’t so callous. The whole reason that the people of West Papua are seeking legitimacy through the MSG is because they are disenfranchised at home.

Sato Kilman took advantage of the clouded complexion of the domestic political scene to keep his proverbial head down, sending only a senior administrator to the Honiara summit. In fairness to him, from a tactical perspective he really had no choice. From a strategic perspective, his handling of the issue could only leave him weakened. Social media commentary in the Solomons was particularly unkind, portraying Vanuatu’s PM as lacking the nouse to stand with Mr Sogavare, letting down West Papua ‘at its hour of greatest need.’ Continue reading

Three plays in two days

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. Continue reading

About those $83m dollar houses…

The focus of today’s minute of hate appears to be the NPR story about how the American Red Cross managed to waste hundreds of millions of dollars and to build only six houses in Haiti.

It’s pretty scandalous, there’s no doubt about that. They appear to have been awash in cash, without a clue about how to spend it. From the reporting, it appears that (surprise surprise) parochialism and a refusal to engage local skills and knowledge led to mistake after mistake, and years of delay.

As the internet worked itself into a righteous froth over the incident, we witnessed the familiar refrain that international NGOs are bloated, useless appendages designed for no other purpose than to provide salaries for over-privileged and under-qualified nabobs.

One rather under-informed commenter offered the following:

UNICEF [USA’s] expenses of 52 million dollars in expenses related to management and fundraising (out of a 600 million dollars budget, and that’s one of the best managed ones out there)

They are actually complaining about an administrative overhead of 9%? Seriously? Continue reading