[This column appeared in today’s Vanuatu Daily Post]
The week before last, Vanuatu witnessed an unprecedented event in its political history. Parliamentary Speaker George Wells instructed the members of the Police and the Vanuatu Mobile Force to bar all members of the public and the press from entering Parliamentary precincts.
Then, with no one but the MPs themselves to witness, the government changed.
We are told that a vote was held on a pending no-confidence motion. We are told that certain members of the Government crossed the aisle to vote with the Opposition. But we don’t know precisely what happened, what words were spoken and what actions were taken to ensure this outcome.
Were Police or soldiers present inside Parliament as well as outside? Were any threats, implicit or explicit, made to Members before the vote? Were any blandishments or other incentives offered?
I’m not suggesting any of these things took place. I’m suggesting that they could have, and we would never know. Anything could have happened during that session, and unless we find some way of getting corroborated evidence of what did happen, a question mark will always lie over the proceeding.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, a United Nations organisation that works to strengthen democracies worldwide, lists five key attributes of a healthy democracy:
It is representative; it is accessible; it is accountable; it is effective. And it is transparent.
Without transparency, none of the other attributes are measurable.
Secrecy runs counter to kastom as well. It is frankly unimaginable that any change in the customary power structure could take place beyond the view of the people.
Arguably, MP Wells had the legal authority to clear the public and the press from Parliament. Whether he had the moral right to do so is not so easy to determine.
While the Constitution clearly states that the proceedings of Parliament are to be public, it leaves room for extraordinary circumstances. The Standing Orders of Parliament, the rules by which the Speaker is legally bound, state, ‘The Speaker may order the withdrawal of visitors [from Parliament] in special circumstances.’
The Orders further state that, ‘In exercising his duties, the Speaker may request assistance from officers of Parliament or if necessary, members of the Police Force.’
‘… If Necessary….’
So, MP Wells need only explain what ‘special circumstances’ required that Parliament be barred to the public in order to reassure the citizens of Vanuatu that he acted legally.
And then, of course, he would have to lay out the reasons why the use of Police was necessary. The Standing Orders only allow the use of Police ‘if necessary.’ Any reasonable definition of necessity requires the presence of an obvious and otherwise unavoidable circumstance. It should therefore be easy for MP Wells to explain what threat to public order existed that required the presence of armed soldiers at Parliament’s gates.
Was there danger of insurrection? A coup? Violent criminal activity? I’m not being facetious here; I’m genuinely asking. Mr. Wells obviously didn’t just decide out of the blue that these measures were necessary. I trust that he had his reasons.
I only ask that he share them.
It is critically important that the ex-Speaker justify his actions and demonstrate to the people of Vanuatu that he acted lawfully and with reason. If he does not, then the legality –and the legitimacy– of the vote is called into question. If the vote is called into question, then so too is the government.
That’s not something anyone wants.
This is not a trivial issue, a slip-up in a young democracy that’s just finding its feet. If indeed it is the case that the public and the press were barred for no good reason, then a terribly dangerous precedent will have been set that cannot be allowed to continue. It is anti-democratic, and it is anti-kastom.
The only thing that could excuse this behaviour is if MP Wells can demonstrate that he did not overstep.
By all accounts, nothing happened during the vote that had not happened before. This should not make us complacent. It should have the opposite effect.
If indeed, the threat of force was used to bar the public and press from a session of Parliament in which a change of government took place, and there was no compelling reason for this action, then Vanuatu’s politicians, no matter how inspired or high-minded their intentions, have led the country away from its roots.
Transparency is not just the name of a local political gadfly. It is a real thing. It is crucial to the country’s well-being. And it is not possible to like it on Monday, ignore it on a Tuesday and promise to be back Wednesday.
As the recent WikiLeaks controversy has shown us, a shining light can be discomforting, even embarrassing at times. It can actually make it more difficult to get things done. But –and here’s the key– it makes it more difficult for us to do wrong, too.
Newly-minted Prime Minister Sato Kilman has already voiced his reservations about the measures taken by the Speaker. That is commendable. He should introduce changes to the Standing Orders in the next sitting of Parliament to ensure that if these rules are ever again invoked, they will not be applied frivolously and with little cause.