The Bigman Syndrome

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Friday’s Daily Post featured a story that would be comical if it weren’t true. Vanuatu Ombudsman Peter Taurakoto released a report recommending the prosecution of 188 public figures for their failure to submit financial reports for the year 2007. Taurakoto also recommended that the Clerk of Parliament be prosecuted, apparently for not performing due diligence with regards to these reports.

According to the Leadership Code Act, ‘leaders’ include Members of Parliament and their political advisors, the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, the VMF Commander, various officers of the provincial and national governments, as well as town clerks and the Ombudsman himself.

Given the astounding number of leaders listed in the Ombudsman’s report, one is led to ask if any leaders actually did submit a statement.

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Action and Reaction

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

When Isaac Newton first formulated his third law of motion, he codified a long-observed phenomenon. Wits have suggested a fourth law: ‘No good deed goes unpunished.

At the Lowy Institute’s recent conference, The Pacific Islands and the World, attendees witnessed two contrasting views of Vanuatu. The gathering, timed to coincide with the Pacific Forum, was attended by dignitaries from major global institutions as well as government leaders from throughout the region. It was billed as an opportunity to discuss the impact of the global economic crisis on vulnerable Pacific Island nations.

By all accounts, though, Vanuatu has been less affected than the global economic giants. Mid-year numbers do indicate a slight slow-down, but in real terms, our economy’s still growing fairly well. In a recently published briefing paper by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, Nikunj Soni and the Australian National University’s professor Stephen Howes point to tourism and construction as the leading drivers of this growth.

But they are quick to note that the environment is as critical to this success as the actual business opportunities. One noteworthy chart clearly shows the rise in economic activity starting in 2003, about the same time as major budgetary and macro-economic reforms began to take hold in Vanuatu.

The briefing paper goes on to highlight the fact that none of this growth would have been possible without social stability. That may seem like so much common sense to some. Civil disturbance and political turmoil are seldom on a tourist’s must-see list. Likewise with home buyers.

But what brings this stability about?

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Begging the Question

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to language. It’s partly because I value clear expression, partly because it’s just my nature. One of my pet peeves is the habit shown by some to co-opt certain words and phrases in order to make themselves sound smart or virtuous.

One of the most common sins is the misuse of the phrase ‘begging the question’. Begging the question is what’s known as a logical fallacy – it’s something that sounds reasonable, but uses false logic to achieve its argument. Where begging the question is concerned, the logical flaw is in the assumption behind the question. The stock example of this tactic is of a courtroom lawyer who asks the defendant, “When did you stop beating your wife?

Now, you can see the problem here. There’s an unspoken assumption behind the question, one that we in Vanuatu know to be false: Quite obviously the defendant has never actually stopped beating his wife. The illogic is made even clearer by the laughable assumption that an abusive husband might somehow end up in court.

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A Second Flowering

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Lilly Lui with one of her biggest fansA quiet revolution is taking place in North Efate.

Awareness of the rights of women in Vanuatu flowered briefly post-Independence thanks to the labours of eminent advocates such as Grace Molisa and Hilda Lini. They laboured continually to ensure that the neglected majority – Vanuatu’s women and children – were heard in the national dialogue.

Thanks to their generation, we have provincial and national Councils of Women, shelters in Vila and Santo and countless projects and services focused on improving conditions for women. To cap it all, over a decade of effort has finally given the Family Protection Act the force of law.

And yet, in spite of all this, women still face countless obstacles making themselves heard in daily life of the nation.

Lilly Lui wants women’s rights to bloom again as they did in the heady days following Independence. The sole female candidate in the upcoming Efate North bye-election, she has been entrusted by women throughout rural Efate to voice their concerns on the national stage.

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[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

In Parliament, Speaker George Wells is ousted by his own party and VRP leader Maxime Carlot Korman takes his place.

On one short stretch of road in the Freswota neighbourhood alone, one passes no less than 4 small churches.

Not far away, in the bandstand in Freswota Park, a homeless woman, 8 months pregnant, sleeps with her 1-year-old child.

Each of these fragments, taken on its own, paints a curious picture. Piece them together, though, and we begin to understand the corner of the world we live in.

Since Independence, the number of political parties has steadily increased. Likewise the number of independent candidates. Factionalism within the parties continues unchecked. This phenomenon has been documented, studied and commented at length.

Our churches are following a similar trajectory. A pet hypothesis of mine is that the increase in the number and variety of churches (mostly inspired by American Pentecostalism) over the last few decades runs almost perfectly parallel to the number and variety of political groupings.

I suspect that the cause of each trend is the same: Vanuatu society is inherently anti-institutional. Once compelling outside forces are removed from the equation, it tends to look inward, to family first, and then to community.

Some commentators see this as a bad thing. I don’t. Not necessarily.

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A New Page

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Note: This week marks the beginning of my second year holding forth on the editorial page of the Daily Post. Thanks to all of you who offered kind words and wise counsel over the last 52 weeks. Thanks especially to the editors and staff of this paper. Your patience, tolerance and assistance have been invaluable.

There’s been a lot of concern of late over the apparent impatience shown by Australia and New Zealand to engage with their Pacific Island neighbours on the PACER Plus round of trade talks. Local commentators have had little good to say about the prospects, and speculation has been rife over what’s really at stake.

The strongest fear expressed by commentators throughout the Pacific is that New Zealand and Australia will use their foreign aid to the region as a stick to bring the small island states into line. Having witnessed the drubbing that Fiji and PNG took in their Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to see their economic health similarly threatened.

This week, Pablo Kang, Australia’s new High Commissioner to Vanuatu, published a surprisingly intemperate letter to the Editor in this newspaper. He was rightly chastised for the distinctly un-Melanesian tone he took in confronting nay-sayers. Vanuatu has spent years assiduously cultivating a cordial, solidly two-way engagement with its development partners that allows it to assert its own priorities. This week’s pronouncements reminded some of a repeat from the Howard/Downer show.

But, lest the baby exit with the bath water, it needs to be said that one key observation that High Commissioner Kang shared with us in undoubtedly true: As things stand right now, PACER Plus is still a blank page.

It’s ours to write on as much as theirs. Maybe more so, if we play our cards right.

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[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

This statement was first uttered in 1993 by John Gilmore, Internet pioneer and co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Since it was first quoted in Time magazine, it’s become axiomatic, an unanswerable trump card to be played whenever the issue of Internet censorship arises.

There’s a good reason for this. Numerous efforts by governments, institutions and organizations to impede the free flow of information have achieved mixed results at best and, more often than not, failed. Only in places like Tibet and Burma, where the government owns and closely controls the information networks, has any kind of comprehensive censorship been successful.

The Internet was designed as a ‘network of networks’ – that is, a communications medium that effectively had no centre of control. While it never completely achieved that aim, it’s still a vast departure from the monolithic telecoms networks that we used to have.

The presence recently of Sulu Censors (so called for the skirt-like traditional dress many of them wear) in all television, radio and print media outlets has largely neutered Fiji’s traditional media. But the flow of information has simply found a route around this ‘damage’. In recent weeks, Fijians at home and abroad have flocked en masse to the Internet to get their fix of national and local news, uncensored by the Bainimarama regime.

Internet Pioneer Mitch Kapor’s assertion that “[Internet] architecture is politics” has never been more true.

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No News is Bad News

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

With headlines like ‘Man Gets On Bus’, and ‘Breakfast As Usual’, Fiji’s beleaguered fourth estate is reporting all the news it feels is still fit – or safe – to print. Such stories are a reaction to Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s extensive power grab this week, which included the abrogation of the national Constitution, removal of judges and senior financial figures, expulsion of Australian and New Zealand-born journalists and censorship of domestic media.

One particularly riveting feature, titled ‘Paint Dry’, recounts the couch painting adventure of a man named Max. The paint, he recounts, “went on wet, but after four hours it started to dry…. That was when I realised, paint dries.

I expect it ran with a four column headline.

In solidarity with my Fijian colleagues, I’ve decided to write about nothing as well. Happily, this is easily done. Even though Port Vila is home to the Melanesian Spearhead Group and PM Edward Nipake Natapei holds the chair this year, I am glad to say that I have nothing to report.

Despite being uniquely positioned to provide sober diplomatic counsel to the increasingly isolated Fijian dictator, despite what our PM describes as a fraternal relationship with one of our closest neighbours, one with whom we have a unique trading relationship, whose culture closely resembles our own, we and our Melanesian brethren have decided to do exactly nothing to prevent Fiji’s descent into constitutional, social and economic crisis.

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A Nation of Laws

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Shortly before noon on Sunday, March 29, two Toyota pickup trucks arrived at a Malapoa residence occupied by 21 year old escaped convict John Bule, his girlfriend and their daughter, aged less than 2. Several men in plain clothes dismounted and entered the house in search of Bule.

Loud voices were heard from within the house, and 3 shots were fired, apparently as a warning. Nobody was hurt. Shortly afterward, John and his girlfriend were escorted from the house, their hands bound behind their back. They were placed together in the back of one truck and driven to the VMF barracks.

The girlfriend later recalled that she pleaded with those holding her to be allowed to return to her home and her daughter. She told them she’d done nothing wrong.

As she pled with them, she says, she heard her boyfriend John crying out in pain in an adjacent room.
Shortly before 2:00 p.m. that same day, authorities brought John Bule to Vila Central Hospital for treatment of wounds to both legs, both arms, his ribs, back and head, which had multiple lacerations, including a gash above his left eye about 10 cm. long and 3 cm. wide.

Soon after 4:00 p.m. Sunday, John Bule was pronounced dead.

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The Price of Democracy

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

As I write this, Vanuatu’s members of Parliament are plodding through the Government’s budget bill. It’s an unusual second consecutive week of work for our MPs, and though everyone is intent on seeing the job completed, they’re giving the work the attention it deserves.

Opposition members have kept cabinet ministers on their collective toes. Following a salvo of incisive questions from across the floor, Finance Minister Molisa sent his staff back to the Ministry with instructions for more detailed briefing materials. The lights were burning into the small hours at Finance.

Measured in strictly procedural terms, progress may be slower than Speaker George Wells might want, but the Opposition, looking revitalised and with a newfound sense of purpose, has been… well, doing its job, to be frank. That’s a refreshing – and timely – first.

It may seem silly to outsiders, but I’m not the only one here who’s taken some encouragement from these few weeks of Parliamentary process. After years of listening to the same tiresome tirades against do-nothing politicians, we are at last seeing something genuinely newsworthy in Vanuatu politics: A thorough and detailed investigation of how the nation spends its money.

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