(Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post‘s Weekender Section.)
Since the Australian Federal Police brought Project Wickenby to Vanuatu with the arrest of local resident Robert Agius and raids at PKF House and elsewhere, people here have been outraged over what they characterise as Australian arrogance. Australia, they charge, feels it’s bought the right to act as it pleases here. By making the government of Vanuatu dependant on their money and advisors, many argue, Australia has subverted Vanuatu sovereignty and now operates as it pleases here.
Mr. Agius stands accused of funneling about $100 million into Vanuatu as phony consulting fees. Prosecutors claim these fees – minus a commission for Mr. Agius – were then sent back to Australia as loans. The loans’ tax-free status allowed participants in the alleged scheme to avoid paying as much as $13 million in taxes.
News reports indicate that Mr. Agius is accused of having earned about $1.4 million from his involvement in this scheme.
The Agius affair is treated as a business story by Australian news sources. The contrast with how it’s reported in Vanuatu could not be starker. Mr. Agius’ guilt or innocence is secondary in the local narrative. This is, above all, a story about Vanuatu’s sovereignty, or lack thereof.