Walking The Beat

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

On Tuesday the Daily Post published a Pacific News Service article about the Project Wickenby debacle, in which Vanuatu-based members of the Australian Federal Police raided four local financial institutions for evidence of misdeeds by Vanuatu citizen Robert Agius.

The raids raised a storm of controversy concerning the right of the AFP to conduct such operations on Vanuatu soil, and raised questions concerning their treatment of a Vanuatu citizen.

Politicians, chiefs and private citizens all expressed dismay at what they perceived as an assault on Vanuatu sovereignty by a ‘bullying’ Australia, who some claimed abused its status as a primary aid donor to leverage the complicity of the Vanuatu government.

The PNS story largely recapitulates these much-discussed events. But it’s noteworthy because it contains the first public response from the commander of the Vanuatu detachment of the AFP’s transnational crime unit in Port Vila.

These comments demonstrate a fundamental failure to understand the dynamics of the situation in Vanuatu. Worse, due to unfortunate phrasing, they appear to hold community values and approaches in low regard.

Some will take this as a reason to remain silent on contentious issues. A more appropriate response to this would be more, not less, communication.

British author Terry Pratchett has written a series of novels featuring a grizzled, cynical and remarkably effective policeman named Sam Vimes. Vimes walks his beat in cheap, thin-soled boots. After years of night-time patrol, he learns to rely solely on the feeling of the cobbles beneath his feet to tell where he is.

Nothing is more important than knowing the ground one is standing on, literally and metaphorically. It’s important everywhere, but nowhere so much as in Vanuatu.

Admittedly, learning the roads and byways of Vanuatu through the soles of one’s feet, so to speak, is a painstaking process that requires patience and perspicacity. Learning what to infer from the mild blandishments so typical in Bislama demands an attentive ear and much experience. The AFP and others need to learn that there is no shortcut to mutual understanding.

The PNS story quotes Commander Warren Gray expressing his surprise at the anger displayed by the Port Vila Council of Chiefs. He goes on to say, “I don’t want to obviously say anything contrary to the chiefs, except to say that they are sadly misinformed about the situation….”

It’s no secret that some – but not all – of the fury expressed against the AFP is being manufactured for political purposes. That does little to excuse this display of tone-deafness when it comes to public relations. Instead, it underlines the need for positive and effective engagement in Vanuatu’s dynamic society.

Walking in 300 vatu thongs will assuredly make each pebble, each washed-out runnel of the streets immediately and intimately familiar. It is, I suppose, much harder to feel the nuances of one’s journey through a pair of quality leather soles.

How much more difficult, then, for a policeman to understand his beat if he thinks the nakamal is just a place to drink kava, if news reports of chiefly anger come as a surprise. Most critically, if the chiefs – and the public in general – are so woefully misinformed, surely he shares some responsibility to discuss and to clarify exactly what role his unit can and should play here in Vanuatu.

Vanuatu society is above all ruled by relationships. Intimate awareness of individual personalities, building trust and understanding – especially in areas where consensus might be difficult to achieve – is critical.

The policeman stands behind his badge, subjugating his personal views to the law of the land. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in Vanuatu trust in the badge comes only after the man behind it is deemed trustworthy.

A good policeman must therefore descend from his perch on the plinth of the law, at least long enough to build that trust. He must trade in his leather boots and walk about ‘dry leg’ for a while. He must invest time and effort in getting to know the people on his neighbourhood beat, and he needs them to know him.

It’s been famously said that justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done. There is no doubt that the AFP, the legal advisors at the State Law Office, the Attorney General and the Prime Minister himself are all convinced that the Wickenby raids were performed with cause and in good faith. But cause and good faith need to be demonstrated to the community at large, if only to defuse such criticisms as have been raised.

It pains me to see the relief in the face of a new acquaintance when I tell them I am not Australian. It pains me more to see Australians painted with a broad and xenophobic brush. It pains me most of all to see the many instances of unreflective talk that make it easy for ni-Vanuatu to make these generalisations.