Just Desserts

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

One of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy is our right – and our responsibility – to question every aspect of our national institutions. If the political dialogue over the last few years is any indication, Vanuatu’s democracy is alive and kicking.

Kalkot Mataskelekele’s adult life has been devoted to promoting and defining an independent, democratic Vanuatu. The nation has benefited from his consistency, wisdom and guidance. He has long been a public proponent of a US-style system with a clear division of power between legislative and executive branches of government. He has been joined by others in suggesting that factionalism could be addressed by putting limits on the number of political parties.

Mataskelekele is one of many leaders who have remarked on numerous occasions that we should not take the structures of government for granted. He rightly points out that Vanuatu’s Westminster system was created mostly as a sop to its departing colonial masters seeking reassurance that the nascent democracy would remain recognisable to them.

In the rush to create a new constitution, important aspects of Vanuatu culture were overlooked. The consensus-driven style of leadership-from-within that typifies chiefly rule is difficult to reconcile with majority rule and a codified, winner-take-all legal system.

Most difficult of all are the contending principles of public service and entitlement.

The no-confidence motion currently pending in Parliament is yet another symptom of a sense of entitlement that subverts stability and erodes the ability of the Opposition to perform its appointed task.

No one questions Harry Iauko’s contribution to the VP, nor the mandate handed him by his record 1600-plus supporters. But it doesn’t logically follow that he automatically merits a cabinet position. The public interest is only served when cabinet positions are filled by those most able to serve.

The tiff between Iauko and party leader Edward Nipake Natapei has crossed the line from intra-party rancour to a crisis in governance. Surely there are other mechanisms to resolve this issue than bringing about the downfall of the government?

A congenital weakness in Vanuatu politics is the lack of real opposition. In most parliamentary democracies, the term ‘loyal Opposition’ is more than just a pleasant bromide, serving only to placate the loser. It’s an effective reminder that policies must be publicly, thoroughly and constructively scrutinised and critiqued. The give-and-take of parliamentary debate is the most valuable service MPs can render their constituents.

In Vanuatu, however, there is little if any critical evaluation of policy and legislation. Rather than accepting the implicit legitimacy of the ruling coalition and performing the integral public service of scrutinising its every action, the Opposition fritters away its political capital in a petty game of parliamentary musical chairs.

This stems from a system of debt and obligation that lies at the heart of Vanuatu culture. A man’s stature is often directly proportional to his ability to deliver wealth and bounty to his family and his village. Gifts of food, pigs, mats and other symbols of wealth lie at the centre of most ceremonies. But, as with so many other aspects of kastom, pigs and mats do not translate directly into western-style government.

Moana Carcasses Kalosil (ironically, a supporter of this latest motion) said in a pre-election debate that a cabinet position should mean more than 17 jobs for one’s supporters. Indeed it should. It seems, though, that the wisdom of his words remains lost on MPs on both sides of the floor.

As long as every politician’s main objective is to get his ‘fair share’ of the spoils, the guidance of our elder statesmen serves no purpose. The US, for example, has learned in the most vivid terms that even their vaunted democratic mechanisms can be subverted by greed. Regardless of the number of parties, the division of powers or the roles and responsibilities of elected representatives, the popular will is sapped by an anemic culture of government.

Instilling a sense of duty and purpose into politicians is not a simple process. Significant effort has been invested in recent years to bolster the civil service, making it more resistant to the worst aspects of this venal approach to governance. It’s taken years to make even tenuous gains, but Vanuatu’s rapidly improving stature in the Pacific community is testament to its success.

We need to begin the same process in politics.

We need to find a way to express – not just to politicians, but to the electorate as well – that everyone benefits more from the application of a principled, patient and indirect approach to good governance than they do from short-sighted, paternalistic vote-buying and nepotism. Only then can we begin a productive dialogue on how best to integrate the best aspects of kastom with the tools of western democracy.

I often feel a rush of vicarious shame when I contrast the insights of leaders like Mataskelekele with the actions of some of Vanuatu’s elected representatives. His vision of democracy and its role in society is far in advance of current practice.

My fervent hope is that one day soon the state will deserve a president as good as this.