Melanesian Socialism

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

Ten years ago last week, Father Walter Hadye Lini succumbed to illness. His passing was a milestone marking the end of the first ascent of Vanuatu politics.

Walter Lini was the first – though not the only – Vanuatu politician to elaborate the unique political philosophy of Melanesian Socialism. The term, loaded as it was with unwelcome overtones for capitalist nations, was nonetheless an apt description of the conjunction of traditional Vanuatu values with progressive western politics.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography clarifies:

“There is little evidence… that he used socialism in the common sense of its meaning; rather, he was attracted by its emphasis on communal action and social responsibility, which seemed much more in tune with traditional Melanesian values.”

There isn’t a politician alive today who doesn’t pay tribute to kastom. Many of them take the role of the traditional chief to heart, integrating it into everything they do. One political observer once remarked to me that Ham Lini Vanuaroroa was the very epitome of the Pentecost chief, and though some outside commentators were quick to criticise his quiet, unassuming approach to governing, his own people wouldn’t have it any other way.

Vanuatu’s political leaders may espouse all that is best in traditional Vanuatu values, and without a doubt many of them are committed to a course of reconciliation between formal western models of governance and the un-codified body of kastom philosophy and practice. But few have managed to express a vision as simple and as clear as Melanesian Socialism.

I think it’s high time that Vanuatu took another look at Walter Lini’s vision.

With the passing of the Cold War, the stigma of socialism began to fade. Mixed economies in the Northern European mould have proven there merit. The recent failure of unregulated free markets have once again made it okay to let erstwhile bogeymen like nationalisation out from under the bed, at least in times of crisis.

On the other side of the philosophical fence, the aura that once surrounded the mythos of capitalistic ‘rugged individualism’ has diminished. Its greatest proponent, George W. Bush, has gone back to clearing brush on his Texas ranch, and few people miss him.

Dialogue on the world stage is increasingly about the collective good. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week called for a “global New Deal”, a “grand bargain between the countries and continents of this world — so that the world economy can not only recover but… so the banking system can be based on… best principles.”

Father Lini famously said that, in the village, “’Giving’ was based on one’s ability to do so. ‘Receiving’ was based on one’s need.”

I’ll leave it for other commentators to pick through the countless differences in detail, but that its very core, any kind of new New Deal is going to require that some actors in this story give a great deal in order that everyone else be able to receive a little.

This principle is innately understood in Vanuatu. Even as I write these words, a noisy, joyful, banner-laden procession of about 100 church-members is passing my front door, collecting money from passers-by, promising blessings to all who donate.

Due to nearly a decade of somewhat more sober fiscal and financial management, Vanuatu is relatively well insulated from the worst effects of a global economic downturn. Its financial institutions are in decent shape, its currency remains strong.

But in terms of political vision, it is more impoverished now than ever. Notwithstanding the words and actions of an impassioned few, we have no unifying goal, no commonly accepted principle that will allow the people to share the full fruits of development. True, Prime Ministers Ham Lini Vanuaroroa and Edward Nipake Natapei have presided over a period of significant prosperity, but their efforts have been hampered by the pettiness and venality of current political practice.

Everyone accepts that horse trading is part and parcel of the political process, but one would like to believe that it consists of more than that. Parliament remains as fragmented and fractious as it’s been since Father Lini’s poor health removed him from the front rank.

Before last year’s election, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy published a report on Vanuatu’s major political parties. It was a ground-breaking and necessary work, enumerating for the first time the platforms and histories of all the major political groupings in Vanuatu.

The most striking aspect of the PiPP report was the unavoidable conclusion that the majority of parties treat their platforms as nothing more than window-dressing, a collection of comforting bromides bearing little relation to their actions. The distance between word and deed was, in some cases, astounding.

The external pressures of development are going to make themselves felt more and more in the next few years. Vanuatu society is not going to survive intact – not without help, anyway. Our leaders need to look to themselves and to their people. They need to find what it is that makes Vanuatu society so valuable. And they need to say it. Clearly and simply, and with one voice.