Gift Economy – Ctd.

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

Last week’s column on the relationship between chiefs, politicians and public servants provoked a good deal of discussion at the nakamal over the course of the week. Nobody contested the idea that we need to stop treating core government services as gifts to be doled out to political supporters. But there was some divergence of opinion regarding what changes, if any, were required.

Perhaps most interesting of all, nobody questioned the involvement of cabinet ministers in ensuring service delivery. The question was not whether the Minister should get involved in service delivery, but how he should do so.

Students of government from overseas might find themselves squirming at the very thought of such a question. The strong separation of politics and administration is one of the basic principles of the Westminster tradition. Many – if not most – of the major scandals in Vanuatu politics since Independence have been the result of the politicisation of roles and responsibilities in public service delivery.

A number of legislative measures have been taken over the course of the last few years to mitigate some of the worst abuses. Just this week, a bill was introduced outlining the role of the Telecommunications Regulator. Among the key details was the process by which a new Regulator should be appointed. Some MPs were heard to complain that, not only is a candidate not allowed to be a member of a political party, he or she cannot have any direct family members who are members either.

A Finance amendment bill which passed earlier this year likewise created a stronger distinction between Ministerial and Departmental budgets, effectively making it tougher for ministers to arbitrarily dictate the allocation of public money.

All this is well and good. Everybody recognises the merit of introducing a little more consistency and predictability into the use of public money. But these measures are of limited value if all they do is move the centre of power from the Minister to the DG. Nobody wants to see the BBC’s satire ‘Yes, Minister’ played out in Bislama.

The key, as one commentator astutely put it, is to ensure that DGs are clear on the fact that their role is to serve the Minister, enacting policies designed by the politicians to serve the public need. This requires monitoring and evaluation processes which, frankly, don’t properly exist yet.

The Ministers, of course, should be enacting policies that are driven by their constituents. And, as one chief put it, Ministers need to remember not only where they come from, but where they are. They might have been elected by the people of Tanna or Pentecost, but they inherit a national constituency from the day they first sit down at the Cabinet table. Their nasara, he said, stretches from Aneityum to the Torres islands.

His solution? Make better use of existing political resources. The chief did a quick stock-take of all the levels of political operatives currently in play, and remarked how rarely PAs and others close to the Minister ever go into the field. Rather than sit back and wait to be approached, the chief said, these operatives should be actively working the field, listening to community leaders, working more actively to earn their support. A quick pre-election whip-round just doesn’t cut it any more.

Taking the political game into the field and working with a wider constituency confers a significant electoral advantage, too. Improved government services and more efficient spending actually ensure that there is more wealth to be delivered to communities, doing much to improve re-election chances. It would of course place some limits on opportunities for self-enrichment, but that’s the kind of problem most of us are happy to live with.

At the core of all of this is the requirement that we begin to think of our political leaders as representatives, guided by their people, rather than as Bigmen, operating more or less in the opposite direction.

Rank has a very specific meaning here in Vanuatu, and respect of rank is axiomatic in most social and political interaction. When I observed that I found it curious to see chiefs – especially those in the municipalities – subordinated to politicians, I was gently chided. The chief accepted without protest that a Minister should enjoy an elevated status. Indeed, his rank is tied closely to kastom, evidenced by the fact that most of them have chiefly titles, even though not all of them descend from traditional chiefly lineage.

The difference, the old chief pointed out, is that political rank is ephemeral. Without rancour, he observed: “When the Minister sits looking down at me from his chair, he should remember that in four years’ time, he will be back in my village, and I will be sitting in my chair looking down at him.

Our political leaders need to remember not only where they came from and where they are today. They need to give some consideration to where they will be tomorrow. They came from the people, and inevitably, they will have to go back to them. The people and their chiefs, meanwhile, endure.