Getting Down to Business

Finally, we have a budget. It’s saddening, really, that in the face of so many other crises, actually passing a budget has barely raised a feather on the nation’s proverbial back. But there it is.

The best part of our Parliamentarians getting back to business was that they really got down to business.

Opposition Leader Ishmael Kalsakau and his colleagues organised a pre-budget workshop, spending the better part of a week preparing. They arrived in the chamber fully loaded and ready to fire away at the Government’s spending decisions.

The budget debate was broadcast live and streamed over the internet. Anyone who watched it was treated to a novel display of political theatre. Once we got past the irony of watching senior members of the Opposition opposing a budget they were instrumental in creating, it was genuinely refreshing and encouraging to see the pointed questions and quiet ripostes that filled the debate.

It also became painfully clear that even some veteran politicians are not yet fully-fledged parliamentarians. A lot of work still needs to be done to bring this new crop of MPs up to speed with the formal processes of government.

Outside the chamber, things have been moving quickly as well. They have to. There are still many unresolved crises.

It’s tempting to speak about Vanuatu politics in terms of pre-Pam and post-Pam conditions. Prior to the cyclone, there were numerous troubling issues that our leaders were either unwilling or unable to get a proper handle on. But because conditions weren’t entirely terrible, they found a way of muddling through.

Pam didn’t knock the wheels off the truck; it knocked the truck off the road. We took the wheels off afterward, entirely on our own.

The thing that sent us down this slippery slope was our collective inability—or unwillingness—to work together. It’s tempting to say that the truck in this metaphor resembled a clown car more than anything else, but there’s far more tragedy than farce in all of this.

Our seemingly inbuilt inability to see beyond our own narrow borders is something that every Ni Vanuatu and long-term resident will recognise. And yet, no matter what the cost, we seem unable to leave it be. Police can’t organise themselves as a force, departments can’t operate as units, trade and civil society organisations can’t even find the time to help themselves, let alone work together, and heaven help us if we try to provide actual services at the national level.

There is a necessary and natural amount of opposition and contrariness present in every healthy society. Happily, that’s what we saw in Parliament this week.

But when people use their office to benefit themselves and a small coterie of friends, when they act in mere spite of each other, when they hold the machinery of state and society hostage to their own petty principles… well, at that stage, it ceases to matter what principles they might be.

Somehow, everyone in Vanuatu society is going to have to come to terms with the fact that doing business together involves compromise. Compromise, and the willingness to see beyond personal considerations, might have allowed us to repair the Bauerfield airport, and to come up with a workable plan for a new airport too.

A willingness to accept the majority view might have been enough to keep the West Papua issue from upending the government.

A willingness to exhibit even momentary patience might have allowed a key legislative amendment to pass, and that amendment might—just might—have been enough to keep Vanuatu from teetering on the brink of the OECD’s money-laundering blacklist.

A willingness among cabinet to gently curb their colleagues’ self-interest might have been enough the allow progress on the airport repair.

But the problem isn’t just our politicians. It’s all of us.

A willingness to wait in line and—along with everyone else—accept the same share of a smaller pie might have been enough to keep the wharf from becoming a crime scene. A willingness to work as a team might have allowed police to keep a lid on things.

A willingness to stand for something bigger than ourselves might have resolved countless issues of social, legal and economic inequity. A willingness to quit sniping and griping and to accept progress might have kept us from cutting down the very things that make us great.

But we’re here now, and who we are is all we’ve got.

Voters sent a clear mandate for change to the latest crop of Parliamentarians.

They’ve also expressed a clear preference for technocrats over more traditionally resonating ‘chiefly’ figures. It’s clear they want practical answers more than they want generic moral guidance at this particular moment in time.

Now, we get to watch them get down to business.

Bauerfield repair work is well underway. AVL management ructions have ceased, at least for now, and Jason Rakau is back at the helm. Resurfacing is done across 72% of the airstrip, crack-sealing is 40% complete and repainting continues. All indications are that work will be complete a couple of weeks ahead of the originally anticipated date.

The Wharf Traffic Management Plan has survived long neglect and a contentious negotiation process sufficiently intact to allow quick implementation. With any luck, good fences will finally make good neighbours down at the wharf.

The Police have a new Acting Commissioner. Robson Iavro has BA in management and a Masters in Public Policy. Once again, technical savvy seems to be prevailing over personal or partisan allegiance.

But much more remains. Public and private sectors have yet to announce how they’re going to work together to rebuild—and most importantly, how they’re going to police—our national anti-money laundering regime. The clock is ticking. Loudly.

And while it’s clear that people have a sense that our national habit of bullying self-interest has crossed the line, it’s not yet certain that we know where to draw that line again.

This year’s election results, the respectfully combative tone of Parliament, and last week’s march against domestic violence are all positive signs that we are learning new rules of engagement.

Green shoots, perhaps, but after the long drought of 2015, they’re welcome nonetheless.

We’ve got a lot of hard choices still to ahead of us, and we need to learn to accept the outcome. It’s one thing to compromise in a crisis; it’s another thing entirely to live with the results.

But that’s how you do business in the real world. And it’s time we got down to it in Vanuatu.