Vanuatu land reforms "at risk"
Former Lands Minister claims the incumbent minister is going against the public interest by looking to change land reforms introduced over the past two years.
Vanuatu's Lands Minister Paul Telukluk has been criticised by the man he succeeded in the role for trying to stop a case against senior staff at the Department of Lands.
The case was lodged by Transparency International after it emerged that a former minister, Steven Kalsakau, had deliberately undervalued state land properties for the benefit of staff.
Mr Telukluk took up the Lands Minister portfolio for in June, despite an ombudsman report in the mid-1990s recommending he "should not be considered for a ministerial portfolio in any future Government".
The previous Lands Minister, Ralph Mr Regenvanu, told Johnny Blades that Mr Telukluk's move goes against the public interest.
RALPH REGENVANU: Unfortunately the new minister said that he's going to stop the case. Whether he can stop the case is another issue, because the state has already consented to the fact that the issuing of the leases was unlawful, and in fact the complainant is Transparency International, so that's one question. But simply the stated intention to withdraw the case or stop the case leaves a lot to be questioned because of all the land that is involved, which is the last remaining prime vacant land in Port Vila and Luganville which could be used for public purposes. So it really goes against the grain of what I believe, you know, ministers of land and governments should be doing which is always acting in the public interest. Obviously in this case it's a very clearly politically motivated action which is not at all in the public interest, and it's largely because the Minister of Lands is a close colleague and in the same political grouping as MP Steven Kalsakau, who is the guy who issued the leases, so it's really disappointing to see.
JOHNNY BLADES: What can you do about it?
RR: As the MP for Port Vila I'm just making everyone aware and I'm informing the Prime Minister and MPs in Port Vila and Luganville, including of course the deputy Prime Minister who is the MP of Port Vila, Moana Carcasses, and the Minister of Finance, Willie Jimmy, letting them all know what the implications of allowing this case to be withdrawn will be which is the loss of significant public assets, an awful lot of money let alone the areas available for public use in the future. I'm glad that the deputy Prime Minister has already said that he will not tolerate the minister withdrawing the case as has the Lord Mayor of Port Vila who is from the UMP which is one of the parties in the current government, so I hope that that kind of public awareness and pressure will make the government prevent the current minister from being able to do anything about the case and just allow it to continue.
JB: And are you concerned about other areas of, you know, management of land -- customary or state -- that the new minister might be going to tinker with, particularly in the areas where you had ushered in some reforms?
RR: Yeah the new minister has announced that he will repeal all the reforms that we did over the last two years, so that's quite disturbing considering that the reforms were done on the basis of recommendations from consultations and reviews going back over ten years, and also considering the extent of work we did with the Council of Chiefs on it. But it remains to be seen whether that's just talk or whether there will actually be some attempt to repeal the laws, I've heard that the rhetoric's been toned down recently, and now they're not longer talking about repeal they're talking about review, and of course because we changed the constitution when we changed the land laws any attempts to further amend the land laws would have to get the approval of the National Council of Chiefs, so I'm hopeful on that front as well because the National Council of Chiefs are very supportive of the recent changes, so I don't see them able to consent very easily to a repeal. Perhaps it might be reviewed, and that in a manner that's in the public interest, I think that would be OK.
JB: Because I suppose the chiefs, their role is fundamental to some of the reforms, or some of the protections you put in place, weren't they, in terms of identifying and managing customary land?
RR: Yes, well the Malvatumauri (council of chiefs) were the ones who endorsed the treaty resolutions of the land summit which have all been implemented into the land reform and also of course the land reform returned the power to determine customary land ownership back to the chiefs away from the courts, and that was a huge change for chiefs and it was the first time really that the local level customary officials have been directly empowered, whereas people can't action the decisions of local institutions anymore to a higher court, that avenue's been stopped by the new law so they were very happy with that return -- it was a seen as a return of the power of the chiefs to be able to determine customary ownership so I don't think they're going to take very lightly to anyone trying to change that.
JB: Paul Telukluk, how is it that someone who has form like that can get back in the position again after so many, I guess, red flags in those reports and so forth?
RR: Well it obviously shows that our accountability system has a lot to be desired. There's an ongoing review now of the Ombudsman Act and the Leadership Code which submissions closed for a few months ago, so I think if those reviews are carried through into amendments then we should not see this kind of thing happening again.
JB: And do you expect he will change the mechanism whereby the lands minister has direct authority over the sale of state land, which you changed?
RR: From what I've heard, it's one of the areas he's targeting, that he wanted to see the land management planning committee removed because it was obstacle to the decision-making power of the minister, and obviously he doesn't understand that that was exactly why it was put in so that the minister alone doesn't have the unfetted discretion to dispose of state land as he wants, but actually it goes to a committee including the minister and other agencies and the government planning agencies and so one, and then has to be approved by the council ministers, not the minister because of so many abuses by ministers in the past.
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