27 Oct 2015

Signs are positive for Vanuatu after grand-scale bribery saga

From , 6:04 am on 27 October 2015
Crowds gather to witness the convicted MP's inside the escorted Police Vehicle in front of the Correctional facility that they will serve their jail term

Crowds gather to witness the convicted MP's inside the escorted Police Vehicle in front of the Correctional facility that they will serve their jail term Photo: SUPPLIED / Transparency International Vanuatu

The flaws in Vanuatu's political system have been exposed on a grand scale by the recent pardoning and bribery saga that resulted in a quarter of the country's MP's jailed for corruption.

That's according to an expert on Melanesia with an Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute.

Jenny Hayward-Jones says it has also exposed the flaws of many of Vanuatu's elected politicians.

But she told Sally Round there are positive signs for the country in the long-term

JENNY HAYWARD-JONES: So, our voters in Vanuatu typically vote for candidates based on what they say they can do for them. This means when they get into parliament, they have to deliver on these promises and they have to make sure they either get ministerial positions, which enable them to deliver on those promises or that they have access to some financial resources which will enable them to do so. This puts some pressure on MPs to basically get access to some cash or to ministerial positions which increases the likelihood that they'll be chasing after motions of no confidence to get onto government benches or to resort to bribery as we've seen.

SALLY ROUND: Do you think that this is a kind of a watershed moment, that voters are going to change the way they vote then?

JHJ: I hope it will be, certainly the publicity surrounding the case and the strong statements made by Justice Mary Sey and by the President about the kind of crime that bribery is, and also the tough sentences that Justice Sey handed out to the MPs will certainly send a message that bribery is not acceptable, it is illegal, but also a lesson to the people that they don't have to accept this kind of behaviour from their members of parliament.

SR: Do you think that there should be changes in the Constitution from what you've seen and what you know about politics there?

JHJ: Well there are already some moves, certainly a national conversation is underway that was at one stage led by the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Edward Natapei, who was leading some discussions and informal negotiations about changing the constitution to, I think emulate the laws they have in Papua New Guinea and more recently in Solomon Islands, to deter motions of no confidence and to give governments more stability during parliamentary terms, but as I understand they're not close to agreeing on those terms in Vanuatu but this may be the impetus that members of parliament may need to have a closer look at those laws and work out how they can do it with more stability.

SR: What sort of effect do you think this whole saga will have had on foreign investment, development partners' confidence, even tourism in the country?

JHJ: I think certainly suggestions that such a large number of government MPs have engaged in, and taken bribes does not send a very good signal for foreign investors. That said, a number of investors who have been in Vanuatu for some time are used to the vagaries of Vanuatu and probably acknowledge that some of this has gone on before as well and it hasn't deterred them from staying in the country. I think importantly what this saga shows is that the rule of law has prevailed, that Vanuatu's courts are strong, that its judiciary is independent, that its President is strong enough to say no one is above the law. So all of these things send a very positive signal, probably one of the most positive in the region, in that Vanuatu is a place where you can do business and the rule of law will be respected and where contracts will be respected.

SR: It was interesting that there wasn't much tension among the people of Vanuatu as this whole thing was playing out. Why do you think that was?

JHJ: Vanuatu does not have a tradition of this, unlike in neighbouring Solomon Islands, or some other countries in the region. There's very little tradition of a strong public protest or indeed violence regarding political developments. I think the Vanuatu people are very used to these regular motions of no confidence, they're very used to changes of Prime Minister, up to three or four a term is not at all unusual. I think they probably accept that there's a level of dealing that goes on, horse-trading certainly that goes on after elections and during a parliamentary term to effect these changes of positions and I think they're probably a bit sanguine, maybe even jaded about these events taking place regularly and perhaps didn't expect that there would be such a strong reaction this time and a really strong decision by the court.

SR: What do you see as being the best way ahead for the country now that half the government MPs have been jailed and a quarter of the seats are now empty in parliament?

JHJ: So this is a tough challenge for members of parliament going forward. The Prime Minister, Sato Kilman, hasn't yet made a clear statement about what he intends to do. We've seen Joe Natuman in opposition call for the Prime Minister to resign and he said that the opposition might support a government of national unity. The Prime Minister can go on for a little while, while parliament is not sitting he doesn't have to have the minority government tested. He will almost certainly wait until the expiration of 30 days after the sentencing period at which point the seats of those convicted MPs will be declared vacant. There may be some more time on that if the convicted MPs appeal their sentences, but what seems certain is that eventually he will have to declare by-elections for those vacated seats or perhaps ask the President to dissolve parliament and declare new elections. I think the latter is probably the best option for Vanuatu. It's a very high number of by-elections to hold in one go, an expensive option if a government of national unity proves to be impossible. I think elections are probably the outcome that the Prime Minister will seek.