14 October 2015

Is Vanuatu becoming another of the world’s basket cases?

The New Zealand chapter of Transparency International has for years endeavoured to strengthen the  anti corruption influence of its sister chapters in the Pacific, particularly in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Some funding has come from New Zealand aid.  There is a poor return for these efforts. Only Fiji and Papua New Guinea were included in the 2014 Transparency Corruption Perceptions Index .  Samoa was rated in 52nd place.  Papua New Guinea remained in 144th . There are too few measures to rate the increasingly chaotic state of the public administrations in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Events in Vanuatu over the last weekend show how much of a struggle will be required to make difference.  Friday began with the national press in a self-congratulatory mood. Despite major political turmoil it appeared that the judicial and legal systems were “working” – the courts were acting constitutionally, giving effect to the separation of powers. A Supreme Court judge had convicted 15 Members of Parliament on bribery and corruption charges. They had accepted dubious loans and made gifts to other MPs. The 15 included the Deputy Prime Minister, two Ministers and the Speaker. Sentencing was set down for 22 October. The MPs faced up to 10 years imprisonment, and a loss of their parliamentary seats. This followed a Constitutional Court ruling that a related Ombudsman’s report into the activities of the MPs was void.

The weekend was dramatic.  The President was visiting Samoa.  The Constitution provides for the Speaker to act in his place. The President returned on Sunday night to find that the Speaker had exercised the Presidential power to pardon offenders. He pardoned himself and his co defendants – except for one who had pleaded guilty. He said the move was necessary in the best interests of the country.

He also suspended the Ombudsman – a former President – for gross misconduct. The Ombudsman claims the suspension is void.

The President believes the pardons issued in his absence were unlawful; “the power of mercy is vested in the President not an acting President”. He stated that “we as a nation have to stop these crooked ways”.  Constitutionally the power relates to pardoning a sentence, not the conviction. Convictions on offences with a penalty of 2 years imprisonment or more, would prevent the MPs remaining in Parliament.

Nothing has been said or done by the Prime Minister.

Woman against Crime and Corruption have described the pardons as a national disgrace.