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Executive Power and the Supremacy of the Law

The Village Explainer
Executive Power and the Supremacy of the Law
By Dan McGarry • Issue #47 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

President Baldwin Lonsdale returning to Port Vila in 2016
President Baldwin Lonsdale returning to Port Vila in 2016
Over the weekend, my daughter and I were looking at the photos I’ve collected in my screen saver slide show. They’re my personal favourites from a couple of decades of shooting.
The image above took a bit of explaining. This is what I told her:
The man on the right, leading the way is President Baldwin Lonsdale, a personal hero of mine. The man in brown at the far left is Marcellino Pipite. He is not a personal hero of mine.
The paper in Marcellino’s hand is an instrument of pardon that he had issued for himself and more than a dozen other cronies in a dangerous eleventh hour gambit to avoid imprisonment for bribery.
When the President of Vanuatu is overseas or otherwise unable to perform his duties, the Constitution dictates that his powers pass to the Speaker of Parliament. In the weekend following their conviction, a group of MPs met in a local resort and concocted a plan to hurriedly issue pardons for themselves.
On the face of it, the plan was flawless*. The President’s power to issue pardons in unconditional. So they forced the acting Attorney General to draft the instruments and gazette them, and then summoned the media to an impromptu press conference in the Speaker’s meeting room.
[* NARRATOR: It was not flawless.]
Marellino Pipite announcing the pardons
Marellino Pipite announcing the pardons
In what he un-ironically claimed was a bid to avoid adding ‘man-made disaster’ to natural disaster—an allusion to cyclone Pam, which had recently ravaged the country—Pipite presented the pardons as a done deal, and warned the public against questioning the decision or meddling with the results.
When President Lonsdale returned to Vanuatu, we expected fireworks. What we got instead was a master class in respect for the rule of law, for kastom, and for the dignity of the office of head of state.
As he left the VIP terminal at Bauerfield airport, Mr Lonsdale was visibly furious. Stone-faced, he stepped out of the building and onto the reviewing stand, while the honour guard played the national anthem. He barely spared a glance for Marcellino, glowering in silence on the sidelines of the affair.
A reverend and a chief, Lonsdale had spent his life in service to his community. Even in his high school days, he was an anti-colonial activist and a leader. It was no doubt inconceivable to him that someone could so flagrantly abuse executive power in their own interest.
He didn’t rant. He didn’t storm. He didn’t protest. He did what was right. He apologised to the nation.
President Lonsdale revokes the pardons
President Lonsdale revokes the pardons
He apologised for allowing his office to be sullied this way. He took responsibility for the stain, and vowed to resolve it. He sought advice from legal experts, and several days later, announced that he would revoke the pardons, an action that was later upheld by the Court of Appeal.
It was a pitch-perfect choice. He acted to restore the dignity of the office, and did so by respecting the rule of law. It was the law that gave him the power to pardon, and it would be the law that would adjudicate the decision to revoke.
Days later, the MPs were in jail. They were later tried and convicted for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice for the pardons fiasco.
And that, daughter of mine, is how President Lonsdale saved the nation, avoided a constitutional crisis, and restored respect for the rule of law at a time of national importance.
He is my hero.
Baldwin Lonsdale died before he could complete his term of office.
I miss him every day.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu