A Million Vacations*
The events of the last few weeks in Vanuatu may seem to be startling—even shocking—to people who are new to Melanesian politics. To veterans, though, there is nothing new under the tropical sun.
This is not the first time a large bloc of MPs have had their seats vacated out from under them. I know it sounds uncomfortable, but it’s happened a lot.
It’s also not the first attempt to oust a Prime Minister using this tactic. Nor is it the first time someone has challenged the right of the Speaker to make that call. It’s not even the first time that Gracia Shadrack and Seule Simeon have gone toe to toe over the vacation of seats.
Allow me to guide you down the rabbit hole….
In 1988, a bloc of 18 Opposition MPs led by Leader Maxim Carlot Korman raised concerns about the conduct of the Speaker, issuing him a letter than said, in part, “We the undersigned will not be attending Parliament this morning in order to defend democratic processes in Vanuatu.”
The Opposition boycotted consecutive sittings of Parliament from the 25th to the 27th of July inclusive, after which the Speaker ruled that the members’ seats had been vacated.
In his ruling upholding the Speaker’s call
, Justice Ward cited a previous decision in which Vincent Boulekone was ruled to have vacated his seat for missing three consecutive sittings. That decision set the precedent that divides Parliamentary business into sessions, meetings, and sittings.
Justice Ward added, “It is a sad spectacle in any democracy to see a Parliament deprived of an opposition for however short a period it continues but it was the opposition who chose that course.”
The decision was upheld on appeal.
Fast forward to 2009, when Korman, now Speaker, used exactly the same Vacation of Seats Act in an attempt to oust Prime Minister Edward Natapei
, who was on his way to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The decision caught Natapei in transit, and sent him scuttling home.
The courts ultimately vindicated Natapei
, ruling that an informal conversation between the PM and the Speaker in which Natapei said, ‘bae mi travel aot tis Sarere
’ was sufficient notice, and further that Natapei was not afforded natural justice.
He was re-elected in 2020.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
From the moment of his victory in 2016’s watershed election, then-rookie MP Gracia Shadrack has shown he is a force to be reckoned with. Right out of the gate, he secured a cabinet portfolio, serving as Minister of Health until his ouster in 2018
He was not long in the wilderness. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai later rewarded him with a Parliamentary Secretary post. These plums would later prove Salwai’s undoing. The posts were ruled unconstitutional, and he was convicted of perjury for false testimony submitted when defending them.
His seat was ruled vacant by Speaker Gracia Shadrack.
Shadrack has a reputation for playing his own corner, and the role of Speaker seemed to suit him just fine. Up until very recently, Prime Minister Bob Loughman was content to sing his praises
But when Shadrack invoked a rule requiring MPs who resign from their party to also vacate their seats, targeting none other than Seule Simeon, Government MPs felt he’d gone too far. He’d already reneged on a deal to broker a government-aligned coalition in his home province’s election.
The Speaker—rightly, as it turned out—ruled that the Motion was not mature. It could not be debated immediately.
But Government MPs decided not to wait for the courts to adjudicate the decision. On successive sittings, they showed up for roll call, then left, ignoring the Speaker’s attempts to summon them with the division bell.
With apologies to Justice Ward, it is indeed a sad spectacle to see a Parliament deprived of a government, but it was the government who chose that course.
Twist and Shout
In a press conference shortly after the judgment was handed down, the Deputy Prime Minister claimed the government’s legal battle isn’t over.
The only question the MPs had put to the court, he said, was whether the Speaker had the right to rule as he did. They didn’t ask whether he’d ruled properly; they only asked if he had the right to do it.
This was a puzzling choice to some. The function of the Vacation of Seats Act is pretty well established. Shadrack said at the time, and previous judgments have ruled, that it’s not the Speaker who vacates the seat, it’s the law that automatically does so when the conditions are reached.
It’s the Speaker’s duty to recognise when this has happened.
In this latest ruling, Judge Saksak agreed.
The MPs’ lawyer also argued that because the question was different, none of the existing cases should be used as precedent. Judge Saksak called this gambit ‘novel’ and ‘absurd’.
The 19 MPs have been granted a continuance to a stay order that allows the government to function as before, at least until the Court of Appeal has the opportunity to consider matters.
The MPs’ plan, ostensibly, was to play out this round, and if necessary to keep the fight alive by raising the question of whether the Speaker had ruled correctly. They could be in for a short sharp shock.
In his ruling, Judge Saksak stepped beyond the question of whether the Speaker had the right to rule, stating, “The seats of the 19 applicants in Parliament have been vacated by operation of section 2 (d) of the Members of Parliament (Vacation of Seats) Act.”
It will almost certainly be brought to the Appeal Court’s attention that the MPs didn’t ask for the actual vacancy question to be adjudicated. But why they didn’t is perplexing to some lawyers I’ve spoken to.
There’s a chance this rope-a-dope strategy will not work. If the courts rule there’s nothing left to adjudicate, the MPs may find themselves on the proverbial mat early in the second round.