The reason for rules

We can gripe about them all we want, but everybody needs them

Written for the Vanuatu Daily Post

There are days when it looks like this country is committing slow, deliberate suicide.

As an ex-smoker, I have a vivid sense of how that feels. You know it’s going to end in tears. At best, you’ll be struck down years before your time, clutching your chest and knowing it wasn’t worth it. But more likely, it ends in indignity as you cough your lungs out, slowly losing the battle to breathe, while others look on at you with a mixture of pity and loathing.

Yet still, you light up and smoke. The incremental pain of staying hooked is nothing to the agony of quitting. Until that fateful day when you realise that if you want to live, you have to set some limits.

This country has a habit, and painful as it might be, it needs to quit. We cannot—not must not, not should not—we cannot continue using bureaucratic and political appointments as rewards.

I’m not saying we need to stop because it’s wrong. It is, but this is not a bully pulpit. In fact, morality be damned. The problem is that this path is guaranteed to end in tears for everyone.

It’s just bad strategy. In this game, there are no winners, only losers.

In recent times, we’ve seen a redoubling of behaviour that has been with us more or less since the 1990s. Every lever of government power is being pulled to pay political debts. Commission seats, bureaucratic posts, parliamentary positions of questionable constitutionality… everything possible is being used to shore up the stability of the government of the day.

But let’s not be too quick to lurch into that familiar chorus, shouting ‘shame’ at our politicians. They’re just trying to deliver to their people. And we—all of us—are their people.

It starts at the community level, when an MP is told in no uncertain terms that he is to join government and get a cabinet position or face the consequences. Let’s not pretend this doesn’t happen. And even if the MP makes good, the pressures put on them to deliver right now, today, are beyond intense.

People literally line up at his door, demanding help with this or that. And ‘help’, these days, usually means money.

Since effectively forever, the mark of the bigman in Melanesia has been the ability to deliver wealth to the community. (The difference with European tradition is the difference between private and public wealth.)

But things are different today. The rush to reward is so headlong that there is literally no time to do the things that would once have provided the payment in the first place.

We’re reaching the point, in other words, where we are consuming the healthy reserves in our body politic, reducing its ability to return any wealth at all.

Quitting cigarettes is the hardest thing I’ve done—and I’ve done a lot of hard things. To this day, I miss cigarettes as I would an old friend.

Not a GOOD friend, mind you. An old one. You know, the kind that drags you out clubbing on a Wednesday and the next morning, when you wake up in a ditch, hung over, your shoes missing and nearly broke, he borrows your last few vatu to get himself home, promising to come back for you later.

And that, more or less, is the state of political play today. Leaders allow more and more latitude to their supporters because if they don’t, they won’t get the support.

Serge Vohor famously said that this isn’t a government with a prime minister and his ministers. No, this is one big PM and a dozen little PMs.

You can gripe all you like about the imposition of rules of law & governance by our erstwhile colonial masters. You can say that they don’t work because they don’t fit. The plain fact is that any rules are better than no rules at all.

We cannot safely disregard the courts just because they’re inconvenient. We cannot safely make appointments outside of PSC rules and sweeten them with salaries that are over the maximum.

We cannot create pseudo-cabinet positions that flout the clear intent of the Constitution.

And it’s not just because these things are wrong. It’s because these actions legitimise behaviour that, sooner than later, will lead to worse excesses. It’s not what happens this round; it’s what happens next.

There may be no future in politics, as some have said. But doing things outside the rules only makes it easier for the next guy to come for you.

Without rules, every appointment you make can be flipped. Every position you create can be annulled, changed or redoubled. Every contract you sign can be cancelled. Every debt that you want to collect can be forgotten in the blink of an eye.

And then what will you do? You can’t go to the courts, because they’ll just be ignored.

No, we need rules. And we need to respect them. We need rules because that way, when something gets done, it stays done. And that is the only way we make progress in this world.