Barefoot on the red carpet

‘Tanna’ is a gem of a movie, and its stars deserve to shine among the brightest lights of the glitterati

There are two ways to make a movie like ‘Tanna’:

You could spend millions housing and caring for a cast and crew of hundreds, millions more on costumes, sets, make-up and outlandish logistical costs, and even more on lavish, painstakingly built CGI effects.

Or you could take a couple of hand-held cameras and go live in Yakel village for six months.

Both approaches would probably work, more or less. The first will get you The Mission, or Mosquito Coast, or—heaven help you—Fitzcarraldo. But only the latter is capable of capturing the heart of kastom in Tanna.

‘Tanna’ is visually lush and—happily—not polished. The actors have bad hair days, they have calloused hands and dirt under their nails. And this matters, because ‘Tanna’ is not just another hackneyed love story transposed into an exotic locale. It is composed of the essence of life in traditional Vanuatu. Read more “Barefoot on the red carpet”

Dissolution is no solution

An increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that the only way out of the current political impasse is via dissolution of Parliament. While it may prove to be the only workable option, that doesn’t mean it’s what we need, let alone what we want.

Prime Minister Kilman finally spoke to the people of Vanuatu Monday, confirming that he had asked the President for Parliament to be dissolved on the 16th of October.

The President had already made his perspective clear: Dissolution must be seen as a last resort.

He’s not wrong. Contrary to Mr Kilman’s protestations, it is within the President’s purview to defer—if not outright deny—such a request. Presidential powers are largely ceremonial, but they’re deliberately vague precisely because he is expected to exert a moral influence on the country and its leadership, especially under extraordinary circumstances.

In Vanuatu today, our circumstances are nothing if not extraordinary.

Dissolution is a defeat. It is an admission that Parliament has failed to do its job. Read more “Dissolution is no solution”

Yumi, yumi, yumi

Reaction to last week’s prison sentences for the vast majority of MPs convicted of bribery and corruption consisted of equal parts sorrow and approval among the overwhelming majority of Ni Vanuatu. Only a tiny minority expressed glee or happiness at the downfall of some of the country’s most senior and heretofore respected politicians.

Fewer still complained of injustice.

Quoting from other judgments, Justice Mary Sey described the crime of bribery as “cynical, deplorable and deeply anti-social”, “intolerable in a civilised society”, and “inexcusable”, and wrote that “this Court, on behalf of the community, denounces the commission of the offences of corruption and bribery….”

She went on to assign prison sentences to all but one of the guilty parties.

Some people have—rightly—commended Justice Sey on her legal acumen, her refusal to allow the trial to lose momentum and, above all, her utter fearlessness in the face of intense pressure.

We can all take a little credit for her success. Read more “Yumi, yumi, yumi”

Silence becomes consent

In the weeks after it became known that more than a dozen MPs were being investigated for allegedly giving and accepting bribes, we accepted the reluctance among our leaders to comment on an issue currently before the police.

When MPs and their political backers were formally charged under the Leadership Code and the Penal Code, we expected them to stay quiet until the issue was resolved in the courts. But when people said they were unfairly targeted, we respected their right to do so.

When Sato Kilman included many of the accused into his government—and into his cabinet, too—following the no-confidence motion against Joe Natuman’s government, we were given pause.

It’s traditional in parliamentary democracies for MPs under any kind of cloud to clear their name before assuming—or resuming—a cabinet position or similar post.

Unusual as the situation might be, we accepted and respected Mr Kilman’s forceful assertion that all of the accused were innocent until proven guilty, and that no action would be taken until the courts had spoken.

When he allowed Mr Willie Jimmy to continue as Finance Minister even after he had pled guilty and been convicted, we watched with incredulity, but remained silent, even though Mr Jimmy’s continued presence in the position is of questionable legality. After all, we reasoned, things would get sorted before too long.

Even when a guilty verdict on criminal bribery charges was handed down, we still didn’t call for action, taking in good faith Mr Carcasses’ public call to “respect the judgment” and to uphold the process of the law.

But in the face of government officials taking actions that, in the words of the President, are “unlawful” and against the public interest, we are left with no option but to speak.

Mr Kilman’s support for his friends and colleagues is understandable, and many would say commendable. But there is a limit. Past a certain point, failure to speak, failure to act is no longer an act of moderation or restraint, it is an act of toleration.

And past a certain point, toleration is consent.

More and more as the hours and days tick by, Mr Kilman’s silence and inaction is betraying him. What may have looked like strength is looking more and more like an inability to counsel or constrain his own government members.

No formal statement on any of this has come out, save a brief assertion that pardons are a presidential matter and that the Prime Minister had no comment.

Associates of the Prime Minister who have acted as informal proxies in the past have stated unequivocally that Mr Kilman was neither consulted nor informed of the decision to promulgate a letter of pardon. Nor presumably has he assented to the attempted ouster of the Ombudsman, of the Clerk of Parliament or any other rumoured actions against parties involved in the bribery case.

Vanuatu is rapidly becoming a laughingstock in the international community. The ABC are featuring our national unravelling on the nightly news. TVNZ has labelled the country “an embarrassment”. Even the BBC is discussing the President’s “anger” at the situation.

This country needs unity and leadership now more than ever. And still the Prime Minister fails to act.

President Baldwin Lonsdale has used his office to draw a moral line in the sand, and to disown Mr Pipite’s actions. Sato Kilman can no longer remain silent. As the nation’s leader, he must act, and act promptly.

Past this point, silence becomes consent.


“The head of the Republic shall be known as the President and shall symbolise the unity of the nation.”

That’s how chapter six of the Constitution of Vanuatu describes the head of state: A symbol of the unity of the nation. The rumours and reports that ran rampant around town yesterday did nothing to uphold this country’s sense of unity. Quite the opposite.

While Marcelino Pipite did sign an instrument of pardon Saturday, the document is of questionable legality, but more to the point, it is politically, socially and morally indefensible.

If Mr Pipite’s gambit succeeds, it would, as MP Samson Samsen said so memorably in his testimony, mean we no longer fear God. Our leaders could fairly be said to have lost their moral compass.

When he emerged from the courtroom Friday afternoon, Moana Carcasses reiterated his respect for the integrity of the judicial process. Likewise, he cautioned his supporters to “respect the judgment” and not to take the law into their own hands.

Presumably, he said the same to his peers. First-hand reports of the brief speech that he gave following a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office Friday evening suggest that he made substantially the same statements then, too.

Surely Mr Pipite was listening? What could possibly possess someone even to contemplate a pardon at this stage?

The Constitution states, “The President of the Republic may pardon, commute or reduce a sentence imposed on a person….” Given that nobody has been sentenced yet, it’s questionable whether a pardon is even legally possible right now.

We do the public a disservice to discuss Friday’s verdict and start bandying pardons about in the same breath. To do so would undermine public trust in our political leaders, which is already at low ebb. Furthermore, such could erode our faith in the power of the courts.

It’s fair to ask: If the players start ignoring the referee’s red card, can we still say they’re playing football, or has the game changed completely?

We fear that this announcement will have exactly the effect Mr Pipite claimed he wanted to avoid. While the Opposition has refrained from commenting and is sure to advise calm, it’s hard to imagine that this will be sufficient to salve rapidly fraying tempers.

This announcement is poorly timed, of questionable legality and leads the country further into uncharted political waters. In every respect, it is contrary to the public interest.

As this newspaper goes to press, there is still no comment from the Prime Minister. People close to him say that he was not consulted in this process, and that he found out about it through the media. Opposition leaders have not received a response from Mr Kilman in spite of repeated requests for an urgent meeting.

People everywhere look to their government for leadership. We expect them to safeguard the unity of the nation. Yesterday’s actions may well do exactly the opposite.

It can’t happen here—yet

All of us, at one time or other, have looked at some new horror emerging on the news ticker from other parts of the world and quietly counted our blessings, whispering, ‘That could never happen here in Vanuatu.’

A story came across the wire yesterday from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. We’ve re-run it in today’s paper. Mathieu Batick, a twenty-five year-old ni-Vanuatu seasonal worker, was convicted of assaulting a woman and remanded for sentencing.

It’s another story that could never happen here, but that’s no reason to celebrate.

The New Zealand Herald recounts how an astute police officer, realising that a group of revellers had disappeared into an alleyway, reversed his patrol vehicle and checked to make sure everything was all right.

Turning into the service lane, “the headlights shone on a man with pants down standing over a drunken woman who lay on the ground yelling: ‘Leave me alone.’”

Consequently, Mathieu Batick had two charges laid against him: assault with intent to commit sexual violation and indecent assault.

Not only did Mr Batick deny any wrongdoing, he told a probation officer that if he’d done the same thing back in Vanuatu, it wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

The Herald tells us that the woman was drunk and alone and, having just left a bar, was trying to find her way home to Napier at 3am.

Mr Batick admitted that he put his arm around her and touched her inappropriately before he and a friend pulled her into the laneway.

The story is remarkable particularly because it might have been so much worse. The judge is quoted as saying the arresting officer performed “outstanding police work” in spotting and stopping the act before any rape actually occurred.

In Vanuatu, that kind of police work is unheard-of.

The Family Protection Act of 2008 states unequivocally that police must investigate any acts of violence against women or children. It further states that police must enter a domicile if they have a reasonable suspicion that domestic violence is being committed.

Not ‘should’, not ‘may’, but ‘must’.

Our police have a legal duty to protect the public, and are required to take extra care in protecting those most vulnerable to violence and sexual coercion.

We can equivocate and evade, we can hem and haw and hedge all we like; nothing changes the fact that, here in Vanuatu, a woman walking alone at night is in danger. And the police almost certainly won’t help her. It’s not even certain whether her friends would keep her safe, especially in light of Mr Batick’s blithe assertion that pulling a drunken woman into an alley and having his way with her is no big thing.

In many respects, everyone in Vanuatu can rightly be proud of our largely peaceful and harmonious society. But in this respect we should hang our collective head in shame. We need to ask ourselves, ‘how can we make what happened in New Zealand happen here?’