‘The people want change’

The people want change’ — that was the core lesson that newly elected Prime Minister Charlot Salwai took from the January 22nd general election. With over 60% of its members new to Parliament, it seems clear that change is what we’re getting—whether we like it or not.

But there’s change, and then there’s change. Let’s hope we get the good kind. If the composition of the Council of Ministers is any indication, we’re headed for an administration that takes the business of doing government seriously.

Led by veteran politicians such as Ham Lini and Joe Natuman, balanced with technocrats in such key ministries as Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Health and Education, and leavened with a few fresh faces, this new coalition seems to have a decent balance of experience—political and professional—ability and energy.

But will the centre hold? Can we have what Lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu called, ‘Unity at last’?

Perhaps the most important virtue that this new cabinet will need is moral probity. Several of its members have already shown themselves to be capable of putting the good of the many ahead of the good of the few. But it’s one thing to mean well, and another to do well.

As the saying goes, handsome is as handsome does.

Perhaps the greatest consolation we can take is that Mr Salwai’s rise to power seems to open the door for reconciliation within the ranks of the UMP.

Years ago, Mr Salwai and others had a very public tiff with UMP president Serge Vohor, and since then, the francophone vote has been somewhat split. Coupled with the generational divide between some MPs dating back to the VP/UMP split over Independence, and it’s easy to see how this fracture contributed to the disunity and division that have plagued Vanuatu since 1991.

But with Mr Vohor’s political career effectively over, Charlot Salwai is breaking ground toward reconciliation between the various francophone factions. Place alongside his demonstrated ability to work productively with the Unification movement, Mr Salwai’s status as first among equals seems to offer hope.

Time will tell, of course. There were many able and arguably deserving faces missing from the cabinet line-up today, and the enduring question of Vanuatu politics is not whether you can put a coalition together, but whether you can keep it together.

There seems to be a wealth of goodwill and a new spirit of cooperation within Vanuatu’s political elite. Let’s hope it doesn’t get frittered away. Now more than ever, people are looking for answers. And they need them quickly.