Don’t feel much like dancin’

This week’s announcement that the government is spending two days and VT 37 million celebrating Vanuatu’s graduation from LDC status isn’t just tone-deaf. It’s a sad commentary on how disconnected our political elite have become from the daily reality of life and livelihood.

Today, I suspect there’s a little bit of Jonathan Edwards in all of us.


We’ve got good reasons to feel down.

The December edition of the Vanuatu Business Review includes a troubling assessment. Yes, COVID-19 and TC Harold have driven many businesses to the brink, but they were already headed in that direction before either one occurred.

For years, the rope has been tightening around the private sector’s neck. Policies designed to make life better for Ni Vanuatu are instead throttling development. The Customary Land Management Act was intended to clarify and simplify the process of deciding who had the right to lease land. It tried to shoehorn kastom and its myriad permutations that vary from village to village—let alone island to island—into a single unified system. It is unworkable.

Not a single piece of kastom land has been leased since it took effect.

Fees for work permits, visas, forms and approvals have increased beyond all reason. It now costs thousands of dollars for an investor just to reach the starting gate. The government appears to see these fees as income, not cost recovery.

Vanuatu is 107th overall in the ease of doing business rankings, but it drops another 30 places where starting a business is concerned. And it’s among the worst in the world when it comes to getting a building permit and enforcing contracts.

Businesses large and small are singled out by government officials, and subjected to orders that are sometimes unlawful and unjust.

Fairness is seeping out of the system. And without fairness, markets can’t function.

The motivation for many of these measures is commendable. Ni Vanuatu deserve a fair shake. After a century of colonial oppression, they are finally masters in their own house.

We shouldn’t be importing talent when the talent already exists here. When we do bring someone in, they should try to work themselves out of a job by providing training and assistance to local counterparts.

These are all fine ideas. Even if they weren’t, it’s not my place to prescribe policy.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t note the impacts.

There is a common but false assumption that if a job is created and given to an outsider, that same job can simply be handed over to a deserving Ni Vanuatu. That’s just not how things work.

If you stop a company from hiring an outsider with specific skills, you’re not forcing them to hire a Ni Vanuatu. You could be stopping them from hiring anyone at all.

Every single business owner in Vanuatu prefers to hire locally. Hiring someone from overseas costs way more than a similarly skilled Ni Vanuatu.

Local workers are a better deal for everyone. Everyone knows that already.

If a business can’t create that position, no Ni Vanuatu will ever fill it. Or be trained to fill it one day. Maybe the company won’t expand. Maybe the company won’t even get off the ground.

Maybe other jobs in the company depend on this one, and more positions evaporate.

Ni Vanuatu deserve a better living wage. But increasing it three times in 4 years, a total of 30%, only ensures fewer low-wage jobs.

Doubling severance payments for retirees creates a perverse incentive to cash-strapped companies to fire their older workers before they reach retirement age.

These measures are theoretically good, but practically disastrous. They drag down the economy, making business owners pathologically risk-averse. They’re unwilling to speak out against even the stupidest ideas, because they know they’ll be singled out if they do.

It happens all the time. I know. It happened to me.

And that’s crazy, because we’d love to help achieve those goals. As the song goes, ‘How much does it cost? / I’ll buy it!’

We really would. But difference of opinion is seen as opposition. The market for ideas just as beset as the markets of commerce.

Part of the problem is that the people who make the rules aren’t affected by them. Most MPs are career politicians. Most civil servants are career civil servants. They lack private sector experience because our tiny private sector doesn’t offer the same opportunities the public sector does.

And that’s partly because the public sector makes a living throttling the private sector.

The river of money flowing in from citizenship sales has made things worse. Politicians are no longer attentive to local businesses. They don’t need to be. They can get more support in a month from a single passport agency than a local business can offer in an entire election cycle.

And now—only now—can we begin to contemplate the damage done by two cyclones, a crisis in our aviation sector, and the death of our tourism-related economy.

Things are dire. But they wouldn’t be a lot less dire if we weren’t the most disaster-stricken country in the world.

So when the government announces that it’s splashing out nearly half a million bucks on a party to celebrate our graduation to a better economy… well, we don’t feel much like dancing.

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

Banning Facebook is a bad idea…

Solomon Islands’ cabinet today announced their intention to ban Facebook.

I Have Thoughts.

1) Banning Facebook is the wrong response, of course. It’s a massive abridgement of human rights, for one thing. It is an unwarranted restriction on the media, who rely heavily on social media to establish their credibility, and also to reach and communicate with sources who might not have been accessible before.

2) Doing nothing about social media abuses is not a reasonable option either. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how corrosive to society an unregulated social media environment can be. What with Brexit and the US presidential election, we’re watching two of the oldest democracies in the world coming apart at the seams. Our democracies are already fragile and vulnerable. We don’t need anyone pouring acid on them.

3) I’m not convinced the SI government can be trusted to make the right choices to safeguard the basic freedoms of conscience, expression and association for its citizens. I’m also not convinced that Australia is willing or able to meaningfully help. Its partisan and polluted media landscape makes it nigh impossible to avoid pot/kettle recriminations. Nor am I convinced that the MSG or the PIF Secretariat are particularly well-positioned either. I’m not sure we’d like the result if they did assist. New Zealand, on the other other hand, probably could address the issue with some credibility. But who knows whether it would risk its standing on this?

Ignoring reality for a moment, let’s look at the ideal scenario:

Social media should be decolonised and regulated locally. I’ve presented the reasons why before in this newsletter. Social media would be required to establish a local legal presence, and content originating within each territory should be subjected to the same legal restrictions as any other media company.

Technically and legally, that’s perfectly workable. Practically though, Facebook would rather withdraw its services entirely from the country and sow the ground with salt than subject themselves to a precedent that would ultimately lead to the fragmentation of the company into hundreds of franchises, and increase its tax bill to… well, to the levels that the rest of us pay.

I’ll have more on this soon, but let me end with this:

As a member of the Melanesian Media Freedom Forum, I am utterly opposed to the unwarranted restriction on the fundamental freedoms of conscience, speech and association that banning Facebook would create. It’s not only immoral and wrong; it just won’t work.

Banning Facebook will only drive public discourse into even more dangerous venues, such as the right-wing funded Parler, or Chinese-controlled WeChat.

Prime Minister Sogavare needs to rein his cabinet in on this matter, and plot a more thoughtful and effective course. He should cooperate with his regional partners to increase the odds of success.

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

Can we stop being the enemy now?

Does the Overton Window have shades? If it does, can we please draw them back over the bit where the media became the enemy?

I’ve been holding this in for a long time, so don’t be surprised if it sounds a little feisty. But you know what? It’s the hardest thing in the world to sit in a press conference feeling like you’re the only people in the room who care about right and wrong. The only ones who’re thinking about others. The only ones who’re being honest. The only ones who care remotely about the truth.

The only ones who would rather lose everything than lie.

For those of you who don’t know my story, here’s the skinny: I got turfed out of my job as the head of editorial for Vanuatu’s only daily newspaper for ‘administrative reasons’. Those reasons are the subject of an ongoing judicial review, so I won’t comment on them, save to say that I don’t think they’re really why I was denied the right to do my job.

It galls me that I can’t even speak in my own defence, but I’ve been advised to avoid doing anything that might queer the legal pitch. So I’ll just say I’ve spent the last 13 months unemployed—and effectively unemployable—while the issue wends through the courts.

I am, needless to say, a bit tired of being the enemy. I’m tired of having to risk my family’s future just to tell people what’s what.

I’m tired of China’s petulant and bitter intolerance to any Hong Konger who so much as looks at them askance. I’m tired of Donald Trump’s calculated, flagrant disdain. I’m tired of Murdoch’s decades-long campaign to subvert trust in us, and to denigrate anyone who hold faith with the public good.

I’m tired of us being arrested, persecuted, intimidated, imprisoned, and even assassinated.

I’m tired of being the only one in the room who dares to ask the question, or says the thing that needs to be said. I’m tired of having to remind people that we all have a right to do that.

I’m tired of the relieved looks when I do open my mouth. I’m tired of people telling me in hushed tones how they support me, but there’s too much at stake for them to actually say it aloud.

They’re right, and I’m tired of that, too.

I’m tired of correcting lie after lie after lie. I’m tired of confronting liars. I’m tired of the fact that it gets harder every day.

I never want to worry if I’ll ever see my family again. I’m sick of being unemployed, and unemployable. I’m sick of my right to seek the truth being curtailed by people who know I’m right, and still persist. I’m literally sick, living with depression.

I’m sick of the brazenness, the shamelessness of it all. I’m sick of the fact that even writing this bowdlerised screed is a dangerous act.

So now that we’ve reached this inflection point in history, can we please just stop being the enemy?

Now that we’ve reached the time for healing, could you start with us?

All I’m asking is that people stop trying to murder the truth. Stop pretending that the public good doesn’t matter more than private interest.

Stop pretending the media are somehow driving this soul-destroying descent into chaos.

Reporters aren’t special. We’ve got exactly as many rights as you—along with more responsibilities. But we’re the first ones to fall. We cop the flak so you don’t have to. We may be the first ones to be silenced, but we’re not the last.

If reporters aren’t free to speak, to question and confront, then no one is.

So can we stop being your enemy, please? Can we just be allowed to do our job? Can we maybe, I dunno, get a bit of encouragement, or at least the chance to make a buck at it?

You don’t have to do us any favours, really. You don’t have to put kid gloves on. You don’t even have to be nice.

Just stop them fucking with us. Stop pretending we’re the enemy. You know we’re not. So maybe stop saying it.

Can we do that now, please?


The Media.

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

Secretary for Climate

The betting shops are confident enough in a Biden victory that they’re already paying out. Despite this, things are going to be messy for a while in the United States.

When he finally emerges, Joe Biden is going to need a unifying message, not just for Americans, but for those who look to America for leadership.

That message will be climate change. It has to be. He doesn’t really have another.


Twitter avatar for @JoeBidenJoe Biden @JoeBiden

Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.


The U.S. has officially left the Paris Agreement, three years after Pres. Trump announced he would leave the international climate change forum.


But even though he’s not spoiled for choice, Biden’s got a lot of upside if he goes hard on the climate bandwagon. Domestically, it’s a job-maker. He can throw billions into the Rust Belt and California’s eastern provinces of Nevada and Arizona. Mitigation and infrastructure dollars will be badly needed in Florida and the Gulf states. Tech, mass transport and household energy efficiency initiatives are all great for small business.

Spending is at the House’s discretion, and voters in most of those states are persuadable enough that an obstructionist Senate would likely be signing its own death warrant.

He might even shore up Texas for a win next time, putting the final nail into Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

Internationally, climate change is the only thing that leaders can agree on. It is Biden’s one chance to engage positively with China, and it offers him a unique opportunity for rapprochement with Europe, India and southeast Asia without poking any bears—or pandas.

I could be wrong, but my bet is that the next Secretary of State will lead have serious diplomatic chops and likely significant experience in deal wrangling.

This puts countries that are out of step on climate change in a tough place. Australia would likely have it toughest of all. With China already telegraphing that it will reduce its reliance on Australian coal, the Coalition will be hard pressed to resist US overtures to stop shilly-shallying about on the platform and get on board the Paris train.

How Scott Morrison and his cabinet navigate between that Scylla and Charybdis will be interesting to see. It’s unlikely Murdoch or Palmer will suddenly turn on them. (Where else would they go?) And it’s not at all sure that Labor can stage a miraculous turnaround and unite the country on… anything, really.

But Australia will have to move. The tide is rising and the ship is either going to make headway or the current’s going to carry it. Either way, it moves.

The only leverage Australia has with China right now is trade, and that’s tenuous, as we’re seeing. Coming on board with climate change gives Australia the chance to play the middle ground between Xi and Biden, using its import/export markets to its own advantage in the process.

It also means jobs in a seriously depressed economy. Not as many as in the USA, but a lot.

It pulls the Pacific more firmly into its orbit, and builds the moral argument for closer alliance.

But most of all, it means survival. Not just for the parties, but for the country.

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

Air Vanuatu Investigation Raises Questions

An aviation expert has questioned the decision to fire the Air Vanuatu captain who flew ATR twin engine that veered off the runway during an emergency landing.

Air Vanuatu’s history has been blessedly unexciting. Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen only two aircraft lost, and only one of them with the loss of all hands.

So when one of our domestic flagships veered off the runway, crashing into two other small planes, we all breathed a sigh of relief that despite the damage, no one was injured and no lives were lost.

The accident investigation was conducted by Papua New Guinea’s aviation investigator, because Vanuatu lacks the capacity and expertise to do this sort of thing.

The report is troubling for a number of reasons.

Anyone who wants a detailed and insightful overview of the investigation should watch this video explainer by ATR pilot/instructor Magnar Nordal.

I spoke for over an hour to Nordal. He has been flying ATRs professionally for years, including the specific variant involved in flight 241 to Port Vila. He is a pilot/instructor who has flown in the Maldives, which is similar to Vanuatu in important respects.

What went wrong, I asked him?

Lots of things.

Engine Woes

The malfunctioning of the right engine of the ATR 72-500 was what set events into motion. It failed spectacularly, with loud bangs and large volumes of smoke that quickly filled the cabin.

The engine had been sitting idle on the shelf for an extended period. It was sent to Germany for a complete refurbishment, was re-certified, and then installed on the ATR at a certified aviation facility in Fiji.

Within days, low oil pressure was noted during a flight. The fault was found, a part was replaced, and the plane was returned to service. On the next round trip, the engine unexpectedly lost oil pressure again. It was serviced again, the same part replaced, and this time a flight test was required before it was returned to service.

On the next round trip, the engine failed, apparently due to a wear on a bearing ring designed to smoothe the rotation of the engine parts. This rapidly built up friction, and ultimately resulted in numerous fractures, which released quantities of smoke into the cabin.

This frame grab from a video taken during the flight gives an indication of how thick the smoke became.

But the loss of a single engine is not an emergency. Aircraft like the ATR are designed to fly on one engine, and pilots train regularly to fly and land with a single power source. It was only when smoke entered the cabin that the pilot issued a MAYDAY to air traffic control.

Nordal agrees that was the right thing to do.

One of the first steps in the preflight checklist is to review the aircraft’s maintenance history. What would Nordal have done, given the recent maintenance issues this plane had logged?

Nordal told me he would have made a mental note, but continued with the flight. But when the engine began to make noises, that information would have been in the front of his mind.

Taking Control

When the engine started malfunctioning, the captain elected to take control of the aircraft from his copilot, who had extensive experience on the Twin Otter, but only 55 hours flying the ATR.

But following the checklists is actually the harder task. Should he have left the co-pilot in charge of flying the plane? Not necessarily. Nordal cited the popular film Sully, which tells the story of an Airbus 320 that ditched in the Hudson river when it lost both engines to bird strikes.

“Captain Sully took control of the aircraft. He even had an experienced first officer. Together they had 55,000 hours,” said Nordal.

“But in this case, you have a new first officer with very limited experience. I think the captain felt he should take control, because of the lower experience of the other pilot.”

Do we have any basis for saying that one decision would have been better than the other?

“No, I don’t think so.”

Training Inadequacies

Both flight and cabin crew were not up to date on important safety training, according to the accident report. Nordal notes that the captain’s “smoke training had expired in fact.”

Whose responsibility is that?

“You have to look at the company, how they managed the training of the crew,” he said.

Keeping good training practices is a constant challenge for small airlines.

“You always have budget constraints. You have a limited number of aircraft, with only a few pilots. Only two [ATR] aircraft, so you only have a handful of pilots. And you cannot take everybody out of production for training. You have to do them one by one. And that means you have an instructor taken out as well to do the training, and you have to repeat it many times.

“You use a lot of resources in training, so you have to do the best [you can].”

Lack of smoke training is not disqualifying, but “it should be done. It’s the responsibility of the company.”

The flight crew’s lack of training led to what Nordal suggests was a series of mistakes, each one compounding the other. They started one checklist, then interrupted it to begin another, then went back and restarted the first. As a result, a crucial detail was missed, and that resulted in the smoke problem becoming worse, and the ATR being misconfigured for landing.

“They didn’t do the complete checklist here. They rushed. They did it too fast.”

But Nordal adds that we should not be quick to judge.

“You fly thousands of hours, and never have a problem with an engine, or smoke. I have 9,000 hours total time, 5,000 on the ATR, and never had serious issues in the aircraft. So I’m very good at flying under normal conditions. That doesn’t mean I’m very good to cope with a problem like this, because I’ve never experienced it before.”

The report also indicates that the cabin crew were unaware of the smoke procedures, did not circulate in the cabin to assist passengers, and did not don breathing equipment when instructed to do so by the captain.

“I find that very serious,” said Nordal. “Very often, you think cabin crew is there for the service. But that’s secondary. The main job for them is to save the passengers. They should be properly trained in smoke procedures.”

But again, he pleads for understanding.

“There are no simulators in Vanuatu where you can practice for smoke in the cabin…. That means you do it in a classroom. You teach them, ‘do this and this and this’, but it’s very different when you say something in a classroom—that’s very different from really doing it in an aircraft.”

I asked him, would you take a plane off the ground if you knew that your cabin crew lacked the training to deal with a smoke event?

“If I knew that beforehand, I would say, ‘My cabin crew has not received proper training, so I consider I’m not fit to fly.

“But how can I know what kind of training they have? I know they are trained by the company and the company has released them and said they are fit to fly.”

Regulatory Inadequacies

The accident report states that Civil Aviation’s oversight of Air Vanuatu’s training and certification practices was ‘inadequate’.

In aviation, the regulatory environment is designed to encourage what’s known as a Just Culture. “You’re not punished because you did a mistake. But they will ask questions if you don’t report it.”

Responsible behaviour is expected and rewarded, and provided mistakes are owned and fixed, they’re not punished. Irresponsible behaviour and hiding mistakes, on the other hand, is cause for concern.

Nonetheless, said Nordal, “there were mistakes made. But nobody died. Nobody got hurt. Which is a positive outcome.”

Captain not to Blame

“I hear that the captain has been fired.” said Nordal. “I don’t agree. Because I am sure that the captain will never make that mistake again. He learned something important here. That alone should not qualify to fire the pilot.

“I’ve seen in other cultures how they fire the pilot for tiny, tiny mistakes. That caused other pilots to be afraid. They are scared of making mistakes. And when you focus on not making mistakes, guess what happens?”

He continued, “I question their decision to fire the captain. Unless there was something else we don’t know about. I think it’s not fair to blame the captain alone, because as the report says, his smoke training was overdue. That goes back to the company. It’s not only one [person] responsible here. The captain made the decisions, but behind him you have a culture and an organisation.”

Many have already called for the captain of flight AV241 to be commended, rather than have his career called into question.

But as the accident report states bluntly at the beginning: Readers should note that the information in AIC reports and recommendations is provided to promote aviation safety. In no case is it intended to imply blame or liability.

The most worrying aspect of this entire episode is that the accident report was not circulated at all in Vanuatu, nor was it discussed. As Nordal underlined repeatedly, if you hide your mistakes, and spend your time worrying about people finding out about them, you not only don’t improve, you create fertile ground to make more of them.

Simply firing the pilot and sweeping the underlying contributing factors under the carpet is a recipe for further disaster. If Air Vanuatu wants to grow as an airline, it has to recognise its deficiencies, own them, and treat them responsibly.

Who would fly on an airline if they thought it was hiding critical safety information from them? The only way we can build confidence is through robust regulatory oversight, and complete transparency when mistakes do happen. Because they inevitably will. And if we don’t learn from them, we are sure to make more.

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