A sea change in Vanuatu politics?

A sea change in Vanuatu politics?

When people speak of a sea change, they generally intend it in a positive way. But the phrase itself comes from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. It’s in a passage telling a young man that his father has drowned, and that the ocean has transformed him utterly. In other words, he’s never coming back.

Will Joe Natuman be able to come back politically from this conviction? We don’t know yet.

The story of how the Deputy Prime Minister came to be charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice is an important chapter in the annals of governance in Vanuatu. In December of 2014, the Daily Post reported on a letter, dated September 19 of that year, from Prime Minister Joe Natuman to Acting Police Commissioner Aru Maralau, ordering him to cease investigation of CID officers on suspicion of mutiny.

The Prime Minister wrote, “I am strongly reiterating my instruction to you as the Acting Commissioner of Police to stop investigations by the CID officers immediately. My Government is working endlessly to make sure the Vanuatu Police Force is united and the different groupings within the force patiently await a time and date to be set by the Government to carry out the exercise of uniting the Vanuatu Police Force again.”

This order was deemed unlawful and rescinded by Deputy Prime Minister Ham Lini when he was Acting PM during a visit by Joe Natuman to Fiji.

But the Daily Post reported, “The Acting Commissioner however suspended the Police investigators because he claimed the mutiny case was no longer in the public interest and that the officers ignored a ‘lawful order’ from Prime Minister Natuman.”

Two weeks after that story ran, Leader of the Opposition Moana Carcasses filed a criminal complaint against Mr Natuman, alleging a number of crimes, among them conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. In the end, the Public Prosecutor decided that this allegation was justified and began criminal proceedings.

Mr Natuman never denied the facts of the case. He argued however that he was doing the right thing. “I wrote that letter…” he explained in a public statement, “to try and reconcile the two factions within the force and bring unity and harmony to what should be the heart of our security system. Unfortunately [the Police Service] has been seriously compromised and corrupted by politicians.”

Regardless of his motivations, or of the motivation of those who filed the criminal complaint, it is not the role of the political leaders of this—or any—country to meddle with the criminal justice system.

It was political interference that brought the Vanuatu Police to this impasse in the first place. More interference, no matter how well-intentioned, was not the answer.

Joe Natuman says that he acted in good faith, and in what he felt was the national interest. There is no reason to disbelieve him. He has not obscured his role in the affair, nor has he tried to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of others. It was his decision, and he has owned it from the start.

But that means owning the consequences, too. He did that yesterday. The question is, what will he do in Parliament?

If we look at this as the opposite book-end to the 2015 bribery trial, then it is worth asking if this marks the end of an era of ‘Big Man’ politics, where rank has its privileges and responsibilities, and neither is bound so much by the law as by what is politically achievable.

There are some who will argue that these days are not so far in the past as we might want. The glass-half-full crowd, though, will list all the new MPs who have made the running as technocrats rather than relying only on social stature and rank to get them past the post.

 The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But it appears that the country is—for now, at least—moving clearly in a direction where voters value the ability to use the tools of governance over the exercise of unchecked power.

One thing that is certain: Joe Natuman has accepted that he acted outside the law, and that there are consequences to be faced. The entire nation is waiting to see how far he feels these consequences should reach.

On social media, public sentiment was broadly supportive of his decision to plead guilty. While some commenters didn’t hesitate to describe Mr Natuman as a criminal, many expressed respect for his having owned up to the crime. This is quite similar to public reaction to then-Finance Minister Willie Jimmy when he pled guilty to bribery charges.

Can Joe Natuman retain his status as Deputy Prime Minister, or as Member of Parliament? The law doesn’t require that he vacate these positions, but it’s difficult to conceive of a scenario in which he would remain in either post without exposing the government to widespread criticism.

It’s also difficult to imagine how charges under the Leadership Code could be avoided, even if he were to make a unilateral commitment to withdraw from politics.

The question looming over all of this: Whither the Vanua’aku Pati? The founding party of the nation is now facing a deciding moment. A couple of weeks ago, Johnny Koanapo, currently one of its higher-profile members, launched an appeal on social media for former supporters to return to the ideals that founded the country: “I believe people must now seriously consider reclaiming their loyalty to the bigger parties that once walked this road so that we can put this country back on track of stability again. The Vanua’aku Pati is renewing its resolve to take this path. All who left the Party are invited to come back. Vanua’aku Pati Kam bak.”

The Vanua’aku Pati is a key member of the current coalition, and although VP support is not likely to waver, the loss of the Deputy Prime Minister’s post, and the inevitable jostling that would accompany the succession, could have an effect on PM Charlot Salwai’s government.

Going into 2020, though, it seems that this guilty plea has only strengthened perceptions about the fairness of the rule of law, and the importance of electing people who know how to exercise their power within its boundaries.

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