Dirty politics in Vanuatu
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People in Vanuatu know politics is a dirty business. But it is one thing to know, and another to watch politicians being legally held to account, writes SIOBHAN McDONNELL A fierce political cyclone is sweeping through Vanuatu. Once it passes we will be able to see if the country has been scoured of the deep-seated corruption in government, or if it is business as usual. The stakes are high as key politicians manoeuvre for their careers and to stay out of jail.
Last Friday a landmark judgment in Vanuatu's Supreme Court by Justice Mary Sey found 14 members of parliament, including the acting Prime Minister Moana Carcasses, guilty of corruption. These members of parliament now face up to 10 years in jail. But they are not going to jail without a fight.
There is more to this court case than just the findings of guilt. It is a case that publicly documents how Vanuatu politics operates.
Government instability is the convention in Vanuatu. Political parties are fragmented. Government is formed by party leaders weaving a fragile web of personal and political alliances. Coalitions govern with only slim margins making them vulnerable to challenge. Repeated motions of 'no confidence' mark Vanuatu politics, limiting the capacity of even good governments to govern. Political leaders with ready access to cash can buy the support of members of parliament for motions of 'no confidence' designed to change government.
Friday's Supreme Court decision illustrates the worse side of Vanuatu politics. Government is changed by shady backroom deals, money handed over in the back of buses, blank papers being signed and threats being made. None of this is new, nor is it particularly unique to Vanuatu. Australia, for example, has seen widespread corruption particularly within state politics.
Across Melanesia politics is plagued by politicians manipulating government to progress personal business interests. People in Vanuatu know that politics is a dirty business. But it is one thing to know, and another to watch politicians being legally held to account for bribery and corruption. In this historical decision the usual business of money used to bribe members of parliament to switch allegiances has been held up to the scrutiny of the court and found to be corrupt.
Evidence given in court shows the influence of investors in Vanuatu politics. A major offshore financial sector investor, American businessman Thomas Bayer, was named in the case for alleged complicity in bribery, a charge due to be heard now that the original case has been completed. Bayer's charge relates to the circuitous money trail for the funds amounting to 35 million vatu ($A452,000) used to bribe the members of parliament. While the details are yet to become clear it is alleged that the money trail involves share deals through Bayer's offshore financial sector companies, the proceeds of which appeared through a transaction of land held by Marie Louise Carcasses, wife of Moana Carcasses. Vanuatu's status as a 'tax haven' means real estate transactions are regularly used as a means to launder money received in offshore bank accounts.
In court former prime minister Joe Natuman, who was elected in a parliamentary vote in May 2014, gave evidence of a brief meeting he had with the outgoing prime minister, Carcasses. Carcasses urged Natuman to support a project called 'Real Estate Option' involving the building of a five-star casino and residential development on land owned by Carcasses. The purpose of the development was to bring Chinese investors to Vanuatu, by offering them a combined package of citizenship and real estate. Such schemes have a long history in Vanuatu, and have been a key feature of the recent post-2000 rush to purchase land.
The judgment by Justice Sey challenges political business as usual. In the face of a long-term jail sentence and the loss of their seats in parliament, members of the government have begun manipulating state institutions in their own self-interest. On Sunday the Speaker of parliament and acting president of Vanuatu, Marcellino Pipite, attempted to pardon himself and the other members of government found guilty of corruption. This act appears to contravene the constitution, which states that the president's powers to pardon can only be used after sentencing, not before.
Sentencing by Justice Sey is due to occur on October 22. Member for Port Vila, Ralph Regenvanu, a key member of the opposition, says that ahead of sentencing "the government are trying to deport the justice". He goes on to say in relation to the case that 'people in Vanuatu should stay calm and let the opposition make the legal challenges. Pipite's attempted presidential pardon was an abuse of power under the constitution. He is trying to pervert the course of justice. It doesn't matter what they try those 14 members of parliament will go to jail'. The political winds of change are blowing in Vanuatu. The outcome will potentially have an even greater long-term impact on the country than Tropical Cyclone Pam.
Siobhan McDonnell is a legal anthropologist who is based in the School of Culture, HIstory and Language at ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She was previously the legal advisor to the former Minister of Lands, Ralph Regenvanu.
This article was first published by Faifax Media