Let’s make Vanuatu the land of ‘getting stuff done’

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post, June 9th 2017

During the week, I was chatting with someone who had recently been working in Papua New Guinea.

She was telling me how some provincial government officials laughed in agreement when they heard PNG referred to as the ‘land of planning and policy’.

It is certainly something I notice about PNG. There are (it seems) weekly announcements of policies, roadmaps and frameworks being launched. All of them require workshops, stakeholder consultations, drafts and revisions.

There is no denying that devoting time, energy and (most importantly) thought to big questions is an important and useful exercise. Questions like, ‘what do we need to grow our economy’, or ‘what skills will our workforce need in the next 20 years?’

Well constructed, evidence based policy can provide very useful guidance to how public money is spent and resources deployed to improve the way things are done in our country.

But a policy document is a means to an end.

It is not an end in itself. I recently reviewed a document in which someone had written ‘this framework achieved…’ My response (after banging my head against a wall) was ‘frameworks do not achieve things, people do’. And there in a nutshell is my concern with an over emphasis on policies, frameworks, roadmaps and so on.

It is too easy to think that developing these things is a primary activity. Rather than a precursor to actually getting stuff done.

Getting stuff done is, of course, not as easy as it sounds.

But it is in the extent to which stuff does or does not get done that the rubber really hits the road when it comes to policy.

If the investment in developing policies does not deliver an appropriate return in stuff getting done then it becomes increasingly hard to justify it.

I think there are a few tricks to getting that return on investment. And we have lots of opportunities in Vanuatu to make use of them (and others) to cultivate a culture of ‘getting stuff done’.

The first is about linkages. Policy documents need to be linked vertically and horizontally. During the recent launch of new policies by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), the Commissioner of Labour commented that these policies need to be linked to the National Sustainable Development Plan.

Quite so. The ‘People’s Plan’ is or should be the foundation document for all policies in Vanuatu, whether developed at ministerial or sectoral level.

Policies such as those launched recently by MOET also need to be linked to a national human resources development strategy. This is something we do not yet have in its fullest form.

It needs to be future focused and include an analysis of the skills we will need in the private sector as well as in government.

It needs to be linked to how technological and financing changes will affect our economy and our country as a whole.

Another important aspect of getting a return on investment when it comes to policy development is translation. A workshop to ‘socialise’ (which is development speak for show and tell) a policy document is nothing like enough. Those who are going to implement the policy (i.e. get stuff done) need to be able to translate it into recognisable tasks and activities.

Are they going to have to change certain procedures, or collect different data or work with different agencies? Or are they going to carry on doing things the same way as before?

It would be silly to think that the impact of a new policy document would or even should be evident overnight.

It takes time for the impact of these things to become apparent. But eventually, someone needs to ask the ‘so what’ question. I ask this question a lot, and it often makes me quite unpopular.

So what if you have a policy or a framework or a roadmap? More importantly: how has that improved your ministry’s ability to deliver services to the population; how has it made your operations more efficient; how has it contributed to improvements in people’s everyday lives?

Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is a place for developing policy and it is an important step, whether at national, provincial, ministerial or departmental level. But spending time and energy developing policies gets you to the starting line. It’s getting stuff done that runs the race.

 

Mining our collective resources – are citizen juries the way to go?

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on June 2nd, 2017.

I hadn’t heard of citizen juries until quite recently, when they were discussed in a podcast I listen to (The Minefield on Radio National/Radio Australia). The name ‘citizen jury’ is a bit confusing because they are not about court cases or dispute resolution as you might think.

They are probably better described as ‘citizen panels’. And they are a mechanism where citizens of a country, or a province or a town, come together to decide on how to address a particular policy issue. It could be something discrete, like whether to build a road or a bridge. Or it might be something bigger like childhood obesity or youth unemployment.

The mechanism works by bringing together an informed group of citizens, selected to represent the overall population of the affected area. The panel isn’t intended to be an alternative decision-making body. Its purpose is to provide recommendations that will influence the relevant decision-makers.

The process includes having access to expertise and knowledge to inform the panel’s deliberations. This might include data provided by the national statistics office, or a presentation by a civil engineer, or an explanation of a relevant government policy by a departmental official.

There are certainly aspects of this approach that would appear to fit very well with the Pacific context. Collective discussions to guide decision-making are a feature of many Pacific societies.

And there is reason to think that this sort of activity is one that people would appreciate. During the development of Vanuatu 2030 (the National Sustainable Development Plan), there were community consultations in each province, which were well supported by all accounts. In 2012, the ‘MP Face to Face’ programme that was facilitated by the Pacific Institute for Public Policy was very well received.

These panels are used in parts of the USA and also in Australia, particularly in the state of Victoria. So there are quite a few resources available to see how other countries have made use of them. There are some key factors that I think are important to think about when developing something like this for a country such as Vanuatu.

The first is that what is expected to result from the panel’s deliberations is a set of recommendations. This means that we would expect more than just a discussion about what people think or their complaints about something or some vague statement like ‘government should do…’ On the other hand, the panel does not have any decision-making function and we need to manage expectations on all sides to ensure that this is clear from the outset. The role of the panel is to influence decision-makers, not replace them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of how a mechanism like this might work is that the panel needs to be representative. Panels need to include members who can represent the viewpoint of all the groups that are affected by the issue under discussion.

This means that there may be people in the room who have views or concerns that differ a lot from those of others. This presents both an opportunity and a risk. The opportunity is that a wider range of knowledge and experience is available to help the panel deliberate. Perhaps more importantly, a process that includes hearing from those with whom we disagree helps make it clear that there will always be trade-offs in decision-making. The risk is that discussions become conflicts and people withdraw from the process because they find it uncomfortable or unproductive.

Elsewhere, panels of this type make use of an expert facilitator to guide the process. This allows for everyone to contribute in ways that are meaningful for them and helpful for the panel as a whole.

The facilitator can also ensure that all the members of the panel are able to participate fully, regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation. This is important to ensure people from groups that might otherwise be left out can take part in these processes.

One of the main concerns about citizen juries that I have is the cost involved. If they are to be used effectively, there will need to be some investment of resources, including time. In the context of how they are used in Victoria, Australia the issue of whether these panels provide value for money has been discussed. In addition to the direct benefits associated with receiving well-informed proposals to guide decision-making, there are other less tangible positives. For example, using a process of this type can create goodwill in the wider community. It also allows for governments and other decision-making bodies to have access to resources, knowledge and expertise that they might not otherwise be able to draw on.

Photo credit: flickr/peter B9

 

River deep, mountain high

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 26th, 2017

Over the last little while, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people in which the issue of geography has played a key part. In particular, how the physical geography of Pacific island countries affects development.

When we think about the ‘context’ of development in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries, we often talk about politics, cultural structures, economic challenges, gaps in capacity and so on. But often the context of the physical terrain in which people are trying to work is overlooked. Until it becomes apparent that it can no longer be disregarded. Because it is there, in all its glory, getting in the way of what we are trying to do.

When I hear stories of how people had to walk for 20 minutes up a mountain to take books to a school or how their project was delayed because a road was washed out and they couldn’t get building supplies to a site I usually respond by saying ‘Good’.

Not that I wish physical hardship, delay and general frustration on people generally. My reasoning for thinking it is good to hear this type of report goes like this:

We often hear (especially from ‘donors’ of all types) that the reason development is slow or non-existent in rural areas is because of corrupt governments, lazy public servants, a lack of capacity, or a combination of all three. But the geographical realities of Vanuatu and many other countries in the Pacific island region mean that even if we had a perfect government and a public service filled with well-qualified and committed people, it would still be hard. Really hard.

Don’t get me wrong, getting rid of corruption and making government systems more efficient and effective will almost certainly makes things easIER. But it won’t make them easy.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the geography, physical terrain and all that goes with it has. It affects the extent to which government can deliver services. It is a key factor in whether businesses can start and grow. It has a big impact on how communities access essential services. It affects planning, costs (hugely), staffing, and so much more.

For people who have never lived or spent much time in rural and remote areas, it can come as a shock just how much of an impact things like rivers, mountains, coastlines and volcanoes can have on getting things done. And that is before you add in the effects of weather. General weather brings its own set of circumstances to deal with and then there are the extra impacts specific events like cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides will have.

There are some indications that technological innovation can assist in overcoming some of the challenges. Vanuatu’s ‘Universal Access Policy’ envisages more than 90% of the population having access to broadband internet by the beginning of next year. Access to internet provides new opportunities in terms of how education, health and other services are delivered in hard to reach areas.

I’ve been at the airport in February and seen the boxes of books the Ministry of Education is trying to get to schools all over the country. It is a time-consuming and very expensive exercise. If resources can be delivered virtually using the internet that could be a real breakthrough.

There are also opportunities for government and donors to partner with private sector operators to overcome challenges of remoteness and difficult terrain.

One of the most important areas of partnership could be around knowledge sharing. If I were going to build a school in a remote area of Vanuatu, I would have whoever has built a shop or a resort in the same location as top of the list of people to talk to.

They will have really useful information about how to get materials to where they are needed. They are likely to know what skills are or are not available in the local area. This sort of knowledge, held in the heads of people who have already done this sort of exercise is worth its weight in gold. Or it should be.

The physical nature of our country is what it is. It is a source of many gifts, which we value greatly. It is also a provider of many challenges.

 

A whole bale of straw men

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 19th, 2017

In the realm of logic and debate, a ‘straw man’ is a very common form of argument. It is a great way of derailing the conversation. It is an argument that gives the impression that it is countering a position put forward by someone else. But in reality it is going against an argument that has not been advanced.

A straw man argument is a great way to distract people from focusing on the actual issues that are under discussion. They can generate a lot of attention about something very insignificant, and lead people to believe that the discussion is about something it is not.

In various online discussions further to the ‘Reclaim the Night’ march on Monday evening, there have several straw men running around. Some of them have been more ‘successful’ than others.

There is the ‘violence against women happens in other countries’ straw man. No one has said that the women of Vanuatu are the only ones in the world to suffer harassment, violence and sexual assault in their homes, at their places of work and on the streets. That argument has not been put forward, so there is no need to counter it. Those who have spent time researching the level of rape is in countries such as Australia or the USA could use their ability to learn about how these issues have been addressed in other countries. There may be lessons we can learn from countries in Africa, Asia or elsewhere about how we can make our country a safer place for women and children.

And then there is the ‘not all men’ straw man argument. ‘Not all men are rapists’, ‘not all men beat their wives’, and ‘not all men commit incest’. Those who marched on Monday night did not and would not claim that all men are rapists or wife beaters or child abusers. This is a straw man, because no one has put forward an argument that all men are these things.

Writing in Slate magazine in 2014, Phil Plait identified a number of reasons why using the ‘not all men’ straw man argument is unhelpful. Number one, we already know that. We know that not every man is a rapist or violent. We don’t need you to tell us that. Number two is that it is a very defensive argument. People who are busy thinking of how to defend themselves can’t listen to the other person properly. Number three, using the ‘not all men’ straw man does not take the conversation forward. It derails or diverts it. No one was marching on Monday evening because they are worried about or frightened of men who are not a problem.

It’s easy to think these arguments are put forward by people that don’t really understand what the argument or discussion is about. That somehow they have missed the point. That might be the case sometimes. But people who actively want to manipulate a discussion and use up people’s thinking on something unimportant will often introduce straw men. Leaving less attention for the important topic, the one that really requires thinking, discussion and, often, action.

Once you know how to identify a straw man, you will see and hear them everywhere. They are sociable creatures and like to hang out where people are talking about things. They used to congregate on the ‘Letters to the Editor’ page. Now, they prefer Facebook.

So keep an eye out for straw man arguments, they are everywhere. It is easy to think that because they are so common and shouted so loudly that they are the biggest and best.

Next time you come across one, in the newspaper, on Facebook or anywhere else, my advice is to strike the match of reason, set fire to the straw man and use it to light your way forward.

 

Lessons to learn

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 12th, 2017.

In the days leading up to the arrival of Cyclone Donna in Vanuatu, I tweeted that anyone who was expecting to assist the government of Vanuatu with a response effort should do some pre-reading.

The recommended reading was a report that was released in February 2017 by the Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE). It is called ‘Humanitarian Assistance in the Pacific: An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Australia’s Response to Cyclone Pam’.

By its nature, this report is quite limited because it looks only at the humanitarian response by Australia. However, it covers all the aspects of this response: the work done by and through the Australian High Commission, military contributions and responses by NGOs.

I was one of the people consulted by the authors of this report when they visited Vanuatu during 2016. Overall, I feel the report does a good job of identifying how disaster response can and should be improved in the future. Although the focus of the report is response by Australia, many of the points that are identified can and should inform future responses by other partners.

The ODE is an independent unit within of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the agency who is responsible for delivery of Australian’s aid programme. The ODE has a reputation for providing robust assessments, including identification of areas where things have gone wrong or not gone as well as they could have done.

The report is available online and the executive summary contains five recommendations for future activities in this area. Notably, in its ‘management response’ DFAT expresses agreement with all of the recommendations.

Some of the suggested improvements intended to progress the recommendations are ones that I have advocated previously. I have certainly observed steps that have been taken to put some of them into practice. But there is more to be done on all sides of the equation.

Recommendation 1 reads:

DFAT SHOULD CONTINUE TO PROGRESS WORK TO SUPPORT NATIONALLY-LED RESPONSES AND LOCALISATION BY

• defining what is meant by localisation and unifying implementing partners around a common understanding of localisation

• identifying in advance of a crisis local, national and regional partners, including private sector and civil society actors, that could contribute effectively to a humanitarian response, as well as mechanisms that could be used to support them in the event of a crisis

• exploring possible options for Pacific crisis response teams.

The first aspect of this recommendation neatly summarises an ongoing issue in this area. It is how to achieve effective coordination within and between sectors. Whether DFAT is able to do the required ‘unifying’ or is the best agency to even attempt such a thing is open to question.

Moving on to the second aspect of this recommendation, this is something that needs to be at the heart of improved disaster responses in Vanuatu and elsewhere in our region. The support mechanisms should include facilitating the participation of appropriate actors, including those from within the private sector, in response activities. This will provide access to a wider range of local knowledge than might otherwise be the case.

Since the passage of Cyclone Pam, DFAT has established a pilot project with the Australian Red Cross. This initiative is working to develop systems and to facilitate more and better contribution by the local private sector to humanitarian responses. I look forward to learning more about how this pilot develops and how the knowledge learned can be shared with other Pacific island countries.

The third aspect of this recommendation echoes some of what was contained in a submission I co-authored with Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos.

The submission was made last year through the public policy process under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism.

Our submission recommended the establishment of a Pacific Disaster Response and Coordination Unit (PDRCU). One of the anticipated functions of this unit was to maintain a database of professionals and organisations that are located within the region whose skills and expertise can be mobilised on an intra-regional basis. This would include contributors from numerous sectors including public servants, the private sector and civil society (including traditional leaders and the churches).

A mechanism of this type would form the basis of Pacific response teams as referenced in the ODE report. This, in turn, allows for the ‘lessons learned’ about preparing for and responding to disasters to remain in our region and contribute to increased local skills and expertise.

As acknowledged in the ODE report, responding to natural disasters is the responsibility of national governments. National leadership needs to be recognised and accepted by all partners. It must be exercised appropriately and responsibly. There are many lessons to learn.

 

National universities – approach with caution

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 5th, 2017

I was in a discussion with a colleague the other day in which mention was made of the Solomon Islands National University, usually called SINU (formerly the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education).

As always happens, I felt my heart sink. I am a great believer in university education. Some of the most actively engaged and most promising students I have taught are Solomon Islanders. But I cannot convince myself that SINU is the best way to provide educational opportunities for the best and brightest in Solomon Islands.

And the same goes for Vanuatu, where the topic of having a national university often comes up. Yes, our young people need opportunities to access tertiary education. But building a national university is not necessarily the answer.

I can understand where this thinking comes from. We have a young population and there are only so many scholarships available for study at overseas institutions. It’s more expensive to study overseas than if you can stay in your own country.

The University of the South Pacific has contributed to pressure for national universities. Although it is a regional university, the majority of its resources are in Fiji.

Twelve member countries own USP but one of them receives a much greater benefit than all of the others. In Vanuatu, we have Emalus Campus, which provides face to face and distance education. Compared to many other USP facilities in the region, ours is actually well served. But even a relatively brief visit to Laucala Campus in Suva should lead to questions being asked about why the resources in Fiji are so much better than those anywhere else in the region. After many years of negotiation, USP recently agreed to upgrade the University centre in Honiara to a campus.

This may have been partly a response to the establishment of SINU by the government of Solomon Islands. In which case it could well be too little, too late.

So, there is definitely more that USP can and should do to serve the whole of the region, which is its mandate. And there is scope for national governments (who are represented on the University’s council) to lobby for more and better services at national level in all of the member countries. A government’s ability to lobby effectively is increased when it is up to date with its financial contributions to the organisation, including payment of students’ fees. Sometimes this is not the case for all of the member countries of USP.

The key issue about university education is that it is (or should be) about quality, not quantity. The best and brightest students deserve and need access to an institution that delivers education to the highest possible standards.

Which makes universities very expensive things indeed. The bricks and mortar are only one small part of the equation. And the chances are that getting a building set up and putting a sign on it that says ‘University’ is possibly the easiest thing to achieve.

But that is only part of the picture. Lecture theatres need to be furnished, science laboratories need to be equipped, and libraries need books and subscriptions to journals. Technical services (electricity, water, air-conditioning, internet) are no longer optional and there needs to be a budget to pay for all of them.

And then you will need staff. A university is only as good as the academic staff it can attract and retain. And an academic programme needs good support staff to look after HR, procurement, payroll and so on. Good people with appropriate qualifications and experience expect (quite rightly) to be appropriately remunerated.

All of these require one thing. And that is a line (or possibly several lines) in the national budget. Not just this year, every year. And that means that governments need to generate the revenue to pay for all of these things. They may have to introduce or increase taxes. They will almost certainly have to charge fees. Is our society’s desire for educational opportunities for our children sufficiently strong that we are prepared to pay for it?

There is political mileage to be made of promising a national university so we should expect to hear more of it from our political leaders. When it comes up in discussion, there are some very important questions to be asked. We owe it to the future generations of our country to be prepared to ask them of ourselves and those who seek to represent us.

Photo credit: The British Mountaineering Council

 

Impact Investing – is it the next big thing?

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 28th, 2017

A recent news item revealed that Tanna Coffee was to benefit from a sizeable investment facilitated by The Difference Incubator (TDi). TDi are brokers for impact investors.

Impact investing is well established in other parts of the world. But it is a relatively new concept in the Pacific island region. It’s something that we are likely to hear more about. It is an area of focus for Pacific Islands Trade and Invest. They are looking at ways to increase this type of investment in our part of the world.

So it’s worth finding out a bit more about what impact investing is. How does it work? What are the opportunities this form of investment provides to business in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific island region? What are the risks involved?

Impact investing is similar to venture capital investment, in terms of where in the business cycle it is most likely to be introduced. The main difference is that impact investors want to see a return that is more than just profit. They are looking to work with businesses that can deliver positive social impacts as well as a financial return.

These social impacts could include environmental protection, improved service delivery in relation to health or education or better livelihood opportunities (including jobs) for previously marginalised groups. Impact investors expect to make a profit but they may be prepared to accept a lower rate of return in exchange for beneficial social impacts. They will expect businesses to be able to measure the impacts of what they do with the investment and report accordingly.

The methods of investment used by impact investors are pretty standard. They are looking to lend money to businesses (to be repaid with interest). Or they are prepared to buy a share of a business, giving them some control and a return by way of a dividend or a share of the profit.

An advantage of this type of investment for Vanuatu and other countries in our region is that this is new money to address local challenges. There are individual investors that work in this way. But increasingly, arrangements of this type are managed through investment funds. This provides an increased level of stability of finance flows.

This type of investment is growing globally. Last year The Age reported that in 2015 a total of AU$15.2 billion was put into impact investing across the world. This was up from AU$14.3 billion the year before. The Pacific island region is a new market for those who manage this type of investing and provides fresh opportunities.

There are some reasons to be cautious. This type of investing is likely to have the most impact if it can be applied to the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector. However, this sector is one where risks are often high and profits are low.

Often businesses in this sector need a lot of support before they are ready to absorb external investment of this type (or any type). One of the key aspects of this type of investment is how the agreed beneficial social impacts are to be measured and reported. This can be challenging for small businesses and if they have to get outside assistance that will come at a cost.

Pacific Islands Trade and Invest are working in this area to position our region as an emerging market for this type of investment. One of the most important things they need to do is educate these investors and their representatives about our region. These investors come with little or no knowledge of Pacific island economics, politics and culture. They need good advice about all of these plus the different legal and regulatory structures that apply across the region.

Businesses that hope to benefit from this type of investment also need to learn. They need to understand what impact investing is and what it is not. For example, it is not aid and it is not a grant. They also need to make sure that their systems and processes are right in order to monitor and report on social impacts in addition to profit and loss.

Governments and policy makers have a role to play. First of all, they need to decide whether this form of investment is one they wish to encourage. If it is, they need to ensure that the regulatory structures and policy settings do not create barriers to impact investors.

The Tanna Coffee investment is the second in our region to have been facilitated by Pacific Islands Trade and Invest. The first was in Solomon Islands, with Kokonut Pacific. As more of these investments are negotiated and then implemented, we will need to invest in learning about them. There will be important experiences to be shared with businesses and investors. This will inform how this type of support for private sector growth can work well in our region.

It may not be the next big thing but it will likely play its part.

Photo credit: netimpact.org

 

Parliamentary committees – good for policy, good for politics

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 21st, 2017

I belong to a club with a very small number of members. I don’t often meet other members of this club and when I do they often look at me in disbelief.

I belong to a small group of people who get very excited about parliamentary committees.

It’s very easy to believe that what parliamentary committees do is very boring. The work can certainly be very technical. It involves close study of proposed legislation, reports and submissions. And the processes used by parliamentary committees are very formal and legalistic.

But the roles that parliamentary committees play in an active and vibrant democracy are far from boring. They perform three very important functions.

First, parliamentary committees are part of the oversight mechanisms that operate in parliamentary democracies. They are expected to pay close attention to bills put forward by government and raise questions and concerns about what the legislation is intended to achieve, and how. One of the most important and potentially powerful committees is the Public Accounts Committee. Its job is to scrutinise how government through ministries, departments and other agencies spends public money.

Secondly, they are often referred to as the ‘workhorses’ of a parliament. It is at the committee stage that the text of parliamentary bills is revised and refined to ensure that it is correct and ready for debate by the full Parliament.

Thirdly, committees are able to liaise with the wider society about proposed legislation. They can invite submissions from civil society organisations, the private sector and academics about the issues that a parliamentary bill is intended to address.

Or rather, that is what parliamentary committees are supposed to do. In Vanuatu, and in most other countries in our region, this system exists on paper but does not function meaningfully in practice.

There are a number of challenges that Pacific parliaments face in making best use of a committee system.

They include having sufficient resources to support committees in their work, ensuring that committee chairs and members understand their roles and how to perform them, and being able to communicate the work that committees do in ways that add value.

Recently, Vanuatu was one of a number of countries from around the Pacific that took part in a seminar convened by the United Nations Development Program.

The seminar provided an opportunity for committee chairs and clerks of parliaments to share their experiences and learn from each other.

One of the objectives was to identify ways in which Pacific parliaments can make more and better use of the committee system. Dyfan Jones is a parliamentary specialist with UNDP and identified a couple of ideas to explore. One is changing the rules to make them more suitable for parliaments with small memberships:

“Some Pacific Parliament have recognized that having a small number of committees meeting regularly and undertaking their work is preferable to having rules that provide for a long list of committees that rarely meet. A number of Pacific Parliaments have been looking at revising their rules to make them more appropriate for smaller legislatures.”

This, in turn, may make it easier to make sufficient resources available to allow the committees that are most useful to work in ways that support the whole of the legislative process.

Those who champion the work of parliamentary committees often point to why they are good for policy. They have the potential to greatly improve the legislative process. This is something that is much needed in democracies where bills can be passed by parliaments with minimal (if any) debate on the floor of the House.

The methodologies used by committees mean that members of different parties can work together to progress meaningful policy objectives. This is markedly different from the confrontational point scoring that characterises interactions in the parliamentary chamber.

The use of parliamentary committees can also be good for politics. On the government side, committee work means that MPs not in cabinet are still able to contribute to important decision-making. Taking part in committee proceedings, including as chair, is a good training ground for new MPs in preparation for them taking on ministerial responsibilities.

On the opposition side, active involvement in the work of parliamentary committees is part of demonstrating an ability to form an alternative government. In Vanuatu there are often very few differences of policy position between government MPs and their opposition counterparts. In committees they can work together to achieve positive policy outcomes.

In many jurisdictions, there is a convention that a member of the Opposition chairs the Public Accounts Committee. This is in recognition of the importance of that body in providing an oversight of public expenditure. The Public Accounts Committee has the ability to be a very powerful check on the exercise of executive power.

In healthy democracies, governments recognise and support the valuable contribution that parliamentary committees can and do make. They make appropriate budgetary allocations to support the work of these committees. They ensure that committee members receive professional development in how to fulfil these roles. They make good use of reports and recommendations that the committees produce.

In Vanuatu, a renewed and enhanced commitment to the use of committees may lead to better policy processes and a better political environment all round.

Photo credit: UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji

 

Australia’s missteps with Pacific media – it’s more than just bad manners

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 14th, 2017

So this week the prime minister of Australia visited Papua New Guinea. It was a very short visit (he was on his way to India).

The relationship between Australia and PNG is a complex and complicated one. Recently, it has not been an easy one so this visit could and should have been a great opportunity.

It seems hard to believe that one very short visit could generate so much controversy. But it did.

Before Prime Minister Turnbull arrived, there were concerns that it was too close to the forthcoming elections in PNG.

While he was there, he and his immigration minister (who was not in PNG) gave out mixed messages about what the long-term future of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus island might be.

In amongst all this, the apparent treatment of members of the PNG media corps is something that merits particular scrutiny.

A senior journalist reported that the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby told her that a press conference at Bomana cemetery was for Australian journalists only and she was turned away from another subsequently.

At a very basic level, this is plain bad manners. It is also a fail at Public Diplomacy 101. But the implications of this go deeper and are much more significant.

First of all, the Australian foreign service has form in this regard. Late last year, when the Australian foreign minister visited Vanuatu members of the local media were given the run around and were not able to be at the official press event.

It sparked an editorial in this newspaper. But it does not appear to have sparked a meaningful discussion about why this is a bad thing and how to make sure it does not happen again.

Australian officials who organise these press events need to think about the context in which they operate. In this country, in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in our region, the role of the media in the development and maintenance of democratic culture is not assured.

I looked recently at the disturbing comments of the prime minister of Tonga about what he thinks the media should or should not do. In PNG, we continue to see reports of journalists being vilified by politicians, threatened and attacked both verbally and physically.

In Vanuatu we can point to numerous instances of politicians treating the media with contempt and seeking to undermine their ability and willingness to ask hard questions or criticise failures of leadership.

Australia is the biggest democracy in our region. We might expect or hope that those who represent this democracy would provide leadership by example. But in this particular area, we have been sorely disappointed.

When Australian political leaders and officials treat our media badly it sends a signal to our politicians that it is OK for them to do so. The remarks of Justin Tkatchenko, the PNG Minister for Sports are telling in this regard.

At the close of Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit he made a reference to the local media having had a ‘rough time’ and then glossed over it with an airy assurance that all can learn from this for next time.

It may be that this is window dressing and behind closed doors Minister Tkatchenko will express his concern about the treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists in strong, possibly undiplomatic terms. Then again it may not be.

Australia is in the process of seeking regional and global support for it to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council. In 2015, Julie Bishop said:

Should we be elected, our focus would be on empowering women and girls, strengthening governance and democratic institutions, promoting freedom, freedom of expression, and advancing human rights for all.

As we all know, actions speak louder than words. And the actions of Australian politicians and diplomats when they visit our region are of particular import.

The role of the media is crucial in the establishment and maintenance of democratic culture.

Our neighbour’s leaders and representatives should use opportunities such as to encourage media professionals to develop their practice. This includes asking difficult questions and holding decision-makers to account. That is the public service they are mandated to perform.

Since the very shabby treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists came to light, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby has issued an apology. It relates to a ‘misunderstanding’ although, as RNZI notes, it is not clear what the nature of this misunderstanding is.

All well and good but an after the fact apology is too little and too late.

 

Let’s get realistic about regionalism

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 7th 2017

Last week I was in Fiji, working on a research project as part of a joint ANU/USP team. For a number of reasons I spent a bit of time thinking and talking about regionalism in the Pacific.

It’s a tricky topic. Some people find it very boring. And if you are allergic to acronyms, regionalism is best avoided that’s for sure. The term ‘regionalism’ can mean different things to different people. For some people it is all about trade issues, others are focused on security and others talk only about pooled services.

But the most common reaction to Pacific regionalism is probably frustration. At the national level, policy makers and politicians say they are frustrated because regional organisations do not offer anything that helps with their domestic agendas. Within the regionalism machinery, officials bemoan the fact that delegations have agendas that are only focused on nationalistic concerns.

 So, should we call the whole thing off? One of the particular characteristics of regionalism in our part of the world is that it is voluntary. There is no grand political bargain such as exists (for now) among the countries that came together to form the European Union. We don’t have a Pacific parliament that can pass laws, which bind member countries. Pacific regionalism is more like a club, whose membership is voluntary.

So if Vanuatu (or any other Pacific island country) doesn’t want to take part in the regionalism project they don’t have to. The officials don’t need to go to meetings, same for the ministers and we don’t need to worry about paying (or not) our subscriptions to various regional agencies and organisations.

But we remain members, we send our officials and ministers to meetings (the Forum Economic Ministers’ Meeting took place in Suva this week) and we contribute to the costs of regionalism and the machinery it has spawned. So if we are going to remain members, how can we change the landscape so that the levels of frustration are reduced and the available opportunities can be better identified and acted upon?

The starting point is information. At the national level, we need to be better informed about what regional organisations and activities mean for us. This needs to go beyond ‘it’s all a waste of time’ to actually learn more about what regional priorities have been decided and how they are being progressed. What is the Framework for Pacific Regionalism? What does Pacific Islands Trade and Invest do? What are the implications of signing up to PACER Plus (or not?)

These are important questions that are significant at the national level as well as regionally. They reflect decisions made by our political leaders and they occupy the time and energy of our officials. If we are going to make sensible decisions about whether to take part in regional activities, we need to have access to information that informs how we answer them. We should expect representatives of regional organisations to be engaging with national media organisations when they visit member countries. We would hope that our national media outlets ask questions of these organisations about what they are doing and why it is important or relevant for Vanuatu to be involved.

In addition, those who represent their countries in regional forums need to have a better understanding of what regional cooperation is. It is not appropriate in all circumstances. But in some situations working together may have something to offer whether in terms of accessing climate finance or sharing the costs of promoting our region as a tourism destination to new markets. Those who take part in regional decision-making need to have a very clear as to what their national position is, there is no doubt about that. In addition they need to develop a sense of where there are more opportunities for everyone by coming together as a region. They need to feed back to organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat what advice is needed to inform this.

There are serious and ongoing concerns about the state of regionalism in the Pacific it is true. And there are plenty of pressing concerns for politicians and policy makers in their own backyards without looking for things to do regionally. But the fact is that we joined the club voluntarily and if we are in it, then we should be looking for opportunities to make the best of it.