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


Telling the policy story

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 1st, 2017

When I talk with people about elections in Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific, there is a lot of concern about how the voting public behaves.

Sometimes this concern is about how people are being told who to vote for by their elders, spouses or chiefs. Sometimes it is about how they are influenced by promises of a job or donations of food, or money.

There are also concerns about the people who stand as candidates in elections.

 People may feel that they are not suitably qualified or don’t have enough experience in other areas.

There is often a concern that they take advantage of voters and manipulate them by making promises they don’t intend to keep.

There is a key missing ingredient in this mix. It is a discussion about policy.

This gap exists on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ side of political engagement.

On the ‘supply’ side, generally speaking, politicians (and would-be politicians) do not talk to the electorate about policy issues.

During election periods, policy platforms are generally not well developed. And then when people are in parliament, including being in government, policy achievements rarely feature in discussions.

In particular, when MPs and ministers visit places outside urban areas, we rarely hear of them talking to the public about policy issues.

There is a lot of discussion about services. Sometimes we hear about how particular communities are receiving services they didn’t have before. Other times we see reports of communities being without services. But we don’t get much indication that MPs and ministers use these visits as a platform to talk about policy achievements.

It’s not that talking about service delivery is not important because it is. But it is also important that policy work is discussed.

In particular, MPs and ministers can use visits to communities to develop greater understanding of how the work of Parliament in progressing policy and passing legislation is connected with providing more and better services. For example, more and more people are now able to make use of mobile phones and the internet.

The provision of these services was made possible by serious policy and legislative work over a long period of time. But we don’t hear it used by politicians as a way of illustrating the relationship between the work of Parliament and things that have a real impact on people’s lives.

On the ‘demand’ side of political engagement, those who are seeking to be elected are rarely called upon to explain or justify policy positions. At campaign meetings it is not common that candidates answer questions from voters. If there are questions, they are almost always about issues related to service delivery.

This is reflected in how elections are covered by the media.

There is no developed culture of asking policy-focused questions of politicians and candidates. For example, where political parties and candidates do put forward policy positions, we do not see them being asked to provide more detail. They are rarely if ever asked to explain what the justification for a particular policy is or how much it is going to cost to implement it.

Similarly, they are not asked about gaps in their policy platforms. During the elections in Vanuatu held last year, only two of the candidates put forward anything about addressing gender-based violence.

This is a really important issue in Vanuatu (as it is in many other Pacific island countries). There is little if any ‘supply’ of policy discussion on this issue from our politicians.

There is some effort on the ‘demand’ side but it is not sustained. Neither does it exist in a broad-based way: there is a lot of demand in some places (e.g. the Vanuatu Women’s Centre) but huge gaps elsewhere. In particular, when members of the media interview MPs or political candidates, this issue is rarely raised.

This is just one example of many discussions about policy that are missing. To fill the gap, there needs to be movement on both sides of the equation.

On the ‘supply’ side our politicians and political parties need to expand their communicating to tell us more about what their long-term vision is and how they intend to bring it about. On the ‘demand’ side, we the voting public need to ask questions that draw out more information about policy achievements and challenges.

In Vanuatu, the next scheduled elections are for 2020. The time to start improving the amount and quality of political engagement on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides is now.


Pacific Predictions: what will 2017 hold for the Pacific?

This item was first published on Devpolicy on January 11th, 2017

Pacific politics will continue to be a source of fascination and concern in 2017. There will be general elections in Papua New Guinea (polling will take place between June 24th and July 8th). In addition to the ever-present concerns about money politics, logistics, cost and security, the economic crisis that country is currently experiencing will also contribute to the prevailing environment. It is always a matter of concern if governments cannot pay their bills and these concerns are exacerbated in election years. Jitteriness was increased recently, when the O’Neill government ‘delayed’ release of the IMF Article IV assessment, which has yet to appear. Another potential flashpoint is the failure (in both Waigani and Canberra) to appropriately resolve the situation in relation to the closure of the Manus refugee-processing centre. Recent violence should be seen as a serious warning as should the increasing frustration (seen most evidently on Twitter: @pontuna2run) of Ron Knight, the current MP for Manus province.

Fiji is scheduled to hold elections during 2018 but the pre-positioning that took place last year will continue during 2017. The major opposition party SODELPA has a ‘back to the future’ leader in former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka and he has called for opposition parties to work together in coalition to unseat the Fiji First government. The electoral system in Fiji militates against independents and, in an attempt to counter this, Roshika Deo (who contested unsuccessfully in 2014) is expected to form a new party to contest.

Further afield, there will be presidential elections in France. The results may have a ripple effect in our region in relation to the finalisation of the Noumea Accords process in New Caledonia and the participation of France in the Pacific Islands Forum, the details of which are yet to become clear.

Constitutional reform is a hot topic in several Pacific island countries. Vanuatu’s attempts to progress a whole raft of measures (largely designed to engender greater political stability) faltered in late 2016. This was because the Salwai government failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to progress legislation further to constitutional reform committee process. Whilst there are certainly elements within the government who will want to progress this if the opportunity arises, it is possible that other issues will become and remain more pressing. Chief among them is Vanuatu’s impending relegation to the Financial Action Task Force’s ‘black list’. The referendum on constitutional reform scheduled to take place concurrently with provincial elections in March is on indefinite hold.

To our north, the Republic of the Marshall Islands will hold its first Constitutional Convention once the 45-person membership has been established. The most significant item for consideration is a proposal to move from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government. Meanwhile, in Samoa, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi is seeking to have the Constitution amended to make the Samoan state Christian, a proposal that has caused concern within the wider society.

During 2016, I suggested that the new logo for the Melanesian Spearhead Group should be the Gordian knot. As we enter a new year, the internal tussles are becoming ever more entrenched. There are several strands to this knot with the issue of membership being the one that is proving the most stubborn to shift. Despite the fact that there was no leaders’ meeting in December, the foreign ministers met in Port Vila to consider the text of membership regulations and guidelines prepared by the group’s Subcommittee on Legal and Institutional Issues. In town at the same time was a large delegation of West Papuans including Benny Wenda and other key members of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua leadership. The MSG leaders’ meeting is now pencilled in for January, to be held in Port Moresby, prompting declarations of disappointment from within the ULMWP. It is hard to see the disappointment lifting any time soon given the proposal to hold the meeting in Papua New Guinea (the ULMWP would prefer that the meeting be held in Port Vila, where they have the most support from government and civil society) and the continuing non-appearance of Fiji’s prime minister at these gatherings – last month in Port Vila he was represented by Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, the former Foreign Minister and current Minister for Defence.

There are some indications that the current chair (Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of Solomon Islands) is looking to use the current impasse over membership as an opportunity to expand the grouping. In relation to activism around the West Papua issue, this is likely to be taken forward at global levels by the Pacific Coalition on West Papua, with Sogavare as its head. Australia has had two indications recently that its ‘nothing to do with us’ stance is wearing thin in Jakarta: the ‘request’ made to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne to caution the leadership of Pacific island countries to stop interference in relation to the West Papua issue and, more recently, the rupture in defence relationships.

More generally, Australia will prepare and publish its first white paper on foreign policy in 14 years, which will complement a new ‘Pacific strategy’ promised by the Prime Minister. We hope to see a detailed and nuanced approach to relationships with the Pacific island region feature prominently in this document. It presents an important opportunity to rectify previous missteps, build on what is working well and send important messages about where our region features in Australian policy thinking on diplomacy, trade, development assistance and, critically for the Pacific, labour mobility.

Tess’s past annual predictions can be found here: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2016.

Photo credit: Flickr/GreensMPs


Pacific Perspectives in 2016

This item was first published on the East Asia Forum on January 6th, 2017

Authored jointly with Matthew Dornan

2016 was a big year for Pacific politics. Vanuatu and Nauru held elections — each in the context of significant concerns about governance. Censorship, deportation of the chief justice and arrests of opposition MPs have led to a serious decline in the credibility of democracy in Nauru in recent years. In Vanuatu, the election this year followed 14 members of parliament having been jailed for corruption in 2015.

Fiji’s international profile reached new highs when it assumed the presidency of the UN General Assembly. But domestically there were concerns raised about detention of opposition figures, a sudden cabinet reshuffle and the impacts of retrospective land legislation.

New Caledonia experienced volatility as it approaches the conclusion of the Noumea Accords process, at which point the population will vote on independence from France.

Economic developments have generally been less exciting, with the exception of PNG where the collapse of commodity prices has contributed to a budget crisis. Pacific island countries recorded modest economic growth averaging almost 3 per cent in 2016 — an improvement on their 2015 performance. Growth rates were volatile in many states, and remittances, aid and income from tourism and fisheries were the most important sources of revenue.

Natural disasters again had significant economic impacts. A number of countries suffered serious droughts, with deaths from famine reported in PNG. In February, Cyclone Winston struck Fiji, causing damage valued at F$2.85 billion (approximately US$1.35 billion) — equivalent to almost 30 per cent of GDP. There were 43 lives were lost and 3360 houses were destroyed. The category four cyclone occurred less than one year after Cyclone Pam (a category five storm) hit Vanuatu, causing damage equivalent to 64 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Pacific island countries continued their prominent advocacy on climate change. The Pacific Small Island Developing States group was a key driver of the 1.5 degree warming target agreed at the COP 21 summit in Paris in late 2015. On the back of this agreement, Pacific island governments pushed in 2016 for the incorporation of ‘loss and damage’ into the international climate change architecture.

They also advocated for better access to adaptation funding — advocacy that led to donor support for accessing the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and which contributed to an innovative strategy that will see Pacific micro-states submit a joint funding proposal to the GCF. Next year, Fiji will co-chair the Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn in November, and will be co-president of the United Nations oceans conference in New York in June.

Tuna fisheries also featured prominently in 2016. The eight Pacific island members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement — who collectively supply half the world’s skipjack tuna — continue to benefit from their establishment of a vessel day scheme, which is a cartel-like arrangement that has led to dramatic increases in revenue for PNA members. In 2016, licensing revenues received by PNA members were around US$400 million, compared to revenues in 2010 of US$64 million.

This success has influenced other agreements. The US-South Pacific Fisheries Treaty collapsed in February when Pacific island countries refused to continue providing US-flagged vessels with access to tuna at discounted prices. Pacific nations and the United States agreed upon a seven-year agreement to replace the existing treaty in December, which better reflects higher prices for accessing tuna fisheries. Pacific island countries also pushed back against proposals made at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission by the European Union and United States, which would have weakened the vessel day scheme.

Regionally, negotiations for the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER Plus) trade agreement between Pacific island countries and Australia and New Zealand proceeded with mixed success. Papua New Guinea announced in August that it would withdraw from the process, and Fiji made a similar statement before deciding to re-join negotiations. Concerns about infant industry protection and most-favoured nation status drove these decisions. This potentially leaves the two biggest island economies outside the treaty.

On a positive note, the expansion of labour mobility opportunities to Pacific islanders in Australia and New Zealand has generated significant goodwill in the region. Remittances were a key source of income for households affected by recent cyclones in both Fiji and Vanuatu.

Political tensions continue to affect regional cooperation in other areas. The dispute is ongoing between Fiji and the Pacific Islands Forum — the region’s pre-eminent political body — with Fiji’s leader maintaining his refusal to attend leaders’ meetings. Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama has said he will attend meetings only when Australia and New Zealand withdraw from the Forum.

Instead, this year’s Forum Leaders’ meeting saw a decision to expand the group by granting full membership status to French Polynesia and New Caledonia — a move that appears to cement France as an established and future Pacific power, and reflects a shift (back) to security as the primary concern of the regional order. It remains to be seen what this will mean for the future of the Pacific Islands Forum, and for (currently lukewarm) Fijian relations with Australia and New Zealand.

Matthew Dornan (Twitter: @mattdornan) is Deputy Director of the Development Policy Centre, and Tess Newton Cain (Twitter: @CainTess) is a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead.


June 2016

Welcome to the wrap for June 2016. Hard to believe there were only 30 days in the month as I seem to have crammed in an awful lot.


It was great to complete a piece of work with the Pacific Leadership Program (PLP), in my capacity as their Knowledge Dissemination Adviser. Drawing on material gathered from interviews with women municipal councillors in Vanuatu, I prepared a discussion paper and a briefing note to enable PLP to share their research and learning with other development partners, policy makers and the world. I had the opportunity to present this material during a seminar held at the Australian National University (listen to the podcast here) and I also talked about it on Pacific Beat.

I enjoyed working with the team at Pacific Advisory on a project to assist the government of Vanuatu in better management of its vehicle fleet. I contributed by way of an opening think piece, recommendations about policy and legislative change, peer review of the bulk of the report and client engagement.

I also undertook a short input with Act for Peace and the Vanuatu Christian Council to assist with the development of a Food Security Checklist. My contribution will assist the project team to develop a high quality tool to facilitate collection of critical information pertaining to disaster preparation and response.

I have a secret love for organising events and so this month I hosted a book launch in Port Vila. It was a sub-launch of The New Pacific Diplomacy and a pre-launch of Pacific Stories 2We had a fabulous evening and you can see some of the photos (more great work by Groovy Banana).

I have done quite a bit of travelling in the later part of this month, to attend conferences. In Canberra I presented to a workshop convened by the Centre for Democratic Institutions. Its aim was to look at evidence based approaches to improve the level of women’s participation in political decision-making in Melanesia. And then hard on the heels of that I travelled to Nadi in Fiji to present a paper to a workshop convened by the United Nations Development Program’s Pacific Office. This was a high-level meeting of MPs, government ministers, speakers of Parliament and others to discuss the relationship between political stability and development in Melanesia.

Given my travel commitments, I have not been able to contribute to Coffee and Controversy as often as I usually do. However, in the middle of the month I joined a panel to discuss parliamentary processes, political maturity and more.

As you can see, it has been a very busy month. Please share this with those you think need to know more about how TNC Pacific Consulting can help them do business in our region.


Resources, regional architecture & leadership: Alf Simpson on some big questions for the Pacific

This item was first published on Devpolicy on April 8th, 2014

Whilst in Brisbane recently, Tess Newton Cain caught up with Alf Simpson, an independent consultant working in the Pacific region (with whom she normally converses via the internet). You can listen to a podcast of their conversation here. But for the highlights of what they discussed, read on…

We started by discussing Alf’s long and distinguished career in the Pacific. Fiji is home for Alf and after completing a degree in geology in New Zealand, he commenced work in the Mineral Resources Department. He subsequently moved into the specialisation of hydro-geology and from there developed a longstanding interest in management of natural resources in the Pacific. He spent nine years with the South Pacific Applied GeoScience Commission (SOPAC), which included a stint as the Director. Since 2004, he has lived in Brisbane and works in the region as an independent consultant.

So I’ve had kind of three phases in my career: one working for a national government, a Pacific island government; two working for a regional organisation working in the Pacific; and now the last ten years working as an external consultant going back into the region. So I’ve seen the region from three different perspectives. Which gives me a fair idea of how things were, how they’ve changed, and I think where things might go. As I said, I’m a bit opinionated, so where it actually goes and where I think it might go may be two different things.

As a result of a review of regional architecture, SOPAC was recently subsumed within theSecretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). Alf argues that whilst there is certainly plenty of need for improving regional organisations, this move is not easy to justify:

I think there were other organisations less effective. SOPAC I think, during my period, after Alexander Downer & Co tried to close us down, we rebuilt. We became focused on better governance… We became the first organisation to actually deliver corporate planning, which everybody takes for granted now… So other organisations followed us. And we moved on. And when I left, the organisation grew even more. Donors, funding, … increased about tenfold. So we weren’t short of donor support. We had great ownership by the countries.

In relation to management of natural resources in the region, Alf reflected that a lack of capacity within the region meant that it was difficult for Pacific countries to make use of resources that may be available:

… the opportunity for the region is still in the marine area. It’s very difficult for a region which doesn’t have basically any capacity, any resources, to do the work. So you have to work in partnership with other countries. And during the ’80s and early ’90s, the level of activity was quite significant. We had countries working in the Pacific, which we don’t see anymore. The British were down here doing mapping. We had the Americans… But of late, this seems to have died away… I’m not too sure how much scientific research is actually going on. And I could be wrong, but I don’t hear. It’s not as active as I think it was 10-20 years ago.

We then moved on to discuss the question of political leadership in the region. Alf commented that the only real criterion for judging the quality of leadership is performance. He queried whether those charged with regional leadership were performing or even judged on their performance with reference to how the lives of all Pacific islanders were affected and improved. He lamented the lack of ‘vision’ for the region:

I also find for a lot of them it’s all menu driven. There’s no vision there. They still they don’t know where they want to take the region. I was kind of laughed out of town at one of the last meetings I attended in early 2004, we had the group going around the Pacific finding out what should go into the Pacific Plan. And I said, you need a vision. And the Pacific is all ocean. So maybe for the next 10-20 years, the Pacific should say, ‘we’re a maritime continent. We want to move in this direction and develop our ocean’. No. They thought it was some kind of joke. But that’s all you have, that’s what you should do. You have to make that bold step. And develop the strategy to get you there.

These comments are reflected elsewhere, including in some of the public submissions made during the 2013 review process.

Going off completely at a tangent, we discussed the role that the Pacific might play in relation to developing radical geo-engineering responses to the impacts of climate change. My question was prompted by a presentation [pdf] made last year by Stephen Howes at an IMF conference in Port Vila. Alf’s response was cautious. The Pacific Ocean is, in his words, the ‘engine room’ of the global climate so it is very important in terms of research and innovation. However, he was concerned that there was not sufficient capacity within the Pacific to undertake this type of work. He made reference to the need for Pacific island countries to partner with others and was very pragmatic about what the region needed to get out of this type of process:

We’re not interested in usually the hard data, whatever. We want the product. We want our managers – our water managers, our fisheries managers, our coastal zone managers – we want them with information so they can make better decisions. And that’s all we want. That’s the type of thing we want.

We concluded our conversation with my challenge to Alf to follow through on his promise at the end of 2013 to adopt a ‘glass half full’ approach in 2014. He maintained he still has a number of months to go and acknowledged that some of what he had said painted a bleak picture. However, he pointed to the review of the Pacific Plan as an opportunity to refocus and restructure the regional architecture with a view to achieving – in a concrete way – positive development outcomes for the people and countries of the region. He ended with a final comment on the importance of leadership:

Leaders need to drive the process. They need to have the vision again. They need to establish what the goals are. And then I think the glass will be more than half full for the Pacific.

Alf Simpson is an independent consultant working on the Pacific region. Prior to his consulting career he spent nine years with the South Pacific Applied GeoScience Commission (SOPAC), which included a stint as the Director.