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.
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.