When the government of Prime Minister Charlot Salwai filed into Parliament minutes before a scheduled vote on the motion of no confidence tabled last week by the Opposition, the outcome was already clear.
With 31 members lined up on the government side, the outcome—barring any last minute floor-crossing—was predetermined. His government was alive, for the moment at least.
Parliament sat for about 45 minutes yesterday, wrangling over a number of procedural issues. From the time when the motion was first lodged, some members had been claiming that it wasn’t in order, because it lacked the traditional summons.
In the past, motions of no confidence were moved only during Ordinary sessions of Parliament. When the courts ruled that Parliament could meet at any time to debate a No Confidence vote, it became standard practice to deposit both a summons and a motion with the Speaker.
The motion deposited last week with Parliamentary Speaker, Esmon Saimon, was not accompanied by a summons. Mr Saimon reasoned that because Parliament was already sitting, and because the motion was supported by a majority of the members at the time it was submitted, that it was in order and could be debated.
Yesterday, however, the Speaker began the proceedings by asking members who had withdrawn their support for the motion to stand and make their position clear.
The first to speak was MP for Malekula and newly-minted Minister of Health, Jerome Ludvaune. He claimed that he was confused and unclear about the entire issue, and that he had signed without full knowledge of the implications. This claim was met with loud protestations from the Opposition.
Joshua Kalsakau rose to chastise Mr Ludvaune, claiming that he had misled Parliament. Mr Ludvaune, he claimed, had signed the motion in full knowledge and without coercion or deception of any kind.
“I have the photos to prove it,” he exclaimed, brandishing his phone at the gallery, to general laughter.
Minister of Lands Ralph Regenvanu rose quickly to remind Mr Kalsakau of the need for decorum, and asked that he be disciplined for the outburst.
Matters settled soon after, and after MP for Tanna and Government Whip Bob Loughman moved to end debate and ask for a ruling by the Speaker, it became clear that the Opposition would not prevail.
Members voted 31-19 to end debate, and moments later, the Speaker ruled that the motion was not in order, that the absence of a summons was unprecedented, and that because the motion did not enjoy the support of a majority of the members, it should advance no further.
He reminded the Opposition that they were welcome to resubmit the motion in time for the 2nd Ordinary session, due to start next week. Only nine signatures are required for a motion of no confidence to be valid during an Ordinary session of Parliament.
The Speaker ruled that the motion as withdrawn and closed the 2nd Extraordinary session of Parliament shortly before 3pm.
The Daily Post spoke very briefly with some government ministers immediately after the vote. Asked if they had taken steps to address some of the policy issues behind the backbench revolt that had made this motion possible, they retorted that most of these issues were still under consultation and that no firm decision had been made.
Asked what steps if any had been taken to mend fences and address backbenchers’ concerns, they said they would provide a fuller response at a later date.