The lessons of (in)stability

Prime Minister Salwai's cabinet in 2016. Most of the faces remain today.

Much has been made of Australia’s inability to keep their prime ministers intact and in office for more than a couple of years at a time.

Ever since John Howard exited stage left, the country has had almost as many Prime Ministers as we have.

Allow us to offer a few observations about the nature of political instability and the hard lessons learned from it:0

First, we need to understand what it is not. Instability is not necessarily a sign of corruption. A quick survey of Pacific island governments shows that stable governments can be remarkably corrupt, and unstable governments can fight corruption.

Unstable governments are also not undemocratic—at least, not in the way people tend to think. Politicians know they have to take their performance back to the polls. Some of them carve out a constituency of people who like it when they upset the apple cart. In many ways, it’s easier than actually governing.

Unstable governments aren’t caused by a lack of leadership. Generally, they’re the result of too much of it. It would be un-helpful to say that the recent spill is Malcolm Turbull’s fault, and stop our analysis there. The spill happened not because he was unable to lead; it happened because others were unwilling to follow.

Vanuatu’s nearly two-decade run of instability gave the lie to the cynical joke that politicians should be treated like underpants and changed regularly. If anything, it showed that—also like underpants—you shouldn’t constantly be dropping them for every smooth talker who promises to respect you in the morning.

Our instability derived from a few distinct reasons, some shared with Australia, some not. The first source of disunity was the size and scope of people’s daily lives. In an island nation, travel is expensive and until recently communications nigh impossible.

The second major cause of instability was the lack of a unifying vision. Whether positive or negative, a people need something they can agree on if they want to stay together.

Father Walter Lini is known as a great leader. What he was… is a great coalition builder. He was able to stitch together a nationwide political network woven from the twin threads of land and self-determination. And his opposition was able to coalesce from across a much wider gamut by defending those who stood to lose from independence.

This meant that, for as long as the issue was fresh in people’s minds, as long as the battles were still being fought, there would be a solidly binary system in Parliament. The Government would drive the independence agenda; the Opposition would stand up for those whose interests were at risk.

Vanuatu’s political scene began to fragment when vested commercial interests came to terms with the inevitability of being governed by the people themselves, and began to seek accommodation with the government, rather than consorting with their opposition. From that moment on, it became more attractive for MPs to be inside the tent doing as Lyndon Baines Johnson famously instructed, than to be outside in the, er, rain.

But that only led to a bunch of MPs with muddy feet jostling for position in the dry middle.

It was not until the nation found something it could unite around that we had any hope for stability. That was not possible in a landscape dominated by Strong Leaders (their opponents used a different term) who delivered for their fairly tiny constituency. They went to Parliament with a simple mandate: bring home the bacon. They answered to their supporters, not their constituents.

Strong Leaders are the last thing any nation needs. Strong Leaders are combative, uncompromising, ungenerous and frankly, not very nice. When they are few, they take power however they can and hold it at all costs.

When they are many, they won’t be led. Each has his own vision of how things should be. We only needed a half dozen such characters to mess things up utterly for us.

It could be argued that public corruption was the symptom, not the sickness. In the end, we united against Strong Leaders as much as we united against corruption. We ended up jailing several of ours.

(That last sentence was not advice.)

Prime Minister Charlot Salwai, along with key members of his cabinet, are consistently underestimated because of their low-key, no-drama approach to government. For all its shortcomings, this administration has proven remarkably resistant to the kind of nattering distraction that characterised previous governments.

That’s largely because Mr Salwai knows that you don’t lead by storming about, striking two-dimensional poses. You lead by getting people to agree.

It’s up to voters to find candidates who are willing to do that.

Strong Leaders need not apply.

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