Vanuatu Parliament

Vanuatu's Parliament viewed through the 'pig's tooth' sculpture across the road.

Sources have confirmed to the Daily Post that a draft motion of no confidence is circulating at this time. For months now, at least two senior ministers have rumbling that the Prime Minister needs either to accommodate their views or be prepared for change. A recent CoM decision on tax policy appears to have pushed things over the edge.

Opposition to the proposed tax plan may be based on pretext or principle, depending on who you ask, and who they’re talking about. But it’s clear that the plan is generating enough opposition among the nation’s movers and shakers that it’s creating the very real prospect of a change in government.

That’s not entirely a bad thing. To have a principled difference of opinion on something as fundamental as tax policy is a predictable and acceptable reason for a division. There are competing interests at play, and that means there will be winners and losers.

And if some stakeholders feel their prospective losses will be too great, of course they’re going to pull political levers to try to stop the plan before it becomes policy.

The problem is they’re going about this the wrong way.

Mooting yet another motion of no confidence is neither useful nor safe. We avoid instability for darn good reasons, and they’re just as valid now as they were before. Backroom politics is bad for the nation. It opens the door to bad actors and foreign influence, and it undermines the government’s ability to actually govern.

It also removes the right of the people to be consulted about their own future. These decisions aren’t the MPs’ to make. Nor do they belong to the VCCI, or the ATO, or any single business owner or investor.

These decisions belong to the people of Vanuatu.

Motions of no confidence are a terrible way to change political direction. There’s a reason they’re considered a last resort in other parliamentary democracies.

When motions are the political tool of choice, the Prime Minister and his cabinet members end up spending so much time fending them off that they don’t have time to focus on policy at all. That may appeal to tax opponents, but we’ve got other fish to fry here:

Our airport repairs are wildly behind schedule, more delays could throw us back into economic crisis. Santo’s wharf needs immediate attention. Failure to act will condemn Luganville to further years of economic hardship. And just in case anyone’s forgotten we’ve still got five percent of our population living in tents and temporary shelters.

And in the middle of all this we have a government so divided over tax policy that it’s willing to point the political gun at its own head.

That’s just not good enough. Charlot Salwai may have figured he’d got enough back-benchers locked in to do an end-run around his ministers. He should be able to see now—if he couldn’t before—that this option is a non-starter. Clearly, his backbenchers can be just as easily swayed in the other direction.

There is an easy compromise available to all. As some Members of Parliament have already said, taxation should be an election issue. It would be in any other parliamentary democracy. The parties and candidates should take their plans and proposals to the people and conduct the only consultation that really matters: A general election.

This has a number of benefits:

It buys us time to conduct an independent analysis of the existing proposal. This should have been done at the start, and the government is failing its fiduciary duty if it doesn’t open the plan to expert analysis.

It buys us time to achieve consensus. Everyone knows—and everyone accepts—that here in Vanuatu, it may not be necessary for everyone to agree on everything. But it is essential that no one oppose the thing. The tax plan as it stands fails this test, and fails it badly.

It buys us time to refinance. Countless tax experts, some of them with direct experience in administering Vanuatu’s public funds, have said time and again that the nation has to do something about the unacceptably large number of Chinese EXIM bank loans that are concessional in name only. Why this hasn’t been pursued—not as a last resort, but as a first priority—beggars understanding.

It buys us time to find out what the people of Vanuatu really want. This is not a decision for our leaders to take on their own. They lead with the consent of the people, and this is the people’s decision to make.

It buys us time to find other ways of reducing our spending.

It’s blindingly obvious that there is much, much more waste and inefficiency to be dealt with. Let the government prove to the people that it’s honestly committed to spending responsibly before trying to make the case for spending more of the public’s money.

Then, and only then, take the matter to the campaign trail. Make it the defining issue of the 2020 election. It is right and proper that governments should rise and fall based on tax policy.

From first to last, all MPs need to understand that there’s a right way to politicise this issue, and a wrong way. Right now, we’re doing it the wrong way.

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