Keep the wheels on, please

A bird’s eye view of the seafront beautification project. Credit: Yorick Nicholls — Daisy the Drone

Yorick Nicholls - Daisy the Drone

It’s worthwhile every now and then to do a bit of a stock-take. Where we are we as a country? How far have we come? Are we headed in the right direction?

If you spent as much time on social media as yours truly, you might find reason to despair that we’ll ever make anything of this country. You might think we’re sinking into a quagmire of intolerance, petty problems, shenanigans and bickering.

Business as usual, some might say.

We’ve got people screaming for the deportation of a judge who did no more than his duty in protecting the integrity, dignity and authority of the court against a rather self-serving protest. We’ve got a small but agitated group of people mistakenly thinking that Vanuatu is turning into a hotbed of jihadist sympathisers. We’ve got countless others parroting conspiracy theories and end-times tomfoolery.

We’ve even got an Opposition spokesman who treads dangerously close to the same lame conspiracy theories peddled by the benighted Mr Trump.

But you know what else we’ve got? A helicopter.

I was listening to the now-familiar chop-chop-chop of the country’s one and only helicopter the other day, and it reminded me in a flash just how much of a miracle it is that we exist at all. This tiny little series of dots in the Pacific somehow manages to operate the political and administrative machinery of an entire nation-state, in spite of having less of everything than every other country in the world.

Except helicopters. We’re all right for helicopters.

There are about 7.4 billion people alive on the Earth at this moment in time. And there are about 56,200 helicopters in the world. That works out to about one helicopter for every 133,000 people. And the population of Vanuatu today is around 289,000.

We can draw two conclusions from this: First, we’re actually near the global average for number of helicopters per capita. Second: statistically speaking, we’re about to get another helicopter.

Jokes aside, we actually are doing moderately well, all things considered. Our natural environment is slowly bouncing back from cyclone Pam. The central market is chock-a-block with produce, albeit overpriced. Our airport is—for sure this time—safe to land on.

We’ve got some fancy new shipping services coming online. Our container handling services are improving, as will throughput capacity when the Lapetasi and Santo projects are done. Tender documents are being prepared for the Bauerfield airport facilities upgrade. The new $30 million Akiriki resort is moving along great guns.

We pulled off the best-organised Fest Napuan ever, and got the rodeo back on the rails. We unveiled a major art installation and an absolutely amazing slow food festival in Tanna.

Heck, we even managed to fill the Conference Centre a couple of times.

And, even though it’s not Christmas yet, the government is rumoured to be allowing wiser heads to prevail. Little birdies are chirping that it’s having the right kind of second thoughts about income tax—you know: the kind like when you do face-plant into the dirt trying to do a wheel-stand on your brand new bike. You dust yourself off, look around to see if anyone saw that, and say, ‘Okay, there might be room for improvement here….’

There are two major acquisitions and a few slightly smaller ones all on the verge of being announced, every one of which promises to do bring about a fair amount of new economic activity. Our local banks are investing heavily in modernisation, and gearing up for

But let’s not go the full Pollyana with this. The number of companies entering receivership is holding steady, according to anecdotal accounts. This means that a lot of companies are just barely hanging on. One very large Ni Vanuatu employer is reportedly on its last legs, and everybody is casting around for ways to save it.

Ni Vanuatu businesses are typically more vulnerable because the owners are expected to carry a heavy financial burden, helping extended family members, tribal affiliates and fellow villagers far more than an expat boss might be expected to do.

The urban development project is causing an increasing number of headaches, each increasingly intense. There are rumblings in the seafront and on the roadsides that things could be managed much, much better.

And we’re hearing rumours about some cabinet members acting beyond their remit. It’s not clear yet whether they’re using their power to settle scores or whether they genuinely don’t understand that a Minister’s role is to make policy, not act as an operational manager. The details will come clear soon, we hope.

Honestly, most of us thought we’d moved past the days when politicians treat their ministerial powers as their own private plaything. We thought we were going to see a more pragmatic, technocratic approach to getting things done.

Let’s hope that’s still the case. Let’s hope the rumblings that we’re hearing are just minor tremors as the powers that be align themselves and learn how to keep the wheels on the truck.

Because last year, the wheels very nearly came off. And they still might.

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