It was always a big ask to have a referendum on major constitutional changes in the short time frame that was allowed.
We only have to look to our north to see how a similar project is proving challenging in Bougainville in the lead up to the referendum there in October (pushed back from its scheduled date in June).
So it’s not a huge surprise to learn that the referendum on constitutional amendments, that would allow for big changes to our political system, has been deferred. I think it’s unlikely that it will be held before we move to general elections in January of next year.
It would be easy to decry what has happened so far as a waste of time and money because it’s not going to eventuate in an actual vote. And there will be plenty of people who will do that I’m sure. But I think it’s worth taking a broader view of things.
Democracy is a process, a journey. And in today’s world, there are more and more questions about whether democracy is ‘working’ for today’s societies and communities. These are fundamental questions in our country, in countries that are close to us and in those that are further away.
The work that has been done, including consultations, awareness raising and media coverage has provided important opportunities for people to think about what sort of political system is good for Vanuatu.
It’s very easy to find people who will tell you that the constitution needs t be changed. It’s more challenging to find people who have read the constitution and given some thought as to what the implications of any given change might be.
Over the last few months, there have been opportunities for people to do just that. My observations of the consultations and resulting conversations indicate that people have been grappling with some big and important questions. Opening up these conversations and getting these questions onto the table is a good thing of itself. It is part of the process.
Assuming the referendum is not held before the 2020 elections, it means that the structural changes that were expected will not have been made. There will be no legislation to govern the registration of political parties and there will be no new rules about how independent MPs participate in the Parliament, including by changing allegiance part way through a term.
Vanuatu is not the only country grappling with these issues. In Papua New Guinea attempts to control political parties have been found unconstitutional by the courts.
In Solomon Islands, inconsistencies between the Constitution and legislation have undermined the impacts of legislation to reduce the number of candidates standing at election as independents. Elsewhere it is a work in progress, just as it is here. I guess the central tension in all of this is one that we revisit often. We crave political stability and need to work out how to achieve that without sacrificing key democratic principles.
There is a lot to be said for stability, for sure. But only if stability provides a basis for meaningful activity that benefits us all. If stability becomes a vehicle for entrenching self-interest or corruption, then it is part of the problem rather than the solution.
I definitely think there is a lot to be gained by having strengthened political parties in Vanuatu. And there is a place for rules about registration, structure and governance in contributing to that strengthening. I think working with strong parties within a robust regulatory system is part of how we will get women into our parliament. (It’s not the answer but it might be part of the answer).
And there is no doubt that having a large number of independent candidates in elections contributes to a fractured vote. And that, in turn, results in situations where more people didn’t vote for the winner of the election than did.
These are valid concerns about the way our political system operates. They prompt reasonable and important questions about whether we need to make changes, including to the constitution, to make the system better, stronger, and fit for purpose.
And so we can expect to revisit these questions, after next year’s elections. The process of opening up dialogues around these issues is part of how everyone can learn more about how our democracy works and what roles different actors play within it.
Only by keeping these conversations going, will we grow as a democracy. It may take time and energy and it may prove frustrating. But it’s an important process and one we should be willing to take part in.