There are some who will look at 2018 with nothing but rue and regret. For the people of Ambae, exile from their home has torn at the very fabric of their society. A few businesses have thrived, but many have struggled. A few have failed.
It wasn’t all slings and arrows, though. We passed a few milestones, and saw countless examples of people doing their best to make this country more liveable for themselves and for others.
We awoke on New Year’s Day still buzzing with the euphoria of a successful Pacific Mini Games. We were welcomed by a brand-new bouncing baby tax increase. The minimum wage rose, too.
People’s worries were allayed somewhat when founder Barnabas Tabi was finally stood down from running the AFIC show. But the question of who actually is running it remains.
Very little good news has emerged from this sorry tale of hucksterism and misplaced confidence even after a year of state control. A partial audit was released, and the news inside was dire—hundreds of millions lost or unaccounted for. Even more dire was the fact that the picture was partial at best.
An Australian Senator earned fame for all the wrong reasons when she emerged from the party room to announce that China was building ‘roads to nowhere’, an allusion to a pair of rural roads in Malekula and Tanna. Vanuatu reminded the Senator that those roads lead home.
The Australia-funded urban development project lurched along in fits and starts. The designing contractor was quietly led to the exit, leaving several sub-contractors unpaid and wondering if they ever will be.
We stumbled through yet another year without a new international airstrip in Port Vila—and without Air New Zealand, too. The former is moving along, finally. No word on the latter. The kids are starting to worry that the separation might actually be a divorce.
The Opposition claimed in January that Charlot Salwai’s government was on ‘shaky ground’. Despite occasional ructions culminating in his decision to send the Leaders Party into political exile, Mr Salwai remains. And a recent change in the rules concerning motions of no confidence make it more likely, not less, that he will remain until the next election.
On the environmental front, Rosewood slab exports were banned, but an activist group later claimed that illicit trunks were still being cut and shipped on the Minister of Agriculture’s own ship.
Slow food got a second festival and people began thinking a lot more about how to leverage agri-business for fun and profit.
Kava became a world commodity, bringing big money to growers and exporters, and leaving small commercial operators struggling. Many nickel-and-dime nakamals no longer hung a light out, leaving twenty vatu vendors with no one to sell to.
Single-use plastics got banned and most people shook the habit fairly quickly. So quickly that a lot of shop-owners were left literally holding the bags—huge volumes of unused and now unusable plastic containers. More than one bar was seen to be keeping illicit supplies of drinking straws behind the counter. Just tap a shave-and-a-haircut beat on the counter, and the barkeep’ll put a pin in your pina colada.
Joe Natuman took the high road and plead guilty to two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Then he held on to his seat for as long as the courts would let him. The party congress replaced him with Bob Loughman, who somehow resisted the temptation to drop the ‘D’ in his DPM.
Cyclone Hola left the capital untouched, but its effects were felt in the islands. The category 4 storm killed a Pentecost man and injured two others on Malekula. Many islands reported damaged crops, houses and gardens.
Waitress Alice Karis’ boyfriend was found guilty, and her manager was acquitted after another attack on a female colleague ended with her attacker dead.
Vanuatu’s women made sports history with not one, but two medals at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Prince Charles came to visit for a day, and we put on one of the largest kastom dances ever. He arrived as Charles, and left as Mal Menaringmanu, a rare recipient of a traditional chiefly title. He was met at the airport by an envoy of the Prince Philip villages on Tanna, who relayed a private message to his father.
We’d barely got over that when we woke to discover that China was planning to build a military base in Santo—or not. Well, negotiating one. Well, not negotiation as such, but testing the water. Well, perhaps not for a base, exactly, but something military.
Whatever the reality, the pushback was global. Suddenly, Prime Minister Salwai was someone to talk to. After decades of snubbery, an Australian PM finally invited him for a state visit. The UK announced a new High Commission. The Americans came to visit, twice. The Japanese came. Even the Canadians came to poke around.
We tried to broker our newly minted street cred into a win on climate. We got some nice language out of the Pacific Islands Forum, followed by an immediate about-face from Australia’s new PM (they’re still on track to beat us in the Most PMs contest by the end of the decade).
In a plot twist straight out of an Archie comic book, we spurned our other suitors offers to put a ring (road) on it, and signed up for yet another China EXIM loan, this time as an official partner in China’s Belt and Road.
By the end, the economy was lagging badly, and Parliament barely made it over the finish line, leaving nearly the entire reform agenda adrift. That breathless we’re feeling is exhaustion, not anticipation.
Is there any lesson to be taken from all this? Of course. Take a quiet moment, think of your family and friends, and ask yourself: is the country better than it was?
Despite another year of the development two-step matching advances with retreats, we really have got more than we had. It’s fragile, that’s true. But it’s a little less fragile than before.
The problems we’re solving—or not—are at least new ones. Instead of fighting to get our Ministers to govern at all, we’re wishing they would govern a bit less—or at least, a little more gently. That’s a good thing. We’ve got parties with actual agendas, priorities and policies. That’s a major milestone.
And we can finally (finally!!) get from one end of town to the other without raising the liability rate on our insurance policies. Yes, it’s less than half of what was promised. But it’s there, and what did get done, got done mostly right… in the end.
Many of us will be heaving a sigh of relief at the passing of a trying year. Some will be facing the new one with less confidence than they’d like to.
But we get through. Because that’s what we do. We bicker and we bargain and we argue and we moan. And we get through. And we are slowly but surely making things better.