Faces

Yesterday, the Daily Post reported that former Phoenix Life Science CEO Martin Tindall has been charged in the United States with multiple counts of securities fraud. According to the filings made to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr Tindall is alleged to have coloured well outside the lines, and his actions led to litigation in Vanuatu, in the USA and ultimately to the company distancing itself from him.

Phoenix’s interim CEO is Janelle Marsden. She insists that Martin Tindall’s alleged law-breaking was his own business and nothing at all to do with PLS. But no matter what anyone else in the company did or didn’t do, that’s hard to argue. The company was saddled with at least two lawsuits as a direct result of his behaviour.

More than a few people are asking how this company came to be involved in formulating a major national policy, one which might still overturn the country’s official stance on marijuana, at least in a clinical context.

Several high profile former officials have associated themselves with the project. These are Ni Vanuatu with top credentials, people of unimpeachable character. One can only sympathise with them for being stuck in the middle of this. They certainly played no role in any wrong-doing.

Maybe Phoenix will rise from the ashes, just like the bird of legend.

Maybe, like actual birds, it will stay cooked. Time will tell.

But it raises the question: Why is it that the Government of Vanuatu is continually beset by confidence men and hucksters? Why do we always seem to attract people from the shallow end of the talent pool?

If we’re honest, we have to admit that frontier places often attract missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. And with such a tiny population, we are statistically less likely to excel. In fact, it’s impressive how so few manage to achieve so much.

Objectively, we punch above our weight. We need look no further than our nearest neighbours to see. We’ve weathered the worst and come out okay.

But we do have a knack for attracting crackpots and wannabes. Vanuatu’s short history features an absolute rogue’s gallery of characters who have sidled up to government over the years. The first Phoenix foundation was a US-based libertarian group. According to the CIA, it supported and encouraged the Vemarana revolt on Santo.

For years, Port Vila streets were graced with a garbage truck donated by the notorious Amarendra Nath Ghosh, whose last run in the headlines happened when he swallowed a knife in a vain attempt to forestall his arrest and deportation by German officials. Mr Ghosh was wanted in India for defrauding Indian banks of tens of millions.

The list is very long. Some notorious characters never brushed up against government figures. Some of them did.

But this isn’t being written to cast aspersions on the government. In recent years, the nation has improved remarkably in terms of its ability to withstand corruption, both home-grown and imported. More has been done these last five years than at any other point in the country’s brief history.

But even now, we’re not immune to smooth-talking people treating Vanuatu as a testbed for their own wild ideas.

How do we respond? How do we protect ourselves from cowboys?

Is it even possible? It seems like everyone’s willing to make out, if the price is right. The Australian Financial Review has been reporting for months on a scandal involving the Papua New Guinean government, which appears to have been played like a fiddle by Australian banking executives in its disastrous attempt to buy back an equity stake in its own oil resources.

Even the Australian government appears susceptible. The AFR has also published a string of shocking revelations about the laissez faire attitude that prevailed over Home Affairs’ second largest contract: the notorious Manus island detention facility, which sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars.

Does Vanuatu even have a hope? Of course it does. But it’s clear we need more than laws to withstand corrupting influences, both domestic and imported.

We need to be better at spotting and stopping smooth talkers at home. To this day, not a single AFIC depositor has seen any sign of the money they placed in trust. To say nothing of the storied VPIEF.

And we need to be better at spotting smooth talkers abroad.

Some basic rules apply:

If you find yourself asking why nobody has thought of this great idea before, take a moment. They generally have, and if nobody’s done it yet, it’s often for a good reason.

Do we really need to be a ground-breaker, a trend-setter? Can we even afford to be? Vanuatu’s economy is smaller and more fragile than most. We can’t afford to take the kind of risks we see others taking all the time.

Is that silver bullet really a silver bullet? Or is it just the regular kind, pointed at our own foot? Experience teaches us that there are far more of the second kind.

We can—and must—make rules to stop people from taking advantage of us, and we must punish them when they do. But we also need to mature even more as a country. We need to understand that there’s usually a pretty dark downside to every get rich quick scheme.

And if we absolutely can’t resist the temptation, the least we can do is try to control the risk.

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