Once upon a time, if you wanted to tell someone you were traveling on foot, you’d say you were driving G-11.
Back in the days of black and white TV, the government only had ten trucks, plated G-1 to G10.
G-11, therefore, was the People’s Truck, belonging to the MP Blong Rod.
Recently, the number of vehicles has risen into the hundreds. Even as late as December last year, with half a government in jail and the rest of it supposedly in caretaker mode, shiny new ministerial vehicles were bopping around Port Vila roads.
Finally, that number is going down.
Last week, the Council of Ministers approved a series of reforms related to motor vehicle use that will not only save up to a billion vatu over five years, but should go a long way to ending some of the more flagrant abuses of official cars and trucks.
The reform package was put together by Minister of Infrastructure and Public Utilities Jotham Napat.
It includes the installation of GPS tracking devices into all government vehicles, locking up all vehicles outside of normal working hours, and a unified fleet management division.
In a nutshell, this means that when you need a car, you call the pool, you go only where you need to go, you account for any wear & tear or damage, and you return the thing when you’re done.
The announcement promises savings of 200 million vatu each year. That may be a little optimistic, but it’s not entirely unrealistic.
Even pooling fuel use, maintenance contracts and repairs will have a significant effect on the bottom line.
And not to put too fine a point on it, the reduction in the number of family trips to the beach and other excursions will not only cut fuel consumption, it will likely extend the service life of the vehicles as well. Especially if they’re not getting banged up on Mele half-road.
Stopping ad hoc vehicle rentals is another needful step.
There was a time when you could set your electoral calendar by the number of H-plates bombing around the back roads of Efate.
Adding the GPS tracking equipment looks to be a lot easier than many thought at first.
Sources close to the minister claim that it likely won’t run more than 8-10 million to equip the entire fleet.
Some people were seen chuckling at idea of a big screen down at the Fleet Management Division with a live map of every new nakamal and guesthouse in and around Port Vila.
The abuse of so-called ‘G trucks’ is so much a part of our culture of casual corruption that few people can manage anything more than laughing derision at the worst excesses.
Happily, this government is not going to roll over on the issue.
It came as a bit of a surprise, though—even to those involved in developing it—that CoM approved the entire reform package unaltered, and with barely a grumble of complaint about the loss of one of the perennial sources of government largesse.
The government expects to drop the total number of publicly-owned vehicles by a fifth in short order. This too is a welcome measure.
In addition to a short-term moratorium on all vehicle purchases, the reforms state that future acquisitions will only be allowed through the Fleet Management Division, or FMD.
Smaller cars are also mandated. It seems the days of the double-cabin Hilux are numbered. Asco employees better start dusting off their resumes.
Eradicating small-scale, casual corruption such as vehicle abuse has benefits beyond mere cash savings. It not only allows hundreds of millions to be redirected to service delivery, it will help to instill a culture of professionalism and integrity that has been sadly lacking in the public service.
Even well-meaning, hard-working civil servants find it hard to keep their heads up when their colleagues treat the corporate vehicle as their personal property, just another perquisite of office.
As with all government initiatives, though, handsome is as handsome does.
The real test isn’t whether CoM approves; it’s when we notice a sudden absence of G-plates in the Au Bon Marche parking lot on a Saturday.
Nonetheless, we can only applaud the fact that this government has identified a cure for this constant source of petty abuse, made a proper plan, and decided to take meaningful steps to end the problem.
It bears mentioning, though, that ministerial vehicles are exempted from the GPS requirement, and will for the most part not be locked away at the end of the day.
The exception is plausible, given the nature of politics and the need to attend countless functions. But it would still be nice if there were some way to show solidarity across all levels of government.