One of the classic left/right distinctions of politics is whether the role of government should be to legislate equality and equitable treatment, or whether to legislate equality of opportunity and allow the community at large to decide how that plays itself out.
The government of the day seems to have landed squarely on the side of legislating equality.
On Thursday, Justice Minister Ronald Warsal announced that the Council of Ministers had agreed to table a constitutional amendment to provide for reserved seats in the national Parliament. The announcement, which took place at an event celebrating Vanuatu National Women’s Day, took his audience utterly by surprise. There was a palpable moment of silence as listeners realised that he had really said what they thought he said.
The silence abruptly ended in spontaneous applause.
The same shocked silence seems to have struck the entire country today. One would expect such an announcement to cause a furore in a society such as ours, which has often struggled with gender-equality and the rights of women. In the little time we’ve had since the announcement, there have indeed been comments both for and against.
This is an argument that does not divide cleanly along gender lines. You’ll see many women decrying reserved seats and many men voicing support for them.
Likewise, religion doesn’t seem to be a defining factor. Pakistan has legislated reserved seats for women in its national assembly, in spite of the many restrictions that some interpretations of Islam place on women.
We’ve given space to Frida Bani-Sam in this newspaper to argue the case for reserved seats, and we welcome any well-reasoned submissions from Pacific islanders against the proposal.
Mr Warsal cited the positive effects of reserving seats for women councillors in our municipalities. The worst that can be said about that experiment is that it did no harm. But no proper study has yet been done that demonstrates what positive effect, if any, it has had.
The very brief statement raised more questions than it answered, frankly. Many of them could have significant economic as well as social impacts.
Will the number of seats in Parliament increase? If they do, will the number of cabinet positions increase too? Remember, the number of ministries is defined as a proportion of the number of seats in total. If that number rises, there are no constitutional reasons not to add some a few more seats to the Council of Ministers conference table.
Will there be quotas assigned to cabinet, too? It’s an unfortunate fact of political life in Vanuatu that if you don’t have a seat in the CoM, you don’t really have a voice in the policy-making process. That’s changed a little with this most recent government, but the problem persists nonetheless.
Will women be elected in the same constituencies as men? The answer isn’t as obvious as it might appear. If we’re going to do it that way, then what is the minimum number of women we can elect and still maintain a proper level of proportionality?
In 2015, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon observed: “There are five countries in the world where not a single woman is represented in Parliament and there are eight countries in the world where not a single woman is a cabinet member.”
No matter where you land on the quota debate, it is an inarguable fact that Vanuatu has to do more—much, much more—to promote women’s voices in national politics.
Thursday’s announcement is really only the beginning of the discussion. There will be a great deal heard on the topic in the coming weeks, and we look forward to a healthy and respectful debate—one which gives equal weight to all arguments, regardless of who makes them.