I think we can all agree that 2015 was a horrific year for our country. Just as we were catching our breaths and starting to recover from the impacts of Cyclone Pam, we were rocked by a huge corruption scandal. Half a government was convicted of corruption, the then Speaker attempted to pardon himself and others and fourteen MPs went to jail.
We were in rough seas. But we survived. And more than that, we came through the ordeal to find that our country was being held up as a shining example of how to deal with high-level corruption and preserve the rule of law. From colleagues in Nauru, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere I heard the same thing: “I wish we could do that here.”
Through this, the steadfastness of the late President Lonsdale shone. He did not waver in his commitment to defending the rule of law and preserving the unity of our country. He and his staff were under constant pressure from many quarters to pardon those who had abused their country’s trust. He heard their arguments and received their petitions. He and his staff came under enormous pressure. But he was steadfast in his resolve.
That pressure has continued since President Tallis took office. It is regrettable that our Heads of State and those who work in the Office of the President have been subjected to this. It is not something that any of us would choose to endure.
But endurance and steadfastness are exactly what we need now from our Head of State. The power to pardon rests with him and him alone. But if he chooses to exercise that power to pardon those who were convicted at the end of 2015, we will all feel the aftershocks of that decision.
If these people are granted full pardons, they will be eligible to contest the 2020 elections and this is the only reason that pardons are being sought. And the chances are that some of them will be successful and be back in Parliament less than four years since they were convicted. Most of the people concerned have been released from prison on parole. They are back with their families and in their communities. For those who are still in prison, the President has the option to commute their sentences so they can go home.
The Leadership Code is part of the law of our land and it should be respected as such. It operates to bar people such as these former MPs (who have been convicted of serious corruption) from standing for Parliament for ten years. This is as a means of safeguarding our country, our resources, and our future against people who have been proved to be untrustworthy and who may prove to be so again.
This is not about being vindictive. This is not personal. This is not political. This is about recognising that as a democratic country that considers itself governed by the rule of law, we are sometimes going to have to make very difficult choices. This is one of those times. And the reality is that in this instance the President is the one who will make that choice.
There has been much talk of forgiveness, in the context of Vanuatu being a Christian country. I have no problem with people being forgiven. I think it is possible to forgive people even if they haven’t shown much remorse.
As a pastor, the President is very well placed to attend a service of forgiveness and redemption for these former MPs. This is something that will no doubt bring a lot of comfort to them and to their families. He can offer them reassurance that they can take their place in their communities and go on to have useful lives.
The chiefs of the communities in which these people live can support reconciliation and reparation through custom with a view to restoring social cohesion among families and kinship groups.
There are many ways in which these former MPs can seek and be given forgiveness. But that is a far cry from pardoning them and creating a pathway back to positions of trust that need to be protected for all our sakes.
So, as the President takes time to reflect, pray, and consult on this very serious matter I say: forgive yes, pardon no.