‘Small Government’ and the New Government

It was an honour to sit in with a few of our former national leaders during this week’s VBTC-sponsored Public Forum Panel at the Chiefs’ Nakamal. The hot issue of discussion was ‘political instability’.

Prior to the panel, I asked the VBTC why I was invited to be on the panel. The response had to do with my being a former DG and current National Coordinator of Forum 2020. Quite frankly I wasn’t prepared to discuss this very ‘sensitive’ topic.

Just as well, my former Minister and 5-times Prime Minister Vohor whispered a few minutes prior to commencement, ‘you know, of all the political parties today, UMP has gone through the most number of internal conflicts and instability this country has ever known’, and he continued in the form of a question, ‘maybe we need more humility and respect’? I couldn’t agree more.

Wednesday evening this week was an evening of soul-searching and serious reflections on the past 40 years, and it was humbling in a way to see national leaders who had gone through very rough political turmoil speaking and discussing openly what went wrong in the past and what we could do for Vanuatu as we contemplate the next 40 years of our journey as a politically independent nation.

In my closing intervention that evening I made reference to Einstein’s popular statement, that if we keep doing the same things over and over again expecting different results, we are insane.

At 40 years of our political independence we need to bite the bullet and for the sake of ‘national interest’ must do something about this political instability issue. We need to fix it once and for all, leaving self-interests completely aside of the equation. We need to make sacrifices and we need to do that now. But there is one particular thorny phrase politicians hate – the concept of ‘smol gavman’.

On the question of political instability, not only should the blame be levelled at our political leaders. Voters and public servants (servants of the State!) also have a part to play. We have already discussed in detail in a recent article (What If There Were No Members of Parliament?) the issue with voters having to expect too much personal gain from leaders.

During the panel, I shared a bit of my own experience as former DG on the issue of relations between Ministers and DGs/Directors and why it is wrong to say a blunt ‘No’ to a State Minister without giving him Options. This triggered a lively discussion on the subject of ‘smol gavman’ – a term our political leaders have criticised openly in numerous past fora and in the media. But what is ‘smol gavman’?

Small Government

If I may be frank, this phrase largely relates to DGs and Directors and to some extent senior officials in general and the ‘restrictions’ they impose on the path of political leaders. Thus, during the 10th and 11th legislature when the previous government(s) had a hard time getting things done through the ‘normal’ channels, they created the posts of Parliamentary Secretaries (PS) to try and push through a lot of initiatives the Government of the day wanted done.

The PS issue of course landed us in court as part of the motive unfortunately had to do with trying to sustain a stable government via illegal means. We’ve learnt from that mistake. In a way, this was a ‘sacrifice’ our outgoing national leaders were prepared to make in the name of stability. But the wave of development we’ve witnessed over the past four years quite frankly is unprecedented, though at the expense of our national identity (citizenship program / passport sales) and untold external pressure and influence from the ‘far north’.

It appears that the issue of ‘smol gavman’ roots from a conflict between political leaders wanting to implement their party policies and officials attempting to adhere to rules, regulations and policies passed by the very leaders themselves and supported by development partners.

At times, there is also a mixture of this and civil servants playing pure politics at work in favour of the political parties they’re associated with, forgetting though that they are supposed to remain impartial as servants of the State.

During the panel, as the discussion became more interesting the former Minister of Finance recalled being issued a restraining order by his former Director of Finance. That was a rare case of an official standing up to a politician. But the big question still remains, how do we manage political relations at work? Firstly, politicians need to understand and adhere to law. We’ve followed a particular case in the media this week with a former leader not being allowed from contesting the 2020 GE. Secondly, officials need to perhaps be more skillful in how they manage political interests in the workplace, irrespective of who is in control as Minister.

From experience, it is far better to provide scenario ‘Options’ to leaders of the pros and cons, implications, consequences and costs of certain decisions so they themselves can rationally choose those options rather than just saying ‘no’ to them. In my former engagement as entity CEO, Director and more so, DG, I have found this approach to work almost all the time, even to the extent of agreeing to be transferred out of a Government Ministry against my wishes.

Small Government, New Government, political stability and our Future

Tomorrow a new government will walk into the door. Will the Small government syndrome still prevail?

Will we set aside personal political interests for the sake of a better country to implement some serious political reforms, undertake the referendums we need to take, and put our house in order so we can hand over a better system of Governance and less political instability to our children and our future leaders?

Or will we continue repeating history? Maybe we should turn old Vohor’s question into something to seriously think about, ‘…we need more humility and respect’. Founding PM later Lini was spot on when he laid the foundation stone, ‘Respect is Honourable’.

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