28 Nov 2013

Vanuatu parliament will consider constitutional amendments

5:57 pm on 28 November 2013

This Friday Vanuatu's Parliament is again set to hold an extra ordinary meeting to consider constitutional amendments.

The government's initial focus is a measure to allow dual citizenship to encourage investment.

The executive director of the Port Vila based Pacific Institute of Public Policy, Derek Brien, says for reasons of nationalism and sovereignty there has been historic opposition to dual citizenship.

DEREK BRIEN: I suppose if we look at the primary purpose for protecting citizenship, it should be about protecting ni-Vanuatu citizens. And 30-odd years after independence we're at the stage now where there is a growing diaspora living overseas, many of which live in New Zealand for example, who are required under the constitution to revoke that citizenship if they take out, in this case, New Zealand citizenship. And many do that for employment or education opportunities for their children. So the central debate, I think, that should be around looking at changing the requirements on dual citizenship would be protecting ni-Vanuatu living overseas and their dependants, so they can claim their birthright, their heritage. It seems that the current debate, however, is more centred around facilitating foreign investment - essentially fast-tracking the citizenship process to be able to attract overseas investors.

DON WISEMAN: With very much an eye to Asia, and particularly China.

DB: That's certainly the case. And I think it's a raging debate in Vanuatu as elsewhere in terms of the movement of people. And I suppose looking at the reasons for people wanting access to citizenship like Vanuatu. And I think the conversation is very much centred around that, but the missing part of the debate, the missing part of the national conversation, is how do we protect or how do we include ni-Vanuatu living overseas into the developing story of the country.

DW: If foreigners became citizens easily in this manner, would they have full rights? Would they have voting rights, for instance?

DB: No, my understanding is the proposal they mooted is that it would effectively introduce a new class of citizenship so anyone who took out citizenship under the imposed amendment and subordinate legislation would not get access to the full rights of ni-Vanuatu citizenship. That would include being able to stand for parliament, stand for head of state or vote in the elections.

DW: What chance is there that the Vanuatu electorate will accept it?

DB: In this case it doesn't need to go to the electorate as a referendum, so for a constitutional amendment, unless it is about changing the parliamentary or the electoral system or unless it is about changing the status of the three national languages then a constitutional amendment needs a two-thirds majority vote from the parliament. But it also requires three quarters of sitting MPs to be present in the chamber for that vote to be valid. So the government is looking at trying to get this through with its current members claiming 35, which would be a two-thirds majority - 35 of the 52 MPs. As is always the case when parliament is ready to sit, both government and opposition are always claiming different numbers, but I think the magic number in this case will be getting the core to have a constitutional vote. And that number, I understand, is 39.

DW: Does the public have any comeback at all? If they were against it would it just be a matter of their only option would be to protest or vote that government out subsequently?

DB: Well, that's right. But again in terms of voting someone out the changes can happen within the parliament with the current system that the parliament decides on head of government. So this process has raised this whole issue about the process of changing the constitution, of amending the constitution. It's a significant milestone for any country to go through a constitutional amendment. There are calls that there should be greater public input into it, essentially calling for a referendum process. But the constitution is very clear that a referendum is only held if there are changes that affect the parliamentary or electoral system or the status of the national languages.

DW: There are other issues. There's this question of land reform - the result of the various meetings orchestrated by Ralph Regenvanu around the country and it produced a very different approach to the sale of land or the transfer of land. There has been some opposition to that, though, so that will require a constitutional change. Is that going to happen?

DB: I understand that that may require a number of amendments to the constitution, which, again, we're not clear now whether they're going to be packaged into what's presented to parliament on Friday. But just going back a little bit to the recent discussion around land reform. After the 2006 Land Summit there has been a person called to sit down and tackle the major land issues that are still prevalent. And there's still uncertainty about where it's all going. So there is certainly a mood around land reform. How that land reform is affected is both controversial and unclear. My understanding is, judging from public comments, people still aren't clear on what's being proposed. There are a number of aspects including defining how customary lands is defined. And there is disagreement over whether that's solely through customary lands being held in group ownership or whether there is scope to have individual ownership within customary land ownership. But the other measures that are being proposed are in terms of revising the way land disputes are dealt with, and essentially to look at drawing more entreatment rather than the judicial system and matters of reducing the part of the minister. So there are a whole range of aspects in what's been proposed, and I think parts of it have a general sense of broad support and parts of it involve some disagreement and people having different views, particularly around defining customary land ownership. But, as I say, the devil is in the details, and despite the consultations that have gone on, people are still not entirely clear what's being proposed and why it's being proposed. And I think there is certainly concerns regarding the implementation. While there might be some general broad support for the ideas behind reform [Indistinct]. All of this comes back to the need for informed national conversations around this topic, particularly around land.