10 Nov 2018

Vanuatu's government faces one of its toughest tests yet

1:43 pm on 10 November 2018
Vanuatu's Charlot Salwai.

Vanuatu's Charlot Salwai. Photo: RNZ/Koroi Hawkins

The coalition government in Vanuatu is facing one of its toughest challenges yet, after the ouster of two ministers and increasing speculation of yet another looming motion of no confidence.

Ministers from the Leaders Party, Jotham Napat and Matai Seremaiah, were this week sacked from cabinet, apparently because of fears about the party's growing strength within the coalition.

While the Charlot Salwai-led government has faced ructions before, these removals are the highest-ranked scalps so far.

The news director for the Vanuatu Daily Post, Dan McGarry, said a Facebook messenger group chat, leaked to the Daily Post, showed a number of government MPs disgruntled with the Leaders Party.

It mostly stemmed from the recent Tanna by-election, which was held after former deputy Prime Minister Joe Natuman was convicted and given a suspended sentence for perverting the course of justice.

Most of the coalition parties agreed to not stand someone against the candidate from Mr Natuman's Vanua'aku Pati. But the Leaders Party didn't, and its nominee Jimmy Nipo went on to win by significant margin.

In the wake of this, Mr Salwai and deputy Bob Loughman, who is the one who did the firing, appear to have gone for the nuclear option.

Agriculture Minister, Matai Seremaiah

Matai Seremaiah is one of the members ousted this week. Photo: Vanuatu Govt

Mr McGarry said the Leaders Party's removal could threaten the government's majority if it chooses to sign on to an opposition motion of no-confidence.

"It does actually create a fair degree of instability," said Mr McGarry.

Mr Salwai's government has handily defeated several motions moved against it this term, but "that's not a certainty now you've got half-a-dozen or so MPs who have moved to the other side," Mr McGarry said.

"That's enough to shift the balance in a 52-member parliament."

On Saturday, a group of government MPs involved in the Facebook messenger chat issued a statement saying the two ministers were ousted to protect the government, and that it was them who were trying to sow division.

"The Deputy Prime Minister simply used his powers following a request from a respectable majority in order restore and maintain a stability within Government that our Prime Minister has placed as a high priority in his agenda," it said.

They said Salwai government still commanded an outright majority, as the opposition only had 11 members in its ranks.

So far, opposition leader Ishamel Kalsakau has said he has no current plans to move a motion against the government. And Mr Napat and his party have so far taken the quiet high ground. They've said little apart from thanking Mr Salwai for the time they've had in government and posting pictures to Facebook of various custom reconciliation ceremonies held across the archipelago.

A statue at the entrance to Vanuatu's parliament in the capital, Port Vila.

A statue at the entrance to Vanuatu's parliament in the capital, Port Vila. Photo: RNZI / Jamie Tahana

But things change quickly in Vanuatu politics.

With two weeks until parliament next sits, Mr Kalsakau gave no commitment that he wouldn't move a motion in the future.

In Port Vila, the numbers are always being done; on the back of paper, in the back of kava bars, in the corridors of parliament.

Mr Salwai's government was elected in January 2016 off the back of a political scandal that shook half a government into prison, and as it nears three years in power, it is already one of Vanuatu's longest-serving.

Mr McGarry said the coalition was, in part, formed on a promise of stability, which is what many voters said they wanted in 2016. He added that the developments of the past couple of weeks had already angered locals, many of whom have for years yearned for political stability.

"They've reacted quite negatively to the announcement that these two ministers had been removed," he said. "And not just Leaders Party memnbers, they're people just generically saying 'we wanted a solid government, we wanted it to carry on to the next election and that's not happening'."

"They see a return to the bad old days."

Mr Salwai's government has until 23 November to correct its course and regain its balance as it looks to become the first government to complete a full term since the 1990s.