- Melanesia in Review: Issues and Events, 2013Vanuatu
This analysis covers a two-year period—2012 and 2013—that encompasses national elections in late 2012 and the eventual change of government the following year. As 2012 began, however, moves by the Opposition, led by Edward Natapei, to bring down the Kilman-led government had all but ceased, while rivalry within and between political parties increased as individual politicians sought to position themselves in anticipation of the national election, which was expected in October. At the same time, allegations of corruption within the government increased to unprecedented levels related to misuse of funds, shady land deals, questionable dismissals of public service officials, and the unexplained death of the minister of infrastructure and public utilities, Harry Iauko, rumored to be related to the arrival in Port Vila harbor of a mysterious super-luxury yacht, the Phocea, and its detention by the government due to fraudulent ownership documentation.
One of the hottest issues during 2011, which was not completely resolved by the end of that year, was ratification of Vanuatu’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (wto). The government introduced a bill in Parliament in December and, despite opposition by most of the major nongovernmental organizations such as the Malvatumauri (National Council of Chiefs), Chamber of Commerce, Vanuatu Christian Council, and Vanuatu National Workers Union, it passed by a vote of 25 in favor, 20 against (including that of Minister of Justice Ralph Regenvanu), and one abstention (Van Trease 2012). The bill, however, remained unsigned by the president, His Excellency Iolu Johnson Abbil, who had gone overseas for health reasons as the year ended. The acting president (the deputy speaker of Parliament) explained that he could not sign the bill, as the president had left instructions that he would not assent to WTO ratification if it was unconstitutional, which had yet to be determined (vdp, 17 Jan 2012).
According to the Vanuatu Constitution, “when a bill has been passed by Parliament it shall be presented to the President of the Republic who shall assent to it within 2 weeks.” Otherwise, [End Page 524] if the president considers that the bill may be unconstitutional, “he shall refer it to the Supreme Court for its opinion. The bill shall not be promulgated if the Supreme Court considers it inconsistent with a provision of the Constitution” (chapter 4, article 16  and ). On his return to Vanuatu in mid-January, however, the president did not act on the bill, and the government was forced to bring a constitutional case against him. In his judgment, Chief Justice Vincent Lunabek noted that the president had not assented to the bill, nor had he referred a case to the Supreme Court in accordance with article 16 (3) and (4) of the constitution. In response to the government’s case, the president expressed his concern about what he viewed as the “considerable lack of consultation, as expressed by the public before the bill was passed by Parliament.” The president was expressing his disapproval of the bill rather than seeking a judgment on its constitution-ality—in effect, posing the question of “whether or not the president can refuse to assent to a bill.” The chief justice, however, made it clear in his judgment that under the constitution the president did not have the power to refuse to sign a bill—only to refer a constitutional question about the bill to the Supreme Court within two weeks of the bill having been presented to him. The president’s inaction constituted a “failure of omission” on his part under the constitution, and he was, therefore, “invited to assent to the Bill for the Protocol on the Accession of Vanuatu (Ratification) Act No. 19 of 2011 by signing the copies of the Bill” (Supreme Court 2012; vdp, 23 June 2012).
While it took until June 2012 for the issue of Vanuatu’s membership in the World Trade Organization to be completely resolved, there had been a significant political casualty in January following the vote in Parliament the previous December. Having voted against the bill, Ralph Regenvanu was terminated as minister for justice by Prime Minister Kilman...