Angry meeting at Chiefs’ Nakamal demands Govt keep their hands out of National Provident Fund

The many hundreds of people crammed into the Chiefs’ Nakamal yesterday afternoon were angry and threatening.

The main points repeatedly made were Fund money is our money. It does not belong to the government, the minister, the board of the fund or the manager. Many different people of different islands said it their own way and they accused the Minister, the Board and the management of responsibility for the VNPF’s Vt 156 million financial loss during 2011.

More people were present at the meeting than for the Lands Summit of 2006. There was not even standing room left. All present witnessed the humiliation of Minister Moana Carcasses whose stewardship of the Fund received not even one compliment and was repeatedly criticised during the two hours this journalist was present.

All senior VNPF staff have been suspended on full pay but this did not please many, especially those workers on low wages. The Minister tried to plead the case of the ultimate cost to the Fund being much greater if it was found there was wrongful suspension and the staff had been denied their pay. VNPF members asked why the VNPF Board was not also suspended and the Minister’s answer was that it was a new board, not yet in place for a year. Minister Carcasses has a reputation for preferring his personal friends for positions on boards under his control, as has already been observed on this website. The Chairman of the VNPF Board was present but not required to answer questions, along with the Deputy Prime Minister and Attorney General. A number of DGs were at the meeting and a police presence to prevent the crowd venting their anger physically.

The Deputy Prime Minister introduced Carcasses, but the Finance Minister had to do all the talking and answering, thereby indicating that cabinet government in Vanuatu is presently dead. Each Minister presumably decides policy in his field with his own interests uppermost.

Much hectoring centred around recently ex-TVL staff now employed by VNPF and personal loans they are said to be offering. On salaries of Vt 700,000 a month they may well have a lot of money they can loan out.

Major complaints focused on the age when members have access to their savings. All seemed to want retirement age lowered to 45. One who wanted to start a business in his home island was extremely eloquent and annoyed that he could not take out his own money as he is too young. He kept complaining that it is his money, which, indeed, it is. Although of course the purpose of a fund like the VNPF is to provide money for that person to use once they retire from the workforce and are no longer earning a wage.

Many members want to take their money out of the Fund and abandon it altogether. They want to ask why interest on their money is not shared around. A petition was lodged by one group needing a quick answer. Hilda Lini made a very strong point about board membership, seemingly stacked against member participation, failing to properly take into account members’ interests.

The Minister’s promised Auditor General’s report, however, is going to take a month to complete. Activists lodged a petition giving 48 hours for an answer. Tension will carry over into Parliament at this rate where this is an Amendment Bill for the VNPF Act already on the notice paper—one which is unlikely to take members’ interests into greater account.

The Microfinance Fair, starting today for three days, is more likely to offer VNPF members the opportunity for financial gain than their own savings institution, the Vanuatu National Provident Fund, at least as VNPF is presently governed and run at a loss.