Update 08:55 VUT 25 January:
A correction to last night’s reporting – GJP has lost 3 sitting MPs, not three of the seats.
The lost seats have replaced by GJP’s six newly-elected MPs for a new party total of 6 MPs, says Graon mo Jastis Pati leader and MP-elect for Port Vila, Ralph Regenvanu.
We apologise for this error. More on this story to follow.
“I think eighty percent of my time will be taken up with cleaning up the mess that’s been left.”
—Minister for Lands redux Ralph Regenvanu speaking on Radio New Zealand International yesterday about the challenges ahead in the portfolio.
The Vanuatu Prime Minister, Sato Kilman, has just resigned.
In an extraordinary move, following Kilman’s resignation, Parliamentary Speaker George Wells closed the sitting of Parliament and would not listen to the demands of the Opposition, after Opposition Leader Edward Natapei moved to have a new prime minister elected immediately, seconded by Ralph Regenvanu. The Speaker announced there would be an extra-ordinary sitting Friday next week. This is unlikely to be readily accepted by the majority ‘opposition’.
The Opposition in Parliament was standing by to take over government this afternoon following its motion of no confidence. The Government threatened to boycott, and had earlier today said it might need a Sunday sitting to advance the no confidence debate, however its Members were in attendance. There was a quorum. In another extraordinary move, Kilman Government Minister of Internal Affairs Toara Daniel crossed the floor to join the Opposition.
Radio Vanuatu News this morning indicated the determination of the Vanua’aku Pati and its allies to have West Papua join the Melanesian Spearhead Group as a full member, should they form a new government today. Opposition Leader Natapei told Radio Australia he would want Indonesia removed as an observer before July.
In other news today, Reserve Bank of Vanuatu Board member Tom Bayer has been removed. Finance Minister Charlot Salwai claims that Bayer has a conflict of interest as he is also an agent of private Vanuatu bank the European Bank, reports VBTC News. The Minister’s decision follows the Act governing the Reserve Bank. Former Finance Minister Carcasses appointed Bayer.
The sailing boat Phocea is ready to depart, and is currently refueling at Port Vila’s main wharf. The self-styled Deputy Commissioner of Maritime Affairs, Guy Benard, says he expects Government will learn that compensation is required by the self-styled owner (or more likely lessee) of Phocea, because of Vanuatu government officials holding the vessel in a manner he sees as equivalent to ‘piracy’. Benard seems to be overlooking the Phocea’s series of fake registrations. Benard must have had similar feelings himself when he arrived in Port Vila, all those years ago, bearing elephant tusks.
Last year over 600 people from China or Hong Kong people achieved special investor status and now do not need a work permit to work in Vanuatu, Port Vila MP Ralph Regenvanu points out on VBTC News this morning. He questions the set-up of the Hong Kong Permanent Residence Visa scheme by VFSC and VIPA. If such people are awarded permanent residence status by Government, says Regenvanu, they could enter Vanuatu to work in shops and on building sites as they won’t need a work permit for any category of employment. Employment in stores and on building sites has previously been reserved for ni-Vanuatu. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Toara Daniel, signed an order in January permitting such work-permit-free employment, and backdated it by more than a year. MP Regenvanu questions why, when the Hong Kong Investment Programme was launched by the Government, was it was not explained that anyone could come and work in Vanuatu, said Regenvanu? The DG of Internal Affairs, George Bogiri (who we thought had been asked to resign by his Minister) said the program was set up because the Prime Minister wanted to raise more revenue due to an expected budgetary shortfall. “What do you really want?” Regenvanu asks the Government. “Are you trying to give a legitimacy to foreigners who have been working against the labour laws since 2011? What about work for ni-Vanuatu who have a legal priority?”
Australian organised crime figure Mick Gatto has been linked to Port Vila online betting agency BetJack, reported the Australian media over the weekend. Gatto is known in Australia as the inspiration for a character in a hit TV series about Melbourne’s criminal underworld, Underbelly. He was charged with the suspected murder of a hitman in 2004 but was acquitted. More background about his recent tax troubles here and here, and his attempts at public relations here. Gatto denies any involvement in BetJack, though as the story we linked to yesterday points out, the secrecy provisions of Vanuatu’s tax haven make Gatto’s claim impossible to verify.
While on the topic of Vanuatu’s tax haven and the kind of people it attracts, from New Zealand comes word of some new arrivals to Port Vila who have skipped out on their NZ tax obligations. “After leaving behind a string of collapsed businesses which owe nearly [NZ]$2.5 million to the New Zealand taxman”, says the New Zealand Herald, Ross Harold Fitches and Christine Angela Fitches appear to have escaped to Port Vila. The couple are on a NZ Govt list of people who are banned from running a company there. We wonder if the Fitches have made any application to VIPA, and if so, if VIPA is aware of their background.
Ten scholarship holders for the University of New Caledonia were refused permission to continue their studies this year when they turned up at the Scholarships Office on 28 January, Daily Post reveals this morning in information from the Vanuatu Anti-Corruption Commission (VACC). The students’ names had already appeared on the list of successful students following 2012 exams. The list, however, was modified by the Minister. VACC sees this as a “direct interference” in their studies and future prospects.
The Director of the Environment Unit, Albert Williams, approves the use of Parliament Park for the proposed convention centre. Meetings on the subject have taken place as far back as 2010, he told Daily Post, and it was agreed another space (other than the park close to Parliament) should be used for festivals and events such as Independence. The mayor of Port Vila has also given his approval to the project and questions MP Ralph Regenvanu’s failure to support it. Those against the new project, including Regenvanu, don’t support it because the project has already been built—It was built at the Le Lagon resort for the ACP/EU Ministerial Summit last year. Those against the proposal question the Vanuatu Government’s ability to maintain a new convention centre, given the Government’s failure to maintain ndependence Park and Korman Stadium. Even Parliament House itself, another ‘gift’ from China, looks like it is not being properly maintained at present.
A committee has met to re-count the votes cast in Santo during last year’s election. This is expected to be completed this week, and the result communicated to the court on 25 January. Lawyers, the principal electoral officer and the Electoral Commission comprise the committee, Radio Vanuatu News says. The news did not make it clear whether this was for Santo Rural or Luganville constituency, both of which are reported to have disputes.
A ministerial-level Chinese police delegation visit is taking place. The unannounced mission has included talks at VANSEC House and a guard-of-honour, VBTC News says today.
Dominique Dinh tells Daily Post today of the extensive planning he has carried out for a new 747 airport for South East Efate. He challenges Government to pick up the project, or he will himself find the investors to carry out the work. Even though the 747 is on its way out. He has enlisted the assistance of Vaturisu President Chief Andrew Kalpoilep and the Secretary General of of Shefa Province, Michel Kalworai. In the past, the Dinh family has been closely allied to Trade Minister Ham Lini of NUP who, last week, directed Shefa and the Vaturisu and land owners to find a site for such an airport following promises he had received from Korean investors. Efate land owners seeking to keep control of the remaining few unleased pieces of their birthright have not been consulted.
Opposition MP Ralph Regenvanu insists that the Prime Minister investigate the transfer of a lease over the Lelema (Lelepa and Mangaliliu) lands in North Efate to developers for just two million vatu, reports Australian media outlets Radio Australia and Yahoo7, plus Radio Vanuatu News this morning. The matter has been in the courts since the chiefs of Mangaliliu and Lelepa discovered the land had been transferred to a Mele man by former Minister of Lands Steven Kalsakau. This lease was flipped to land developers Michel Monvoisin and Ludovic Bolliet just before Christmas.
Daily Post reports today that developer Michel Monvoisin delivered to the newspaper yesterday a consent to transfer document, signed by the present Lands Minister James Bule, showing a transfer fee of twenty million vatu and saying this was the amount paid for the land. The document that we have seen, and published on this website, clearly shows that the figure of Vt 20 million has been crossed out, the modification initialled and replaced with a figure of Vt 2 million.
But the amount paid is beside the point. The main issue is how the interests of the indigenous customary landholders, which the Constitution says the Minister of Lands and his staff have a duty to protect, were pushed aside in favour of moneyed foreigners. And Vt 20 million is still a pittance of a lease premium, considering its size and position.
The Prime Minister’s Office has announced the appointment of the colourful Jeff Joel Patunvanu as the Government’s public relations officer. Patunvanu has a chequered history as a self-styled ‘right-wing freedom fighter’, rabble-rouser, occasional Muslim, dabbler in Judaism and part-time Santo real-estate consultant. Patunvanu’s appointment is an odd choice for the Kilman Government, already suffering from poor credibility, but is in keeping with the general tone of Kilman’s administration to date.
The Efate land grab story we broke on Monday has got international attention — Radio Australia’s current affairs program Pacific Beat broadcast a story about the land grab on their afternoon program today. Here’s the transcript, taken from the Pacific Beat website, where you can also listen to the audio version of the story.
New concerns over loss of traditional land in Vanuatu
Landowners in Vanuatu are asking questions as to why a substantial parcel of traditional land has been handed over to investors, while court action challenging the lease is still underway.
Just before Christmas, Lands Minister James Bule, signed approval for 2300 hectares of prime land overlooking Vanuatu’s only World Heritage Area to be leased by investors with connections in New Caledonia.
Land and Justice Party Leader, Ralph Regenvanu, says the transaction should be investigated.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Land and Justice Party Leader, Ralph Regenvanu, Siobhan McDonnell, from the Australian National University
GARRETT: This latest parcel of land sits high on the hills on the north coast of Efate – Vanuatu’s main island. It overlooks Lelepa Island and the Roi Mata World Heritage Area. For the last 3 years the traditional landowners, the Mangaliliu and Lelepa people, have been been working to protect it for future generations. Ralph Regenvanu, is Leader of Vanuatu’s land and Justice Party.
REGENVANU: It is very dissappointing [sic] to see a Minister like James Bule, who is a senior Minister completely going against the wishes of the custom landonwers which is what, you know, our consitution says, custom landowners are the ones who should have the total rights over their own land.