Vanuatu: No confidence, but in whom?


By Siobhan McDonnell

Just two-and-a-half weeks ago, Vanuatu celebrated its 43rd Independence anniversary. Bands marched around Independence Park in Port Vila, watched by the assembled groups of politicians and VIPs and families dressed in national colours. Children waved the Vanuatu flag. It was much like any other year. But behind the scenes, as the French President flew out of the country after warning against the “new imperialism” in the Pacific, the political machinations of a no confidence vote in the government led by Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau gained momentum.

This vote, however, is unlike others. It is a vote that has potential security implications for Australia – not least how Australia conducts its diplomacy around the creation of future political compacts in the Pacific region.

At issue is Australia’s claim to have signed a “Bilateral Security Agreement” with Prime Minister Kalsakau. While Australia was quick to announce the security deal in December 2022 in various press releases, particularly given other regional developments in Solomon Islands and later in Papua New Guinea, the presentation in Vanuatu has been more muted.

The awkwardness grew in March after details of Australia’s AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal were announced. Having not been consulted beforehand about the submarine purchase in spite of the supposed bilateral security agreement between Australia and Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Council of Ministers, the cabinet that alongside the Prime Minister forms the executive government, sought advice from security specialists about the implications of AUKUS for Vanuatu in the context of the security agreement.

Signing the bilateral agreement with Australia has been specifically listed as one of the reasons for the leadership challenge.

The Kalsakau government subsequently publicly stated that the bilateral security agreement was subject to a parliamentary review process and that concerns had been expressed by various development partners – read China. At issue was Vanuatu’s long-held position of neutrality within the Pacific region.

These issues must now be understood in the context of the motion of no confidence in Kalsakau’s leadership. Signing the bilateral agreement with Australia has been specifically listed as one of the reasons for the leadership challenge. In particular, the motion states that Kalsakau is “compromised” and that the Prime Minister acted to sign the treaty “without the authorisation from the Council of Ministers”. The clear implication from this letter, and one that seems to have gained some support across members of parliament, is that entering into high-level bilateral agreements needs the support of the Council of Ministers and cannot be at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, which will be held on Wednesday, there are clear implications for governing in Vanuatu, and for entering into security agreements in the future.

And there are also implications for Australia, and other development partners. Security agreements that are not carefully negotiated in good faith and following proper processes can have the effect of destabilising governments.

In a country that has already been through two cyclones this year, people need governments to govern. And they need security agreements that meet the requirements of the regionally agreed Boe Declaration that Australia and all Pacific leaders signed up to and that identifies climate change as the greatest security threat that the region faces. The bilateral agreement signed by Kalsakau and the Australian government does not do this. Perhaps it is not, to use a common phrase, “fit for purpose.