The President of Vanuatu, Nikenike Vurobaravu, has emphasised political stability and political reform in his official address at the opening of the 2024 First Ordinary Session of Parliament Wednesday.

He congratulated the Prime Minister, Charlot Salwai, deputy Prime Minister, Matai Seremaiah, all state ministers, and all leaders of all political parties represented in this legislature, and the support of all government backbenchers, who through the processes of democracy enabled the government to function as a government of national unity to ensure political stability in Vanuatu.

The congratulatory message was also extended to the Leader of the Opposition, Gracia Shadrack, and members of the Opposition bloc, in their important role, to ensure, the checks and balances in a democracy.

“Since I last addressed this Honourable House, we have had three PMs and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU). There has been instability within this Honourable House which could have led to a serious situation of political upheaval within our beloved Vanuatu,” he said.

“Our political leaders have come to accept that political instabilities experienced since independence had caused serious disruptions and delays in the achievements of our development goals and objectives.

“They also accepted that while we are busy creating instability and have fighting within our political system and the country over the years, outside forces and interests allegedly with local collaborators have misappropriated many of our important resources and assets. The recent case of Jack Mackerel which the last and current governments have managed to resolve is a case in hand where an overseas company had been acquiring billions of vatu of Vanuatu’s financial share for our quota of jack mackerel in the Pacific for over 20 years. Billions of vatu will now be paid to Vanuatu every year. There are other similar cases involving some other resources and assets of Vanuatu, and I salute the current Government for doing its utmost to resolve these as well.”

The Head of State also touched on the issue of Air Vanuatu.

He stressed, “I am sure everyone is pleased that the current government is relying on its political unity and solidarity to make real hard decisions on restructuring Air Vanuatu, to place it on a profitable pathway towards providing services our people and economy need. Had we been benefiting from these resources and assets in the past we would not be having too many budgetary issues, especially in relation to providing adequate services to our people.”

He continued to commend the current government of national unity, the present opposition group, leaders of all political parties represented in this legislature, and all backbenchers for having supported the political reforms through new legislations that were passed at the last Extraordinary Session of Parliament in 2023, to regulate establishment and functions of political parties, to regulate functions of members of Parliament in Parliament and to provide for a new electoral law. All of which will contribute to more political stability in Vanuatu.

He noted that as part of the political reforms to address instability within the parliament, there is currently a constitutional amendment being put before the people through a national referendum to regulate the movement of political parties and individual MPs within the parliament. The amendments are commonly referred to as Articles 17A and 17B to be inserted into the Constitution if passed by the national referendum.

“I trust all Members of Parliament (MPs) in this 13th Legislature, will continue to do their utmost best to represent a balanced and constructive view on national issues. I trust that you will also discharge your constitutional mandate with integrity and statesmanship,” the President said.

“The aspirations of our people rest heavily, on the work we do in this Honourable House. We have at our disposal, the greatest legislative power in the land, to direct our destiny and transform the dreams and hopes of our people into reality. A reality of the good amenities of life, with a place in it for everyone.

“You have all demonstrated this through your unanimous vote and passage of the legislation that will lead to political reform and stability within our beloved country Vanuatu. Once again, I salute you all for this gesture of national unity and nationalist stand.

“Through the unity that you the representatives of the people of Vanuatu in this legislature have shown in the political reform package and legislation that you have passed or enacted I appeal to all people of our beloved nation, Vanuatu to vote yes to Article 17A and Article 17B to be inserted into our constitution in the upcoming national referendum on 29th May, 2024.”

Responding to the Head of State’s official speech, PM Salwai stated that President Vurobaravu’s remarks reflected the determination to overcome political challenges and drive forward the country’s future development.

Despite the country’s political situation, the head of the government acknowledged the majority of MPs for their efforts to establish a GNU.

He remarked that while it did not go exactly as everyone hoped, it is the option that they have in place.

Salwai also thanked the President for his wisdom and guidance during the political crisis, which eventually led to the formation of a GNU.

He acknowledged the MPs for their support of the democratic process, which shows that the government can work. He said because of this, they were able to pass bills, including the Bill for the Constitutional (Amendment) (Eighth), which would address the political instability.

PM Salwai also thanked the Speaker and Deputy Speakers as well as the Opposition Leader, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and MPs in the Opposition group for the important work that they are undertaking to ensure that democratic values are present.

When managing political stability, it is important too to the administration for the development goals, the PM said.

As MPs, it is their responsibility to create a good environment and platform that promotes and supports the achievement of the country’s development goals.

Regarding the Jack Mackerel issue, the PM mentioned that resolving was not an easy task. He said it required cooperation, commitment, and effort. He acknowledged the government’s contribution, including through former PM Ishmael Kalsakau, which led to the resolution of the case.

Salwai pointed out that political reforms were achieved through teamwork in Parliament, leading to the passing of laws aimed at improving stability. These reforms are important for addressing issues and maintaining stability, showing unity among MPs. This progress reflects our democratic rights as MPs, stressing on the need for balanced perspectives on national matters.

Consultations for proposed amendments are progressing well, with 78 percent coverage across Vanuatu, according to PM Salwai. He mentioned that he is sure people are looking forward to exercising their rights on 29 May.

He also made mention of the case that is now in court and the hearing will be on 27 May, two days prior to the voting day. According to the PM, the Referendum polling date will now depend on the outcome of the court case.

Efforts to improve the parliamentary system and democratic principles are ongoing, with a focus on better organisation and resource allocation. MPs are urged to work together to pass laws outlined in the session.

He acknowledged the development partners for their ongoing support to the government of Vanuatu

With a total of 20 bills set for debate and to be passed, Salwai urged MPs to provide constructive input. He concluded by reminding the MPs to seek wisdom and guidance from God in their duties.

The Leader of Opposition, Gracia Shadrack also made a statement in response to the official address of the Head of State.

He said political instability has always been there since the 1990s and it has its pros and cons when it happens.

MP Shadrack made mention of the proposed amendments that will be voted through the national Referendum, and that the process has been challenged. Shadrack noted that the outcome of this case will be known later this month.

The Opposition Leader announced that as an alternative to the constitutional amendments, his office is also exploring the option of creating a shadow cabinet within the parliament. This initiative will create stability from within parliament, enabling MPs to dedicate time to training, capacity building, and conducting regular checks and balances on the 13 government ministries.

He stressed that the concerns of abuses of natural resources for personal gain must be rooted out and stopped.

Shadrack said he trusts that all MPs will perform their constitutional mandate with integrity and statesmanship.

“Let us not forget that the proposed amendments Articles 17A and 17B have come about because of the calls for unity,” he said. “But we must not use this unity as comfort to benefit our interest, but for the country and its people.”

The Opposition Leader cautioned the MPs that the laws, regulations, and procedures that they have established serve as safeguards, therefore, they must not bypass them or take shortcuts to benefit members of their political groups or friends.