Vanuatu Finance Minister John Salong has condemned the Opposition’s demands for the Prime Minister’s resignation, labelling them as “irresponsible” and “unwarranted.”

The controversy centres around the recent voluntary liquidation of Air Vanuatu (Operations) Limited, a move Minister Salong described as a necessary step to address longstanding issues within the airline.

“It is an irresponsible comment from the Opposition, to demand the resignation due to the actions taken to fix a problem. This problem is a long-time issue that started long ago,” said Salong.

According to the Opposition statement, the Leader of Opposition, Member of Parliament for Malekula, Gracia Shadrack, maintained their call for PM Charlot Salwai to resign, noting the current Air Vanuatu crisis has disrupted the tourism sector.

The Opposition said the current PM had four years from 2016 to 2020, a further nine months as Leader of Government Business from 2022 and 2023 in the Ishmael-led Government, and over nine months now as PM to resolve the airline crisis.

“In total he had over six years and yet he did nothing and allowed the cash position of the airline to deteriorate demonstrating both negligence and incompetence as the majority Shareholder of the airline.

“It was during one of this tenure that the Board through the Shareholders got the Council of Ministers (COM) approval of the four A-220 Series Jets valued at USD$80 million each without spare parts or USD$350 million or VT35 billion as noted in the EY Report last week,” the Opposition stated.

In response, Salong said the difficulties faced by Air Vanuatu are not new, highlighting the consistent operational challenges and financial struggles that have plagued the airline.

“For years, we all know that there has been difficulty. Somebody had to make a hard decision, and this hard decision, if you ask a business establishment, they will say this is the best decision ever made,” he told Daily Post.

“You will hear from the private sectors that this is the best decision ever made, and this is what they want the current PM to resign over? Try checking with the population of Vanuatu, what are their thoughts?

“Air Vanuatu Operations Limited has taken us to a stage where the wholesalers of tourism have abandoned Vanuatu as a destination since November last year. I received signals through tourist operators that people are abandoning our country. You are going to see a downturn, and that downturn is because of the inconsistency of Air Vanuatu services.”

The Opposition added the Minister of Finance & Economic Management did not resolve the issue during his 18 months in office. As shareholder, government opted for voluntarily liquidation.

Salong responded as the Minister of Finance who came in during the Government of former PM Ishmael Kalsakau, which is on the 5th of November 2022, he has tried every way possible to get some information on the operation of Air Vanuatu to help them make decisions.

“We requested operational reports that we have never received. Even the Director General of Finance, who has the power to seek information from every State-Owned Enterprise (SOE), has written to Air Vanuatu. However, Air Vanuatu has not produced the financial and operational reports necessary for us as the responsible agency overseeing every SOE. These reports are crucial for making important decisions to address our challenges and foster growth if possible,” Minister Salong said.

“At the moment, I have appointed George Iapson, my First Political Advisor to the board under Willie Daniel, who was the chairman appointed by former PM Kalsakau. They confirmed that they have terminated the appointment of Atu Finau and the previous board, under Sam Firi. However, we cannot obtain any information to make strategic and financial decisions, as there are numerous individuals involved in the company.

The Minister also revealed government did not know there were 441 staff members employed by the airline, since there was no Human Resource report submitted by the airline.

The liquidators, on 12 May, after taking over Air Vanuatu on 09 May provided a report for the first time revealing the number of employees at the national airline.

“Obviously, there is no other way, the only way is for us to go into forced Voluntary Liquidation, since if we have taken any other step, it could be worse than this current situation,” the Finance Minister said.