After much speculation, many sleepless nights and seemingly endless rumour mongering, the leader of the opposition in Vanuatu , Ham Lini, last week withdrew a motion of no confidence in the government led by Moana Carcasses Kalosil.
The 'no confidence' dance is well rehearsed in Vanuatu politics. All the participants are familiar with the steps, the associated frustrations, the regular hand wringing about political instability and the inevitable return to 'business as usual'.
If we expand the field of view to the wider South Pacific region, examining the use of no-confidence motions contributes to the global debate about democracy and illustrates of the diversity of approaches to democracy in our part of the world. Here, I look at three countries to demonstrate this: Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Tonga.
First, Papua New Guinea, where the use of a 'grace period' to protect governments from motions of no confidence is an established part of the political landscape.
However, since his election in 2012, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has used his overwhelming majority to drive through significant constitutional and legislative changes as to how this device can be used. The grace period for an incoming government has been extended from 18 to 30 months. This is in addition to the grace period leading up to elections, which remains at twelve months. Also, the period of notice required to lodge such a motion has been increased from seven to 30 days.
This effectively means a government is safe from motions of no confidence for a total of 43 out of a possible 60 months (assuming the parliament runs for its full five-year term).
This has a potentially significant effect on the political environment. O'Neill has largely maintained his huge majority in the parliament, even though there is no longer any legal barrier to MPs changing parties and/or crossing the floor. There are a number of reasons for this but one is almost certainly that there is currently no opportunity for the opposition to take power by way of a vote of no confidence. This disincentive for disaffected members of government to cross the floor thus helps maintain the government majority. Whilst there are some signs that this may be changing, it will take more than one or two defections from the government side to have any meaningful impact.
In Vanuatu, there have often been discussions about the need to introduce a similar grace period. However, the necessary constitutional and legislative changes have never been tabled. One reason is that between 1991 and 2013 no government had a sufficient majority to progress the necessary constitutional changes, which require support from two-thirds of the parliament.
It is easy to point to the frequent use of motions of no confidence in Vanuatu as evidence of political instability. It is certainly true that a lot of energy and resources are devoted to keeping governments in place and that this detracts from more policy-focused activities.
However, what is often overlooked is the very 'stable' way in which the state institutions of Vanuatu manage this instability. There is a well worn path between Parliament House and the Supreme Court which has generated an accepted body of jurisprudence providing clear guidance as to how motions of no confidence are to be lodged, debated, passed and defeated (see here for an example from 2012). The fact that successive governments have consistently not only looked to the courts to resolve disputes arising in this sphere but also accepted judicial decisions is a defining feature of democratic engagement and political settlement in Vanuatu.
Until 2010, the people of that country did not directly elect most of those who sat in the Legislative Assembly. The elections of 2010 followed significant constitutional reform designed to make Tonga more democratic. Of the 26 members of the Assembly, 17 are directly elected 'people's representatives' and nine are elected from among the Tongan nobles. So Tonga is experiencing a significant democratic learning curve.
For some, the transition to 'true' democracy remains incomplete. This was illustrated in 2012 when the opposition tried to overturn the government by way of a motion of no confidence. The motion was eventually defeated by a margin of thirteen to eleven.
The protracted exercise (lasting just over three months) highlighted the importance of the constitution, the meaning of democratic representation and the significance of parliamentary processes. These were important not only for the members of the Legislative Assembly but for Tongan society as a whole. It raised questions of what democratic governance could or should actually deliver for the country.
Photo of the PNG parliament by Flickr user j3tdillo.