The saga over bribery and pardons in Vanuatu has brought out the worst and the best in the Pacific island nation's political-legal class.

Vanuatu's Supreme Court found 14 members of parliament guilty of the criminal charge of bribery on 9 October. Later that day, in flagrant disregard for the rule of law, Speaker Marcellino Pipite, one of those convicted and  who happened also to be Acting President that day, used a provision in the Constitution to pardon himself and the other MPs convicted of bribery charges.


The Vanuatu parliament, Port Vila. (Flickr/Phillip Capper.)

Baldwin Lonsdale, the President of Vanuatu who had earlier declared no-one was above the law, revoked the Speaker's pardons a few days after he returned from his visit to Samoa. This decision, which served to restore some public confidence in the rule of law, was challenged in the courts but Justice Oliver Saksak ruled on 21 October in favour of the President's revocations of the Speaker's pardons.

The sentencing yesterday of the 14 MPs to custodial jail terms of more than two years means they will lose their seats, destroying Prime Minister Sato Kilman's parliamentary majority. By-elections need to be held to replace the MPs but with elections due next year, one Opposition MP has speculated it might be more efficient to dissolve parliament and hold early elections. The convicted MPs will no doubt appeal their sentences so the saga is not quite over yet. Veteran MP and Finance Minister Willie Jimmy received a suspended sentence because he pleaded guilty at the beginning of the hearing.

The bribery charges and convictions exposed on a grand scale the weaknesses in Vanuatu's political system and the flaws of many of its elected politicians.

It is not the first time Vanuatu MPs (including some of those sentenced on 22 October) have been caught up in corruption, fraud or other financial scandals, nor the first time politicians have been convicted and jailed. This has, however, been the largest political corruption case in Vanuatu's history and according to Justice Mary Sey, the MPs are 'the first in Vanuatu to be prosecuted for this offence in your capacity as members of parliament at the time of the offending'.

Vanuatu has a long history of political instability. It is not uncommon for the position of prime minister and most cabinet positions to change hands three or four times during a parliamentary term (elections are held every four years). Indeed, Vanuatu is probably the only country in the region to rival Australia's turnover rate of prime ministers in recent years.

Although Vanuatu has historically had one of the strongest party systems in Melanesia, many voters elect the candidates they believe most capable of delivering cargo to the local community rather than those most capable of doing good for the nation. Opposition MPs keen to occupy the government benches and assume valuable ministerial portfolios regularly move no-confidence motions against the prime minister. Holding cabinet positions offers a much surer way of directing resources to constituents and supporters than trying to influence policy-making or hold the government to account from the opposition backbench.

To Vanuatu's credit, regular changes of government have rarely provoked strong public reactions or the kind of violence seen in neighbouring Solomon Islands. Politicians who lose power in motions of no-confidence almost always launch court challenges and have a very good record of abiding by the court's decisions. As a junior Australian diplomat covering Vanuatu politics in the late 1990s, I quickly gained a good knowledge of Vanuatu's constitution while beating the well-trodden path between the parliament and the Supreme Court buildings. I was frequently in awe of the Chief Justice's patient approach to teaching MPs something they did not know about the constitution or parliamentary standing orders every time they appeared before him.

The developments over the last few weeks have been stunning, even for the jaded citizens of Vanuatu used to their unpredictable national politics. The criminal convictions of a quarter of the nation's parliament and the Speaker's attempts to pardon them are a disaster for the government and damaging for Vanuatu's international image.

But the conviction and sentencing of 14 MPs on bribery charges, the President's statement that no-one is above the law, Justice Mary Sey's statement that bribery is a cancer, and the strong demonstration of the independence of the judiciary are positive signs for Vanuatu over the long term. The rule of law has been upheld and politicians who sought not only personal advantage but to mock Vanuatu's laws are being punished.

The people of Vanuatu have been given a clear message that it is not acceptable for their politicians to cheat them and undermine the rule of law, and that there are serious consequences for those who do. If this helps voters to question the integrity of candidates and demand better behaviour from the people that represent them in parliament, and if it reminds MPs of their duty to uphold the rule of law and to respect the trust placed in them, this is unquestionably a good thing.