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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Is there a way forward after black tuesday?

Editor's Note: This article was written in response to Dr. George Manimu's letter to the editor which appeared in the Solomon Star on 21/04/06. Dr. Manimu's perspective was that the events that occured on tuesday (18/04/06), stemed out from PM elect Honourable Snyder Rini's arrogance and pride to immediately resign. This article was forwarded to TARD through email by mazulahead@hotmail.com.

By Dr. Transform Aqorau
Honiara
Email: transform.aqorau@ffa.int

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Manimu’s article in last Friday’s Star. It is an excellent article accurately characterising the problems culminating in the rioting. At the same time, we cannot condone the outward display of violence and anti-social behaviour as a means of expressing political views and disagreements. Unfortunately, when people are sick and tired, frustrated and angry at the way politicians behave and govern this country, we cannot blame the people for reacting the way they did. Politicians have now been put on notice that the public will not be idle bystanders to their ineptitude and corruption.

The more important question to ask now is what policy and legislative responses should be put in place by Parliament to avoid the problems we saw last week. There have been a lot of commentaries and analysis especially on Radio New Zealand and Radio Australia on the underlying problems in Solomon Island politics and the probable causes of public frustrations that led to the riots but I have not heard any analysis about what should be done. In this short article I want to offer some possible ideas that could be further explored to address the inherent weaknesses in Solomon Islands politics.

Addressing the fluidity of electioneering and politicking
The electoral laws should be amended so that elections are contested only by political parties and not independent candidates. This would eliminate the uncertainty of individuals standing with no particular political platform and policies to address the economic, social and political problems of Solomon Islands. The counter argument is that political parties have never worked, do not have a strong grass roots base, have no particular ideological leanings, and historically once elected Parliamentarians oscillate from one side of the house to another like flies. My response would be the need for greater political stability so that Solomon Islands can have a secure future should be the overriding public policy concern. It would be better for Solomon Islands to have a grouping within Parliament who already have their policies and strategies in place once elected, rather than have a group who only start to think about their policies and strategies after forming the government. My response would also be that we need to move forward rather than be constrained by the uncertainties of the present system. The idea of electing Parties rather than individuals is certainly not new and can be found in quite a number of countries throughout the Commonwealth. It may be counter argued that Solomon Islanders are not yet ready for election of Parties because of the wantok system, low levels of understanding of government, and the electoral processes. My response is that we need to start somewhere. The suggestion that Solomon Islanders are not sophisticated enough to appreciate a strong party system has two implications. Firstly, Solomon Islanders are not intelligent and flexible enough to understand and accept change. Secondly, it is best that Solomon Islanders be condemned to the same old uncertain, inherently week system that we currently have. Most Solomon Islanders would only be too happy to see change that would realise greater political stability. The key to economic growth and greater social and economic well being is political stability.

Making it unlawful for members to switch parties once elected
Logically it follows that if individuals are to be elected on the basis of their Party affiliation then they should ensure that they remain loyal to the principles, policies and strategies espoused by their Party. Thus, the electoral laws should be amended to make it unlawful for any person who has been elected to Parliament as a member of one Party to then switch to another Party. The counterargument is that it would be hard to discipline Parliamentarians because they are invariably moving anyway and therefore it will not work. My response is that there is an overriding public policy interest to ensure stability, reduce fluidity and tighten discipline in the National Parliament that would necessitate such change. Ensuring that the sanctions and penalties are high would be incentive enough for members not to change Parties after they are elected. The system is applied in some countries in the Commonwealth and could be tried in Solomon Islands as a means of addressing the problem of members frequently crossing the floor creating instability.

Introducing limited preferential voting
The “first past the post system” of voting does not result in a democratically elected representative of the electorate. In the just completed elections, only two members were elected with more than 50 % of the votes casted. The rest of the elected members received less than 50 % of the votes. The election of the Prime Minister on the other hand requires that the winner must obtain at least 51 % of the votes. The electoral laws should be changed to ensure parity in the general principles underpinning the majority required to elect a Prime Minister and members of Parliament. This can be done by introducing limited preferential voting whereby voters have a choice of up to three people. If a candidate receives more than 50 % of the votes casted on first count, he/she wins. However, if no one wins an outright majority, the preferences are then distributed until such time as a candidate gets at least more than 50 % of the votes. The counterargument is that such a system is complicated, will confuse voters, and will take too long to count. My response would be that there is a strong public policy interest to ensure that a truly democratic Parliament is elected which represent the majority of Solomon Islanders. While such a system would not eliminate bribery and vote buying, it would certainly reduce it because voters would at least have more than one choice. The introduction of a limited preferential system can be phased through provincial assembly elections and eventually the national elections. It is instructive to note that the introduction of the one ballot box system generated considerable debate in Parliament. Indeed, there were suggestions that Solomon Islanders were not literate enough to understand the one ballot box system. I think it is a fair observation that such comments were largely generated out of fear that any change in the system might potentially lead to a system that would lesson their chances of winning. I would argue that the underpinning consideration should be the national interest (stability, ensuring elected representatives receive more than 50 % of the votes), rather than the narrow self-centred interest of members of Parliament. The idea is not new and is applied in countries throughout the Commonwealth including the Forum Island Countries. Indeed, in 1995 I made submissions to the Electoral Review Committee to introduce a limited preferential voting system. I reiterated those same sentiments in the Star in 1998.

Illegalising the giving of gifts, money, airfares, assistance, and demand for money six months prior to elections
Election campaigns are becoming more corrupt, involving the exchange of goods and services. Voters have also exacerbated the problem by imposing on the candidates. The tendency for voters to ask candidates for money, sea fare, food, school fees, during the period leading up to the elections have got worse making this election one of the most unclean in terms of the attitudes of the voters and candidates. The movement of supporters from one candidate to another depending on who gives them money is not obvious to the casual observer but is an open secret in the constituencies. There is an overwhelmingly public policy interest to ensure that elections campaigns are conducted cleanly and fairly in a level playing field. To ensure that money, goods and services are not transferred between candidates and voters, and to ensure that voters do not impose undue pressure on candidates by demanding money from them, the provisions on bribery and treatment under the National Parliament Electoral Provisions Act and the Local Government Regulations should be made more specific by proscribing altogether any exchange of money, goods and services, and voter demands six months before the elections. As it is, the current laws require proof that such exchange of goods and services is intended to induce a person to vote. The problem is that it is difficult to differentiate whether the distribution of waters tanks and other forms of assistance a few weeks before the election constitute “development assistance” or “treatment”. I think that perfectly legitimate arguments can be developed either way. The counterargument is that such a law is unduly prohibitive and would consequently prevent members of Parliament providing legitimate assistance to their constituents. My response would be the best form of assistance that members of Parliament can offer is to deliver laws that would enhance the social and economic welfare of people of the Solomon Islands. There is an overriding public policy interest for members of Parliament to actually discharge their duties as Parliamentarians rather than be bankers underwriting school fees, air fares, sea fares, plane charters (list goes on ad infinitum) for their constituents.

Fundamentally, there is a strong public policy interest to ensure that elections become a time when issues affecting the social and economic wellbeing of Solomon Islanders are debated. It should not be a time when greed, graft and cunning of both voters and candidates are manifested. Voters must not use the election campaign period as pretext to milk candidates of whatever little money they have set aside for their campaign. Even with the tight laws in place, it is difficult to control the exchange of goods and services. The prohibitions should therefore be made broader with the scope widened so that it covers just any form of exchange of goods and services six months before the elections.

Finding an alternative way of electing the Prime Minister
It is said that the real politicking starts once the elected members arrive in Honiara to choose the Prime Minister. Indeed, if one has been observing the elections of the Prime Minister since independence, it might be fair to say that elected members have become more immature, irresponsible, childish, irrational, and militant in their approach to the elections of the Prime Minister. It is almost laughable the way that individual members are literally hijacked by the different groups. The members of Parliament may not realise it, but to the members of the public, such behaviour is almost tantamount to lunacy.

Black Tuesday underscores the need to find a more sensible, transparent, accountable, and less divisive way of electing the Prime Minister. The reforms suggested above are a precondition for the proposals for choosing the Prime Minister. A couple of models are offered. Once again, these models are not new and exist within the Commonwealth including the Forum Island Countries. The first alternative would be for the Head of State to invite the leader of the Party or alliance of Parties that command the majority of members of Parliament to form the government. This would immediately address the hanky panky dilly dally that currently occurs. Fundamental to this of course would be the strong representation of Parties in Parliament. The second alternative would be for members of Parliament to nominate two candidates (or such numbers as appropriate) and have them elected by the people of Solomon Islands. The public policy interest is to find a more stable and cohesive way of electing the Prime Minister. This would not necessarily eliminate the need for horse trading, but it would certainly minimise the uncertainties in the present system and ensure a more transparent, accountable and systematically cohesive way of choosing the Prime Minister.

Conclusion
Corruption, graft, cunning, uncertainty etc cannot be totally eradicated. They can however be minimised. The ideas offered above will certainly go a long way towards addressing some of the uncertainties in the current system. I can only say this to those who would oppose change to the current system. Traditions, cultures, and societal values change over time. While laws are intended to be forward looking, they do become outdated, obsolete and inappropriate. That is why they should be changed to reflect how society has transformed. I would argue very strongly that the democratic processes espoused in the 1978 Constitution and the National Elections Provisions Act are outdated and need to be changed. I would also question the moral authority of a democratic process that results in the looting, destruction, and dislocation of the Solomon Islands in a way that has never before seen in the short history of this nation. If members of Parliament are to raise their heads above the ashes, ruins, smoke, and destruction of this nation they must change the laws immediately. Through this public letter, I will leave it to the Honourable Attorney General, Secretary to Cabinet, and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs as the ministry responsible for elections to initiate the process to ensure that the 2010 national elections is conducted through a much more fair and representative system. The test to find out if Parliament is interested to avoid another Black Tuesday is to see whether the proposed legislative changes suggested above will be brought before it over the next four years. Their failure to do so would be a clear demonstration that they do not have the national interests of Solomon Islands at heart.

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