THIS is a pivotal time in Vanuatu’s history, with major decisions and changes to planned legislation on the agenda that will shape the nation’s future for the good or the bad.
The first issue – and overwhelmingly the biggest negative of the week – was a major meeting over the Work Permit Act. Around 120 business reps attended this meeting, showing the depth of feeling about an act that has already been gazetted but is considered unanimously by the private sector as 100 per cent unworkable. The meeting began with a bombastic government message read to the large group, basically stating that the act was already law and the government could do what they liked.
Many attendees told WW that this effectively killed the mood and hopes of the meeting from the get go, and added to that was the non-attendance by Minister Andrew Napuat that was seen as a real snub. As WW understands it, Mr Napuat was not available for comment or any follow up meetings for the remainder of the week. Instead, Foreign Affairs Minister Ralph Regenvanu fielded questions about the issue and WW asks, why did this minister become involved at all?
Another significant meeting this week was over important trade talks between Vanuatu and New Caledonia which appeared likely to bear fruit within weeks. New Caledonian doors that have been closed for decades are ready to open and Deputy Prime Minister Bob Loughman was thrilled with the vital progress made by mid-week. Once again Ralph Regenvanu intervened, trying to stop the agreement, which is due to signed by the two nation’s leaders in the next few days. Mr Loughman is adamant the agreement will be signed, but the two heavyweights are now in a power struggle over the agreement. This time Ralph is quite entitled to be involved as external trades minister.
But to WW’s inexperienced eye, the trade deal looked like a good one that will advantage many Ni Vans directly. For example Tanna Coffee has been trying to get its product into New Caledonia for more than 20 years and under this agreement it will. As Tanna Coffee is largely a co-operative, any increased sales sees a percentage of the profits go to the growers and therefore their families. Surely those things are wins on the board for Vanuatu.
The third ongoing meeting concerned the new VIPA Act which, unlike the work permit one, has not gone before the parliament yet. Members of the private sector team have told WW that the co-operation between their group and the VIPA group is totally remarkable. One business veteran said it was the best he had encountered in 40 years in Vanuatu. The end result appears to be a new act that will serve both the private and government sectors well and be a real benefit to the country.
See, it can be done.
WW is 120 per cent behind the significant increase in a focus on tourism as the major lifeblood of the nation. It has only taken almost 40 years for the vatu to drop that this is where the bigfala economic focus must always be placed.
So let’s start with Fiji – our main tourism rival, which is streets ahead of us in every way at this stage, especially in numbers. For starters, the larger numbers of tourists crossing their threshold means they are basically cheaper across the board than Vanuatu. And that is unlikely to change any time soon.
They already have a thriving tourist business with Asia via direct flights plus direct flights to and from the US. This gives them a major advantage that will take some years to peg back. But WW thinks we can start by looking at some small things that can be fixed immediately.
One thing that stands out is the comparison of the duty free allowance for alcohol for both countries. You can take six bottles of duty free wine into Fiji compared to three bottles into Vanuatu. In fact the true figure for Vanuatu is 3.3 bottles which is ridiculous. WW thinks the figures should be the same, and if not, then the Vanuatu authorities should at least make it four bottles. It may not be a big deal but many people only drink on holidays, birthdays and Xmas and the like, so for some it could be the difference between choosing Fiji over Vanuatu.
Many Fijian resorts have deals involving children eating free for the duration of the stay, which is clearly appealing to families watching their budgets. On the subject of eating and drinking, many restaurants in Efate have become extremely overpriced. For example, to pay more than VT2000 for a plate of fish and chips is just pure greed. Over the past two years restaurateurs have been pricing some bottles of wine with more than a 200 per cent mark up. And that is on top of the already excessive government tax on that product.
Locals and tourists are going to simply vote with their feet.
MOST pleasing to see six top female public servants ascending the ranks to the height of directorship. Ideally the figure should be in the 20s, but it is a start. WW expects productivity to increase from the top down through the ranks and hopes we see a dramatic decrease in the anti-expat/ white attitude that has crept into senior public servant ranks like a cancer in recent years.
HOWEVER, the ink is barely dry on those directors’ appointment signatures and serious allegations are being raised about the nature of the selection of at least one new public service boss. Nepotism and cronyism have gone hand in hand with the public service in Vanuatu since Independence, so it’s hard to believe it has suddenly stopped. WW just hopes it has been decreased at least.
AND that’s Wilson’s Word