John Shing: Politicians in Vanuatu don’t make money
John Shing, Private Secretary of the Leader of the Opposition, in exclusive interview for Vila Times talks about Opposition’s confrontation with the Government, corrupted Vanuatu politicians, friendship with China, and why the income tax will be the problem of the next government.
‘Before opposition was simply scheming to get back in the government’
So could you tell us a little bit about Opposition’s role in the current political structure of Vanuatu?
In the past role of the opposition has been very narrow, we are expanding it now. Before role of the opposition was simply scheming to get back in the government. That was all they did. Now we are more of the government watchdogs. We operate on a budget, it is actually a very small budget. So we are still underresourced. I would like to see more staff, more people involved, more involvement with any future government intake.
Now we highlight inadequacies within government, assist government when possible with solutions for issues they are facing. It’s up to them to accept our recommendations or not. We watch how government implements its policies, always finding opportunities to find out about government’s weaknesses, and addressing them.
In the past the opposition has been not very effective. Probably today we are the most effective, very vocal on issues.
We try to be on good terms with government. Sometimes, when we expose government in certain areas, they get angry with us. But it’s part of the game.
So what is the current government’s perception of the Opposition?
The reason why the Opposition is desperate to get back in the government, is because the government does not supply adequate resources to the Opposition. So why we should be satisfied with staying in opposition? We also want to get in the government.
We could help the government to remain in power. But they would need to give us resources so we would empower our MPs, and they would prefer to remain in the opposition, without trying to get in the government, because they have the same privileges and rights as those in the government. So empower our MPs, empower the Office of the Opposition to assist government in working together, and they can stay in the government.
‘We will make a better government’
But isn’t it any political opposition’s goal by default – to get into the government?
Of course, whenever there is an opportunity, we will try to do that. But at the same time, as long as we are in the opposition, we might as well make it comfortable for us. So we are trying to get comfortable, but at the same time really pushing to get back in the government.
We see a lot of corruption in this government, a lot of resources are spent unwisely by the government. And we think, we know, that if we will get back in the government, we will make a better government.
And issuing open statements is the best way for Opposition to confront the government?
Vanuatu is a small country, we all know each other, not just as a name, but also personally. In the past we have worked together in different governments. For example, current leader of the opposition used to be the Attorney General. He had been on that position for around ten years or so.
In politics in Vanuatu you address issues. Not ruthlessly, while trying to be very democratic, and knowing that those are the people you actually might work with in the next government. So don’t make enemies, always offer long term solutions and mind long term goals, and if you addressing any issue, attack the issue itself, not the person.
That is why we are trying to attack the issues and address the issues.
‘Politicians in Vanuatu don’t make money’
Earlier you mentioned corruption in the Government. What scale of corruption we are talking about?
Politicians in Vanuatu don’t make money. Personally. You don’t make money by being a politician in Vanuatu. They don’t get money to service themselves, personally. They redirect these money to their people, to electorate.
But they still benefit.
Of course. But they don’t actually spend the benefit on themselves, they are spending it on their electorate and others. Of course they get a slice of it. They may afford to get a new car, maybe a house. But it’s not such a big expense.
But to actually accumulate millions and millions of dollars – no, that is very unlikely.
I know a few politicians who have actually been able to make a lot of money for themselves. They have houses overseas, they live in luxury, they don’t work now, sitting home, managing their own business interests, whether here or overseas.
Close friendship with China seems to be a hot topic in Vanuatu. What is the Opposition’s view on this “big romance” with China?
The Opposition doesn’t see China as a threat. I know that China has big long term plans, and Vanuatu is a very small place for them. I know they have big interests, for example, in Africa or in Asia. The only reason why they may have interest in Vanuatu is because of our natural resources – our ocean resources and probably minerals. But then, so is France, and Australia, and America. They have interests in our resources as well. Australia now is producing 19 patrol boats for the Pacific. To “help the Pacific countries better protect their borders.” But from whom? And for what? It’s mainly to protect Australia’s ass, protect them from drugs coming in.
Australia is still a friend. China is a friend. America is a friend. If something would happen, and we would have to pick sides, I don’t know which side it would be. In foreign relations Vanuatu’s policy have always been neutral, non-aligned policy. And people respect us for that.
Let’s take the case of West Papua, for example. Vanuatu is very supportive of West Papua. We have been very vocal in voicing our opinions on the situation in West Papua. But in the same time we would like to establish trade relations with Indonesia, because we know they have so much to offer.
My view is – even though we sympathise West Papua, we must keep our distance, don’t let them interfere in our domestic politics. We should not let the issue of West Papau to separate ourselves from trade relations with Indonesia.
At the same time our foreign relations policy is strongly based on supporting the independence of other countries. We support New Caledonia for independence, West Papua for independence, we recognised Kosovo’s independence. We established relations with Abkhazia.
What are your views on Vanuatu selling foreigners its citizenship for investments?
I was very pro independent, and my parents were pro independent during the time when Vanuatu was seeking to become an independent state.
And now I personally see it as selling our independence cheap. Selling our passports, our sovereignty cheap to rich individuals who don’t have any real concern for Vanuatu. I personally would like to have a condition, forcing anyone who wants to obtain the passport of Vanuatu to invest in Vanuatu.
Isn’t it what they are doing now? They are giving money to the government as an investment.
What I mean is – they need to come to Vanuatu and have a company here, provide employment for ni-Vanuatu.
When I was in government I negotiated a program with Immigration Department, saying that if interested individuals can invest around 50 million vatu in a company in Vanuatu, we would give them a residency permit for 10 years. And you also get 10 year VIPA certificate. And after ten years you have an option to get the passport, if, of course, you continue to operate your business. And you would have to pay only the fee of 60,000 vatu instead of the current fee – USD200,000 or even more.
It is still quite a significant source of income now [for the country], the program has been working for a number of years.
It is. But there are number of issues there. Let’s say you come here with a lot of money. Money talks, and you have an advantage over ni-Vanuatu., because after getting the citizenship you are a ni-Vanuatu also. You establish a business here, and decide to go into politics. What will stop you from using your money to influence a thousand people to get voted into parliament? You can easily purchase one thousand people to vote for you. There are ways to do that legally. So they vote for you, and you become an MP. Would that be good for the country?
These programs lack legislation and policing. We don’t have resources to actually police those passports and how they will be used. It is possible that one day some of those passport holders will bring disrepute to the Government of Vanuatu.
In my previous life I used to be the Director of Customs. So I have a very strong opinion on this issue. I want to protect our borders, but on the same time I want to open up our borders to allow people with genuine interest to come to the country and invest. Or even if they don’t come to the country, and stay outside. How you supposed to police them? We have no record system in place of where have they been or were they possibly involved in any crimes in other countries. For example, one of these people one day may participate in terrorist attack. And will be arrested with Vanuatu passport. That will jeopardise all other Vanuatu passports.
I think one day, sooner or later, this program will be stopped. Maybe not by us, but by international security bodies.
‘The government has not prepared people to actually start taxing their money’
It seems that some Vanuatu politicians are quite confident that soon Vanuatu citizens will get a visa free access to Australia and New Zealand. You also believe it may happen sometimes in near future?
Very likely. It just needs a lot of talk. Australia and New Zealand are pushing on this PACER Plus, and Vanuatu has not ratified PACER Plus, because we think it’s very one-sided. So Vanuatu will go with Fiji and PNG, and try to negotiate an agreement that is best for all sides. PACER was more in favour of Australia and New Zealand, and not Vanuatu.
Having said that, we see that New Zealand already opened up its labour market, which is good and we are very happy. When I was the First Secretary to Sato Kilman when he was the Minister of Foreign affairs and also Deputy Prime Minister then, we have opened up the RSE market in New Zealand. We went to New Zealand, actually met with the government, and the NZ government arranged for us to meet with local farmers. And the farmers were surprised to see big government officials coming to speak to them. That actually gave them confidence to open up. I would like to see that with Australia more. And better policing, again.
What are the Opposition’s views on the infamous tax reform in Vanuatu?
We oppose, but not because we don’t like taxes. We oppose because the government has not prepared people to actually start taxing their money. If you tax me, what will you give me back for these taxes? That is our argument. How the government is planning to give these taxed money back to people? Will the government give me lower interest rate in the bank on a mortgage? Lower school fees? Now the government says primary education is free. I have three kids now, and I’m still paying for the school almost 250,000 vatu every year. Just on school fees.
It has to be a fair tax. If you tax me, then tax me on a percentage of the income, rather than a flat rate.
So you think the reform will not go through?
It needs more planning. More policies are supposed to be in place. It was supposed to take place on January 1st next year. And they pushed it to the 1st July 2018. They are pushing it, trying to avoid the topic, so that when the future government comes in, it would be their problem. They are creating the problem now, and forcing any new regime that comes in 2018 to actually deal with it.