Pre-campaign activities in the Vanuatu elections
Pre-campaign activities are well underway in Vanuatu. The country will go to elections on March 19th to elect the 52-seat Parliament. The official campaign period commences on March 2nd and runs until March 16th. Nominations for candidates are now open until the 11th of this month. There have already been some significant announcements around who will run. The outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Jotham Napat, has claimed there have been ‘dirty tactics’ on the part of political opponents. He has said he has taken legal advice further to an alleged smear campaign against him, which is an offence under Vanuatu law. There have been announcements of new parties and some candidates have opted to run as independents. In the 2016 elections 17 political parties won seats along with eight independents. The fractured nature of politics in Vanuatu means that a collation government is the most likely outcome.
Fiji government suspends five unions
The government of Fiji has suspended five trade unions. The suspension is for failure to submit annual audited financial reports. The unions face further penalties and deregistration if the non-compliance continues. There are 49 registered unions in Fiji. However, there have been numerous reports of difficulties that unions face in getting permits to hold rallies and marches. This adds to ongoing concerns over the restrictions on the right to free association in Fiji. The General Secretary of the Fiji National Workers’ Union, Felix Anthony, is currently on trial. He is charged with “malicious behaviour” under the Public Order Act. This is in relation to his allegedly having told a journalist false news relating to the expiry of workers’ contracts at Fiji Water Authority last year. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and will face court next in March.
Exxon negotiations with Papua New Guinea stall
Negotiations have stalled between the government of PNG and Exxon to develop the P’nyang gas project. The development was expected to see the country’s exports of Liquid Natural Gas double by 2024. However, the government’s senior negotiating team withdrew from talks recently. The Minister for Petroleum and Energy, Kerenga Kua, claims the company has not moved sufficiently since late last year. Kua says that the PNG government, led by James Marape, is looking for a deal that gives a much higher take to the government than currently on offer. He has pointed to deals in countries such as Malaysia as examples of that. Exxon’s partner in PNG, Oil Search, has argued that what the government wants would make the development uneconomic. Since coming to power last year, Marape and Kua have made negotiating for better returns from resource extraction projects a focus for the government.
Pacific Pathways 2020
The US has announced Oceania as the focus for this year’s Pacific Pathways operations. Pacific Pathways is a program run by the US Army aimed at improving the force’s capacity to engage and operate in the region, including with partners and allies. It has been in place since 2014. This will see troop rotations into numerous Pacific island countries including PNG, Vanuatu, Samoa, Timor-Leste, and Tonga. The purpose of these rotations is to foster linkages not only with defence agencies in the host countries, but also with civic organisations. However, this is also driven by a desire on the part of Washington to counter the influence of China in the region. Meanwhile US General Joseph Lengyel (military adviser to the President and National Security Council) met recently with Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto in Fiji to discuss opportunities for collaboration between the military forces of their countries.
Coronavirus measures cause confusion and disruption
Measures taken to counter the spread of the coronavirus are causing confusion and disruption in the region. Numerous Pacific island governments have introduced restrictions and bans on people entering their countries from or via mainland China. As yet there are no confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus in any Pacific island country. However, experts are concerned at the impact it could have in countries that do not have extensive health services. There are a number of people in quarantine in Samoa. In Fiji, two people have been hospitalised with ‘mild symptoms’ and authorities are awaiting test results from Australia in relation to them. There has been some confusion as to whether Pacific students in China will be evacuated or who is responsible for their welfare if they remain. A charter flight flown by Air New Zealand has uplifted a number of Pacific islanders and Australians as well as NZ citizens from Wuhan.
Tess Newton Cain is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute.