Last Updated on Thursday, 23 August 2012 12:42

In the final events in PiPP’s Face to Face series for 2012, Prime Minister Sato Kilman Livtunvanu and Opposition Leader Rialuth Serge Vohor each sat down for consecutive one-hour question and answer sessions with voters from across the nation. This was a landmark day in Vanuatu’s history. It marked the first time that all six provinces have come together at the same time  to participate directly in the political dialogue. Truly democracy in action.

The Face to Face events were broadcast live on Television Blong Vanuatu, nationally on Radio Vanuatu, and on a 5 by 3 metre screen in Saralana Park across the road from Vanuatu’s Parliament. PiPP also live-blogged the event on our Facebook page. An unofficial summary of the questions and answers is now available.

Attendance at the event was high, and hundreds more watched live on the big screen.

In all, half a dozen technology and communications organisations – private and public enterprise – collaborated to make these events happen.

People from every province were able to participate directly thanks to the new e-government network, which provided live broadband links to every provincial centre. Each of the island venues was packed, with people crowding the sidewalks outside and peering in through the windows.

Vanuatu government IT staff did yeoman service, working against the clock to bring parts of the network back online in time for the link-up.

(Background: While the e-government data transmission towers have state of the art solar panels and batteries, two months of cloud and poor weather left the batteries drained, demonstrating once again just how great the challenges are in providing even a nominal level of service to our remote islands. This was the first sustained outage experienced since the first tower was powered up two years ago. Government technicians worked around the clock to restore service to all provincial centres. The last location [Sola] came online with only 5 minutes to spare. This is a fine example of how Vanuatu is learning to address its unique challenges by building a team of skilled and dedicated Ni Vanuatu technologists, who have demonstrated their ability to cope with the one of the most hostile operating environments in the world.)

Bus and taxi drivers stopped their vehicles spontaneously when they saw the event being displayed on our 5 by 3 metre screen at Saralana park. By the end of the event, dozens of vehicles were jammed into every available parking space near the venue.

While viewer and listener numbers are unavailable, these events were among the most widely available in the country’s history.

People were receptive, respectful and engaged. Probing, demanding questions were raised by women, youth, civil society, chiefs, officials and individuals from all walks of life. Indeed the level of awareness and participation in these Face to Face events bodes well for Vanuatu’s political future – provided that words are followed by deeds.

In fact, the mix of respect and candor during the event bore a striking resemblance to what you’d see in village-level meetings that have been a dominant element of Vanuatu Kastom for thousands of years. It’s remarkably gratifying to see that, rather than being overwhelmed by technology, the people of Vanuatu are appropriating these new tools to support and enhance the very best elements of their culture.

It’s clear that there’s an immense – till now, pent-up – demand for dialogue about issues ranging from school fee subsidies and health care service delivery to international relations and trade.

The questions people asked are indicative of a rapidly increasing awareness among both rural and urban voters of the larger issues facing the country. Questions covered controversial issues concerning the national budget, Vanuatu’s regional alliances, WTO membership, and the role of young people and women as well as chiefs and church leaders in the political process.

This increased awareness is directly attributable to the gains Vanuatu has made in recent years in building out its communications capacity, in terms of both broadcast presence and telecoms capability.

The rapid rise of communications capability presents a real opportunity for politicians to move beyond traditional village- and island-based electioneering, and to begin developing and enlarging on their national strategies. The availability of Internet and mobile technologies means that the current campaign could be the first since independence to be fought on a truly national stage – if politicians embrace the opportunity.

Technical teething pains aside (only minor glitches arose on the day), the only complaint we heard was that people felt one hour each was simply not enough time to engage fully with the PM or with the Leader of Opposition. (Both events ran slightly overtime due to the number of questions remaining.)

It’s to be hoped that this is just the first of many such opportunities to engage in meaningful, direct dialogue between Vanuatu’s political players and people at all levels of society.

PiPP’s role at the middle of this consisted mostly of bringing people together and convincing them that a truly national dialogue was possible. We’re thrilled to be have assisted in catalysing such a dynamic, informative and rewarding experience.

One comment on “FACING THE NATION

  1. Pingback: NEW PARTIES FOR (THE) OLD | Pacific Institute of Public Policy

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