On Friday 18th June at 3.00 pm, the Supreme Court of Vanuatu delivered its decision on the case in which the Government side of Honorable Bob Loughman Weibur took the Speaker – Honorable Gratien Shadrack to Court to challenge his ruling in Parliament which announced that because of the Vacation of Seats Act Cap 174, 2d, 19 members had vacated their seats and were no longer Members of Parliament.
The Speaker made the announcement after his assessment that they had been absent for three consecutive sittings of Parliament and therefore in accordance with the Vacation of Seats Act Cap 174 2d the members had vacated their seats.
The Government’s position was that the Speaker’s announcement in Parliament had no legal force as he did not have the authority to make such a ruling and if there was an issue with absence of members, a vacation of seats had to be decided by the Supreme Court.
Justice Oliver Saksak decided that the approach taken by the “government” MPs was absurd, upheld the Speaker’s ruling and ruled that the Members of Parliament who were the subject of the Speaker’s ruling had vacated their seats and were no longer Members of Parliament.
The Vacation of Seats Act Cap 174 2d simply states that a member has vacated his seat if he has been absent from 3 consecutive sittings of Parliament without the permission of the Speaker or in his absence, the Deputy Speaker.
In the case of the government side of the House, the members were boycotting Parliament in protest against the Speaker accepting a lodged motion of no confidence against the Government which was due for debate and voting 7 days after it was lodged.
The Government responded by lodging a motion against the Speaker which after review, the Speaker declared was not in order and needed some minor amendments. The Speaker asked the mover and seconder of the motion to make the recommended amendments and bring it back to Parliament after which it would follow the process for debate and voting. The government side did not comply.
The Government side took the Speaker to the Supreme Court to challenge the Speaker’s ruling on their motion and meanwhile the Speaker tried to proceed with the business of Parliament to discuss the bills listed for debate.
The government side boycotted Parliament with a majority of its members leaving no quorum in Parliament forcing the Speaker to adjourned the sittings and did not return despite the Speaker instructing the Clerk to ring the bell after 5 minutes.
As a result, and after much assessment and determination, the Speaker announced that 19 MPs from the government side had been absent from three consecutive sittings and in doing so, their conduct activated the Vacation of Seats Act Cap 174, clause 2d leading to an automatic vacating of seats for 19 government MPs.
The members included the Prime Minister Honorable Bob Loughman Weibur, Deputy Prime Minister Honorable Ishmael Kalsakau, Honorable Johnny Koanapo Rasu – Minister of Finance, Honorable Jay Ngwele – Minister for Public Utilities, Honorable James Bule – Minister for Trade, Honorable Silas Bule – Minister for Health, Honorable Bruno Leingkone – Minister for Climate Change, Honorable Willie Daniel – Minister for Agriculture & Biosecurity, Honorable Marc Ati – Minister for Foriegn Affairs, Honorable Willie Pakoa Sateareoto – Minister for Youth and Sports, Honorable Simeon Seule – Minister for Education and 8 backbenchers.
The Minister for Lands – Honorable Norris Jack and the Minister for Justice – Honorable Esmon Sai and some other government backbenchers escaped being victims of the action as they had notified the Speaker of their intentions to be absent. Honorable Esmon Sai has been a former Speaker of the House several times.
The Court ruled on the application by the government side to force the Speaker to proceed with the business of Parliament including the motion against him and a consent order was agreed between the parties’ legal teams in which the Speaker resigned on the condition that there would be no interference in the case lodged by the government against his announcement of the vacation of seats which saw the election of a new Speaker of Parliament.
On Friday 18th June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the decision of the former Speaker in relation to the vacation of seats for 19 members of the house including the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and other members of the government side which also included the newly elected Speaker.
Those on the government side immediately lodged an appeal against Justice Saksak’s decision on the Speaker’s ruling and made claim at a press conference that they are still MPs and still the government after they claimed that the Speaker had infringed on their constitutional rights as MPs.
The 19 government members claim that they were not absent for 3 consecutive sessions having been in attendance for roll call in the morning however they left Parliament shortly after prayers without the Speaker’s permission and did not return as a result of their intention to boycott in protest against the Speaker.
As the government had a clear majority, Parliament could not continue with a quorum to deal with the business at hand so it is a mystery as to why they chose to pursue a direction which could result in them losing 19 members.
The issue of being absent for 3 consecutive sessions has not been challenged in the court and those affected are looking at making application to the Courts next week in a separate case to question the basis on which the Speaker made his decision.
Parliament sittings are broadcast live on radio and television to the whole of the country.
It was cited in open Court by the judge, that representatives of those affected sought to obtain Consent Orders from legal representatives of both sides on Thursday evening before the judgment to settle the matter outside of court. The Court rightly characterized this as improper and was an attempt to pervert the cause of justice and the actions had criminal implications.
So the whole country is waiting with bated breath for the Court of Appeal to hear the appeal which is anticipated to happen next week.
If the Appeal Court upholds the decision of the Supreme Court then the 19 members will have vacated their seats and cannot return to Parliament which will leave the Parliament with 32 out of 52 sitting members as with the vacation of the former Prime Minister Honorable Charlot Salwai, there will be 20 vacant seats in Parliament for which bi-elections will have to be held.
Subject to the Appeal Court ruling, if the Supreme Court judgment is upheld as per past cases of similar nature, then there is no Speaker to call Parliament and no Prime Minister and government to run the country therefore the law mandates the Clerk to call Parliament to sit as early as possible to elect a new Speaker of Parliament and a new Prime Minister as there are still a majority of members in Parliament.
These events have sparked a lot of domestic interest generating posts and comments on local social media pages with some comments suggesting that all this might simply have been the result of a mistake of the government side overlooking the capacity and importance of the Vacation of Seats Act Cap 174.
It could turn out to be a very costly mistake at that, and what is more interesting is that this particular Parliament session was requested by the government in order to debate and pass some of its bills.
The dispute has been a dispute between the parties within the ruling governing coalition with the Opposition not featuring as a party to the legal action nor the dispute but likely to profit from it in a very big way.
Whatever one may say about Vanuatu’s politics, it has had its moments and now it is having another one of these moments.