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John Roughan Considers "Loyal Opposition!"

Loyal Opposition!

By John Roughan

A fundamental reality for a strong working parliament is to have a vibrant 'loyal opposition'! Both words--loyal and opposition--are absolutely necessary! Those out of power must be both loyal and work in opposition. A major question must be asked. Have Leaders of the Opposition been equally loyal as well as acted in opposition? I allow the reader to decide whether our Leaders of the Opposition been both loyal as well as working in opposition.

But the question to be asked now is loyal to whom or what. If parliamentary loyal opposition is vital to the well running and health of the nation, then to whom or what is the Leader of the Opposition loyal to?. This loyalty is not to the government sitting in power, but to the people, the constitution and the nation at large.

The official position of the Leader of the Opposition, is not a 'name noting' but one fully recognized by our constitution. This constitutional post is suppose to act as the voice of the voiceless, ensure that the views of the marginalized find a place in the halls of power and keep the government straight and honest. In the last few years, however, these important roles have been either disappeared or put on hold.

It's a rare when the Solomons' public get upset and determined to confront the authorities. But it happened a few weeks ago. Parliament, through its Minister for Tourism, reluctantly accepted a public petition for the house to review the cabinet's decision to sell a piece of prime Honiara property. The same property which government sold a few years ago only to be forced to re-buy it again after public outcry. Yet, here it was being re-sold to a hotel developer when it was quite well known that the site was so valuable to the people . . . cultural centre, recreation place, conference site, etc. After a hurried review of the people's petition, however, it was summarily rejected by the house. The Leader of the Opposition was no where to be seen!

The member from the RenBel province tried to save the people's petition by having it reviewed by a parliamentary select committee but that too was shot down by government backbenchers. The Minister of Tourism, Alex Bartlett, signalled his colleagues to back off the motion. Fortunately, the very next day the Speaker of the House allowed the same motion, this time moved as a private member's motion, to be studied by a select committee. Since it was a private member's motion it was considered different from the day before public petition.

If this public disagreement with government were a rare event, then one could be forgiven to view it as simply a disagreement between interested parties. Unfortunately, the current government hasn't changed its spots since it's first days in power in late 2001. Daily it grows deaf to its people. In fact, it continues an old tradition which started back in the mid 1980s and which continues to this day: government's inability to listen to people's pleas.

Many NGOs, the Governor of the Central Bank and the churches pleaded with the governments of the 1980s to reign in the terrible rape of our forests by Southeast Asian logging companies. Their pleas came to naught. It was only the East Asian 1997 economic meltdown that made any kind of a dent in the round tree log export industry. Certainly no government policy operated to save the forests. In fact, last year's round logs exports grew almost 30% to 714,179 cubic meters, well over the sustainable level of 225,000.

When the public grew tired of not being listened to, of being dismissed out of hand and not taken seriously, they had had enough. In 1995 the Pavuvu incident blew into centre stage. Land owners wanted their land back, government refused to return it (government itself would develop the Pavuvu land first. You know the typical logging company promise of roads, schools, clinics, etc. etc. which to this very day has never been done!). Now nine years after the Mamaloni government's solemn promises the Pavuvu people have yet to get their land back. Marving Bros. logging company, however, walked away with hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of round logs worth millions. The public's pleas still remain unheard!

Closer to our time the same tactic of not listening to its people was repeated once again. The public became enraged when the Sogavare government fought to give itself an extra year in power. Most members knew that if they had to face the electorate at the end of 2001, many would lose their seats. And how right they were! Thirty two new members were elected, only 18 retained their seats. But no matter how heartfelt Civil Society's pleas were--four years not 5--government was determined to have its way. It mounted public campaigns to discredit members of Civil Society, held public meetings to preach a message that no one wanted to hear and in general refused to listen to the voice of its people. It was deaf to its people.

In the most recent case, the Cultural Centre land in the middle of Honiara, the same pattern of non-listening to the public has once again raised its ugly head. Government's inability to really listen to its people's cries and the silence of the Leader of the Opposition haunts us still. Where was our Leader of the Opposition raising his voice for the voiceless, carrying the marginalized pleas into the halls of power and creating alternative views for parliament to assess?

The country needs a loyal opposition now more at this time that it has ever had. RAMSI's first year of intervention will have come and gone by the end of this month. Shouldn't parliament have mounted a vigorous review of this momentous historical occasion? Isn't this the role of the Leader of the Opposition? If not he, then who? Why must Civil Society act in his place: both loyal to the nation, the constitution and to the people and opposing government's shallow handling of the nation's sacred business?

J. Roughan 4 July 2004 Honiara

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