Vanuatu PM Kilman no longer commands majority

Sato Kilman (Photo: Ministry of the Prime Minister Vanuatu)

Power transitioned from the Vanuatu Government to the Opposition in Parliament during the Fifth Extraordinary Session convened to debate the motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Sato Kilman, Monday.

The Vanuatu Daily Post reports that the opposition held 26 MPs against the government’s 24, with only two government MPs, Esmon Saimon from Vanua’aku Pati (VP) representing Malekula, and Wesley Rasu from Malo constituency, present during the session. The remaining 22 government MPs boycotted the session, resulting in a lack of quorum.

Speaker of Parliament Seoule Simeon suspended the session until Friday this week for the no-confidence motion debate and the election of a new PM.

Kilman lost two ministers within a single week—Minister of Sports and National United Party (NUP) MP, John Still Tari Qetu and Minister of Trade, Commerce, and MP for Santo, Samson Samsen. Samsen’s presence with the opposition in Parliament confirmed previous allegations of his defection.

The two ministerial positions are now vacant due to the resignations, and an attempt to replace Qetu with Bruno Leingkone, President of NUP and MP of Ambrym constituency, lasted only two days before his seat was declared vacant by the Speaker of Parliament due to three consecutive absences. Leingkone challenged this decision in court, but the Supreme Court ruled against him.

The Supreme Court also dismissed Leingkone’s application to stay the Speaker’s announcement on the vacation of his seat. He indicated Monday that he will appealed against the judgment of the Supreme Court.

With these defections and the vacation of Leingkone’s seat, Kilman lost support within a week, reducing government MPs to 23 compared to the previous 25, while the opposition increased from 25 to 26 MPs.

The opposition now holds an absolute majority of 26 out of 51 MPs. Additionally, a motion to suspend the current Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Gracia Shadrack, is expected to further reduce Kilman’s support due to the threatening statement he made during a parliamentary session.

The Leader of the Opposition bloc, MP Charlot Salwai, told a press conference Monday that Shadrack had publicly threatened to burn down the Parliament House on 16 August 2023 during the Third Extraordinary Session when the Speaker refused to grant permission for Leingkone to vote virtually for the motion against of no confidence against then PM, Ishmael Kalsakau, while he was hospitalised in South Korea.

The opposition said Shadrack’s action has put in question the safety of the parliament building and its workers.

MP Salwai expressed confidence in the opposition’s 26 solid votes to remove Kilman as PM. Kilman had been elected as PM on 04 September, 2023, during a motion of no confidence against the then-PM Ishmael Kalsakau, just 10 months into his term.

Kalsakau’s removal was secured with an absolute majority of 26 votes out of 51 MPs present, a definition set by the Vanuatu High Court of Appeal upon the application of the current PM.

Kilman is now expected to face the same fate on Friday, as the opposition maintains its support of 26 votes.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Monday confirmed the Speaker’s declaration for Bruno Leingkone’s parliamentary seat to be vacant, after missing three consecutive parliament sittings without obtaining permission.

The Member of Parliament (MP) for Ambrym was absent from three consecutive sittings when he travelled to South Korea for medical treatment.

Speaker Seoule Simeon declared his seat vacant based on section 2 (d) of the Members of Parliament Vacation of Seats Act [CAP 174]. Leingkone filed a petition challenging the Speaker’s conclusion, but the court ruled against him.

Supreme Court Judge, William Kenneth Hastings, found that Leingkone was absent from the first three consecutive sittings, on 10, 16 and 17 August; and that he was absent without obtaining permission.

This was after the lawyer for the petitioner, Justin Ngwele and lawyer for respondent Gary Blake had the opportunity to present statements and called for their witnesses to the stand for cross-examination.

Ngwele argued that Leingkone was not absent from the sittings because the meetings that were adjourned without quorum were not sittings. He submitted that there is no sitting of parliament if there is no quorum.

Judge Hastings disagreed to this. He stated: “Sittings do not cease to be consecutive just because they occur in different sessions or because they are adjourned for lack of a quorum. As long as there is a succession of sittings without interruption, they are consecutive.”

Ngwele also submitted that the petitioner sought permission to be absent from the sittings of 10, 16 and 17 August. Leingkone wrote four letters dated 07 July, 11 August, 17 August and 31 August, all addressed to the Speaker.

The Speaker did not respond to the letters. He testified that he never gave Leingkone permission to be absent.

Section 2 (d) of the Act requires a member to “obtain” permission. In the absence of any response from the Speaker, Mr. Leingkone obtained nothing, according to Judge Hastings.

The judge found that Leingkone did not expressly request the Speaker’s permission to be absent, the letters were rather more in the nature of informing the Speaker he would be receiving medical treatment.

In his arguments, Ngwele said the Speaker had knowledge of Leingkone’s absent due to the fact that he continued to receive a sitting allowance and the 11 August letter. He further submitted that the Speaker was under an obligation to enquire about Leingkone’s state of health once he knew.

“… Presenting a medical certificate to the Clerk does not however impose an obligation on the Speaker to grant permission and it does not mean the Speaker has granted permission in terms of section 2 (d),” stated the judge.

Judge Hastings disagreed that there was an obligation on the Speaker to enquire about Leingkone’s state of health, and also to inform him in advance of his intention to announce his vacancy.

He concluded that Leingkone did not obtain explicit permission to be absent from the sittings.

After delivering the judgement, Ngwele sought for a stay on the Speaker’s declaration and of the judgement, to allow for the petitioner’s right to be preserved. Speaker’s lawyer, Blake opposed the stay.

The stay was denied. Judge Hastings explained “neither the court’s judgement nor the Speaker’s declaration has caused Leingkone’s seat to be vacant. It became vacant by operation of law, namely section 2(d) of the Members of Parliament Vacation of Seats Act.

“To grant a stay would be essentially to suspend the law and enter into the political arena by keeping Leingkone in the seat despite what section 2(d) says.

“To decline a stay would be stay out of political arena and preserve the operation of section 2 (d).

“The petitioner’s appeal rights are preserved regardless of what happens in parliament today (yesterday),” he stated. Since the stay application was not accepted by the Supreme Court, an appeal will be filed in the Court of Appeal. Ngwele informed the court Monday that they would file an appeal by 4pm today.