Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Nauruan democracy works in a Nauruan way

Nauruan democracy works in a Nauruan way
Published 13 Jun 2013 

Cait Storr is a lawyer, writer and academic at University of Melbourne researching Nauru and other Pacific small island states.

On Saturday 8 June, Nauru held a peaceful, indeed almost cheerful, election. Votes were cast and counted and 19 members elected to form the 21st parliament of the Republic of Nauru. The new MPs, predominantly old guard with a few welcome fresh faces (including Charmaine Scotty, only the second female MP in Nauruan politics) were sworn in on Monday morning. They elected Baron Waqa, a longstanding member for the District of Boe, as the new president.

A conventional democratic process, however, this was not. The election was held a bare ten days after the former president, Sprent Dabwido, declared a state of emergency. Nominations were opened and closed within three days, and the electoral rolls were closed within seven.

The 'emergency' that required the election to be brought forward two weeks from the long scheduled date of 22 June is still not entirely apparent. Dabwido claimed it was a medical appropriations issue; his finance minister Roland Kun stood down and disputed the need for such a drastic display of presidential power.

In a system with no parties, only a shifting constellation of allegiances that would keep Machiavelli guessing, Baron Waqa has gained from Dabwido the title of 'His Excellency', or HE for short. Enjoyment of the title must be tempered somewhat by the generous scattering of re-elected MPs who have gained and lost it before him. Waqa will share the floor not only with Dabwido (soundly re-elected by the constituency of Meneng) but also with Marcus Stephen and Ludwig Scotty, both of whom have been president at least once.

With good reason, stability is the new president's catchcry. Yet the reasons for chronic instability are unlikely to disappear overnight. [fold]

Nauruan politics has trod a capricious path since 1968, when the island gained independence from its 'trustees', Australia, the UK and New Zealand. Under the 1919 Nauru Island Agreement between these three Commonwealth countries (without any representation from Nauru itself), Australia controlled mining and exports, and paid New Zealand and the UK an agreed portion of the profits. For then-Prime Minister Billy Hughes, even this extraordinary power fell short of the exclusive mining rights he had bluntly demanded of the newly formed League of Nations in exchange for Australian lives lost fighting the Great War.

Australia approached its imperial duties with unrepentant self-interest, strip-mining Nauru without a thought for subsequent rehabilitation of the island, and paying back in royalties what amounted to little more than peppercorn rent. The Regional Processing Centre (RPC) for asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat is fittingly located on mined-out land.

As an independent republic, Nauru has experienced extremes of poverty and wealth, notoriety and obscurity, but some things have not changed. Nauruan pride, for one, and the complexity of Nauruan politics which, strongly rooted in local community, reflect the internecine wranglings of Nauru's land tenure system.

Land tenure is one of the vital organs of Nauruan political life. Land ownership traces the matrilineal clan system that has outlived Nauru's colonial period and continues to determine political affiliations. Landowners receive royalties for mining that takes place on their land (which, despite the precipitous drop in both exports and price of primary phosphate in the early 2000s, still comprises the bulk not only of state revenue but of household income). The landowners also had a say on the conditions of detention that were to apply to the reopening and redevelopment of the RPC. Whether Australia is honouring those conditions is an uneasy issue on Nauru, and is expected to be raised publicly early in the new parliamentary term.

It behoves the Australian Government to remember that although Nauru is financially broken and politically unstable, the Nauruan governments are neither undiscerning nor predictable in their choice of international allegiances, as demonstrated by the island's brazen moves in auditioning and then rejecting a diplomatic relationship with the People's Republic of China in favour of reinstating the temporarily closed embassy of Taiwan.

Nor are the Nauruan people unfeeling in the face of human suffering which seeps through the RPC fences and over their island. It is they who have to go to sleep knowing that their home is being used as a makeshift prison. Many do not understand why more Nauruans have not been hired to provide services for the RPC, as was seemingly promised to the landowners in exchange for use of their mined-out land. And, like many Australians, other Nauruans fail to understand why the Gillard Government has not allowed asylum seekers some freedom of movement and association, as was the case under Howard. Furthermore, it does not take an activist Australian legal team and the weight of common law to teach the Nauruan people what they already know through human experience: detention without trial is a basic injustice.

The 21st parliament is an unpredictable beast. In approaching the coming storm over detention conditions, the Australian Government should treat the Republic with the respect it pretends at in words and belies in behaviour.

Photo by Flickr user ARM Climate Research Facility.

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