Category Archives: Nauru

Nauru – Waqa government re-elected

Nauru went to the polls on 9 July and returned Baron Waqa’s government for another term. The Pacific island nation has a population of roughly 10,000 (around 8000 registered voters) who elect 19 MPs for three-year terms from multi-seat constituencies by majority vote. There is no formal party system with parliament effectively made-up of 19 independent members. Because Nauru’s president is both head of government and head of state Waqa was re-elected to the post on the floor of parliament by 16 MPs.

Two election observer teams – one from the Pacific Islands Forum and another from the Commonwealth Secretariat – declared the election free and fair, and commended the high voter turnout. It was reportedly the first time in more than a decade that Nauruan elections had been monitored by international observers.

One reason for the heightened interest is that much of the media discussion in the lead up to the election centred on the creeping authoritarianism of the Waqa government (see this blog). Opposition MPs had previously been suspended from parliament – those under house arrest claimed their campaigning activities were curtailed – media commentary was sanctioned and foreign journalists effectively prohibited from entering the country due to high visa fees, and amendments to the criminal code made expressions of ‘political hatred’ punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. Some candidates had their employment contracts terminated – a move commonly believed to be government initiated. The fee for candidate nomination was also hiked to a level that made it prohibitive for many aspirant politicians. This latter measure was contested in Nauru’s Supreme Court, leading to the government eventually dropping the fee from $2000 to $500 (it had previously been $100).

The government has been quick to claim the result as a ringing endorsement of their record and plan for Nauru’s future. In the aftermath of the result Justice Minister David Adeang accused the international media of beating up the accusations against his government as a means of undermining the operation of the Australian Government’s offshore asylum seeker processing centre currently housed on the island. Three of the MPs who had been suspended from the last parliament – Former President Sprent Dabwido, Squire Jeremiah and Mathew Batsiua – lost their seats. Another, Roland Kun, chose not to stand – he has since been granted a New Zealand passport on humanitarian grounds (his Nauruan passport had previously been confiscated on the grounds that he had taken part in anti-government protests and had spoken out against the government in the international media).

Despite the government’s triumphalist tone, this story has a long way left to run. The Australian Federal Police confirmed a week after the election that they were still investigating Getax, the Australian phosphate dealer at the heart of an alleged political corruption scandal. Having left Nauru, Kun is said to be a key witness in that investigation. Needless to say, this is an interesting time in Nauruan politics.


Stewart Firth – Nauru: The Retreat from Democracy and the Coming Election

This is a guest post by Stewart Firth, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Since the election of Nauru’s latest President, Baron Waqa, in 2013, democracy and the rule of law in that country have been under threat. The new government moved quickly to remove key members of the judiciary including the Chief Justice, who was not permitted to re-enter the country after foreign travel. A crackdown on media freedom followed, with foreign journalists effectively excluded by a prohibitive visa fee of US$5,000, and a ban placed on Facebook in order to check criticism of the government. An amendment to the criminal code in 2015 makes the expression of ‘political hatred’, that is to say, disagreement with the government, an offence punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.

As previously reported on Presidential Power, three opposition MPs were suspended from Parliament for ‘talking too much to foreign media’ and bringing their country into disrepute. Since then a further two opposition MPs in the Parliament of 19 have been permanently suspended, leaving a rump of 12 to conduct Nauru’s business. As the 2016 election approaches, the Nauru government is using Parliament to suppress candidature: public servants must now resign three months before the election, and the fee for standing as a candidate has jumped from US$74 to US$1,500.

This creeping authoritarianism has little to do, however, with the institution of the Presidency in Nauru. The Nauru Presidency is a Westminster phenomenon, and the President resembles a prime minister. Under Article 16, 2 of the Nauru constitution, ‘A person is not qualified to be elected President unless he is a member of Parliament.’ Parliament elects the President of Nauru after each election, he or she sits in a Cabinet that is formed from Parliament and is collectively responsible to it, and may be removed along with other ministers on a vote of no confidence.

What has mattered in recent years in Nauru has been the Cabinet, not the President. In fact most observers think the author of Nauru’s retreat from democracy is not President Waqa but instead his Justice Minister David Adeang. Nauru hosts Australia’s asylum seeker detention centre, and Adeang has seized the opportunity created by Australia’s dependence on his country to amass power and suppress dissent, secure in the knowledge that Canberra will offer little criticism. New Zealand has suspended much of its aid to Nauru in protest. Australia has not.

Nauru – Ongoing MP suspensions highlight concerns about democratic freedoms

It has been more than a year since I first wrote on this blog about the suspension of Nauruan MPs from parliament on the grounds that they were being overly critical of the current government’s development strategy. Despite repeated attempts to overturn the ban, the suspension remains. And, in the interim, the situation has escalated.

As long-time readers may recall, the initial controversy surrounded the suspension of three MPs. Since then, the number has risen to five with two further MPs, Sprent Dabwido and Squire Jeremiah, now held in custody for their participation in protests outside parliament. The other three are Dr Kieran Keke, Roland Kun and Matthew Batsiua. Initially Batsiua was also arrested for his role in the protests but has since been released under strict bail conditions. The protests that led to these arrests were related to the ongoing suspensions. The Australian-based lawyer of the accused was recently refused entry into the country to mount a case in their defence.

The suspensions have heightened international interest in the tiny island nation. In June, the Australian Broadcasting Commission reported that a Queensland phosphate importer had allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nauru’s justice minister, David Adeang, the President, Baron Waqa, and other government MPs. Adeang, often cited as the defacto head of government, denied the claims, first raised in the Nauruan parliament in 2009, and accused the Australian media of campaigning to destabilise Nauru. Likewise, President Waqa has stated that its larger neighbours will not bully Nauru and accused the foreign media of bias. In June, he argued that the arrests had nothing to do with the MPs speaking out against the government but reflected the fact that they were ringleaders of a violent protest aimed at toppling a democratically elected government in order to further their thirst for political power. The government has labelled the protest a riot in which several police was injured.

The New Zealand government has been at the forefront of international condemnation of the current state of affairs. In July the parliament unanimously passed a motion expressing concern about the political situation in Nauru. More recently, the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, has suspended aid amounting to around $750,000 annually to Nauru.

Australia, on the other hand, the largest aid donor to Nauru and financier of an asylum seeker processing facility on the island, has refused to go this far. Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has expressed dismay at the way the situation has unfolded and has sought assurances from the Nauruan government that the rule of law will be upheld. New head of the Pacific Island Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, has likewise expressed concern but dismissed the notion that the regional body will take action.

These claims and counter claims have emerged against the backdrop of an Australian parliamentary inquiry into the management and operation of the asylum seeker detention facility on Nauru, including the safety of children and their families from alleged sexual abuse and criminal conduct.

Nauru – Suspensions, standoffs and the perpetual question of confidence

The suspension of three opposition MPs from parliament has resulted in a dramatic standoff in the Pacific nation of Nauru where the Speaker called on the police to remove one of the offending members – Dr Kieren Keke, the other two were out of the country – from the chamber. Protestors later gathered outside the parliament building in support of Dr Keke.

The rationale given for the suspension by Minister of Justice David Adeang was that the three members were ‘talking too much to foreign media’ to the extent that their critical commentary was damaging Nauru’s development. The presence of foreign media has become increasingly controversial on the island since the Australian government reopened its asylum seekers detainee facility for 2012. In mid-2013 a number of detainees rioted, bringing heightened interest from overseas observers. Along with raising the cost of visa applications for foreign media, the government recently dismissed the chief magistrate and barred the chief justice from returning to the country.

The alternative, and perhaps more insidious, explanation for the suspensions is that the government was facing dwindling support and potentially a motion of no-confidence and so needed to shore up its numbers until the current session of parliament was completed.

The question of confidence is a perpetual problem for many Pacific democracies (last week Vanuatu was the most recent example of a government brought down in this fashion). And, as I have outlined in previous posts (here and here), Nauru has more experience with these types of standoffs than most. In part, this is because prior to 2010 the parliament had 18 seats and so always faced potential gridlock. The addition of an extra seat ameliorates this tendency but the absence of political parties means that the President, currently Baron Waqa, who is elected from the floor of parliament, relies on the fluctuating support of ten MPs to retain government.

In other Pacific countries – namely PNG – protections have been introduced to prevent no-confidence motions in the early period of a government’s term. In Nauru, Waqa’s government is barley one year old.

In either case, these are tense times for Nauru where, despite (or perhaps because of) the financial fillip provided by the detention centre, disagreement over who and how the nation should be governed remains shrouded in controversy.