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.

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