In the lead-up to the election, I thought it would be interesting to write profiles for some prominent MPs or candidates. I’ve decided to start with a former Prime Minister and the newly appointed Minister for Finance, Francis Billy Hilly. He’s had a long career, so I’ve split write-up into two posts. This first post covers his early political career and along the way, discusses the ‘Western breakaway movement of the late 1970s and also the downfall of the Kenilorea government in 1981.
Note: the second post, recounting Billy Hilly’s reign as PM, is now available here.
Francis Billy Hilly – a brief overview
Billy Hilly was born on 20 July 1948 and hails from Emu Harbour, Ranonnga (Western Province). He was educated at King George VI school and then at USP, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Administration). Before entering politics, he worked as a District Officer (1974-75), Clerk to Makira Province (1975) and then as manager of the British Trading Company (or Solomon Trading Company?) in Gizo (1976).
He entered the Legislative Assembly as the member for Ranongga/Simbo in 1976 and held the position until 1984. He regained the seat in 1993 and has retained it thereafter. Consequently, he is one of only three members of parliament to have served six full terms of office. The other two are David Sitai (East Makira) and Job Dudley Tausinga (North New Georgia). (The longest-serving politician, Solomon Mamaloni, served only five full terms – 1973-76 and 1980-97 – but also two partial terms – 1976-77 & 1997-2000.)
During his time in parliament, he has served as Prime Minister (1993-1994), Deputy Prime Minister (1980-81), Opposition Leader (twice, 1994-95 and 2004-06) and held a variety of ministerial portfolios. Most recently (until his appointment as Finance Minister), he was the Minister for Commerce, Industry and Employment in the CNURA government.
First term (1976-80) – the Western breakaway movement
Upon entering the Legislative Assembly, Billy Hilly was immediately appointed Minister for Home Affairs in the Kenilorea government. Just two years later, however, he resigned in a demonstration of support for the ‘Western breakaway movement’ which was lobbying for independence for the Western district.
Decentralisation, local government and nowadays federalism are all longstanding and sensitive issues in Solomons politics. During the 1970s, they were stimulated first by a report by the Special Select Committee on Constitutional Development, which made a series of recommendations about future arrangements for local government. According to Wolfers (1983, pp.155-56):
… from then on, decentralisation of government power became an active and central issue in the politics of constitutional change in Solomon Islands.
Decentralisation was a central part of the agenda of the Mamaloni administration (1974-76) and in 1977, Kenilorea established the Special Committee on Provincial Govenrment (the ‘Kausimae Report’, Ifunaoa 1983, p.198).
It seems that the breakaway movement was mainly due to perceptions that Western District was not receiving its fair share of government revenue and fears of Malaitan domination of the central government (helped by the fact that the Chief Minister (Kenilorea) and the Opposition Leader (Ulufa’alu) were both Malaitan). The movement may also have received some inspiration from threats of secession made by neighbouring Bougainville (Bennett, p.328).
By 1978, it became clear that the Kausimae report would not be completed before independence and the Western breakaway movement began to push for independence. There were a number of protests that year: six members of the Legislative Assembly staged a walkout in April, Billy Hilly himself resigned from cabinet in May, the Western district boycotted the independence celebrations on the 7th of July and and in September, John Talasasa moved a motion of no confidence to protest the defeat of the West’s candidate for Governor General, Geoffrey Beti, by Baddely Devesi (a Guale).
The particular cause of Billy Hilly’s resignation was the the publication of the notorious poem ‘Ode to the West Wind’ which ridicules the West and its independence claims. Initially the poem was thought (erroneously) to have been written by the prime minister’s special political secretary Francis Saemala who, like the PM, was Malaitan (Premdas, Steeves and Larmour 1984, p.55).
A year later, the mood was more conciliatory. A series of actions – a government apology, a compensation payment for the offensive poem, an increased grant for the Western Council and the publication of the Kausimae report in March 1979 – all helped to defuse the tensions. This ensured that, although decentralisation had not yet been achieved, the West joined the celebrations of the first anniversary of independence. For further details on the decentralisation debate and the Western breakaway movement, see Wolfers (1983), Ifunaoa (1983), Premdas, Steeves and Larmour (1984), Moore (2004, pp.41-42, 43-45) and Bennett (1987, pp.325-30).
Although Billy Hilly retained his seat in the Legislative Assembly (and subsequently Parliament), he also contested and won the the provincial assembly seat of South Ranonnga in 1979 and subsequently replaced Jerry Buare to become President of the Western Council (1979-80).
Second term (1980-84) – Deputy PM
After the election in August 1980, the Independent Group held 10 of the 38 seats in Parliament and, alongside Kenilorea’s United Party (16 seats), became the junior coalition partner in government. (For the party performances in the 1980 election, see Premdas and Steeves (1984, Table II) and Steeves (1996, p.120).) The former leader of the Independent Group, Willie Betu, did not return after the election (I’m not sure whether he was defeated or chose not to contest). He was replaced as leader by Billy Hilly, who was then appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health and Medical Services. (Betu was a significant figure in the early years of Solomons politics and had previously been elected to the Legislative Council (1967-70), the Governing Council (1970-73), the Legislative Assembly (1973-78) and Parliament (1978-80).)
(Indeed, according to Fugui and Wate (1994, p.458), it seems that Billy Hilly himself was one of the six defectors who resigned from the coalition. However, I must admit I’m surprised that the defection of the Deputy PM, no less, was not mentioned in other accounts that were written closer to the time.)
Once again Billy Hilly’s ministerial tenure was truncated when he and five other members of the Independent Group resigned and thereby brought about the downfall of the Kenilorea government just a year after it had formed. Apparently Mamaloni had convinced six members the Independent Group, including Billy Hilly, to change sides while Kenilorea was out of the country attending a meeting of the South Pacific Forum. After attempting to rebuild his coalition, Kenilorea eventually resigned on 21 August 1981. (For further details on Kenilorea’s downfall, see Hegarty 1983, p.238, Moore 2004, p.46, and Kenilorea 2008, pp.260-62. Note that both Fugui and Wate (1994, p.458) and Kenilorea (2008, p.261) report that Billy Hilly himself was amongst the defectors.)
There appear to be several reasons for Kenilorea’s downfall, including an economic downturn in 1980 and discontent over the undue control that was perceived to be exercised by public servants, including expatriates (Hegarty 1983, pp.242 -43). However, the third reason was dissatisfaction within the Independent Group over the slow pace of decentralisation. Thus there was a common thread linking both Billy Hilly’s earlier resignation and his resignation as Deputy PM.
Away from politics (1984-93)
[Note: this section added on 23/05/10)] I’ve only found a couple of accounts of Billy Hilly’s activities away from national politics between 1984 and 1993. According to Fugui and Wate (1994, p.458), he:
… did not seek reelection in the 1984 elections. Instead, he successfully ran in the Western Province elections and became president of the Western Provincial Assembly [once again]. In 1989, he ran unsuccessfully for the National Parliament. At the time of the elections in May 1993, he was running a family business.
And Kim Gravelle reported in Islands Business Pacific (July 1993, p.21) that:
Just prior to the general elections, the new prime minister had been living a fairly quiet life in Munda, running a small retail shop and exporting edible copra to Bangladesh. He’s actually from Ranongga, but his wife Fiona is from Munda. … he’d also been acting as a consultant for overseas investors, and as advisor in local projects administration.
After he was returned to parliament in 1993, life was to change much more dramatically than he expected. To be continued … here!
- Bennett, J (1987) Wealth of the Solomons: a history of a Pacific archipelago, 1800-1997, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
- Fraenkel, J (2004) The Manipulation of Custom: from uprising to intervention in the Solomon Islands, Pandanus Books, Sydney
- Fugui, J M, and Wate, M (1994), ‘Solomon Islands in Review: Issues and Events, 1993‘ The Contemporary Pacific Vol 6, No 2, pp.457-63
- Gravelle, K (1993) ‘The new man in charge in Honiara’ Islands Business Pacific (July 1993), p.21
- Kenilorea, P (2008), Tell it as it is: autobiography of Rt. Hon. Sir Peter Kenilorea, KBE, PC, Academia Sinica, Taipei
- Hegarty, D (1983), ‘The change of Government, 1981’ in Larmour, P with Tarua, S (Eds), Solomon Islands politics, pp.238-50
- Ifunaoa, W (1983), ‘Implementing provincial government’ in Larmour, P with Tarua, S (Eds), Solomon Islands politics, pp.196-207
- Moore, C (2004) Happy Isles in Crisis: the historical hauses for a failing state in Solomon Islands, 19982004, Asia Pacific Press, Canberra, pp.55-58
- Premdas, R and Steeves, J (1981) ‘The Solomon Islands: first elections after independence’ Journal of Pacific History, Vol.16, No.4, pp.190-202.
- Premdas, R and Steeves, J (1983), ‘The Solomon Islands: problems of political change’ The Round Table, No.285, p.53.
- Premdas, R, Steeves, J, and Larmour, P (1984), ‘The Western Breakaway Movement in the Solomon Islands’, Pacific Studies, Vol.7, No.2, pp.55-57
- Solomon Islands Parliament web site – profile of Francis Billy Hilly
- Steeves, J (1996) ‘Unbounded politics in the Solomon Islands: leadership and party alignments’ Pacific Studies, Vol.19, No.2, pp.115‑38.
- Wolfers, T (1983), ‘Centralisation and decentralisation until independence’ in Larmour, P with Tarua, S (Eds), Solomon Islands politics, pp.146-63