The Billy Hilly govt (1993-94)

This post is the continuation of a profile of Francis Billy Hilly (the current Finance Minister and former Prime Minister). In my earlier post, I summarised his early political career from 1976-84 and the nine subsequent years he spent away from national politics.

This post discusses his return to parliament in the 1993 election, his subsequent appointment as Prime Minister, the policies his government pursued and finally the constitutional crisis in October 1994 that preceded Billy Hilly’s downfall.

Election as Prime Minister (1993)

On Wednesday 26 May 1993, a mere 15 votes put Billy Hilly (781 votes, 37.8%) ahead of the incumbent Rueben Lilo (766 votes, 37.0%). Lilo was an unusual casualty in the 1993 election as he was one of just seven incumbents not to be re-elected. (The success of so many incumbents is probably due to the expansion in the number of seats from 38 to 47 and also the introduction, in March 1993, of a $100,000 discretionary fund which has now become the infamous Rural Constituency Development Fund.)

Billy Hilly’s return to parliament was clearly a tight battle but his next achievement, which saw him sworn in as Prime Minister on the 18th of June, was even more of an against-the-odds victory. Billy Hilly eventually defeated Solomon Mamaloni, who had been prime minister for the entire previous term of parliament. (Albeit as head of two different governments: initially Mamaloni led a government formed by the People’s Alliance Party (PAP) but in 1990, he defected from the PAP and formed the Government National Unity and Reconciliation, GNUR. The details of his defection are a story for another day.)

Following the election, it at first appeared that Mamaloni remained dominant: his GNUR grouping had won 20 or 21 of the 47 seats, almost achieving a majority in their own right. (Note: Steeves (1996, p.130) and Premdas and Steeves (1995, Table 2, p.46) both state that GNUR won 20 seats, which is consistent with the party designations in the Election Report published by the SI Electoral Commission. However, Fugui and Wate (1994, p.457) and Alasia (1997, p.12) both state that GNUR won 21 seats.)

Mamaloni faced a concerted opposition, however. Francis Saemala (head of the newly created National Action Party of Solomon Islands, NAPSI) led the efforts to form the National Coalition Partnership (NCP), an unlikely amalgm of six parties and several independents (including Billy Hilly) who were united mainly in their determination to prevent Mamaloni’s return to power. This determination was due, in part, to allegations of corruption, economic mismanagement and erratic leadership.

The six coalition members and their leaders were as follows (see Fugui and Wate (1994, p.457) and Steeves (1996, p.130) for details):

  • the PAP (Denis Lulei)
  • NAPSI (Saemala)
  • the United Party (Ezekiel Alebua)
  • the Labour Party (Joses Tuhanuku)
  • the National Front for Progress (NFP, Andrew Nori)
  • the Solomon Islands Christian Leaders Fellowship (aka Christian Fellowship Group, aka Christian Action Party, Reverend Michael Maeliau)

Even winning the leadership of the NCP was a challenging task. Steeves (1996, p.130) says that Billy Hilly only defeated Saemala on the fifth and final ballot, which suggests that four of the other parties also nominated candidates in the contest. Interestingly, Steeves says that Billy Hilly won by 16 votes to 10 (a total of 26) and yet when the vote for prime minister occurred, he only won by the narrowest of margins – 24 to 23. It seems that two votes had floated away in the meantime: such is the way of Melanesian politics.

Early challenges to the Billy Hilly government

Billy Hilly’s position was precarious and in the months after he was sworn in, he had to fend off several challenges just to keep the coalition together. The first of these was a legal challenge to his own election as PM. The Constitution (section 144(1) – Interpretation) states that:

In this Constitution, unless the context otherwise requires … “absolute majority” means at least one half of all the members plus one

Half of the 47 members plus one equals 24.5 and so, in a bizarre move, Mamaloni argued that to achieve at least half the members plus one, it was necessary to receive 25 votes and therefore Billy Hilly had not achieved the absolute majority required to become Prime Minister.

Apparently Mamaloni’s lawyer went to some lengths, citing numerous legal precedents, to establish the correct meaning of ‘at least’ and then argue that the definition indeed required 25 votes. It seems that the Court (and the Governor General’s lawyer, Andrew Radclyffe) accepted this argument but chose to focus instead on the get-out clause: “unless the context otherwise requires”. Common sense prevailed and on 8 October 1993, Justice Palmer dismissed Mamaloni’s application.

The new government faced further uncertainty as a slew of election petitions (at least seven, perhaps as many as 10) were considered by the courts. In an earlier post on election petitions, I noted that the large number of petitions was probably due to: the NCP’s slender majority, the increased potential for irregularities due to the recent introduction of a SI$100,000 ‘discretionary fund’ for MPs, and the determination of the ousted veteran, Solomon Mamaloni.

Most of the petitions failed, with one important exception. In East Honiara, the victory of key Mamaloni ally and GNUR spokesperson Charles Dausabea was declared void due to illegal voting practices (the decision by Chief Justice Muria was handed down on 23 November 1993). Dausabea was eventually replaced by the petitioner and Billy Hilly supporter, John Maetia Kauliuae.

The coalition faced a further challenge in November, when the recently appointed PAP leader and Minister for Education and Training, Dennis Lulei, resigned from the PAP and expressed his support for the opposition. It seems that Lulei felt he deserved a more senior portfolio given the size of the PAP bloc – it claimed 6-9 MPs. By contrast, NAPSI only claimed three MPs but its leader, Francis Saemala, became Deputy PM thanks to his efforts to bring the NCP together. (The PAP’s position had been weakened by the election defeats of its two leaders – President, David Kausimae, and Secretary-General, Edward Kingmele.)

Lulei was sacked for his insubordination and two other PAP members and Ministers – Eric Seri and Allan Paul – resigned shortly thereafter, although it seems that Allan Paul later decided to rejoin. Around the same time, a member of the former GNUR government, Walter Folotalu, joined the NCP and replaced Lulei as Minister for Education.

Despite all this turmoil, Fugui and Wate (1994, p.459) stated that:

… things seemed to be settling down as months passed and most of the petitions to the High Court failed, and the coalition’s position appeared much more secure. … At the end of the year, it was again strengthened by the approval of three additional ministries during the December sitting of Parliament, and the Mamaloni camp seemed resigned to their defeat, if not exhausted.

And by March 1994, Islands Business Pacific (p.22) stated that Billy Hilly had “increased his parliamentary strength to 27 members … in February when a Hilly supporter [presumably Maetia Kauliuae] won a by-election”. Unfortunately, these signs of stability were illusory and the government would fall just seven months later.

The Mamaloni legacy

The policies of the Billy Hilly government were very much a response to the legacy of the previous Mamaloni government and this is reflected in the discussion below. I have focused on four key areas – foreign affairs, economic management, logging and then various other issues. The problem of corruption is a common thread running throughout much of the discussion.

Foreign affairs

Conflict broke out in Bougainville in 1989 and its ramifications extended beyond PNG into the Solomons. The government had ‘recorded at least twenty-two incursions and illegal crossings by PNG soldiers and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army prior to September 1992’ (Wate 1993, p.425). Then, in September 1992, the PNG Defence Force raided Komaliae (or Kamaleai) village on Alu Island in the Shortlands, killing two, injuring a third and taking an alleged BRA-supporter captive for several days.

This tragic incident and the earlier incursions unquestionably required a stern response. However, it seems that Mamaloni’s actions were not so much stern as angry and petulant, leading to a severe breakdown in PNG-Solomons relations (see, for example, Premdas and Steeves 1995, p.43).

One of the first acts of the new government was to seek to normalise relations between the two nations by announcing a meeting of their foreign ministers (Islands Business Pacific, July 1993, p.21) and thereafter, it did its best to help broker a resolution to the conflict. In early 1994, Billy Hilly chaired a Honiara meeting of PNG officials and representatives from the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG). And later in the year, he ‘again played a prominent role’ when the new PNG PM, Julius Chan, and BRA Military Commander General Kauona met and signed the Honiara Commitments (Dorney 2001, pp.134-35).

Economic management

Although it is hard to get reliable economic data for the period, it seems clear that economic management under the Mamaloni government was poor. In very simple terms, the test of ‘good economic management’ for Solomons at that time amounted to: (i) achieving a balanced budget that was based on (ii) attempts to control unnecessary spending (for example, by restricting the increases in the size and wages of the public service) and also (iii) attempts to improve revenue collection (for example, through fewer exemptions and improved enforcement of logging revenues).

Mamaloni and his Finance Minister, Christopher Colombus Abe, failed on each of these measures. It appears that government spending increased strongly during the period, with the result that the government ran persistent budget deficits, despite repeated warnings from the Central Bank for the government to exercise greater fiscal control. In response to the steady accumulation of debt, the government tried to raise extra revenue, but instead of addressing underlying problems of exemptions or enforcement, it sought to introduce new taxes or privatise government assets (a classic case of selling the house to try to pay the rent).

The Mamaloni government also sought overseas finance to fund its debts. One such loan proposal precipitated the 1990 political crisis that led to Mamaloni’s defection from the PAP (Premdas and Steeves 1995, p.36). Later efforts to procure debt finance turned to farce when the Finance Minister, Christopher Colombus Abe, and a new MP, Alex Bartlett, signed a US$250 million loan purportedly on behalf of the Central Bank but in fact without its knowledge. (To give a sense of scale, my estimate is that this loan would have been almost three times the size of the entire 1992 budget.) Abe also began negotiations for a US$1 billion loan with a Middle Eastern financial organisation (Moore 2004, p.55).

In its 1993 Annual Report, the Central Bank  (reported in Island Business Pacific, July 1993, p.21) summed up the situation:

Sustained growth is seriously weakened by expenditure-driven fiscal imbalance, lack of coherence in policy making, and the politicisation of resource management.

I don’t have any overall budget figures for either 1993 or 1994 but it it is clear that the Billy Hilly government was more receptive to the Central Bank’s advice and it appears that it did subsequently attempt to exert more control over government spending (see, for example, Islands Business, October 1993, p.45 and Fugui and Wate 1994, p.461).

Logging

During the early 1990s, logging of Solomons’ forests surged in response to higher timber prices and a compliant government (according to Moore (2004, p.58), ‘Mamaloni was the loggers’ friend’). However, the Central Bank reported that there was evidence that ‘a large fraction of these prices was not being remitted to or taxed in the Solomon Islands’ (CBSI, reported in Islands Business Pacific, October 1993, p.45).

The new government decided to take the loggers on:

… the government decided to slowly phase out logging, to encourage local processing of logs, and to conserve forest resources. To effect its policy on timber and forest resources, the coalition would place a moratorium on the granting of licenses to logging companies, effective early in 1994. (Fugui and Wate 1994, p.460)

The logging companies clearly took the threat seriously. By December 1993, Islands Business magazine reported in its Whispers section that:

At least one foreign logging company is whispered to be helping with air fares and other costs for politicians travelling around the islands on missions to subvert political loyalties and restore Mamaloni.

But despite the government’s best efforts, logging remained at unsustainable levels in 1994 and allegedly played a hand in the government’s subsequent downfall. Joses Tuhanuku (1995, p.69), who was Minister for Forests, Environment and Conservation for the latter part of the Billy Hilly government, reported later that:

During my time as Minister, foreign logging companies persistently showed a blatant disregard for the nation’s laws, regulations and policy of the government of the day. Confident in the knowledge that our resources were limited, and our ability to monitor their activities almost nonexistent, they preyed on ill-informed communities and plundered in months a resource which could have provided these people with an ongoing income for decades.

… the estimated sustainable harvest for our primary forests was 325,000 cubic metres annually. The reality was in stark contrast to this. By the end of 1994 more than 600,000 cubic metres had been extracted and exported.

When my colleague, the Finance Minister, attempted to recoup some of the revenue lost through transfer pricing, under declaration of export logs and other illegal but largely undetected practices, by increasing the export duty on round logs, the logging companies chose to defy the elected government of the day and withheld shipments, demanding the tax be removed.

As Minister responsible, I directed that the code of conduct be drafted and there was already new legislation in the form of drafting instructions awaiting passage through parliament. That was as far as I could get before there was a change of government in October last year—this was, I believe, the making of foreign logging companies.

Other: public service & doctors dispute

By the end of the Mamaloni regime, the inefficiency and poor service provided by the bureaucracy had become a significant election issue (at least in party manifestos, if not in constituency-level campaigning, see Premdas and Steeves, 1995, pp.37-43). According to the Central Bank, the public service was both ‘inefficient and demoralised’ (reported in Islands Business magazine, October 1993, p.45).

The Billy Hilly administration undertook a number of steps to address these issues. It ‘tackled corruption with a focus on land, housing and vehicle abuses by Honiara politicians and public servants’ (Moore 1994, p.57) and:

The permanent secretary positions that had been contracted out by the Mamaloni government were revoked in October … and were reestablished under the normal public service employment structure. … Permanent secretary salaries, placed on a permanent basis instead of contractual employment, were reduced from Sl$60,000 to $43,000 a year. (Fugui and Wate 1994, p.461)

There had been a long-running pay dispute with the national doctors that led to many refusing to work in the public system. This came to an end in October 1993 after ‘Prime Minister Hilly personally invited the doctors to discuss the conditions of the new contract with him.’ (Fugui and Wate 1994, pp.461-62)

Constitutional crisis and downfall (Sept-Nov 1994)

The Billy Hilly regime is generally highly regarded but it wasn’t all peaches and roses. It entrenched and increased the value of Mamaloni’s ‘discretionary fund’ in the form of the SI$200,000 pa ‘Constituency Development Fund’. The first Honiara casino license was also issued during this time (Moore 2004, p.57).

And on 7 September 1994, the Finance Minister Andrew Nori was forced to resign following allegations that he had improperly benefitted from the sale of the former Government House (a government asset). Outside of politics, Nori was a private lawyer and he had acted on behalf of a foreign investor (who apparently sold the building back to the government a short time later, at a considerable profit). Nori received a commission or fee of SI$1.185 million however, according to Kenilorea (2008, p.280), ‘an official investigation by the Leadership Code Commision into Nori’s dealing in that matter … found no misconduct in office’. (See also Moore 2004, p.57 and Steeves 1996, p.131).

Nori’s resignation seems to have been the beginning of the end. Four more Ministers resigned in quick succession (Steeves 1996, p.131 and n.48):

  • Oliver Zapo (Minister for Provincial Government, 27 September),
  • John Musuota (Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, a member of the Christian Action Party, 30 September)
  • Alfred Maetia (Minister for Sports, Youth, and Women’s Affairs, 4 October)
  • Edmund Andresen (Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, also 4 October)

(It was later alleged that these Ministers had been induced to change sides through bribes offered by businessman Robert Goh. See postscript below.)

It was clear that Billy Hilly no longer had the numbers but he was determined to persevere by delaying the next sitting of parliament until November, when the budget had to be considered. The Governor General, Moses Pitakaka, was not prepared to wait, however, and he insisted that Billy Hilly convene parliament or resign. Billy Hilly refused to do either and so, on 13 October, the Governor General sacked him.

A constitutional crisis ensured. The Attorney General Frank Kabui (subsequently a High Court judge and chairman of the Law Reform Commisson and now himself Governor General) filed a series of questions with the High Court that challenged the Governor General’s actions. The questions were referred directly to the Court of Appeal, which happened to be sitting at the time and its initial judgment was handed down on 22 October (for the legally minded, the judgments from the Court of Appeal are available here and here).

My impression is that the Court of Appeal, having ruled on key questions of law, then left the matter for the High Court to decide. Thus, on 26 October, Justice Palmer of the High Court, handed down his decision that Billy Hilly remained Prime Minister until he resigned or was voted out in a motion of no confidence.

Apparently, the Governor General may at some stages have been receiving legal advice from the ever-controversial Julian Moti (see postscript below.) In any event, the Governor General seems to have ignored the High Court’s decision and on the very same day, he proceeded to appoint Solomon Mamaloni as caretaker Prime Minister.

And then to complicate matters further, on 29 October the Court of Appeal intervened again to set aside Justice Palmer’s decision on the basis that Parliament was to convene on the 31st and that it could resolve the matter then without the Courts having to make a judgment about who was or wasn’t PM.

Thus, for six days (October 26 to 31), Solomons effectively had two prime ministers. But by the 31st, the game was up for Billy Hilly and he resigned. He refused to contest the subsequent vote for Prime Minister and on 7 November, Mamaloni officially became Prime Minister after defeating Baddeley Devesi by 29 votes to 18.

Postscripts to the crisis

There are a couple of interesting postscripts to this story.

First, in his political review of Solomons for 1996, Kabutaulaka (1997, p.487-88) writes:

In early 1996 the country was still trying to deal with issues inherited from previous years, particularly the political bickering and constitutional crisis of late 1994, which resulted in the collapse of the National Coalition Party (NCP) government led by Francis Billy Hilly. The most dramatic aspect of this event was the allegation that five cabinet ministers of the NCP government had defected to join Solomon Mamaloni’s Solomon Islands National Unity and Reconciliation Party (SINURP) after receiving bribes from Robert Goh, a Honiara businessman and director of Goh and Partners Public Accountants.

The five defectors were later charged with corruption and appeared before the Magistrate’s Court for a preliminary hearing in January 1996. During the court hearing Robert Goh admitted that he had paid for hired cars and accommodation for the five who had by then become cabinet ministers in the SINURP government: Alfred Maetia (Education), John Musuota (Posts and Telecommunications), Edmund Andreson (Agriculture and Fisheries), Francis Orodani (Lands and Housing), and Oliver Zapo (Justice).

… In late August, Orodani and Musuota were fired by the prime minister along with two other cabinet ministers, although it was unclear whether this was related to the corruption saga. Orodani was acquitted in November, but the office of the director of public prosecutions planned to appeal the ruling.

It seems that in addition to the resignations that I noted earlier, Francis Orodani had also resigned from the Billy Hilly government very late in the piece, on 5 November. The relevant High Court decisions for Orodani, Musuota, Andresen and Zapo are available on the PacLII web site. I was unable to find any documentation of a case involving Alfred Maetia.

In all four cases, it was agreed that the accused had received use of a hire car from Robert Goh or, in one case, from another prominent Honiara businessman, Bobo Dettke. Orodani and Zapo were found not guilty however Musuota and Andresen were found guilty of having breached the Leadership Code for: (i) allowing their ‘integrity to be called into question’; and (ii) accepting ‘any gift or other benefit or advantage’ in a way that ‘appears improper or unbecoming of a leader’.

The court does not have regarded these breaches as very serious however, because the sentence for Musuota was only SI$900 (or else four months in prison). I could not find any report of sentencing for Andresen.

In several cases, Ezekiel Alebua also gave evidence that Robert Goh had earlier offered him $100,000, a car and accommodation to induce him (Alebua) to resign. Alebua refused. Curiously, Goh was never charged in relation to any of these incidents. I suspect the reason for this is that Goh was not a ‘leader’ for the purpose of the Leadership Code and that it would be much harder to prosecute the case against other relevant legislation.

(In a subsequent case, Allan Paul was charged with attempted bribery for allegedly offering SI$10,000 to Oliver Zapo and Edmond Andresen to change sides. My impression from the court’s decision is that it was not denied that offers were made but Paul (supported by Zapo and Andresen) argued that it was all a joke and not seriously intended. He was found not guilty on these counts, although he was found guilty on other, separate matters.)

The second postscript is that a young Julian Moti may have also played a role in the crisis, at least according to Kenilorea (2008, p.330) who states that:

It was then rumoured that the Governor-General might have sought his legal advice on this matter from Julian Moti.

The background is that early in 1993, the Mamaloni government had hired Moti as a consultant to the Investment Corporation of Solomon Islands (ICSI), on a seven-month SI$200,000 contract. The position was funded by the European Commission but apparently the EC stopped the funding when Moti was found to have acted outside his terms of reference. He must have done something to get people upset because the Billy Hilly government then declared him persona non grata for two years (Kenilorea 2008, pp.330-31).

Conclusion

In all, Billy Hilly’s government seems an admirable one. During his tenure, concerted efforts were made to address some of the fundamental problems facing the country, primarily in the form of rampant logging, corruption and economic  mismanagement. And it seems clear that those very actions were what brought it undone, as vested interests fought hard alongside Mamaloni to persuade government members to defect.

In retrospect, the Billy Hilly government looks like the last desparate effort to halt a decline in governance that, at the very least, created fertile ground for the ‘Tensions’ that broke out less than five years later.

When I get time, I will add one final post on Billy Hilly’s career from 1995 onwards.

Note (16/07/10): I have corrected details regarding Frank Kabui in response to a comment (below).

Additional References

(Note: I have only listed additional references not already listed in my earlier post.)

Articles in Islands Business magazine:

  • (July 1993) Gravelle, K ‘The new man in charge in Honiara’, pp.20-23
  • (July 1993) ‘Tricky voyage ahead for Solomons’, pp.14-15
  • (Oct 1993) ‘This government the Honiara business community finds easier’, p.45
  • (Dec 1993) ‘Foreign investments’, p.13
  • (March 1994) ‘Gaining a lead’, p.22
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2 Responses to “The Billy Hilly govt (1993-94)”

  1. FYI Says:

    The Attorney General Frank Kabui (subsequently Chief Justice and now himself Governor General) ….. correction: Kabui was never a Chief Justice …. he was only a judge. Specifically he was AG, then Judge, then Chairman of Law reform commisson, then GG.

    The only Chief Justices we have in living memory are Chief Justices Ward (english guy who later served in tonga), Muria (according to some perceptions, a friend of Moti) and now Palmer.

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