On 23 April, long-serving parliamentarian, David Sitai, announced that he will retire from politics at the end of the current term of parliament (SIBC, 23/04/10, subscribers only). When he steps down, Sitai will have served as the member for East Makira for six consecutive terms (from 1984-2010), making him one of the longest-serving MPs in Solomons’ political history, alongside Solomon Mamaloni, Francis Billy Hilly and Job Duddley Tausinga.
This post looks at Sitai’s achievements in parliament and as a Minister, reviews his background prior to entering politics and comments on his recent electoral performance. The post concludes with a survey of possible contenders for the seat of East Makira.
Unlike other very long-serving MPs, Sitai had relatively few opportunities at the ministerial level. During his 26 years in parliament, he spent perhaps only three on the front bench. He was a minister for much of the last Mamaloni government, first as Minister for National Planning and Development (from 1994 to 1996) and then as Minister for Foreign Affairs from September 1996 to August 1997. According to his Wikipedia entry, he briefly regained the Foreign Affairs portfolio in the final months of the first Sogavare regime, from July to December 2001 (although this is not mentioned on his CV on the Solomons parliament web site).
In the most recent parliamentary term, he has served as Chair of the Parliamentary House Committee (since January 2008), as a member of the Constitution Review Committee (since May 2006) and as a member of SOE boards.
One of his opponents in the 2006 election, George H. Kuata, wrote a letter to the Solomon Star paying tribute to Sitai:
David’s most significant contribution is that which the National Parliament Building project is funded and built. If not for your “controversial” motion the prestigious Parliament building will be years away.
However, in his ‘tribute’, Mr Kuata also mentions that:
David your name has become a household name in east Makira, you are the most talked about subject for the last 24 years, the most criticised (politically) person in east Makira and to an extent your name and that of the late S.S. Mamaloni have been associated with the “Makira Helicopters”.
Foreign Affairs Minister (1996-97)
I haven’t been able to find any record of Sitai’s performance as Planning Minister (1994-96). However, it seems that during his short tenure as Foreign Affairs Minister in 1996-97, Sitai made modest progress in improving Solomons’ relations with both PNG and Australia.
In July 1997, he signed the Basic Border Agreement with Papua New Guinea’s Foreign Minister, Kilroy Genia. And according to Ambrose (1997, p.496):
Relations with Australia were affected by the furor over logging, particularly the cancellation of Australian funding for the Timber Control Unit, which was established as part of a forestry aid project. This was designed to indicate Australia’s displeasure with the Solomon Islands government’s unsustainable logging policy. However, relations were beginning to improve by the last quarter of 1996. Foreign Minister David Sitai visited Canberra in November and met his Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer. They discussed, among other things, the logging issue. Sitai stated after the meeting that there is now a better understanding between the two governments.
David Sitai was born in Star Harbour, Makira, in 1948. He was the eldest son of Silas Sitai, who, from 1971 until his death in October 1972, was the first Solomon Islander Chair of the Governing Council, a role equivalent to Speaker of Parliament (Kenilorea 2008, p.159).
David Sitai graduated from King George VI School and then from University of South Pacific with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Before entering Parliament, he worked for Levers Pacific Plantation (Yandina, Russell Islands), as an officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and finally in the Makira provincial administration, first as Planning Officer before he was promoted to Provincial Secretary.
Whilst an officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sitai authored a short article titled ‘Low cost diplomacy’ in Larmour (ed.) 1983, Solomon Island politics, pp.220-237. The article surveys Solomons’ key bilateral and regional diplomatic partners and advocates the ‘roving envoy model’ as a low-cost alternative to permanent overseas diplomatic missions.
At 62 years of age, it is undestandable that Sitai wants to retire. However, he may also have read the political mood, as Sitai’s electoral performance appears to have declined steadily in recent elections. In 1993, he won 51% of the vote and convincingly defeated the next closest candidate, who got 20%, less than half Sitai’s vote. His personal vote fell in 2001 but he still won out easily over his nearest rival, 30% to 17%. But by 2006, he won 25.3% of the vote, edging out Alfred Ghiro (23.1%) by only 92 votes.
The contest for East Makira
So who might succeed Sitai in East Makira at the upcoming election? Aside from Alfred Ghiro (mentioned above), there are a few other candidates from the 2006 election who may be worth watching:
- Fred Pagewa Fanua came in 3rd with 11.8% of the vote and did even better in 2001, when he was second only to Sitai himself.
- Doreen Kuper’s result (4th, 11.6% of the vote) put her amongst the strongest female candidates in 2006.
- Finally, the 5th-placed George Kuata (10.0% of the vote) has perhaps already signalled his intention to run with the ‘tribute letter‘ to Sitai that I mentioned earlier.
- Ambrose, D (1997) ‘Melanesia in review: issues and events 1996‘, The Contemporary Pacific, Vol 9 No 2 (Fall 1997), p.496
- Kenilorea, P (2008) Tell it as it is: Autobiography of RT Hon Sir Peter Kenilorea , KBE, PC, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
- Sitai, D (1983) ‘Low cost diplomacy’ in Larmour (Ed.), Solomon Island politics, pp.220-237
- Solomon Islands parliament web site – profile of David Sitai
- David Sitai – Wikipedia entry