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Melanesian messages [Julian Moti]

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Wednesday 11 October 2006

Carole Colville, lecturer in journalism, Central Queensland University


Melanesian messages

In Australia prosperity is measured in consumables, the size of your house, the make of your car, or the cut of your clothes. But for our South Pacific neighbours, wealth means how much you share with others, how many you can feed in your house or pay school fees or transport for. It also means access to land, granted according to your place in the tribal hierarchy.

This distinction goes a long way to explaining why Australians have trouble understanding the cultural messages underlying the case of the Solomon Islands now suspended, Attorney General Julian Moti.

Due legal process has been at the heart of Australia's righteous efforts to bring him to justice. But so far there's been little said about due process in a Melanesian sense and someone from that world wouldn't take more than a nanosecond to recognise that Australia has totally misunderstood the cultural incubation at work in the Moti Affair.

He faces charges under Australian sex tourism laws of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year-old Vanuatu girl, alleged to have occurred nine years ago when he was 32. The age of consent for sexual relations in Melanesian law hinges on a female being at least in her teens and suffering no vaginal injury. It was not uncommon in the past for a 13-year old girl to be married to a chief many times her age, if the tribal elders believed it was beneficial for both extended families to have their land joined in wedlock.

The facts of the Moti case are far from clear. But I'd be surprised if the relationship, that apparently continued for some time didn't have the approval of the parents who may have also shared financial and other benefits that came from an association with a rich outsider. How the relationship ended is also not clear. But it's been reported that Moti paid some money to the family, either as an appeasement payment to keep peace with his former in-laws or compensation that acknowledged some hurt had been inflicted.

In either case, everyone involved should forever hold their peace and anyone dragging it up is considered grossly out of order and may themselves have to pay compensation.

In Melanesian terms, Australia's insistence on bringing this man to court at this time is scratching the scar, or a case of double jeopardy, unfair and unruly because it's disturbing the peace.

As an editor of a Solomon Islands newspaper, it was my duty to understand these matters, which brings me to the question of the April riots in Honiara that caused the near-total destruction of Chinatown.

Melanesian riot crowds presented quite a challenge on occasions when the paper was the target of outrage because some front-page story had ruffled someone's feathers. But I learnt to relax when I realised the shouts, threats and menacing manners were precursors to behind-the-scenes discussions between tribal chiefs. We didn't countenance retractions but honourable outcomes were secured for both sides through quiet exchanges of some form of compensation. Perhaps if the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) had understood similar "precursors" were at work before the riots broke out, the aftermath may have been different.

In Melanesia, there can be no reconciliation between tribes or states until everyone's failings have been flushed out for all to see. Only then can the chiefs apportion blame and the appropriate compensation pass from hand-to-hand to achieve lasting peace.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare has stood fast against Australia's opposition to a Commission of Enquiry into the Riots. He insists it can run parallel with the court case trying two MPs as instigators. Julian Moti is paying the price for advising the Prime Minister on terms of reference that would shine the light on the actions of RAMSI, along with everyone else involved in the riots.

The Australian Government too often sees indignity as ingratitude but the irony of John Howard's recently announced policy that all immigrants should understand the values of their adopted country is not lost in Melanesia where it's said Australian police and troops should be doing the same.


Carole Colville  

Lecturer in Journalism 

Central Queensland University

Former Editor 

Solomon's Voice