British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Brian Bresnihan (Administrative Officer, New Hebrides 1971-80; Hong Kong 1980-97)
On Being a Pacific Sea-Dog
Don Quixote
In March 1953 Keith Woodward arrived in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu after independence in 1980) where he was to spend his entire colonial career in the British Administration and where he played a pivotal role in the constitutional development of the unique Anglo-French Condominium, particularly in the years leading up to independence.

Because of his poor eyesight Woodward's initial rank in the Administration was that of Office Assistant. However his superiors were not slow to recognize his talents and in 1957 he was promoted into the Administrative grade. Woodward was subsequently to serve in virtually all areas of government, including education, health and agriculture, and in the process, helped by a highly retentive memory, he acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of the New Hebrides. In 1968 he was appointed Secretary for Political Affairs and he was to remain in this post until his retirement ten years later.

Located in the South Pacific and comprising roughly 80 islands with an overall population in 1967 of about 70,000 the New Hebrides was jointly administered by Great Britain and France under arrangements set out in a 1914 protocol. This Anglo-French Condominium was an unwieldy and cumbersome system of government and for that and other reasons this group of islands remained a largely forgotten and neglected dependent territory until well after World War II.

In 1958 an Advisory Council was established. In the world of decolonization this was then generally deemed to be the first in a series of gradual steps along the road to independence. However, as in many other ways, the Condominium did not follow the precedents set elsewhere. Over the years from 1958 the Advisory Council was gradually made more representative, but by the late 1960s constitutional advance had effectively stalled. The Metropolitan Governments, and particularly the French Government, were unwilling to take the next necessary steps towards preparing the country for internal self-government and ultimately independence. All this was soon to change, a change propelled forward in great measure by the founding in 1971 of the New Hebrides Cultural Association by an Anglican priest. Father Walter Uni, and some other prominent anglophone Melanesians. In 1973 this Association was transformed into the National Party (NP) and by then widespread calls for independence were being made. The following year, in response to these developments, the francophone community came together and formed two further political parties, the Union des Communautes des Nouvelles Hebrides and the Mouvement Autonomiste des Nouvelles Hebrides, the latter being largely based in Santo in the north of the archipelago. In the poisoned political atmosphere which permeated the final years of the Condominium the scene was then set for what was to become at times a bitter and byzantine struggle between the two political groupings, a struggle which also saw them turn on the Colonial powers and frequently saw the two Administrations pitted one against the other. All this was the backdrop to Woodward's most significant contribution to the New Hebrides.

In November 1974 an Anglo-French ministerial meeting was held in London to discuss the New Hebrides. In preparation for that meeting Woodward was effectively the think tank on the British side and it was he, in consultation with his colleagues in the French Residency, who drafted the proposals which were considered and agreed by Ministers. Chief amongst them was a decision to establish a representative assembly with wide-sweeping powers, to be elected largely by universal suffrage. Political circumstances dictated that this decision should be implemented as soon as possible and Woodward toiled tirelessly to that end.

Vive Le Royaume Uni!
Joint Courts
The difficulties he faced were enormous. Universal suffrage elections had never been held before in the New Hebrides and the whole electoral framework had to be built from scratch. The islands of the archipelago are far flung and notoriously difficult of access, resources were scarce, the transport infrastructure was rudimentary, the communication system was primitive and limited in its coverage and a significant proportion of the population was illiterate. It fell largely to Woodward not only to devise the electoral system but to oversee from the capital. Port Vila, the whole election operation itself. In his A Political Memoir of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides he generously pays tribute to others who played a role, principally Paul Treadwell QC, who as Attorney-General drafted the requisite legislation, and Gordon Norris a fellow Administrative Officer who amongst other things applied his remarkable organizational skills in drawing up detailed guidelines for polling officers on Election Day. Jacques Fabre, the Chancelier in the French Residency had a major input. There were also many others like the French and British District Agents (as District Commissioners were called in the Condominium) who organized the electoral registration on the ground, and ensured that all went smoothly within their respective bailiwicks on Election Day. And of course there were the hundreds of men and women who travelled to the furthermost points of the archipelago to register the population, and subsequently deliver ballot papers and preside over polling stations. Flowever it was Woodward who carried the principal burden for the overall exercise and the electoral system finally adopted was his brain child.

In drawing up that system there were two considerations uppermost in his mind - fairness and simplicity. The system had to ensure that the number of seats obtained by any one political party corresponded reasonably closely to its percentage of the votes cast and, whilst safe-guarding against fraud, it also had to be simple enough so that first time often illiterate voters did not unwittingly spoil their ballots. The principle of fairness was mainly addressed by dividing large areas into multi-seat constituencies. Thus on the island of Malekula, for example, a three-seat constituency with a substantial NP majority, the widely separated francophone communities would stand a reasonable chance of gaining a seat which would probably be denied to them in any first-past-the-post, single seat constituency arrangement. He did toy with the idea of a fully proportional representation system such as is operated in the Republic of Ireland. However he rejected this suggestion because of its complexity and opted for a simpler approach with the elector only voting for one candidate, as distinct from a list of candidates in order of preference.

In all of this, sight was not lost of the need for the system to be simple. As developed, the intention was that on entering the polling station, the elector, his name having been checked against the list of registered voters, would be handed a bunch of ballot papers each inscribed with the name of a candidate, and bearing the symbols and colours of the individual political parties. All the elector would then have to do was go into the polling booth and place in a box the ballot paper bearing the name of his candidate of choice. This all seems perfectly simple. However, in multi-seat constituencies, there was an additional problem. How would the illiterate voter be able to distinguish one of his party's candidates from the other? This was important not only for the elector's sake but also because e.g. the NP supporter on Malekula was likely to be voting under instruction from his party as to which of two or three candidates to select, if bunching of votes on any single candidate was to be avoided, to the detriment of the overall number of seats gained in that constituency by the NP. This dilemma was finally resolved by inserting photographs of candidates on the ballot papers, a suggestion which Woodward explains in his memoir actually came from Kalkot Matas Kelekele, an NP leader who was later President of Vanuatu (2004-9). He also amusingly confesses not to have told his French counterpart where the idea had come from out of fear that linked to the NP, as it was, it would be rejected out of hand.

Throughout 1975 Woodward ploughed a lonely furrow. He had no experience in organizing elections and neither was there any expertise available to him from either within his own Administration in the New Hebrides or from London. He had to bring the French Residency with him and above all keep the fractious political parties on side. It was a herculean endeavour, not made easier by his failing sight - by 1975 he could only read with difficulty. Notwithstanding all these obstacles, his input yielded results. The elections for the Representative Assembly were conducted in November 1975 and were judged to be a resounding success. They were held peacefully, there was a huge turnout - at least eighty-three percent - few spoilt ballots and the total number of seats won by individual parties generally reflected their share of the national vote. Woodward regarded the electoral system itself as the single greatest achievement of his career. It is also noteworthy that in the next general election in 1979, by which time Woodward had left the Pacific, the same electoral system with only minor modifications was used again, and indeed it is a system that has been retained in the independent Vanuatu.

Turbulence marked the remaining time left to Woodward in the New Hebrides as the Condominium lurched from one political crisis to another. Events culminated perhaps on 29th November 1977 when in Port Vila the British police used tear gas to disperse a francophone crowd seeking to confront a group of anglophone NP supporters, and relations between the two Administrations plummeted to their nadir. In referring to this period in his memoir, Woodward makes reference to his inability to influence the course of events and the sense of frustration he felt at the endless political manoeuvring that ultimately prevented the 1975 Representative Assembly from being brought into existence. He also had another cross to bear. A froideur had descended on his previously warm relationship with the French community in Port Vila. By and large they detested the anglophone NP and somehow they believed that Woodward was secretly behind their political success. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the belief gathered momentum, gained traction within the French Administration and ultimately poisoned his working relationship with his French counterparts. For a profound Francophile, this development was painful.

Woodward also left his mark beyond the confines of the British Administration. He was involved in the introduction of scouting to the New Hebrides and served as both Secretary and Chairman of the Scout Council. He played a major part in the establishment of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and was the Honorary Secretary of its board for sixteen years until his retirement in 1978. In time, he became the effective "Cultural Tsar" of the British Administration. He was always ready to help and support researchers carrying out fieldwork in the islands and he was a key contact for generations of young academics pursuing their studies in Melanesia. This was a labour of love linked to his profound and enduring attachment to the New Hebrides and its people.

In writing about Woodward at the time of his death in November last year, Ati George Sokomanu, the first President of Vanuatu, had this to say, "He was one of the founding fathers of this country and will long be remembered here both as a loyal servant of the Crown and of Vanuatu."

Colonial Map
1884 Map of New Hebrides
Colony Profiles
New Hebrides
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 110: October 2015
Authored by Keith Woodward
A Political Memoir of the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides


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