A report by Mark Davis on Dateline last night brought to light various beachfront developments in Vanuatu that have raised the ire of the local people, and one in particular involving former PM Paul Keating and his son’s father-in-law Bruce McDonald.

Readers will remember Keating’s son Patrick was charged with common assault last year over an altercation with lawyer Robert Herd, who had earlier sold McDonald two parcels of land in a deal The Australian reported was worth more than $2.5 million. Paul Keating is said to have invested heavily in the deal.

Also last year, an investigation was launched into whether McDonald was keeping funds from liquidators of nine companies associated with McDonald after he reported he was broke. Worse, Davis reported the Keatings’ land in Vanuatu may be about to take a serious nose-dive in value.

REPORTER: The developers to put the fence up for miles here? The same fence could cause a lot of financial pain to Paul Keating. He and his associate, Bruce McDonald, had outlaid more than $2 million on a long-term lease of this land, with plans for hundreds of residential lots and a beachside resort. A grand plan, but there may not be any beach to go with it. The chief has now been given title to the entire coastal strip, abutting the Keating-Macdonald lease, a strip previously regarded as public land.

While it appears Australian developers have been getting dollar signs in their eyes at the thought of doing business in a poorly regulated property market, there are also signs that it has sparked a serious debate among Vanuatuans about how to protect their land.

“So is Vanuatu going to confront the challenges of this conspiracy for land or is land piracy going to over rule the indigenous peoples of Vanuatu?” journalist Lora Lini wrote in Vanuatu’s Daily Post. She continued:

Although land is being scrutinized inside and outside of Vanuatu, the sad reality is that indigenous ni-Vanuatu are not being guided well enough and are not given enough access to developing their own land…

But for some indigenous ni-Vanuatu who do not have access to capital to develop their land, they are being forced to lease their land. This decision is sometimes said to reflect the lack of incentives that the Government should provide as a service to its peoples.

It’s a cause that Keating would have some sympathy for. Those with long memories may remember a speech he gave in 1992 in which he said “It might help us if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of land we have lived on for 50 000 years — and then imagined ourselves told that it had never been ours”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey