Who Will Pay the Workers When Boss Men Go Broke?
Almost a year after a peace agreement defused the bitter conflict that devastated the tiny archipelago's economy, there's simply not enough money to go around in the Solomon Islands. The troubled government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare cannot pay its bills, leaving thousands of civil servants on a financial and emotional precipice. Hundreds of government employees stopped work in August, fed up with waiting a month for their meager-and overdue-wages. Two thousand workers were finally paid last week, with no guarantee that the cash will be found for their next check in two weeks' time. Says Abraham, a local church worker who asked that his surname not be used:"People can't keep it up much longer. Life is getting more and more difficult."
With many departments operating at a sluggish pace, the burden is falling heavily on the country's future generations. Teachers talk of further strikes, and parents fear their children will lose a year's schooling. Last week Solomon Islander students on government scholarships at universities in neighbouring Papua New Guinea were warned they will not be allowed to sit exams until their fees are paid. "There's no communication from the Solomons education department," says student association representative Selwyn Kole.
The financial crisis also risks inflaming the discontent that is a legacy of the ethnic fighting. Thousands of people promised compensation for property lost or injuries suffered during the conflict are frustrated by the ambling pace of payouts. Citizens have held angry mass meetings, and politicians have accused their opponents of corruption. Deputy Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza was sacked last month amid claims that he had made dubious payments. Caretaker Finance Minister Snyder Rini last week had more bad news. With over $2.7 million in payments still to be met, funds borrowed from a Taiwanese bank have been spent and there's no prospect of a top-up before October. "As different priorities come up, some groups are pushed to the back of the line," says a foreign observer in Honiara.
Although Sogavare has repeatedly tried to delay a poll, a general election is due by Christmas. "Big-man politics is the only politics in the Solomons," says an Australian businessman who has lived on Guadalcanal for 20 years. "But the pool is empty with no funds to splash around." Many locals have returned to traditional lives. "These are an adaptable people, with subsistence an achievable thing," says the foreign observer. But villages can offer only temporary sanctuary; health care, technical education and jobs can be found only in cities. With mines and industrial plants closed and foreigners reluctant to invest in the country, the Solomons is on its way to becoming a cash-less economy.
Cheers! Just as Baz Lurhrmann's Moulin Rouge opened in cinemas across Britain, another Australian red has stolen the film's thunder. At London's International Wine Challenge, one of the world's most rigorous and respected competitions, New South Wales winery Brokenwood's 1999 Rayner Vineyard Shiraz was deemed the best red wine in the world, beating some 10,000 contenders from around the globe. Sourced from 50-year-old vines on nearly a hectare of unirrigated sandy soil at McLaren Vale near Adelaide, the $A45 wine was praised
by judges for its "austere, restrained style." The win, the second in a row for a local red, reinforces "Australia's ability to penetrate and dominate the U.K. market," says wine writer (and co-founder of Brokenwood) James Halliday. But with the 1999 vintage already sold out, the closest new markets can get to tasting the world's best red
is with Brokenwood managing director and senior winemaker Iain Riggs' mouth-watering description: "It has all the chocolate and mocha and Turkish Delight character
that the McLaren Vale is known for," he says.