Cufflinks decorated with Vanuatu’s Coat of Arms and black pearl earrings given to leaders such as Directors General, Directors, Heads of Constitutional Bodies, Members of Parliament (MPs), ministers and their wives during Vanuatu’s 40th Independence Anniversary were tokens of appreciation with value.

This statement was made by Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Minister of Internal Affairs, Ishmael Kalsakau, when responding to yesterday’s Daily Post front page article about the Vt2.4 million independence funds spent on jewellery.

It was expected that regional dignitaries would be attending the Yumi40 Independence Celebration in Port Vila and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting scheduled for early August, directly after the July 30 celebrations.

The dignitaries were to travel in, participate in the Yumi40 celebration and then stay on for the PIF Meeting. The coronavirus outbreak prolonged and the Yumi40 celebration happened without the attendance of the regional dignitaries.

Occupying office as the new Minister of Internal Affairs, Kalsakau said he then recommended that the token of appreciations be given to the local dignitaries, as the nation-wide celebrations went demonstrating resiliency.

“Gift-giving is part of Vanuatu’s custom. But this time, we want to practice it in a different way since we (Vanuatu) turned 40,” he said.

“Since the borders are closed, why not we give the tokens of appreciation to local dignitaries to show our country’s appreciation for maintaining our COVID-19 free status and lift spirits in this difficult time?

“It is a new way to appreciate efforts and service of the people.

“The jewellery gift selection and handover were done by the Independence Committee.”

DPM Kalsakau said the purchase of these jewellery followed transparent process.

“The products are made in Vanuatu. Therefore, we helped to promote local products and help a local business regenerate,” he stressed.

In his response yesterday, the DPM has also questioned the work of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

PAC has already started on wrong footing and is facing serious allegations in court, he said.

“We expect more from PAC. The Leader of Opposition must look into the nomination he made for the position,” he added.

Meanwhile, some Opposition MPs have refused to accept the jewellery gifts.

As of yesterday, some of the gifts are still kept in one of the Opposition rooms in Parliament.

DPM Kalsakau said if they do not want the items, they should return them instead of just “complaining”.

Meanwhile Leader of Opposition, Ralph Regenvanu, says the Opposition MPs were not recipients of the jewelleries gifted to MPs on the 40th Independence celebration.

“I wish to correct a statement carried in the newspaper yesterday saying that ‘A total of Vt2.4 million was spent on jewelries to decorate Members of Parliament (MPs) and their spouses, Directors General (DGs) and Directors during the 40th Independence anniversary celebration’,” he stated.

“No Opposition MPs asked for or received any jewellery and the Opposition was in no way a part of the decision to spend public funds on jewellery.

“I sat in on the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee on Friday last week when the National Coordinator of the 40th Independence Anniversary presented his report to the Committee and was asked about the purchase of the jewellery.

“Under questioning, the National Coordinator said he did not agree with the instruction from the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs to purchase personal jewellery using public funds and refused to sign to approve the payment.

He went on to clarify that only the Director General of the Ministry of Internal Affairs had the final authority to approve payments made out of the budget allocated for the independence anniversary, leading the Committee to believe that the DG must have signed off to approve the payment.

The National Coordinator stated unequivocally that the decision to purchase the jewellery did not come from his committee but from the Minister himself.

“It was also revealed that due to the size of the Government’s order of jewellery, the company provided 52 sets of gold cufflinks for all MPs as a complimentary gift.

“Opposition MPs were surprised to receive these cufflinks in company-branded bags in their pigeon-holes at Parliament House about a month after the independence anniversary.

“None of the Opposition MPs have accepted this gift; all the cufflinks are sitting in a box in the Opposition Chambers in Parliament House awaiting what further action will be taken on this matter.

“The Public Accounts Committee will be examining this purchase further to determine whether such a purchase of private jewellery using public funds can be legally justified or whether it is a criminal offence and needs to be made a Police and courts matter.”

DPM Kalsakau said he is prepared to answer questions if the Opposition decides to take this matter to court.