The termination of Vanuatu’s longest serving senior female public servant
Since late 2021, local NGO Sista has been conducting an investigation into a set of interrelated government decisions that we have identified as crucial to the future of Vanuatu.
The purpose of the investigation is to promote clarity and transparency in government decision-making, and to encourage open and free public dialogue on key issues that affect us all as citizens. The result is four articles to be released in the coming weeks.
This third article focuses on the termination of Dorosday Kenneth Watson, then Director General of Ministry of Justice and Community Services, a termination that raised questions about due process, proper consultation and gender equality, and is currently being addressed in court today.
Vanuatu Association of NGOs and Transparency International Vanuatu have expressed their support to stand in solidarity with Sista to conduct this investigation.
On March 18th 2021, Dorosday Kenneth Watson, then Director General (DG) of Vanuatu’s Ministry of Justice and Community Services, was terminated from her high-level position, ending a 34-year career as Vanuatu’s most senior female public servant.
The Council of Ministers’ (COM) controversial decision to dismantle the Ministry of Justice and Community Services, and restructure it into a Ministry of Fisheries, Oceans and Maritime Affairs provided the backdrop to this termination.
As DG, Watson had brought the process relating to these proposed changes to the Court’s attention for judicial review, an intervention that was part of her responsibility as a DG under Vanuatu’s Government Act. Shortly after this intervention she was terminated.
Comments made by the Secretary General of the Public Service Commission in the Vanuatu Daily Post on December 8th 2020 corroborate the fact that DG Watson’s suspension was related to the Council of Ministers’ decision to dismantle the Ministry of Justice and Community Services.
Later, on March 2nd 2021, the Supreme Court would find that DG Watson had an arguable case that the decision to restructure the Ministry of Justice and Community Services was in breach of the processes outlined under Government Act. A COM paper has allegedly been re-submitted following the provisions of the Government Act but Sista has been unsuccessful in our attempts to get a copy of the paper. As of July 2022, former DG Watson is in court and seeking redress for unjustified termination.
While some may say that DG Watson’s actions have been courageous, for others it was seen as an act of defiance against the government under which she is employed to implement policy decisions. During this investigation, a couple of senior public servants raised the question – had DG Watson exhausted alternative avenues to voice her concerns before she applied for judicial review? According to them, she did not. On the other hand, others raised their concerns about the Public Service Commission’s decision to terminate DG Watson for ‘serious misconduct’, particularly as the intervention for judicial review is not in breach of her employment contract, and that it is part of Watson’s duty as a DG to raise lawful and legitimate questions.
Alternatively, DG Watson’s termination could be seen as a power move to prevent civil servants from questioning decisions made in the Council of Ministers. The fact that the majority of civil servants interviewed for this investigation wish to remain anonymous speaks to a culture where the suspension and termination of senior public servants is common and possible.
Furthermore it also highlights the barriers for women leaders who have the courage to speak out when due process is not followed. The stories of misconduct by male leaders, including those holding ministerial portfolios, have been well documented in the newspaper and social media throughout the years. This includes domestic violence, drunk and disorderly behaviour, theft, misuse of public funds and destruction of state owned property. Despite this, there are few cases where their criminal actions have resulted in their suspension or termination.
While determining the definition and extent of ‘misconduct’ is best left to the courts, there does seem to be a difference in how DG Watson was disciplined for her alleged ‘lack of cooperation’ in the form of lawfully questioning a decision made by the Council of Ministers, in comparison to other male civil servants in the past. This also raises the critical question about whether women, leaders or not, can be terminated from an occupation, simply on the basis of questioning due process – and the decisions of powerful men.