UMP’s most senior woman representative, late Wendy Himford

As Union of Moderate Parties (UMP) leaders and supporters continue to mourn the sudden passing away of the UMP’s most senior woman representative, one of Vanuatu’s biggest political party is now reviewing and pondering its role on how to groom more women leaders to fit in late Wendy’s Himford’s political shoes.

Party President, Serge Vohor this week indicated from Noumea that Vanuatu and UMP had lost a true charismatic woman leader and her influence in UMP will be remembered. Late Himford can be listed among just a handful of women who were entrusted to partnering in leading UMP. She is featured within a group of 3, first being Vanuatu’s first elected woman Member of parliament, late Maria Crowby and the first woman National executive member and cabinet secretary and Advisor to UMP’s first Prime minister elected in 1991, Ms Yvette Sam.

Currently, the second most influential party in the current government of Prime Minister Bob Loughman has no prominent woman leaders after late Ms Himford’s passing, even in all governments, provinces and municipalities we record no UMP woman leader. Recent government temporary election regulations or measurers to allow women’s reserve seats has seen UMP field woman candidates but none have been successfully elected. There is even a huge gap within the UMP national executive, as she was the sole senior member and officer bearer till her sudden passing.

The late Secretary General (SG), since 1989 played key roles within a UMP government, from being included in cabinet advisory roles or just as an unpaid close associate to many past founding MPs and leaders of the party. Late Himford’s biggest contribution to date is 2019/2020 UMP’s last congress on Malekula (Atchin Lavalsal), where she devoted her 2-hour speech to 800-1000 delegates (90% men), stressing why she felt strongly as a woman leader about the party, declaring her pledge as UMP SG and her manifesto as proposed candidate for Port Vila.

Prior to contesting under UMP, she first entered an election under her own party, the Christian Democratic Party (CDP), where she failed to gain a seat in Port Vila. She lost on her first attempt under the UMP banner in 2020, but remained very vocal on UMP matters, using Facebook where she has a big following.

Being a Christian with her own religious movement she devoted a lot of her teachings during UMP meetings, especially in Port Vila. While many have suggested that her defeat in the 2020 elections was linked to her heritage, and for being Chinese/Ni-Van, voters still do agree that her family are big contributors to Vanuatu’s economic progress especially within the capital and Efate. She hails from one of the very few Chinese family dynasties to have rose through Vanuatu’s business environment to now dominate the supermarket chain through her uncle’s Au bon Marche chain of supermarkets. This family business is one of the biggest employers in Vanuatu, only second to government (she is not associated with the said business in any way).

With University credentials from France and United States of America, she was first approached by UMP party president, then MP Vohor prior to 1991, and when UMP eventually led the first 1991 coalition government of Vanuatu, with Maxime Carlot Korman being given the reins as Prime minister, UMP president, Vohor quickly sought the expertise and advice of late Himford which led to Vanuatu establishing among its 11 cabinets (excluding PM’s office), and the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

The first Ministry of Economic Affairs led by then Minister Vohor was housed in the building currently being used by the Vanuatu Financial Services Commission (VFSC). Late Ms Himford was tasked with structuring Minister Vohor’s office during that period and as the Economic Affairs ministry grew, it was later divided into two ministries — one being Vanuatu’s first Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and another first was the Ministry of Economic Affairs and External Trade.

All these changes were a huge political eye opener and game changer, as UMP became more prominently rooted in the administering of the nation’s affairs. As prior to having a designated Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that portfolio was a small section within the government since Vanuatu gained its political freedom in 1980 and only had one post of Roving Ambassador to manage the country’s foreign policies and obligations.

Late Himford continued to have several other stints in UMP cabinet posting, including editing convention speeches for then Minister Vohor to deliver in international forums, and at one stage she was frequently fixed figure on many overseas tours with UMP president in his role as Foreign minister. When Vohor was elected in 2004 as Prime minister, he continued to sought her advice and picked her views especially on issues relating to equal rights for women, Climate Change, Bilingual education, Vanuatu’s delicate path from its Least Developed Country (LDC) status, and Vanuatu’s strong stand on Deep Sea Mining and World Trade Organisation. She not only served past UMP prime ministerships but also contributed in other ministerial cabinet roles, where her last posting in 2017 was first Political Advisor to then Minister of Youth and Sports, Minister Simeon Seule.

Her longest association, was with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1991-1995). On occasions hired as an unpaid advisor under Mr. Vohor had its controversies, as it was during that period that the idea of considering preferential status for big investors to come to Vanuatu on special waivers, which 10 years later evolved into the current Vanuatu passport sale industry.

Her biggest move into UMP’s highest body being the National executive was around 1999-2020, when she ascended as UMP SG, her role then was not only to administer the party but to raise funds and also manage the affairs of incumbent UMP president who by then was ill and had to go through several medical operations in Australia and New Caledonia (Mr. Vohor is still undergoing treatment in Noumea for Diabetics related illnesses).

Being a woman leader and as UMP SG, her biggest task was to harmonize UMP’s national executive which was made up of predominantly members of parliament and she faced alot of obstacles for her views on party growth, gender equity and her critical views on Facebook which on occasions did not go down well with some executive members and UMP leaders at large.

Her views on Facebook and other related political incidents led to her recent suspension as UMP SG, but the UMP president had called for her suspension to be lifted, as it was done when Mr. Vohor was in Noumea. Calls for her reinstatement was repeated during the UMP SANMA regional congress just in January 2022, but by then her case had been referred to UMP disciplinary committee, she passed before she was able to defend her position.

Her involvement with Facebook as an information platform has also prompted UMP to seek ways to regulate social media into its legal framework and constitution, which is a political plus for the party and its aging constitution. Will a woman leader, Asian ni-Vanuatu or indigenous ni-Vanuatu for that matter ever be capable of trashing the male dominated glass barrier to mingle among and with prominent and future fathers of UMP? This is a question worth pondering upon.

It has been written in UMP history, that during late Himford’s stint, it has become proof that more women leaders and woman voters at large saw her dominance as a reflection of themselves and how they too, could put their own mark on Vanuatu politics, and progress of women leadership.

Her final contribution to UMP had been 2020 national elections when she also contested, while she also assisted in funding several UMP candidates in recent municipal and provincial elections. Her last major speech was during Port Vila recent municipal by-elections ( Freshwater campaign) when she called on young voters to, “Learn your nation’s history, as not knowing Vanuatu’s political history is like not knowing your biological mother”.