Published on 27th March 2014
Volunteering in the Solomon Islands has given Melanie Phillips opportunities she’d never have had in New Zealand. With a little over a month to go until the end of her three years as a Legal Adviser at the Ministry of Provincial Government and Institutional Strengthening, Melanie says “the breadth of work and, therefore, experience has just been enormous.”
“Before I went”, she says, “my legal ambit was limited to working for law firms or as in-house counsel in a government department.” In Wellington, Melanie worked as a Legal Adviser for a busy regulatory body; in the Solomon Islands, she has provided advice on everything from commercial fishing contracts to logging. She provides advice to the Permanent Secretary, nine provincial Premiers and their Governments.
Navigating the link between politics and the law has been eye-opening, she says. “I’ve been pulled into meetings with the Prime Minister ... and there’s so much going on under the surface in a place like the Solomons, where politics has such an immense influence in the decisions people make every day, you’ve really got to have a strong grasp of what’s going on.”
The lack of lawyers in the Solomon Islands has put Melanie in demand, so in addition to the advice she provides, she’s run workshops for provincial politicians on writing and implementing laws and ordinances. Many of the provinces’ laws are out of date – in some cases, literally eaten by rats – and Melanie has rewritten many of them.
As a result, she says, “I’m now really interested in bigger issues – governance issues and how do you practically evolve the law for the country you’re looking at ... And that’s what I’ve really enjoyed professionally.”
When her assignment comes to an end, Melanie says she’s casting the net wide – geographically and in terms of what she could do. “So many options – everything from regional institutions to international institutions – NGOs, just thinking about ways I can use my skills and my interests that I’ve learned over here in a different way to what I’d previously envisaged.”
Melanie was born in the Solomon Islands – her parents, originally British, were there for her father’s job as a doctor. Though she didn’t really remember it, after moving away aged three and a half, Melanie says the moment she saw this role advertised, she was determined to go for it. “And it all just fell into place. Coming back was almost like coming home, in a way.”
She adds, “it’s just such an incredibly fascinating country. Yes, there is a background in civil war, but the way it’s coming along and the opportunities here as a result of it are just immense. I went to visit a friend in Gizo, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world and you sit on top of the hill drinking gin and tonics looking at spectacular sunsets, idyllic. Then there’s Honiara. You can get most things in Honiara. I did more socialising in Honiara than I ever did prior to coming here. There is so much stuff going on here, people are really proactive and welcoming towards new people coming here, there’s just a real sort of camaraderie.”