Truth about coups and girmitiya

Opinion By Professor Biman Prasad.

The Fiji Times. 
Saturday, May 21, 2016

THE last parliamentary sitting from April 25-29, 2016 can be remembered for three reasons.

Firstly, on April 25, the FijiFirst Government used its numbers in Parliament to defeat a petition by SODELPA parliamentarian Viliame Gavoka for the re-establishment of the Great Council of Chiefs or the Bose Levu Vakaturaga.

Under changes to Standing Orders which FijiFirst rammed through by majority vote earlier this year, 40 per cent of Parliament must vote in favour of a petition to be referred to a standing committee. This is 20 MPs. The Opposition has only 18 MPs. This means no petition will pass this hurdle unless the Government wants it to pass, giving a clear signal to the people that Parliament can only listen to petitions that the Government wants it to hear.

Secondly, on April 28, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama made a ministerial statement on why his regime abolished the GCC. He accused the GCC of allowing the execution of the 1987 and 2000 coups.

Lastly, on April 29, the PM rejected an End of Week Statement from the NFP, requesting Government to commemorate in various ways, the 100th anniversary of the last arrival of indentured labourers to Fiji and to declare a one-off public holiday on November 11, the date in 1916 that the last batch of indentured Indians (girmitiya) arrived in Fiji.

While responding, the PM rejected the request of a one-off public holiday and for Government to commemorate this historical event. He described the NFP’s call as a political stunt, a gimmick, an empty gesture and a face-saving exercise. Furthermore, he said, the priority right now is rehabilitation in the aftermath of Severe TC Winston. He even asked why NFP raised this issue on the last day of the parliamentary sitting. The answer to that is simple. It is called an End of Week Statement for a reason — it is done at the end of the week!

The PM knew it could not have been raised earlier as a substantive motion because the motions NFP has been trying to put to Parliament have not yet been processed by the Parliament Secretariat. Some are still pending from last year.

The PM knows this extremely well, but he twisted and politicised the issue.

But what has all that political jockeying got to do with the price of fish? If Government genuinely wanted to commemorate this anniversary, nothing could have prevented it from doing so.

But, because the NFP suggested it, Girmitiya should now not be honoured!

This Government, especially the PM, is fond of blaming others for its own failures. He should remember that a political party is elected into government on the basis of its manifesto and promises. Once elected, the campaign mode should stop and Parliament, led by the Government,should work constructively. That does not mean that we will not criticise the Government. That is our job. But the Government should respond constructively to the Opposition’s criticism, as well as the Opposition’s ideas.

Petition

The NFP supported the parliamentary process on the petition for the re-establishment of the GCC because we strongly believe in petitions being referred to a standing committee to allow our citizens to voice opinions on the subject matter through written and oral submissions.

The basic tenet of democracy is that the voices of the people must be heard. Can the FijiFirst Government guarantee it will support other petitions brought by members of the Opposition, which are not related to the rights of our indigenous or iTaukei?

We believe all other petitions would be derailed in a similar manner because that is exactly why the Standing Orders were changed to incorporate the 40 per cent parliamentary approval requirement. Members of the public sign petitions because they have a right. It must be remembered at the end of the process of any standing committee, it is Parliament that votes on whether or not to accept the report of that committee.

And we have seen that the report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence that deliberated the UNCAT Bill (UN Convention Against Torture) was rejected by Government in February 2015. And the recommendations were tabled by one of their own MPs!

The Government tried to push more amendments to the Standing Orders to curtail debate on petitions on April 26. These amendments are now before the Standing Orders Committee chaired by the Speaker.

PM’s statement on GCC and coups

In his statement on GCC on April 28 he accused it of allowing the coups of 1987 and 2000 to happen and even alluded to this on April 29 in reply to our motion, saying descendants suffered as a result of these coups.

Again, for argument’s sake, even if the PM is right, why didn’t he abolish the GCC for supporting the 2000 coup? He was the Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces at that time. Instead, he illegally abrogated the 1997 Constitution which was restored following a Fiji Court of Appeal ruling in March 2001. The truth is that the RFMF has carried out all four military coups in Fiji since May 14, 1987. And their actions were supported by extremist elements.

The PM himself is on record on RFMF’s role in executing the coups of 1987, 2000 and 2006. This is extremely clear in his two statements on Fiji TV and FBC News.

While addressing villagers in Nadoi, Rewa on May 22, 2008 following the opening of a church extension, he stated why the military carried out the coups.

He said, “We have taken over leadership because politicians have failed us. I have spoken to Qarase and the head of the Methodist Church was there (Reverend Laisiasa Ratabacaca), politicians have failed us, that is why the military took over in 1987, 2000 and 2006.” – Reported on Fiji One National News In-depth Report, May 23, 2008

“The Commander said the military staged the coup in 1987 to develop Fiji but those who went into power used the coup for their own benefit” . — Reported by Fiji Broadcasting Corporation News January 25, 2010 reporting on PM Bainimarama’s speech to chiefs of Kadavu; www.fbc.com.fj

“The massive exodus of Indo-Fijians from the country has been one of the most dramatic developments of the last two decades. Since the coups of 1987, more than 120,000 people have left for other shores, taking with them skills and talents Fiji can ill-afford to lose: doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, and the like”. — The road from 1987 – Opinion by Brij V Lal; Fiji Times May 13, 2008

Is the forced migration of Indo-Fijians from the land of their birth the development that the PM talked about? Is the forced separation of loved ones from their families the development that PM Bainimarama talked about?

Did he mean that the NFP/FLP Coalition Government of Dr Timoci Bavadra that had won the 1987 general election and was in power for only five weeks, was not going to develop the country and that is why the military carried out the coup?

Did he mean the People’s Coalition Government led by the Fiji Labour Party was a failure for one year, resulting in the coup of May 19, 2000?

If that government was a failure, why did the PM appoint the FLP leader to his interim Cabinet in January 2007?

These issues must be explained by the PM because his previous statements sharply contradict what he said in Parliament on April 28-29. Or was this a political stunt by the PM?

Why we should commemorate the girmitiya

The indentured labourers and their descendants over the past 100 years have significantly contributed to the social, economic and political development and advancement of Fiji. This is well recognised.

They have lived peacefully and harmoniously, side by side with other races, especially with our original inhabitants of these beautiful islands, the indigenous community or the iTaukei at all times with a few exceptions, since the start of the coup culture in 1987.

But overwhelmingly this peaceful co-existence and co-operation, the willingness of our landowners to share their resources and land and the freedom for the descendants of our Indentured labourers to put into practice, their language, culture, tradition — an integral part of the Indian civilisation, together with the blood, sweat, toil, tears and lives sacrificed by our forefathers, as well as the immense contributions of other races — has made Fiji what it has been for decades — the hub of the South Pacific.

In 1997 the Honourable Justice Jai Ram Reddy, made a speech to the GCC, as a grandson of an Indentured labourer and as the Leader of the Opposition and leader of the NFP. In that speech, which is one of the defining moment in Fiji’s history, he rightly said: “The Indians of Fiji, brought to these shores as labourers, did not come to conquer or colonise. Our ancestors came to this land in search of a better life, in search of a future they dreamed of for their children and their children’s children.

“Though they travelled to these islands long after your ancestors, surely the dreams and hopes of those who landed from the Leonidas were not that different from those who came ashore after the epic earlier voyage from the West.”

After 100 years since the last arrival of girmitiya, the time is right, not only for the celebration of our rich history in this multicultural society, but for a reflection of the freedoms gained, and lost, on the journey.

The forefathers of the Indo-Fijian community operated on the basis of freedom, human rights, dignity and a virtuous living — the values that, over a period of time, guided our fight against the vices of the indentured system.

Today however, we seem to have forgotten and some would have us forget, those hard fought for virtues and principles in support of those who have taken our freedoms in the past. But we have the perfect opportunity to put this right.

This should be a celebration as well as a commemoration of that single momentous event that forever changed the destiny and the landscape of Fijian society. While the atrocities, trials and tribulations of the indenture system in Fiji have been well documented, the descendants of girmitiyas have moved on.

This is evident in the way the third and fourth generation Indo-Fijians have integrated themselves into Fiji’s landscape. As such, they have tied their own personal circumstances to the destiny of this country.

We need a new culture of dialogue, unity, and co-operation with political leaders of other ethnic groups to forge a new approach to politics in this country. This dialogue should never include coercion or support for coercive activities.

Moreover, the dialogue must incorporate diverse opinions from a broad spectrum of the ethnic groups that make up this nation. As such celebrations like these, highlighting a specific group of people in all their diversity, must be the cornerstones of processes of nation building.

We need to remember the struggles and sacrifices of our forefathers for equality, dignity and justice for all our people.

In 1979, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers with a one-off public holiday. The 50 cents coin was minted with sugarcane on one side to mark this occasion.

Surely, this Government, which prides itself about common and equal citizenry and true democracy, can at least replicate, if not do better than the commemoration of 37 years ago, instead of simply saying no based on warped logic.

* Professor Biman Prasad is the Leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

Nationalising FSC

Opinion by Professor Wadan Narsey
.

The Fiji Times. Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Fiji Times of May 6, 2016 has an astonishing report by journalist Matilda Simmons that “State plans to acquire 100pc shares in FSC”, that ought to be raising eyebrows all over the country, not the least among accountants and auditors.

The reports stated that the: “Government intends to acquire 100 per cent shareholding in Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) and inherit the latter’s $293million debt if the proposed Reform of Sugar Cane Industry Bill (Bill No. 19 of 2016) is passed. Presenting his submissions before the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs on Wednesday, the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Sugar, Jitendra Singh, said under the Clause 84 of the proposed Bill, there were currently 44,399,998 shares with 2060 shareholders. Of these, Government had 30,239,160 (68.1 per cent) shares, while statutory bodies, local public companies and individuals held the rest of the shares. The intent is for Government to acquire 31.9 per cent of the shares.”

Obvious questions asked

Mr Singh revealed Government had already given loans of around $173 million (not guaranteed) and $120m (guaranteed) from Exim Bank in India and Tate and Lyle.

Standing Committee member Professor Biman Prasad then pointed out that this also meant Government would end up inheriting the $293m loan.

Prof Biman then asked whether it was constitutionally right for Government to take over the rest of the shares in FSC and that the interest of the other shareholders were not considered.

He asked whether the shareholders could constitutionally challenge the decision by Government to nationalise the sugar industry.

Aruna Shantha de Silva of the Solicitor-General’s Office then apparently stated that the move was for the betterment of the industry, which was not performing at all over the years.

More questions to be asked

All Fiji can see that, despite the forever optimistic claims by the CEO of FSC for the past eight years, the sugar industry has been run into the ground under the total control of the Bainimarama Government, with the private shareholders having no input whatsoever.

Normally, when a public enterprise is doing disastrously under government ownership, control or management, the typical economic policy prescription (supported even by IMF and World Bank) is for Government to privatise it and let the more efficient private shareholders run the company.

But the new Bill proposes the opposite: to give 100 per cent ownership to the Fiji Government (ie complete nationalisation), which will make absolutely no difference to the management of the industry.

So why on earth therefore would the Solicitor — General’s Office, not particularly brimming with sound economic expertise, be claiming that it was for the betterment of the sugar industry?

Given that the company has been technically insolvent for several years now and had massive debts which are unlikely to be ever paid back, what on earth will be the price put on the privately held shares?

Such questions should of course come with great energy, from Fiji’s  renowned accountants and auditors who unfortunately have shown no inclination whatsoever, theses past nine years, to ask any questions in their professional area of expertise, in the public interest.

Perhaps they are busy making money. Let the public look after themselves.

Is there another game plan?

The current private shareholders and taxpayers might want to ask some other questions.

Is there some other “game plan” that those wielding authority may have in mind?

FSC may be technically insolvent as a “going concern making sugar” hence its assets (and shares) may technically be worth nothing or even have a negative value, given the massive debt.

But, what about the other assets held by FSC, such as land associated with the sugar mills and freehold or State land or long-term native lease lands on which sugar cane can be planted?

Note that most sugar mill lands are in urban or peri-urban areas and therefore worth minor fortunes.

It is pretty clear already that Fiji’s traditional canefarmers not particularly interested in “working the land” and hence outside labour has to be hired, which totally eats up all the surplus in canefarming. There is absolutely little likelihood of the traditional canefarmers reviving the sugarcane industry, whatever may be the rosy picture perpetually painted by Abdul Khan, who coincidentally refuses to reveal to taxpayers, what salary he is drawing as an executive chairman.

Apparently, no one in Fiji cares to tell him that taxpayers have a right to know given that they are footing the bill, in more ways than one.

But the FSC cane lands might be quite valuable for new entrants into the sugarcane planting industry, such as Chinese agribusinesses, who are venturing out into the world, as part of China’s long-term plans for food security.

What would the sugar mills be worth to new Chinese investors if Government was kind enough to them to not include the current massive debts guaranteed by Government?

What would be the cane lands be worth to new Chinese agribusinesses?

Private shareholders interests?

If Government intends to sell off FSC assets for large positive values (without including the debts), would private shareholders normally demand a share of the proceeds?

Would getting rid of private shareholders at this point in time (for a cheap price) make it a "cleaner" operation for Government and allow it to enjoy the bulk of the proceeds from asset sales?

Note however, that the long-term burden of any debt taken on board (“written off”) by the Government would of course fall on taxpayers.

So what exactly would all these “nationalisations” mean for taxpayers’ welfare?

Hmmm.

There is far more to all this than meets the eye than “reform of the sugarcane industry.”

* Professor Wadan Narsey is former Fiji economist. The views expressed here are his and not of this newspaper.

Democracy at local level

Opinion by Dr Neelesh Gounder.

The Fiji Times. Saturday, May 21, 2016

A French documentary titled Demain (Tomorrow) held its US premiere in December last year at the UN headquarters. It was also shown to the delegates of the 195 States present at the COP21 in Paris. The documentary features examples of activism related to participative democracy in India, United Kingdom and France.

The Indian story is particularly striking. It describes how Elango Rangaswamy in the village of Kuttambakkam (Tamil Nadu state) turned a place of violence, illegal liquor trade and pollution into a model for representative democracy.

The lesson of the documentary is how local administration can create a positive impact on the lives of the people. By hosting the premiere, the broader consensus emerging out of UN headquarters is that decentralisation of policy will remain a core aspect of democratic governance.

Focusing on everyday solutions, the documentary provides interesting lessons about the benefits of participatory local democracy, which is about increased local decision making and participation by local communities.

The documentary possibly offers a few lessons about inspiring local democracy in Fiji. Although there are arguably several ways of achieving democracy at local level, this article explores what role the local government framework and institutional setting can play.

Local governments Local government is one form of political decentralization. Key roles of local governments include promoting health, welfare and convenience of the inhabitants. A decentralized political system such as elected local governments is where power is distributed more widely to autonomous local units of government. It involves transfer of national government responsibilities or functions to a sub-national level of government.

Thus having a local government means transferring some portion of power and public budgetary responsibility to elected local governments. Political decentralization such as this does not seek to weaken the central authority. It is also not aimed at creating a preference for local leaders in relation to central leaders. It is basically about sharing governance at the local level so that services are more responsive to the needs of the local people.

In practice, it involves institutional arrangements which authorize local governments to achieve two outcomes. First, it provides the voting power to choose local leaders and other representatives. Second, it is the ability to make, implement, monitor and evaluate local policies (functioning and administration).

A particular characteristic of effective local governments is devolution rather than deconcentration. Devolution involves both administrative and decision making authority and not simply transfers of administrative functions.

Transfer of both administrative and decision making authority is necessary to create a distinct sphere of government which is able to exercise complete autonomy.

Democracy at local level

Local government elections allow the public to choose their local government. By choosing the candidates with appropriate ideas and abilities that are acceptable to them, the citizens can influence the type of local community they live in.

Local government elections therefore allow ratepayers a voice in local governance structures, processes and outcomes.

The ratepayers pay town/city rates. The rates are similar to taxes we pay such as income tax and VAT. Taxes ensure that government is able to provide essential public services such as schools, roads, rule of law, etc.

Rates collected from ratepayers allow the local government to provide services such as waste collection and management, drainage cleaning, libraries, building inspection, licensing, certification and enforcement, recreation, etc.

Since ratepayers pay for local services, it is decisive that they be allowed to choose who runs the local government as well as contribute and monitor decision making affecting their local suburbs. It gives a say to those most directly affected by local government policy.

Choosing your local government 

Local government in Fiji dates back to 1877 in Levuka. Currently, the Local Government Act in Fiji provides for the establishment of local government councils, defines their functions and powers and contains rules to their election, functioning and administration.

Local government councils have been run by unelected special administrators since 2009 when the military-led government installed special administrators after terminating Fiji’s elected local government councillors and mayors.

At that time it was claimed by the permanent secretary of the Department of Local Government that special administrators “will take charge of the councils during the transition period”.

Currently, the government is in the midst of reviewing the Local Government Act. The review was first mentioned in November 2014 by the Minister for Local Government.

The mention of the review was in stark contrast with the Minister’s maiden speech in parliament just two months earlier where he had mentioned “Now we have an elected Government in place it feels only right that we have elected local governments as well”.

In a surprising twist, the Minister later reasoned his change of stance by arguing that election of municipal councillors will be held up until a review of the Local Government Act is completed.

The rhetoric since September 2014 seems not only ambiguous but also unhurried. In September 2016, the Bainimarama government will complete half its term. It is rather surprising why it has taken so long to extend democracy at local level.

The government is perhaps apprehensive about the move to governance at the local level which runs counter to the last seven years of a totally different kind of political culture. It is also perhaps concerned about what local government elections can tell us about national politics.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the outcome of the review. In particular, how it defines political decision making and the powers of elected office holders including mayors within local governments.

The outcome must provide locally elected councils real powers to shape local areas. This would be a fundamental step towards nurturing local democracy by getting people more engaged within the local political process.

Additional remarks

There is a convincing democratic rationality: involve people to make decisions that impact the most people. Participation by women and men is also a cornerstone of good governance.

As ratepayers, local communities should have adequate arrangements to make local choices that will improve their suburbs. It’s therefore important that government treats reform as part of a series of activities to engage communities and strengthen democracy.

Democratic local governments can play an important role in helping communities meet current and emerging challenges.

Designed well, local governments can become natural partners with the national government in enhancing the provision of local infrastructure, safer communitaies and boosting social cohesion.

* These are the views of Dr Neelesh Gounder, and not of The Fiji Times or of USP where he is employed. He tweets at @GounderNeelesh

A costly ‘blunder’ – an opinion by Data Bureau Chairman

A costly ‘blunder’

By Gary Callaghan. The Fiji Times. 
Saturday, May 21, 2016

LAST week the Minister of Finance, in a letter published in full in the Fiji Sun, replied to the concerns of the Association of Banks of Fiji about the new Fair Reporting of Credit Act.

Like all of his other statements regarding this Act, which has come into force from April 29, the reply is full of incorrect information and irrelevant sidetracking. Spin and diversion is not going to change the facts.

First, the minister accuses ABIF's chairman, Mr McCarthy, of a “conflict of interest”. This is because Mr McCarthy is the head of BSP Bank and BSP Bank’s associated company, BSP Life, is a shareholder of Data Bureau.

This is just plain silly. Is the minister suggesting that the BSP Bank should not do any business with the tourism industry because BSP Life has shares in a large Denarau hotel?

Is he perhaps suggesting that every Parliamentarian whose relatives had a listing on Data Bureau's files should have declared their interests before voting?

The minister has made a blunder. This Act will do harm to many people in Fiji in a very unfair way. It will effectively close our business. There has been no consultation with our company or the people who use its services.

The minister seems to think it is Data Bureau’s fault that there is no regulation of credit reporting in Fiji.

In fact, we have worked with organisations such as the World Bank to develop the best and fairest systems of data collection and recording.

Our rules most certainly protect people’s privacy. They also provide for quick and confidential correction of any errors which are made.

The minister makes vague allegations about having received “many complaints from members of the community regarding information held by Data Bureau”.

That is a meaningless statement. He does not say if he has investigated the complaints or even established if those complaints are justified.

As of last month Data Bureau held 415,275 consumer files and 91,729 business files. There have been 1,141,109 consumer searches and 26,855 business searches in the past 15 years, and 7870 public notices.

Mrs Premila Kumar of the Consumer Council of Fiji said the council received 47 complaints. Only 14 complaints from the Consumer Council have reached Data Bureau in 15 years.

Data Bureau responded to every single Consumer Council complaint and the council took no further action.

Mrs Kumar has been to our offices. We have explained to her our processes, how we protect people's privacy and how we correct errors.

She has never once suggested to us that our systems are wrong or need improving.

The majority of Fijians have no adverse credit history. If a credit provider inquires about a person and is told that a person has no adverse records at Data Bureau, that helps that person to get credit more quickly and at better rates of interest. So the majority of people will lose as a result of this Act.

The minister seems to be under the delusion that, as a result of the new Act, there will be a new credit bureau and it will have perfect information.

The minister does not seem to understand the basics of a credit bureau.

It is about a history of credit information, obtained by consent and shared by the majority of credit providers, who make their own credit decisions.

The key word is “history”. Data Bureau had 15 years of history. If there is no history then there cannot be a useful credit bureau. If the minister had engaged in some meaningful consultation he would have understood this.

Lastly, I need to once again correct the minister on several points:

* Data Bureau’s information is not flawed, or as he says, “tainted”. Just because the minister says he has received "complaints" does not make it so. He has produced no evidence of his so-called “complaints”. Just assume (even though it is not true) that the Consumer Council was correct in its 14 complaints about our 415,275 consumer files. Is that a good reason to throw away the other 415,261 files;

* Many government departments and statutory bodies are customers of Data Bureau. They have never complained of "tainted" information;

* Some people seem to think that if they take a long time to pay a debt, but they finally pay it or settle it, that they should not have an adverse record at Data Bureau. Ask anybody in business who has ever spent valuable time chasing bad debtors, or paid legal fees to lawyers or had to discount an invoice to get payment. Why, with a bad credit history, should a person get credit on the same terms as someone who has honestly and diligently paid all his or her bills on time;

* All information contained on our database — other than public information such as court judgments — has been collected with consent. People seeking credit from a credit provider give consent because they know that a Data Bureau search gives confidence to credit providers;

* Sometimes an adverse record appeared and people objected to it. If the record was wrong, it was quickly and confidentially corrected. Data Bureau had a process for this. But how can people object to information which is true, and which they have agreed that Data Bureau may have;

* The minister says that he is “perplexed” about news that interest rates may rise as a result of this Act. He says “a decrease in interest rates was not touted as a reason for the introduction of the Data Bureau.” In fact, they were. And the evidence clearly shows that these two benefits have occurred; and

* Of course we cannot show a direct correlation between interest rates and the existence of Data Bureau in the past 15 years. Interest rates are affected by many things. The minister was also once a lawyer for a bank. And therefore he must surely know that when, because of a lack of information, a credit provider’s risks of loan default increase, the cost of credit — that is, the interest rate — will also decrease. How else will a credit provider cover its losses?

We will shortly be updating our website to include all statements made by any minister and the Consumer Council regarding this new Act together with our comments and corrections. The public will then be able to judge who is right and who is wrong.

* Gary Callaghan is the chairman of Data Bureau Limited. The views expressed in this article are his own, not the views of The Fiji Times.

Cane growers don’t want another Girmit through Bills 19 & 20.

Growers oppose Bill

Felix Chaudhary The Fiji Times. Thursday, May 19, 2016

TO say that sugarcane growers in the Western Division are vehemently opposed to Government’s Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill would be an understatement.

All the farmers who made submissions to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs in the West last week — whether politically aligned or not — agree on one thing.

There is a need for wider consultation because of the immense impact the Bill and the Fiji Sugar Cane Growers Fund Amendment Bill will have on the way the industry is managed, run and operated if the legislation comes into effect.

While it could be fair comment to say that political parties and growers representative organisations may have influenced farmers’ views and submissions to some extent, one can understand the frustrations and concerns of canegrowers across the country — that they were not given enough time to go over the details of the two Bills to be able to form their own opinion.

Another factor that needs consideration, as farmers repeatedly pointed out, was that the Bills were never translated into iTaukei and Hindi to help them better understand these two pieces of legislation.

Growers are unanimous on the need for real consultations on sections of the reform Bill that will affect them — like the Sugar Master Award, cane payment system and their representation in the industry. They are suspicious of the industrial action clause and penalties that could be meted out without any avenue for recourse.

They view the recently formed Council of Sugar Cane Growers and the two Bills as Government’s attempt to control the industry by imposing its will on farmers, canecutters and lorry operators.

In short, they want more time to go through the details and they want parts of the Bill amended to abide by the principles of freedom and democracy enshrined and assured in the 2013 Constitution.

SUGAR INDUSTRY TRIBUNAL

Growers’ view

All the growers who made presentations strongly opposed the idea of the Sugar Industry Tribunal being moved to the Sugar Industry. They questioned the processes, as outlined in the Bill, for arbitration and called into question the independence of the tribunal.

Submissions made in all centres highlighted growers issues with the Ministry of Sugar permanent secretary’s involvement in disputes. Farmers said having the Sugar PS decide what constituted a dispute was unconstitutional and the disestablishment of the position of Registrar of Tribunal denied growers access to fair hearing and justice.

Government’s view

Standing Committee on Economic Affairs chairperson Lorna Eden said it was obvious that sugarcane growers did not understand or failed to comprehend the independence of the tribunal as stipulated in the reform Bill.

She told growers and growers' representative organisations that the tribunal was independent and would be appointed by the Chief Justice.

COUNCIL OF SUGAR CANE GROWERS

Growers’ view

The overwhelming view of all growers was that the newly formed Council did not represent canefarmers.

Farmers informed the standing committee that the six growers reps on the recently formed Council had been appointed by the Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar, Voreqe Bainimarama and this made their appointments political. Growers also said the six reps were from cane producers associations, an organisation formed to administer Fairtrade funds and regulations.

Farmers unanimously called on the Government to allow for elections to be held and for growers to elect one representative from each of the 38 cane growing sectors.

They said this would allow for a democratic process where people living in any sector would know who their elected rep was and where to go to air grievances or raise issues.

Government’s view

Ms Eden said the six cane producers association members were appointed because they represented growers from across the country.

REGISTER OF SUGARCANE GROWERS

Growers’ view

During the consultations in the Western Division, not one grower or representative organisation had anything positive to say about this provision in the Bill.

All were unanimous in calling for the register to remain with a growers' representative organisation and not the FSC — as proposed under the Bill.

Farmers viewed the transfer of the register to the FSC as the height of politicisation.

Many said the provisions of the Bill would allow for the cancellation of any growers registration by the FSC on the order of the Sugar Minister.

Government’s view

Ms Eden said the growers’ views were noted and they would include this in their report to Parliament.

MASTER AWARD

Growers’ view

Farmers from Sigatoka, Nadi, Ba, Tavua and Rakiraki have rejected any amendment to the Sugar Master Award without detailed consultations.

At every centre the Standing Committee held submissions, farmers expressed serious concerns about this section of the Bill and the powers bestowed on the Sugar Minister to revoke and make the Master Award.

Growers were of the view that the process stipulated in the Bill where the Sugar Minister can make the Master Award in consultation with the FSC and Growers Council was flawed because both institutions were fully controlled by Government.

Elderly farmers said when the Master Award was constructed in the past, it was done after widespread consultations and the documents were prepared by judicial officers and not the Sugar Minister.

Government’s view

Ms Eden informed growers in the west that the Sugar Minister would not construct the Sugar Master Award in isolation.

She said the Sugar Minister would seek the views of the miller and growers through the FSC and Council of Sugar Cane Growers.

FCGA says Sugar Cane Industry Bill criminalises cane production

Farmers wary of penalties

Felix Chaudhary. The Fiji Times. Thursday, May 19, 2016

THE Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill will demolish all freedoms, independence, fair play and justice for canegrowers if it is passed in Parliament, says the Fiji Cane Growers Association.

President Attar Singh said every aspect of their livelihood would be controlled by the Fiji Sugar Corporation and Government through the Minister for Sugar if the Bill was passed and imposed.

While making submissions to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs on the reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill in Ba last week, Mr Singh said the Bill would make life as a cane farmer worse than what it was for indentured labourers under the Colonial Sugar Refinery.

“The Bill criminalises cane production. Growers are now threatened with fines as fixed penalties of up to $500 for the schedule of offences growers commit.

“If they refuse to pay the fixed penalties, they can be fined up to $5000 or imprisoned for 12 months, or both.

“A grower commits an offence if he or she delays harvesting or refuses to plant cane unless he or she gives a seven-day notice to the permanent secretary for Sugar.

“For example, if due to continuous milling inefficiencies, a grower decides to stop harvesting, it is an offence.

“Under the Bill, the grower must allow the permanent secretary 14 days to rule on the dispute. This means that growers are at the mercy of Government, which has direct control of their livelihood.

“Yet there are no penalties for FSC for any of its failures or negligence.”

Standing committee chairperson Lorna Eden said the views put forward by growers and representative organisations had been recorded and would be included in their report to Parliament.

Association rallies behind efforts to support canegrowers

Felix Chaudhary. The Fiji Times. Thursday, May 19, 2016

GOVERNMENT should help sugarcane growers in the wake of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston instead of vigorously pushing for the quick implementation of the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill.

This was the view expressed by Fiji Cane Growers Association president Attar Singh.

In a submission to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs delivered last week in Ba, Mr Singh said canefarmers were expecting the roll out of a cane rehabilitation program but instead, Government was pushing through a Bill that was an assault on the freedoms of growers.

“The Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry will kill the sugar industry,” Mr Singh said.

He added interference by the Government under the guise of reforms had not made any positive development since the military takeover in 2006.

This, Mr Singh said, would continue if the reform Bill was passed and implemented.

“After the coup in December 2006, the military government started interfering with the industry.

“As a result, cane production declined by almost 50 per cent and sugar production has declined by almost 100,000 tonnes.

“At a time when growers are trying to recover from the effects of Tropical Cyclone Winston, Government should be directing all efforts towards helping them.

“Instead, it is sending them back into the Girmit era 100 years after the arrival of the last indentured labourers in 1916.

“The bottom line is canegrowers are being stripped of all their rights just to save FSC.

“The Fiji First Government has confirmed through this Bill that growers are sacrificial lambs,” Mr Singh said.

Standing committee chairperson Lorna Eden informed the association that the reason Government constructed the Bill was to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.

Sugar Bills worse than the dark days of CSR

Enslavement of canegrowers
By Bala Dass. 

(General Secretary of the National Federation Party as well as the General Secretary of the Fiji Cane Growers Association.)

The Fiji Times. Saturday May 14, 2016

Having studied the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill No.19 of 2016 and considering the views of the stakeholders who have made submission to the standing committee it is clear that sugarcane growers will be further enslaved and they will be at the mercy of Government in everything they do as part of sugar cane farming.

The Bill affects the livelihood of 200,000 people in our nation who are directly or indirectly dependent on the sugar industry.

Worse, it will subjugate around 16,000 growers, 12,872 of whom are active, under the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) and Government, reminiscent of their darkest days during the 93 year old stranglehold of the industry and the nation by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) (1880-1960) and its subsidiary South Pacific Sugar Mills (SPSM) (1961-1973).

Against a backdrop of such a frightening scenario for growers, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economic Affairs scrutinising Bill No. 19, will devote only around 20 hours of its time in receiving submissions from growers and the public in eight cane growing districts over a period of six days. And that too when growers are lacking knowledge on the more than draconian features of the Bill which hasn’t been publicised and not even translated into the i-Taukei and Hindi languages.

Is this Government’s version of common and equal citizenry that is supposed to provide equal opportunities to all?

Sugar Industry Act

The Bill seeks to repeal the Sugar Industry Act of 1984, which was a product of widespread consultation, negotiation and consensus building before it was tabled in the House of Representatives and agreed to both by the then Alliance Government led by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the Opposition National Federation Party led by Siddiq Moidin Koya (SM Koya) in a truly bipartisan manner.

The Act recognised the importance of the largest stakeholders of the industry — canegrowers, thereby creating an umbrella body, the Sugar Cane Growers Council that was a fully democratised institution.

The Act also made provision for the Master Award, which came into force in 1990. But it inherited the Denning Award, awarded to canegrowers by Lord Denning after impressive submissions in 1969 from their then leader A D Patel, who was also the founder leader of the NFP. Mr S M Koya ably supported him.

The Denning Award ensured equality, dignity and justice for canegrowers.

The FijiFirst Government have time and again accused, albeit frivolously, the current NFP leadership of undermining the achievements and vision of its founder leaders. Yet, this Government is destroying the legacy, achievements, vision, and honest hard work of A D Patel and S M Koya by forcing this Bill down the throats of growers.

Subjugation

The Sugar Cane Industry Reform Bill demolishes all freedoms, independence, fair play and justice for canegrowers. Every aspect of their livelihood is controlled by the Fiji Sugar Corporation and Government through the Minister for Sugar, who currently happens to be the Prime Minister.

* This Bill is worse than draconian — it is an imposition of another Girmit also on the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the last shipload of Indentured labourers in 1916.

And this very serious issue is not even being explained to growers who are entitled to information regarding the Bill.

Government cannot expect growers to download the Bill from Parliament website and scrutinise because majority of growers do not understand the complexities of issues and depend on their children and most importantly their leaders to explain issues to them.

* This Bill should have been translated into Hindi and i-Taukei languages and widely distributed. There should be a comparison
between the current Bill and what is in the Sugar Industry Act. That is how growers can understand what is in this Bill and what they are losing by way of repealing the Act.

* The Bill is all about rescuing FSC and writing off its debt to Government at the expense of eroding every right of growers. It must be understood that without canegrowers there is no sugar industry or FSC — it is as simple as this.

* The powers of the Tribunal have been diluted. The Tribunal cannot hear disputes between growers and FSC independently of any stakeholders. It can only hear disputes after it has been certified by the Permanent Secretary for Sugar. This means the Government controls and decides what is a dispute and what is not.

This is denial of access to fair hearing and justice. There is no Registrar to the Tribunal as has been the case for 31 years under the Sugar Industry Act.

* The Sugar Cane Growers Council is now a toothless tiger. If this Bill is passed in its current form, the Council changes from a toothless tiger to a puppet of Government because it will be fully controlled by Government.

It will have two members each from three cane producing associations — which were formed to administer Fair Trade only. They are not representative of all growers. Then it will have two Divisional Commissioners and a representative of the Sugar Ministry.

The Minister will appoint the council and the chairman. The council has no role in negotiating sale of sugar. Its role is confined to basic cane cultivation issues. This is unacceptable.

* The Register of Cane Growers is no longer in the hands of the Tribunal. It is with Fiji Sugar Corporation. A registration of a grower can be cancelled by FSC upon the order of the Minister for Sugar. This is the height of politicisation.

* Part 5 of the Bill is like a noose around growers’ necks. The minister for Sugar has powers to revoke the Master Award. The minister then can make the master award in consultation with the FSC and Growers Council.

Both are fully controlled by Government. Where is the voice of growers?

A draft Master Award will be subject to public hearings. It will be a product of Government, FSC and SCGC — all politically controlled. This is like putting the cart before the horse. The current master award, which continues until it is revoked, was a product of public consultation.

It wasn’t a ready-made document as will be the case under this Bill. In his submission to the Economic Affairs Committee last week, the Registrar to the Tribunal revealed that the Quality Cane Payment will come into force next year. This is shocking because growers don’t know about it. It will mean the unilateral revocation of the master award and the current sharing formula of proceeds from the sale of sugar of 70/30 in favour of growers will be abolished.

* The Bill criminalises cane production. Growers are now threatened with fines as fixed penalties of up to $500 for the schedule of offences growers commit. If they refuse to pay the fixed penalties, they can be fined up to $5000 or imprisoned for 12months, or both.

A grower commits an offence if he/she delays harvesting or refuses to plant cane unless he/she gives a 7-day notice to the Permanent Secretary for Sugar.

For example, if due to continuous milling inefficiencies, a grower decides to stop harvesting, it is an offence. A grower must allow the permanent secretary 14 days to rule on the dispute. This means that growers are at the mercy of Government, which has direct control of their livelihood.

* The Sugar Research Institute of Fiji will no longer be an independent body and under this Bill it will be controlled by the FSC.

Rescuing FSC?

The Bill’s intention is to rescue FSC by turning the loans and guarantees by Government into State equity. Government currently has 68 per cent shares in FSC. Minority shareholders own 32 per cent. Government wants to take over all shares and compensate other shareholders by paying them the value of the share price of FSC.

Currently the FSC is technically insolvent. However FSC executive chairman Abdul Khan claims FSC will become profitable in three years because according to him by 2020 the sugar cane crop production will increase to 3.5 million tonnes and sugar production to 437,500 tonnes by ensuring 50,000 hectares of land is used for cane cultivation yielding 80 tonnes per hectare.

He says currently 47,000 hectares is used for cane cultivation. This contradicts the Ministry of Sugar, which said 42,000 hectares was currently used for cane planting while 39,000 lay idle.

Abdul Khan has been the executive chairman for many years. The Annual General Meeting of FSC was held for three years on May 27, 2015. On May 29, 2015, The Fiji Times reported Mr Khan as saying that FSC had “good reasons for not holding an AGM over the last three years and not releasing the information because at the time there was lot of to and fro in the industry and for the company as well”.

“There was talk of divestment, there was talk of share buyback, there were all sorts of talk,” Mr Khan was reported as saying.

He said the Corporation wanted to protect sensitive information because “it would have compromised the position of all the
shareholders, not just the majority shareholders but also minority ones”.

Can Mr Khan inform the people of Fiji of any commercial company or statutory organisation that deliberately delays its AGM for three years because of “to and fro” talks? If FSC can deliberately delay its AGM for three years, what guarantee is there that despite enslaving and controlling canegrowers, it will be able to achieve its targets in 2020?

The answer is a simple NO. Even it would not have happened if the FSC had announced its targets before TC Winston devastated the sugar industry in North Western Viti Levu. This is evident from the industry’s cane and sugar production figures of the last nine years until 2015, eight of which were under the military regime and Bainimarama government.

If Mr Khan’s statistic that currently 47,000 hectares of land is under sugarcane crop then currently only 39.14 tonnes of cane is produced per hectare. Therefore his bold announcement of an 80 tonnes per hectare from 50,0000 hectares of land by 2020 is simply unachievable especially if growers are forced to endure another Girmit under Bill No. 19. FSC also produces cane. Can Mr Khan reveal what is the average tonnage per hectare on FSC farms?

The other issue is whether the minority shareholders who have 32 per cent stake in FSC were consulted before this Bill was tabled in Parliament. Was the Board of FSC aware of this Bill? Were the Sugar Industry Tribunal, Sugar Cane Growers Council and Sugar Research Institute of Fiji aware that their independence was being eroded via a Bill?

Industry in death throes

This Bill will kill the sugar industry. After the coup in December 2006 the military government started interfering with the industry.

As a result cane production has declined by almost 50 per cent. Sugar production has declined by almost 100,000 tonnes.

At a time when growers are trying to recover from the effects of TC Winston, Government must direct all efforts towards helping them. Instead it is sending them back into Girmit 100 years after the arrival of the last indentured labourers in 1916.

The bottom line is cane growers are being stripped of all their rights just to save FSC. The Fiji First government has confirmed through this Bill that growers are sacrificial lambs.

 

 

FCGA presents submission on Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill.

Bill criticised
By Felix Chaudhary.
The Fiji Times. Saturday, May 14, 2016

ANY legislation that hands over total control of an industry to an organisation that is bankrupt is flawed, says the Fiji Cane Growers Association.

President Attar Singh made the comment while making submissions in Ba to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs on the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill.

“This Bill tries to hand over management and control of the industry to an organisation that is bankrupt and cannot even run its own affairs,” he said.

“I heard that FSC has come up with a strategic plan and this will be quite interesting because whatever the FSC has planned to do over the past five years, it has not been able to achieve.

“FSC can’t be trusted and even if FSC could be trusted, the point is the industry should be controlled by farmers.

Mr Singh said the FSC should focus on its core business and on improving performance instead of trying to wrest control of the industry.

“If this Government was serious about improving the industry there would be provisions about improving cultivation methods and things of that sort but there is nothing like that.”

Mr Singh added the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill and Sugar Cane Growers Fund Amendment Bill should either be withdrawn or delayed to allow for widespread consultation.

The Bill provides for reforms aimed at rejuvenating the industry.

Canegrowers voice their concern at public hearings on the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill.

Sugar Talks Queried
By Felix Chaudhary. 
The Fiji Times. Saturday May 14, 2016

THE Fiji Cane Growers Association says the Government’s attempt of holding consultations on the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill was a disrespect to farmers in the country.

The association also said the manner in which the submission process was being conducted called into question the Government’s ethos of common and equal citizenry for all.

“The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economic Affairs scrutinising Bill No.19 will devote only around 20 hours of its time in receiving submissions from growers and the public in eight canegrowing districts over a period of six days,” said association president Attar Singh.

“And that too when growers are lacking knowledge on the more than draconian features of the Bill which hasn’t been publicised and not even translated into the iTaukei and Hindi languages.

“Is this Government’s version of common and equal citizenry that is supposed to provide equal opportunities to all?”

Mr Singh said having studied the Bill and taking into consideration the views of stakeholders who had made submissions, it was clear that sugarcane growers would be further enslaved.

“They will be at the mercy of Government and the Fiji Sugar Corporation and everything they do as part of sugarcane farming.

“This Bill affects the livelihood of 200,000 people in our nation who are directly or indirectly dependent on the sugar industry.

“Worse, it will subjugate around 16,000 growers, 12,872 of whom are active, under the FSC and Government.”

“This is reminiscent of their darkest days during the 93-year- old stranglehold of the industry and the nation by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company and its subsidiary, South Pacific Sugar Mills.”

Farmer voices concern on reforms

By Felix Chaudhary
. The Fiji Times. Saturday, May 14, 2016

THE Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill is designed to give the present Government absolute control of the sugarcane industry.

This was the comment made by Davendra Naidu, a farmer from Varavu Sector, Ba, while making submissions to the Standing Committee on Economic Affairs on the Bill.

“Every now and then the Prime Minister has said that the sugar industry before was politicised but looking at the present Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill 2016, it is very clear that the FijiFirst government wants complete control,” he said.

“So the sugar industry is politicised by the present Government.” Mr Naidu said many details in the Bill went against the principles of democracy, especially in the rights of growers.

“The Sugar Cane Growers Council belongs to sugarcane growers, full stop.

“We want elected growers councillors from the 38 sectors to look after our interests, we don’t want the Sugar Minister to pick and choose members from the cane producer associations.”

Mr Naidu also said farmers had issues with the Bill in terms of the sections corresponding with the Sugar Cane Growers Fund.

“The fund does not belong to the Government, the growers will decide what to do with the fund.”

Standing Committee chairperson Lorna Eden said the views expressed by Mr Naidu had been noted.