Academics comment on PAC chairman change

Risk of being ‘meaningless’
By Nasik Swami
The Fiji Times. Saturday, May 14, 2016

SENIOR economics academic at the University of the South Pacific (USP) Dr Neelesh Gounder said the Public Accounts Committee risked becoming ‘meaningless’ as its mandate was severely restricted.

Dr Gounder’s comments followed the appointment of Government member Ashneel Sudhakar as the chairman of the all-important PAC and Professor Biman Prasad being voted out on Thursday.

He said it was not clear as to what was wrong with the practice of an Opposition MP as chair of the PAC in Fiji.

“The tradition meant that an Opposition MP as chair will question the reports of the Auditor-General more effectively, and hold the Government accountable, better than the Government side,” Dr Gounder said.

He said PAC was an important institution of checks and balances within democratic governance.

Dr Gounder said with the committee no longer chaired by an Opposition member, it had “risks of becoming meaningless”.

Issue of credibility

By Nasik Swami. The Fiji Times. 
Saturday, May 14, 2016

UNIVERSITY of the South Pacific’s (USP) School of Government, Development and International Affairs Professor Vijay Naidu says it is important for Government to answer why it’s so necessary to change the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

Prof Naidu said it appeared the committee was being given the identity and prominence that it should have, and was beginning to follow its significant mandate. He said it was important to have an Opposition as chair because of credibility issues.

“This is a credibility issue. With an Opposition member as chair, there is a greater likelihood of critical and close scrutiny of government use of public revenues.

“There is a greater likelihood of more openness to the media (as we have seen). This in turn would mean a more informed citizenry on matters relating to the use of public resources,” Prof Naidu said.

He said with a government MP in the chair and government’s numerical dominance in the committee, whether the same level of scrutiny and publicity regarding this scrutiny (and therefore accountability and transparency) would be manifested in the future remain to be seen.

 

FCGA Submission on Sugar Cane Industry Reform Bills

The Fiji Cane Growers Association presented its submission today to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economic Services on Bills 19 and 20 – reform of the Sugar Cane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund Amendment Bills.

The FCGA says “We reject these Bills outright and request the Committee to do the only sensible thing and that is to recommend that these be shelved. These Bills will debilitate cane growers, making cane growing totally unprofitable and pushing growers into debt in perpetuity.”

Read more about the FCGA’s submission.

FCGA Submission to the Economic Affairs Committee on Bills 19 & 20 of 2016

NFP Leader voted out as Chair of Public Accounts Committee

May 12, 2016

Statement by the NFP Leader Honourable Professor Biman Prasad

I was today voted out as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

It is obvious why I was removed as Chairman. My removal is not a surprise. After all that is what this Government wanted and enforced changes to the Standing Orders in February in our absence.

This goes against the norms of transparency and accountability in most Commonwealth jurisdictions. It also violates the standards and resolutions adopted in respect of developing democracies by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) of which Fiji is a member.

Changes to the Standing Orders have further eroded parliamentary democracy, transparency, accountability and good governance. Again this was pushed through by Government when the Standing Orders Committee did not agree to the changes.

This is the most serious example of usurping parliamentary democracy. Two specific changes will make a mockery of our democracy already struggling to find its feet more than 18 months after the general elections.

For example, the requirement of 40% approval in Parliament for petitions being brought to Parliament by MPs on behalf of the people, to be referred to the relevant Standing Committee, means that at least 20 MPs need to vote in favour of the petition being given the attention and importantance that it deserves. A petition has already been derailed in April.

The Opposition has only 18 MPs and with the suspension of Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, is reduced to 17. We have seen in the last 18 months that no Government Member except on one occasion has voted for an Opposition Motion.

And in the lone case, the member who voted in favour of a motion on NCD – Non Communicable Diseases, is no longer in parliament.

Therefore the people’s voice has been suppressed. It is farcical of Government MPs to brag about being given the mandate of the people in large numbers when the same mandate is being abused to ride roughshod over them.

The other serious change apart from a few other controversial changes is to change the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee, which has always remained with the Opposition since Independence and is the practice in 67% of Commonwealth Countries.

It now means that Government can elect its own Chairman because it has majority members on the Public Accounts Committee – just like other Committees.

One has to ask the Government why the change? Why is the Government frightened that an Opposition Chair is leading the scrutiny of Auditor-General’s Reports?

The role of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts has been diluted. Standing Order 109(6) states that the “The committee must only examine how public money has been dealt with and accounted for in accordance with the written law and must not examine the merits of the underlying policy that informs public spending”.

PAC has now just become a toothless Committee. One can see from the calendar of meetings of standing committees that today’s meeting was one-off for the month of May with no further meetings this month.

My removal was expected because the Attorney General accused me of politicizing the Committee. If thoroughly scrutinizing Auditor General’s Reports and seeking information about controversial expenditure like payment of consultancy to an Accounting firm for a study into the operations of Rewa Dairy leading to its sale, miscellaneous expenditure of Head 50 and payment of salaries of Cabinet Ministers through an Accounting Firm is politicizing the work of the Committee, then taxpayers of Fiji can no longer expect any discrepancy highlighted by the Auditor General to be scrutinized and highlighted.

If a Government policy leads to abuse and wastage of funds, the Committee should have every right to highlight it and raise it in Parliament. With the change in the Standing Orders restricting the role of the Committee to basically only browse through reports, this scrutiny will not happen. This is ridiculous and a grave injustice to the taxpayers of Fiji.

Verbatim of the Sanding Orders Committee of 2 nd November 2015 reveal that the Attorney-General vigorously argued for a change of Section 117 of the previous Standing Orders, claiming the current Chairman (Biman Prasad) was politicizing issues saying “That is why PAC is losing its mana…”

The amended Standing Orders, first adopted by Parliament in October 2014 and later in December 2014 stipulate rules for election of Chairperson of Standing Committees. 117(2)(a) state “the Standing Committee on Public Accounts may only elect an Opposition Member as Chairperson”.

The amendment sought by Government completely deleted Section 117 of the current Standing Orders, including 117(2)(a) that requires the appointment of an Opposition Member as Chairperson at all times.

The new amended Section 117 states a standing committee at its first meeting must elect a chairperson and deputy chairperson. This therefore applies to all standing committees including Public Accounts Committee. The amended Section 117 (3) also provide for majority committee members to outvote and replace the committee chairperson and deputy chair person provided they have served at least 12 months in their respective positions.

The Verbatim of 2 nd November 2015 shows the Speaker (Dr Luveni) asking the AG “what is the problem of having this Opposition as Chair of PAC Committee that we should change this now?”

The Attorney General replied that it should not be prescribed as to who the Chairperson should be saying “Chairman from the Opposition will try to politicise the matter and that is what has been happening unfortunately with the current Chair…these Committees need to be de-politicised”. This is nonsense.

Dr Luveni replied that having an Opposition Member as Chairperson “has been a plus for Fiji” and that this was told to her by other Parliaments.

The AG is on record of having lamented about the work of the Committee in July last year, two months after I tabled a Consolidated report of PAC on the Auditor-General’s report from 2007 to 2009. That report has not been debated one year after it was tabled. The Fiji Sun of 22 nd July 2015 reports the AG as saying “it was premature to have a standing committee in Fiji on corruption because political maturity was lacking”.

He said there has been a culture in Fiji of standing committees being used for political point scoring.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said this would not work for a standing committee on corruption, because “enquiries of corruption need to be dealt with apolitically and, with confidentiality.

Despite the non-agreement in the Standing Orders Committee, Government went ahead and amended the Orders in accordance with its wishes.

PAC was truly a bipartisan committee and I thank Honourable Aseri Radrodro and former members Honourable Semi Koroilavesau, Honourable Sanjit Patel and Honourable Balmindar Singh for their honesty, transparency and hard work as well as complete cooperation with me. Their work in a bipartisan manner has been exemplary.

I have also resigned as a Member of the Public Accounts Committee following today’s meeting.

Biman Prasad

Leader

NFP Leader calls for widespread consultations on Sugar Cane Industry Reform Bill

The Parliamentary Standing Committee is meeting to discuss the draconian Sugar Cane Industry Reform Bill and the Sugar Cane Growers Fund Amendment Bill. The  Reform Bill will replace the Sugar Industry Act of 1984 and  if passed it is more than likely the Government will change the Master Award, further enslaving cane growers.
Call for sugar talks
Felix Chaudhary. The Fiji Times. Friday 6 May, 2016

THE NFP has called for widespread and detailed consultations on the reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill.

Speaking in Parliament last week Thursday, party leader Professor Biman Prasad also called on the findings by Dr Sitiveni Ratuva, a consultant hired to look at a proposed review of the Sugar Industry Master Award, to be made available for scrutiny.

The NFP leader said any amendment to legislation governing the sugarcane industry had to ensure the biggest stakeholders, the farmers,
had a say in the decision-making process.

“I think it is important when we abolished the Sugar Cane Growers Council, we have a new structure,” he said.

“We have talked about it being unrepresented of the growers and that the voice of the growers was taken away.”

So from that point of view, we feel that once the Bill goes to the Standing Committee that there would be a lot more consultation with the wider group of farmers in terms of some of the issues that they have.”
On loans and guarantees to FSC, particularly loans, I am sure that the committee will look at the actual details of what they are, in terms of the proposed conversion of the minority shareholders to Government.” So, those are some of the issues that I think would need thorough scrutiny within the Standing Committee.”

Fellow NFP party member Prem Singh acknowledged the Attorney-General for presenting the Bill in Parliament.

He also reiterated Prof Prasad’s call for the Ratuva Report to be made “This is a major amendment, Government will apply for 100 per cent
shares in FSC and the industry as a whole,” said Mr Singh.

“So, basically it will be a government company and these reports with various recommendations will come in handy.

“The only thing I have to say and appeal to the canefarmers of this country through this is that, they have an opportunity now to make submissions on this Bill when it goes to the committee and they should not miss this opportunity because this Bill has many salient features which would require some expert advice and I urge them to take appropriate stand and do not miss this boat.”

Mixed reactions
Felix Chaudhary. 
Friday, May 6, 2016

THERE have been mixed reactions recorded across the sugarcane sector to Government’s reform of the Sugar Cane Industry Bill.

Organisations representing sugarcane growers — the National Farmers Union and Rarawai Penang Cane Producers Association — have raised concerns about the manner in which the Bill was constructed while the National Federation Party said it was important farmers understood how the Bill would affect them.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum unveiled details of the Bill in Parliament on Thursday.

Government says the objectives of the Bill are to establish the Sugar Industry Tribunal, the Sugar Cane Growers Council and Mill Area
Committees.

The Bill aims to promote the efficiency and development of the Industry by streamlining the Industry’s operational processes and to co-ordinate the activities of all sections of the industry and promote goodwill and harmony between such sections.

The document also aims to prescribe standard provisions governing the mutual rights and obligations of the Fiji Sugar Corporation and the
registered growers and to provide for the keeping of an official Register of Growers.

The Bill says provisions will be established with the view to preventing and settling all disputes within the industry by amicable agreement.

The Bill also outlined plans to convert all current Government loans to the FSC and the related accrued interests into equity and for the Government to acquire all remaining shares of the corporation.

In terms of streamlining and reducing bureaucracy, Government has proposed moving the Sugar Industry Tribunal to the Sugar Ministry.

Under the proposal, the positions of Registrar of Tribunal and Industrial Commissioner will be dis-established.

Government is also proposing that the Sugar Research Institute of Fiji (SRIF) come under the umbrella of the FSC with all assets, interests,
rights, privileges, liabilities and obligations of SRIF to be transferred to and vested with the Corporation.

The Bill will also establish provisions in the Sugar Cane Growers Council for the industry to be able to levy farmers for any capital works project or any special purpose.

Deductions for the levy will be made from growers proceeds by the FSC under the new Bill.

The reform document also proposes that all loans to South Pacific Fertilisers be converted to shares to be held by the Government.

 

 

 

World Press Freedom Day – the reality in Fiji

Journalists mark World Press Freedom Day but the reality in Fiji is that the media is unable to perform their key role of being the messenger of truth because of draconian laws still in existence.

Remove decree
Matilda Simmons: The Fiji Times. Wednesday, May 04, 2016

AS long as the Media Decree is in place, Fiji cannot say it has press freedom, said National Federation Party leader Professor Biman Prasad as members of the local media marked World Press Freedom Day yesterday.

The decree, which was introduced in June 2010, enables the Fiji Media Industry Development Authority to enforce and investigate possible violations by local media outlets.

“It’s the rule of law — freedom of the media and the laws that govern that freedom must be open and transparent,” he said.

We don’t have that in Fiji because we have a Media Decree that puts water on all the efforts by the journalists and organisations to report accurately without fear or favour.

“So I think the focus of media freedom in Fiji is to pressure the
Government to remove the decree because we can talk about media freedom for as long as we want, but the law that we have restricts this.”

Last year the National Federation Party leader had tabled a motion in the Fiji Parliament to remove or modify the decree but was defeated, 24-17.

Fijian Media Association General Secretary Stanley Simpson said it was prudent that the Government relook at certain provisions in the decree.

“The Fijian Media Association’s view is that we’ve always wanted to consistently engage with Government to remove certain provisions of Media Industry Development Decree, which we deem as excessive and could be abused by whichever government that comes into power,” said Simpson.

“Some aspects of the decree we have no problems with like the code of ethics which is similar to ours, but it’s the penalties and, in particular, the independence of the make-up of the tribunal authority. Those are two provisions we feel are a concern,” he adds.

Meanwhile, MIDA chairman Ashwin Raj, while speaking at a panel
discussion at the Fiji National University yesterday, told the media
fraternity that the issue was responsible reporting and urged local media to work closely with MIDA.

World Press Freedom Day celebrated by mainstream media organisations
By: Sofaia Koroitanoa: 
FIJI ONE NEWS, 6PM Tuesday 3rd May, 2016

As today marked World Press Freedom day, representatives from mainstream media organizations came together to openly discuss issues relating to media freedom.

It was a chance for media personnel to clear the air on perceived restrictions and bias.

The discussion was part of the World Press Freedom day celebrations organized by the Fiji National University.

These media personnel had an open discussion about issues and challenges being faced in their respective newsrooms.

Students and academics of Fiji National University got to hear first hand from these professionals.

Speaking as Chief Guest, Communications Fiji Limited Managing Director William Parkinson highlighted the role of education in media freedom and the role of the media in engaging diverse views.

“I am concerned , I celebrate it with all of you the return of democracy in this country but I have to say I’m concerned at the way in which those views appeared to be shut out, rapid passage of legislations at the moment under the guise of urgency. I don’t think it’s appropriate and I speak as a citizen,” said William Parkinson, Managing Director CFL.

The event was organized by FNU’s College of Humanities & Education, School of Communication, Language and Literature, and the Department of Media and Journalism in collaboration with Pacific Islands News Association.

The truth about the Fair Reporting of Credit Act

True democracy and cost of credit

Richard Naidu. The Fiji Times, Saturday, April 30, 2016

POLITICIANS run elected governments so from time to time we must expect that they will do silly things. Still, in the annals of silly laws passed by Fiji governments in our 46 years of independence, the Fair Reporting of Credit Act will rank highly on my list.

Our leaders repeatedly remind us (so often, it seems, that perhaps they are trying to persuade themselves) that we now live in a “true democracy.” But a “true democracy” does not just mean that people vote every four years. A “true democracy” means that we work together, consult each other and listen to each other’s views.

Parliament has a process for passing laws. That process is designed to be slow. This means a draft law can be circulated for everyone to think about. Those affected by the law can tell the Government what the effects of the new law will be.

Our leaders — Government and Opposition — can talk to each other about how to accommodate everybody’s interests (everybody, that is, not just the ruling party’s supporters). That way, we get laws we all understand and whose consequences we have all thought through, even if some of us do not agree. Good laws, in other words.

There is also a special process for passing laws which are considered urgent. But the mystery is why the Fair Reporting of Credit Act was considered urgent. It seems to have popped up, out of nowhere, on a Monday. By Thursday it was out of Parliament and presumably on its way to the President for signing into law. Why?

The Attorney-General helpfully explained that there was no need to consult, because “every single citizen of this country will be very happy with this Bill. We don’t need to go out and spend months on end to find out if they are happy or not”.

Fiji is fortunate to have true democrats like Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. Since he obviously knows what will make the people happy without the need to ask us, why bother with a Parliament at all?

It seems that on Tuesday, the directors of Data Bureau, the country’s only credit agency, woke up to a newspaper story that credit agencies were to be regulated and Mr Sayed-Khaiyum’s reasons why.

They wrote a seven-page letter to Mr Sayed-Khaiyum on Wednesday. This told him why almost all of the reasons he had given were wrong. Reading that letter, the differences between the Government’s reasons and Data Bureau’s reality are astonishing.

* Data Bureau based its system on a credit agency in New Zealand (a country with strong privacy laws). It spent more than a year setting up the rules. It worked with the Reserve Bank. The World Bank has helped. Data Bureau is a model for similar companies (which Data Bureau owns) in Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu

* In 15 years of operation Data Bureau has received 14 complaints from the Consumer Council — less than one per year

* Your credit information does not go onto a Data Bureau database without your permission (which you generally give when you apply to a lender for credit). Of course if you suffer a court judgment or bankruptcy, that is a matter of public record (which doesn’t need your consent to be on the database)

* Only a record of an undisputed debt is loaded onto the Data Bureau system. If you dispute a debt, you take it up with Data Bureau and your dispute is reviewed

* If of course Data Bureau’s information about you is wrong, you can sue Data Bureau for any loss to your reputation.

Why would the World Bank care about what Data Bureau is doing? Perhaps because the World Bank understands that if there is good information, there is transparency (a favourite Government word).

Transparency creates efficiency in lending. That means greater amounts of quality credit. That means economic growth.

No one knows what the new law will do – except that the Government wants to confiscate all the credit information that Data Bureau has collected over 15 years. Then it will say “start again under new rules. We haven’t thought of these new rules yet. We will tell you later”.

So does this new law liberate every Fiji citizen from the clutches of evil banks and finance companies? Will borrowers and consumers now enjoy newfound economic justice when they apply for a loan? Of course not.

Under this law the majority of us lose — those who have never defaulted on a debt, have never missed a loan payment and have never been chased by a business for not paying our bills.

Until now, when you applied for credit, a lender or business might check to see if you had a negative record at Data Bureau. If you didn’t, you had a better chance of getting a loan.

Now lenders and businesses have no information on anybody. So they will have to decline more loans and budget for more bad debts. Who will they pass these costs on to? Us of course, the borrowers (assuming they will lend to us at all). So higher costs for borrowing for everybody. And it is not just banks who use credit agencies. So do many businesses, small and large. Every day they have to decide about giving credit accounts to others.

Westpac or CreditCorp have employees who keep records of judgments and other credit information. These large organisations can quickly rebuild their own database of people who are bad credit risks. But if you are a small business trying to decide whether to give credit to a new customer, you will have no information at all. Your risk of loss goes up. So maybe you
just won’t offer credit — and lose some good business.

The Government (cheered on by the Consumer Council of Fiji) seems to think that if it wipes out negative credit information on everybody in Fiji, then we will all have some kind of quasi-constitutional right to borrow money. In fact, now that no one has a credit record, cautious lenders will mean it is harder for us to borrow. Lenders will always find ways to protect their money. The only question is how much it will cost the rest of us.

If the Government had stopped, thought and consulted — instead of passing a law in three days to make a debating point — we might have been able to discuss these things sensibly. Maybe our “true democracy” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

* Richard Naidu is a Suva lawyer. He has no professional or personal connection to Data Bureau. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper