The leaders of Fiji’s two opposition parties and a prominent trade unionist remained in police custody on Sunday morning, after they were arrested on Saturday over utterances at a meeting regarding the 2013 constitution in an incident that has alarmed human rights groups.
The leader of the National Federation Party, Biman Prasad, and the leader of Sodelpa, Sitiveni Rabuka, were being held, along with the general secretary of the Fiji Council of Trade Unions, Attar Singh, an academic and former politician, Tupeni Baba, and Jone Dakuvula, from the organisation Pacific Dialogue.
The leader of the Labour Party Mahendra Chaudhry told RNZ International he was also on his way to speak to police.
The police questioning is understood to be over what was said at a public meeting organised by Pacific Dialogue this week regarding the 2013 constitution, which was held without a government permit.
The National Federation Party said Professor Prasad’s house and the party’s headquarters in Suva had been searched by police on Saturday evening. It said a laptop and documents were seized from its offices. Mr Singh’s house is also understood to have been searched.
RNZ International today interviewed the leader of the Fiji Labour Party, Mahendra Chaudhry, at home in Suva on Sunday afternoon, where he was preparing to go down to the police station for questioning.
The former prime minister said he contacted the police because he is a law abiding citizen and heard that they wanted to speak to him.
He said the police confirmed they were waiting for him and it was possible he would be at the police station overnight.
Mr Chaudhry said he had been invited by Pacific Dialogue to speak in two forums, one on the sugar industry and the other on the country’s constitution.
Asked if he was acting in solidarity with leaders of other opposition groups who had been arrested, Mr Chaudhry said they were “all in it together”.
“I was away from Suva, so now that I’m back, I think I should also join the queue.”
Mr Chaudhry said he would talk to the police “and see what they do”.
Mr Singh’s lawyer, Raman Singh, said the men were being held at different police stations around the capital, Suva, and had not yet been charged. Under Fiji law, police can detain a person without charge for a maximum of 48 hours.
Tupou Draunidalo, the president of the National Federation Party, said Professor Prassad remained in good spirits after almost 24-hours in police custody, and had spent Sunday being questioned.
Ms Draunidalo said party supporters and family members had formed a vigil outside the police stations in Suva: “Really, today, we just want to show moral support, be there around the police station and check in on him,” she said in an interview. “Just to make sure that these gentlemen, who have a reputation of upholding the rule of law, are well and have not been mistreated. That’s our concern really, right now.”
Attar Singh’s lawyer, Raman Singh, said his client’s questioning related to what was said at the meeting under the provisions of the Public Order Decree, and that Pacific Dialogue’s meeting was held without a police permit.
In a statement, a police spokesperson, Ana Naisoro, said that officers had taken in “a number” of people regarding “comments uttered” at the discussion.
“This is a police process conducted when information is received about possible issues that could affect the safety and security of all Fijians which is why this step is being taken merely to eliminate all doubts and concerns that could stem from speculation,” she said.
The panelists at the discussion, which Ms Naisoro confirmed did not have a permit, were Professor Prasad, Mr Singh and Mr Dakuvula, as well as an academic, Ganesh Chand, and an economist, Nilesh Lal.
But the weekend’s events triggered concern among human rights organisations – both in Fiji and internationally – about a possible crackdown on political opposition and a decay in the country’s newly re-established democracy. The country held its first elections under a new constitution in 2014, eight years after the then-military commander, Frank Bainimarama, took power in a coup. Mr Bainimarama’s Fiji First party won the 2014 election by a landslide.
The 2013 constitution was drawn up by Mr Bainimarama’s government after it scrapped a draft prepared by a constitutional committee after widespread public consultation. The new constitution had been criticised by opposition politicians and international NGOs, including Amnesty International, for apparent shortfalls on human rights and wide reaching immunities for the former military regime.
Prem Singh, an MP for the National Federation Party, who was not at the meeting, said it was unclear how a meeting about this constitution could have jeopardised Fijians’ safety and security. He said the response undermined democracy and freedom of assembly.
“This is political persecution,” said Mr Singh in an interview. “In a normal democracy you don’t have these things just for attending a meeting and conversing with people, trying to find a way forward. As political leaders they have a right to discuss and debate issues of national importance and I think this is a very heavy-handed tactic.”
The chair of the Fiji Coaltion for Human Rights, Michelle Reddy, said she was deeply troubled by Saturday’s events. Ms Reddy said that while it remained unclear exactly why the men had been detained, the restrictions placed on such meetings were of great concern.
“It just creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, and I think that’s exactly a limiting factor because a lot of civil society organisations are going to rethinking about whether they should host an event,” said Ms Reddy in an interview. “It definitely is a violation of free speech, and freedom of association as well.”
Amnesty International also condemned the arrests, calling for all five men to be released immediately. “This is a brazen crackdown on people for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Rafendi Djamin, the NGO’s director for South East Asia and the Pacific.
“The men appear to have been detained under Fiji’s repressive Public Order Amendment Decree which restricts the ability to hold ‘public’ meetings. There is no evidence to suggest that the event posed any threat to national security. Fijians should be free to openly discuss their supreme law and even criticise without fear of reprisals,” he said in a statement.
Ms Reddy said the Public Order Decree still remained in place, requiring a permit for public meetings, but many civil society organisations have held discussions without a permit with no repurcussions for years .
“Civil Society in general has not applied for permits to convene with other members of the public since the 2012 announcement by the Attorney General. The timing of these arrests is a concern and the further restrictions placed on meetings and events only create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. The freedom of assembly, freedom of association as well as free of speech are fundamental cornerstones of democracy and rule of law,” she said.
Tupou Draunidalo said the fact that people could be arrested for discussing the constitution was disgraceful and showed the country’s democracy to be a sham.
“It’s been a sham for the last two years, an absolute sham,” she said. “They just do as they please and when the law doesn’t suit them they change the law with their majority, and Australia and New Zealand is going along with all that. I really don’t know why all of these draconian laws have to continue when we have so-called democracy.”
Australia and New Zealand have fully restored diplomatic in recent years after Fiji’s 2014 elections, which observers said was widely free and fair.
New Zealand’s foreign minister, Murray McCully, said New Zealand was closely watching events in Fiji and seeking official advice.
Mr McCully, who is at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Summit in Federated States of Micronesia, said he was briefed on events by Fiji’s representative there.
“Obviously anything that constrains free speech and space for legitimate political debate would be of concern to the New Zealand government,” he said. “I’ve asked him to convey to his government our close interest in how this plays out.
The Fiji First Government through the Minister of Education Honourable Mahendra Reddy is belittling our education system by trying to indoctrinate them with Fiji First policies.
The latest example of this is a circular sent out to all schools in behalf of the Minister for teachers and students to speak about the 2013 Constitution, a document that was imposed upon the people of Fiji by this government when it was a military regime. Under the pretext of “creating awareness”, the Government is trying to use students and teachers as propaganda tools, instead of ensuring their empowerment with quality education curriculum as well as making it a priority to repair damaged schools.
The Education Minister never disappoints with all his hare-brained schemes dreamt up on a whim without the proper, rationale thought processes. A few days ago the Minister announced that school texts will now be available on mobile technology in the near future, replacing text books. And the Minister chose the launch of National Library Week to make this announcement! This means that the Minister doesn’t believe in books and libraries.
In 2014, soon after the elections, Government announced a one laptop per child policy in schools. In 2015 it changed to one learning device per child, Now it is a smartphone!
Last weekend the Minister accused Indo-Fijian parents of corrupting the values of their children by allowing them to dress inappropriately. This means he is now dictating the dress code to parents and their children. Only two days of this week have passed and the Minister is at it again – firstly by imposing his authority on schools on how and what to discuss about the 2013 Constitution through a circular. And in another comical rhetoric, the Minister says parents should discourage their children from watching the famous Mr Bean cartoons and comedies!
Then the Minister announced that he wants 100% pass rates ignoring the serious situation that many students are expected to learn while housed in damp tents with no electricity in many parts. It is arrogant that the Government thinks that taxpayers will be patient while their gross incompetence escalates, where disaster rehabilitation and recovery and non-transparent use of disaster funds is concerned.
The rhetoric coming out of Education Ministry is nothing short of buffoonery. Instead of worrying about propagating the Fiji First’s imposed Constitution, it should immediately re-set its priorities and focus on rebuilding schools and educational institutions destroyed about 7 months ago by TC Winston, instead of waiting for our neighbours to do so under the “Adopt a school” initiative.
Our students and teachers deserve decent and well equipped classrooms and educational facilities, and not to be used as propaganda tools. Hon Prof Biman Prasad Leader
The Party Leader, Vice President, the Executives, MC and Members. It is lovely to see you all today they say one day is a long time in politics well it has been a year since we last had our AGM and very, very much has happened since that time.
The biggest of which has been the fury of tropical cyclone Winston which took 44 lives and upended the lives of thousands of Fijians in this very province of Ra, parts of Tailevu, Koro, Vanuabalavu and in Savusavu as well.
Adjacent areas, districts or provinces were also affected and it is estimated that about 44,000 homes were damaged and the lives of about 350,000 Fijians (or about half of the population) was significantly affected.
Six months after the landfall of TC Winston, the daily lives of very many Fijians remain significantly affected because the current government is without ideas to help our people including ideas that will bring us the monies required to help our people, to boost the local economy and to help Fijians in need.
That unhappy matrix falls on the back of figures that were already showing that 40% of Fiji struggles with poverty daily.
Ladies and Gentlemen this is a national shame and disgrace.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is clearly unacceptable and should be the main reason why we all work very hard together to replace the current government and to replace them with competence and excellence to serve the Fijian people, at the next polls.
On that note, the future is never steady or certain if we are not aware of our past. And thanks to the efforts of the current government which has tried to make us believe that our past started ten years ago, many of the younger generation who will constitute the majority of the electorate will have almost no attachment or memory to the past that some of us who are older, would remember. And this may be a reason for the current government’s failings. It always rubbishes the past as if they built everything in Fiji in the last ten years.
But back to acknowledging our past, this town in this province is where the leaders of this great party had some of their very important, foundation meetings to form the National Federation Party.
This province is also of the Tako Lavo family like Navosa which has been my home under the guardianship of my maternal grandfather, his wife from Beqa and their family and kin of Noikoro.
Another maternal relative that I wish to recall while I’m here in this province, is Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna and his father and grandfather also had strong links to this province. In fact, Ratu Sukuna’s grandfather is buried here in the province of Ra. I’m forced to mention this link because we normally don’t like to talk about it, to make the point that what we right thinking people of this country want is something that our forefathers also wanted for this country.
It was always a source of pride and fanfare for us younger relations of the great Statesman, who are totally bewildered by the deteriorating gap in race relations in this country – that the older Ratu Joni Madaiwiwi sent his son Ratu Sukuna to Wairuku Indian School which was established in 1898 by Pandit Badri Maharaj, who later served from 1917 to 1929 as the first Indo-Fijian member of Fiji’s Legislative Council, the forerunner to the present Parliament.
And a source of greater personal pride for us too to read in the records of history and in books like ‘The Three Legged Stool’ about how Ratu Sukuna worked very hard to protect all things indigenous with native land, fisheries and the VKB in a trust and protected system of governance, which is the separate Fijian administration or Matanitu Taukei, but also that he did so with a view to enabling the economic, social and political progress of the nation as a whole through partnership, give and take, with the Indo Fijian community of Fiji.
On the former, Ratu Sukuna worked hard to get the agreement of the chiefs of Fiji to allow their resources to be put under a trust system into the separate Fijian administration, so that the central government and the country as a whole may prosper.
That also allowed the Fijian community of Indian descent to do what they do so well, to thrive economically for their personal benefit but also for the benefit of the national as a whole.
‘The Three Legged Stool’ has pages filled with this wonderful history — and I recommend it as reading to all of us — of how Ratu Sukuna worked with the great founder of this party, the NFP, Mr. A D Patel, to negotiate the terms of governance, and the separate Fijian administration being integral to that leading up to independence.
The two leaders certainly had their disagreements and its contained in the book as well, you can see signs of it in some of their correspondence but they both saw the bigger picture and worked hard towards it.
It was on the back of their hard work and collaboration that the next generation of leaders, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Mr. Siddiq Koya another former leader of this party, took our country to independence and we got our constitution in 1970.
At this point some of you may ask why I have gone over this rich history?
I have done so because the great vision that our forefathers had for a free, peaceful and prosperous Fiji has descended to something very different today and I want to take this opportunity to appeal directly to the Fijian community of Indian descent.
You constitute about 35% of the Fijian electorate and the last polls show that your community voted overwhelmingly for the current prime minister. I have heard from friends and colleagues that fear was one significant factor for this.
I wish to take this opportunity to ask you to reflect over and over again on the great civilisation and history that you came from, to Fiji. India is the land that produced Ghandiji and the very many Indians who stood with him to peacefully defy the British government. You brought the British Government to its knees.
Their great humanity and immense courage brought the British empire to a halt and withdrawal from the land which belongs to them, their forefathers and descendants and remains so today. That is because of their bravery, their humanity and their courage.
Your religious and historical scripts may have been a great part of that, two close friends have always encouraged me to read more of that (the translations of the Gita and indeed the rest of the Hindu epic – the Mahabharata apart from the Ramayana) but alas time has never been kind with me well that’s my excuse anyway.
But what little I know of those scripts they should give us all of the encouragement that we need. It discusses the duties of a warrior, chivalry, selfless action and of course, courage. No human being in their right mind can be unmoved by such scripts, whether they are summaries or translations.
Those great human qualities in those scripts kept you well on the boats to Fiji against all odds. Kept you well under the tyranny of the indenture system and beyond to make the great contributions that you have made to the Fijian society today.
And now some of you may ask why? Why am I appealing to these things here, today in the modern Fiji.
Ladies and gentlemen, I do so because I would like Fijians of Indian descent in this country to recall how the modern state of Fiji was forged by Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, Mr. A D Patel, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Mr. Siddiq Koya.
I would like you all to recall the vision that they had for Fiji and that which was contained in the 1970 constitution which properly safeguarded the separate Fijian administration for the Taukei that allowed economic, social and political development in this country peacefully for the betterment of all of us.
I would like you to recall that at that time, there was certainly disagreements, yes, but there was certainty that we were all one on the same boat, the same team and heading towards the same goals together as one nation. Helping one another, contributing toward the goals together: Taukei resources and your enterprise, we were not fragmented and shredded by selfish leaders.
On that note I wish to add this, the Taukei today is angry, disillusioned and confused. Many feel used and disappointed by various leaders from various communities and we would like nothing more than a helping hand from the other communities in Fiji to save and preserve what is ours under the separate Fijian administrative system.
The current government has hacked at our traditional communal system of solesolevaki, which has our chiefs at the head. This is a matter of identity for us and survival as a communal group.
Native land under the trust system (iTLTB) is threatened by encroachment of the so called ‘land bank’. There are real threats looming to customary fishing rights under the Fisheries Act via proposed legislation.
Our rights to earn an income, communally from water based tourist activities has been taken away by decree. And we now hear of proposed legislation regarding the VKB.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are real threats to the Taukei and without the political support of the other communities especially the largest we will lose even more and this will lead to more anger and antagonism which will not end well for any of us.
I therefore plead with the other communities to take your support away from the current government. Take it away from the current prime minister who is intent on destroying more Taukei heritage.
We have our share of Taukei political support in this party which may have increased since the last election and certainly will increase from here to the next one, but we urge you to please use your power at the next polls, to vote for the Hon Professor Biman Prasad, or the Hon Singh, the Vice President of the Party, or me or anyone but the current government which is doing things that will not take Fiji to where we want it to go. And we want that to happen so that Fiji can go back to working peacefully in communities without a gun in sight or a gun in mind.
I am sure that none of us want the confrontational, antagonistic, hostile system of governance which this government is expert at. It is divisive and deliberately so.
In my last speech to parliament I told the government that it was clear that they loved to use the race card for political gain.
Their political gain, but misery for many Fijians that have to live under their incompetent rule. On this note I am heartened by a recent poll which found that 54% of Fijians want Opposition parties input into the running of government.
So again, before I resume my seat, I urge you all, heed your history and the history of our forefathers. Heed the Gita, Mahabharata, Ramayan, Koran and the Bible to have the courage to put an end to this government of bullies and uncaring, selfish personalities at the next polls.
This is a historical convention for the National Federation Party before the 2018 General Election. It is in this town of Rakiraki that the NFP was born under a mango tree and later formalised and launched in Nadi. Just nearby the area of Nakauvadra is also the cradle of many iTaukei roots so I believe that it is no coincidence that we are gathered here today to determine our political pathway in the lead up to the 2018 Elections.
It is here that the late Alparti Tataiya in 1963 mooted the idea of justice for all, fairness for all, and equal rights for everyone to Mr A D Patel, Mr S M Koya and Mr James Madhavan. His noble virtues became the seeds for Fiji’s oldest and first political party and so was born the NFP, firstly as the Citizens Federation, with its founder leader being Mr A D Patel.
That same year Mr Patel, together with Mr S M Koya and Mr James Madhavan officially became the first Members of the then Legislative Council. And Mr Patel ably supported by Mr Koya, Mr Madhavan and later 6 more NFP Members of the Legislative Council became the winds of change all over Fiji that resulted in independence and democracy for all our people in October 1970.
And Fiji collectively and united as a sovereign nation, embraced freedom after 96 years of Colonial rule as well as the symbol that has become the most powerful source of pride and patriotism of our nation – our noble banner blue flag.
All of us here today and indeed throughout the world who have Fiji at heart are indebted to the founding fathers, our pioneer Members of the Legislative Council, and indeed the foundation members of the party who as a mighty and united collective force rallied behind Mr Patel and his courageous troops who put national interest above self-interest, made personal sacrifices, and saw their vision of an equitable, just, fair and a truly independent Fiji realized on 10th October 1970.
This had seemed impossible 10 years before 1970 but the NFP and its founders believed that nothing is impossible through consensus building, dialogue, perseverance and painstaking negotiations.
So much so that our founder leader Mr A D Patel ignored orders by doctors to strictly have a complete rest because of his health issues, tragically died on 1st October 1969 at the age of 64 years, while finalizing his speech to be delivered next day on the occasion of the birthday of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi – an icon of the 20th Century.
It is symbolic that Mr Patel had titled that speech “Hail Deliverer”. Mr Patel made the ultimate sacrifice but 374 days later on 10th October 1970 his vision of a free and independent Fiji was delivered through the Instruments of Independence by Prince Charles to our first and longest serving Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Almost 46 years later, we are fighting and waging a peaceful struggle not for Fiji’s Independence, but our Independence and Freedom from being suppressed by draconian Decrees and regressive limitations in the 2013 Constitution imposed upon this nation.
We are at the cross roads in this country. We are reeling under an imposed Constitution. We are operating a dysfunctional democracy. We are under strict media censorship. We are living under fear. We are facing a destruction of the sugar industry. We are going through the pain of high cost of living. Deteriorating health services and haphazard education reforms are a long-term menace to the future of our children. We are going through high levels of unemployment and poverty. We are going through a culture of fear, sycophancy and servility.
Despite all this we hear claims from Fiji First Government about progress. We hear about development? We hear about unprecedented levels of economic growth. We hear about becoming Singapore, even Geneva. It is one thing to have lofty ideals. It is another to use it to achieve peace and prosperity for all our people.
Government has provided support to education through free tuition and free bus fare, subsidy for electricity, water, and free medicine for those under an income of $20,000. Additionally, its social welfare payments and pensions are also helpful for those in destitution and no income support. However, all these support, when compared to the low incomes through low wages and high cost of living, dissipate into insignificance and many of the households continue to struggle to make ends meet.
Two years after the election what is the record of this government? Has growth resulted in a better life for the majority of the people? Have we been able to address the rising cost of living? Did we address the low wages for many of our workers? Have we improved our health services? Have our roads improved after massive spending by Fiji Roads Authority? Have we increased Sugar cane production? Have we increased our exports? The answers to these questions are a big no.
Yes, we have had some growth. Yes we have had increase in government spending and investment. Yes we have some speculative private sector investment. What have we achieved through these increases remains a big question?
The Fiji First Government’s scorecard since the resumption of parliamentary democracy in October 2014 is as follows: –
1. Cost of living has increased with imposition of 9% VAT on basic food items. There are people working for 40-50 hours per week and are still living below the poverty line. And most of these workers earn the basic minimum wage of $2.32 an hour, which for a 45-hour week comes to $104.40 gross or $96.05 minus the 8% FNPF contribution. There is no way a single minimum wage earner can support his or her family of an average of two adults and two children, despite free bus fare for school children, free medicine – which is shambolic or negligible water and electricity subsidies. People forget that for many goods and services, particularly in the service industry a tax of 25% is levied by businesses inclusive of the Service Turnover Tax of 10%, Environment Levy of 9% and VAT of 9%. This is 6% more than what consumers paid when VAT was 15%. So who is Government trying to fool? A major restaurant chain in Fiji displayed signage in January this year to say the prices of its products had increased because of rise in taxes, in a bid to calm down irate and unsuspecting consumers who naturally thought the prices would be reduced because VAT was now 9%. So Government is getting 6% more revenue in indirect taxes than before. However, the size of he package of freebies like bus fares for children, free medicine, electricity and water subsidies remain the same. Therefore people of Fiji are paying more taxes than the value of freebies, which camouflages Government’s deviousness in milking every penny from its citizens.
2. Excessive government influence in almost every sphere. What we see is directives, warning, false promises commonly known as million dollar talk and tragically summary dismissals of people and victimization. Crony capitalism is at the forefront of this democracy- big business is influencing the way democracy functions and how the government is run. This is similar to greasing the palms of the powers that be or those in authority. Big business and many of their executives are sitting on boards of statutory organisations, for example constitutionally created organisations like the Public Service Commission and Constitution Offices Commission. The fact is that upper middle class and business are the biggest beneficiary of government policies, not ordinary citizens and workers who contribute the most to drive the economy and ensure the profitability of the employers.
3. Weakened workforce, weakened unions- we have casual employment, intermittent employment, part-time employment and disguised employed sometimes camouflaged by ‘petty entrepreneurship’. Unions are weakened and cannot really negotiate anything decent for workers in this country including seeking increases to low and disproportionate wages and salaries of its members, as befitting a just living wage and dignity in employment.
Only two days ago in Labasa, while speaking at the Fiji Head Teachers Association Conference, the Prime Minister confirmed the Fiji First Government’s contempt for unions and workers by basically turning back the clock to the height of military dictatorship four years after his coup when the regime imposed draconian legislation like the ENI Decree to literally make workers subservient to employers. The PM said workers and unions had no right to determine who gets transferred or appointed let alone salary and wage levels in a modern day Fiji. This statement is the height of absolute dictatorship and confirms the Fiji First Government’s intention of making unions and workers totally subservient to Government in the public service and employers in the private sector.
It is a slap on the face of the two teacher unions, moreso the Fiji Teachers Union that supported the military coup of 2006v and five months after the overthrow of a democratically elected government, invited the very same person who was the coup leader and the military commander to be its chief guest at its conference in April 2007. It is also a slap on the face of the FTUC whose two leading executives embraced a military regime and gladly accepted Board appointments. And one should not forget that it was the FTUC that struck a deal in secrecy late at night early this year with Government and later informed the International Labour Organisation that there was no need for a Commission of Inquiry into union and worker rights in Fiji!
Worse still, it is a kick to the gut of workers who may have and will earn or deserve promotions and salary increases due to meritocracy and hard work but together with their respective union are powerless to seek redress if they are ignored.
The Prime Minister’s statement contravenes ILO Convention 98 that is freedom to organize and collective bargaining – a fundamental principle of any union. It also confirms Government will arbitrarily promote individual workers and determine salaries of the workforce without consulting the workers’ representatives.
This is all about crushing meritocracy and making appointments based on loyalty to bosses, which is nepotism, cronyism and polarization of the public service. And this arises from the 2013 Constitution that empowers the Minister and the Permanent Secretary to make and terminate appointments.
It is therefore of little wonderment that a school teacher was promoted to the position of Assistant Principal despite having a pass rate of only 3 students in a subject the teacher was tutoring. And this was over more capable, competent and qualified teachers for the same post!
4. This Government has horribly got its priorities wrong or is deliberately least bothered about the welfare of our teachers and students. More than 6 and half months after Severe TC Winston hit Fiji, schools are yet to be rebuilt. Whatever has been done has been by our neighbouring nations and international friends like Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. And had it not been for the assistance from our neighbours whom this Government constantly criticizes, we would be in a far worse state facing unimaginable consequences. Recently the Minister for Education stated that all damaged schools would be rebuilt by the end of the year. Two days ago the Prime Minister announced that repair works on damaged schools would start by the end of this year and contractors are on standby! Now who is right, Honourable Reddy or Honourable Bainimarama? Or is the case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing? This is the sad state of affairs in the governance of our nation. This means that once again next year our students will have to use damaged buildings and tents as classrooms yet the Education Minister expects a 100% pass rate?
5. The deteriorating state of our health services is a blight on our nation. I had asked the Minister for Health 12 questions in my Budget reply o 4th July, which he failed to answer. On 7th August I wrote to him again highlighting four major issues. His reply of three weeks later, ironically he is the only Minister who has responded in writing to a query by me or the Party, was unconvincing, other than admitting the rate of amputations of limbs of diabetic patients had increased from 2 to 3 every 24 hours. This is 1,095 amputations every year. There was no response by the Minister of the appalling salvage rates of our operating theatres that we know has dropped drastically.
Each year people with disabilities increases by 1095 from diabetic related amputations alone. This is unacceptable. To add salt to injury, Government for the last two years has refused to increase the allocation for kidney dialysis from $300,000 to at least one to two million. However, it has money to burn when it comes to giving $11.3 million to FBC, $18 million to Fiji Airways and $9 million to golf. Not forgetting the biggest chunk of the budget goes to Fiji Roads Authority with over $2.1 billion allocated over four years excluding last year’s allocation because of change in financial year. This year FRA has received $528 million while the health ministry has received $244 million. What does this mean?
It means good roads are a bigger priority to Government than the health of our people. But the condition of our pot hole riddled roads and defects in our newly built highways, coupled with delays in construction of simple bridges confirms even this massive budget has not been well spent. Government has refused to reveal how this budget has been spent in the last four years.
6. The free medicine scheme is in a shambolic state. The free medicine scheme has now expanded from the 74 items to 142. There continues to be great confusion as to what the expanded list actually entails, even from retail pharmacists. Almost all pharmacies were never fully stocked. Government’s free medicine scheme is chaotic with those eligible to access the scheme shocked to learn that not all medication is available and only selected medication can be dispensed by pharmacies. Our investigation has revealed that in the case of one pharmacy only 60 odd medicines were supplied.
Currently the particular pharmacy has only 26 medicines in stock under the free medicine scheme. In another case while a pharmacy has so far dispensed only $30 worth of medicine under the scheme, medicine valued at $500 has expired. When expired medication is returned to the Fiji Pharmaceutical Services, there is no replacement provided. We are told some three personnel are administering the scheme at the Pharmaceutical Service.
The Pharmacy Profession (Budget Amendment) Act 2015 imposes a $100,000 fine on a pharmacist refusing to participate in the scheme thereby compelling them to do so. But the Ministry has failed to provide them any support in terms of record keeping of those eligible under the scheme, storage facilities to safeguard perishable medicine or even monetary compensation for time spent in administering the scheme. Even pharmacies in hospitals and health centres have insufficient stock of basic medicine dispensed under the scheme with patients eligible for free medicine forced to buy alternative medicine not on the list. The concern is if the Ministry cannot supply 70 odd medicines, all of which except 5 are generic and cheaply sourced from approved laboratories and suppliers, how will the Ministry fulfill the new list of 142 medicines at both hospital and private pharmacies and also ensure stocks are replenished in time and reduce expiry and wastage of medicine through distribution of medicine to outlets in proportionate to the population around each centre?
The state of our sugar industry for the last ten years speaks volumes about the industry.
In some years production is up and for some production is low. There is a general improvement in the TCTS ratio in the last two years. Cane production has slightly improved for 2014 and 2015 (but it will collapse again in 2016 because of the effects of weather).
However, there is no question that in the past 10 years, all the production indicators have fallen badly. We now produce 220,000 tonnes of sugar in 2016, down from 310,000 in 2006 — 30 per cent less. We are growing 1.8m tonnes of cane in 2016, down from 3.2m in 2006 — 44 per cent less. The number of active growers has fallen by 5674 from 18,636 to 12,872.
The only reason for the Prime Minister’s anger with the NFP is that we are the only party that is questioning the value of his Government’s so-called reforms. We are doing so not to bring down the Government. We are doing so because long experience has told us what will work in the industry and what will not.
We have asked the Government to join hands with us and work together to save the industry. But the Government, as usual, wants to do things its way. It believes that it will get it right and claim all the political credit. It does not see the value of co-operation of a dissenting view. And it does not care if it is wrong — it will just think of another circus trick instead to cover up its mistakes.
The sugar industry is made up of thousands of growers. If they do not actively participate in it, there is no industry. The 1984 sugar industry reforms were increased fines and jail sentences are imposed for breaching the laws (the only draconian provision that Government has indicated it wants removed) from Bills 19 and 20 that have been rejected by farmers. But the Bills will do the following: –
* The right of farmers to elect their own representatives to the SCGC is removed; and
* The Master Award can be changed any time the Government feels like it.
It is a mystery why this Government, which forever talks about “true democracy”, is denying farmers a democratic voice.
The easy answer to this question is for the Government to say “we must take politics out of the sugar industry”. But at least if farmers elect their representatives, all farmer viewpoints are heard.
Now, the only farmers’ representatives will be yes-men from one political party.
SCGC and Master Award
The PM is not doing any favour to growers by increasing the size of his appointed council to include one representative from each of the eight cane growing districts. They will not be elected but also appointed. This is making the SCGC a toothless tiger.
Currently, the undemocratic council comprises nine appointees including six from the three cane producers’ associations, two divisional commissioners (North and West) and a representative of the Sugar Ministry. The chairman is appointed by the sugar minister who is the PM.
The new proposed SCGC will therefore have a total of 17 members. They will all be beholden to the PM because they are his appointees. Even if the six cane producers’ representatives disagree with any proposal, they will be outnumbered and outvoted.
Therefore it will be easy to change the Master Award. The PM says the Master Award can only be changed if both the council and FSC agree to the changes. That will not be hard because both are controlled by Government.
It may well be part of FSC’s strategic plan to change the current formula by which proceeds from sale of sugar are shared 70/30 in favour of growers. FSC’s plans have not been revealed. Growers are the largest stakeholders in the industry. They should work in partnership with FSC. But they have been intentionally and systematically marginalized.
The PM has also blamed some Opposition politicians for inciting landowners not to renew leases. We agree with him that the land issue was politicised by both representatives of the landowners and the farmers from 1998. But exploitative politics is not the sole cause of land leases not being renewed.
The PM could have redressed this issue when he was in charge after the coup.
In his 2009 New Year’s message, he said 77 per cent of the land leases that had expired would be renewed. But official statistics from the iTaukei Land Trust Board show otherwise. The statistics show that:
– From 1997 to 2014 8151 cane leases expired. A further 1373 leases have and will expire in the three years from 2015 to 2017 bringing the total to 9524. – Only 5105 or 53.6 per cent of leases have been renewed so far;
– Between 2007 and 2014, when there was no democracy, 2899 cane leases expired. Out of this 1722 leases or 59 per cent were renewed;
– Between 1997 and 2006, 5252 cane leases expired. 3001 cane leases or over 57 per cent leases were renewed; and
– Under this Government’s stewardship from 2007 to 2018, 4272 leases will expire until 2017. And from 2007 until 2017, 2104 leases will be renewed.
The 49.25 per cent rate of renewal under Mr Bainimarama’s leadership is worse than those of previous governments. It is almost 28 per cent below the PM’s pronouncement on 1st January 2009.
If the PM is serious about renewal of sugarcane leases, he should have imposed a moratorium on expiring leases and then negotiated lease renewal with landowners. But he did not do this.
The only realistic solution to boost cane production, improve the livelihood of growers and increase income for FSC is to inject $50m per year for the next three years towards growers following the loss of the European Union grant of $350m as a result of the coup.
$150m for the next three years is not a lot of money. It will be money well spent in terms of improving the livelihood of growers and generating economic growth. No growers means no FSC or the industry.
The cost of producing, harvesting and delivery of one tonne of cane averages $45-$50. With the price averaging $75 per tonne, some 9200 growers who produce less than the average 150 tonnes of cane earn a net income of $4500 in a season. This income, in annual terms, is less than the $2.32 per hour minimum wage. That is why growers are in debt in perpetuity.
We have even outlined how the $50m per year should be used.
It is absolutely necessary to provide growers a minimum guaranteed price of around $90 per tonne to give them confidence to boost production. With the abolition of European Union sugar production quotas on September 30, 2017 our industry will be doomed unless cane production is significantly boosted.
Even if we were to produce two million tonnes of cane for the each of the next three years, $30 million will be needed each year to guarantee a price of $90 per tonne. The remaining $20m can be used for cane planting programs and be provided as premiums to landowners to renew land leases of arable sugarcane land as well as supporting landowners themselves to enter sugarcane farming.
Mr Bainimarama’s military regime failed to resuscitate the industry and his Fiji First Government does not have much idea either of how to do it. We reiterate, our, the Opposition’s offer, to help revive the industry in the national interest through bipartisanship.
This means the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee on sugar to find long-term and permanent solutions. This is vitally important because the absence of such a committee, in which critical issues are resolved through consensus and dialogue, has crippled the industry.
This is the only sound and sensible solution for a way forward. Mr Bainimarama can continue with his circus tricks or he can stop being afraid of differing views and work with others who care about this vitally important national industry.
Now given the scorecard of the Fiji First Government – what is this Government doing to increase the real income of people? Nothing. And yet this Government is paying itself a hefty salary unprecedented in our nation’s history. And it has been through a Decree promulgated on 3rd October 2014 – three days before the start of parliamentary democracy.
Why would a Government promulgate a Decree just three days before the start of parliament after seven and half years of military rule? The answer is simple – to ensure they are paid handsomely.
The PM receives an annual salary of $328,750 plus hefty allowances. Before the 2006 coup, the PM’s salary was $100,000 plus benefits grossing $130,000.
This is a 210 percent increase from 2006. The Attorney General receives over $235,0000. Three Ministers namely Health, Education and Infrastructure receive $200,000 each while other Ministers get $185,000. And the allowances are so hefty that they can be used to pay salaries of many of our workers. The per diems are based on UN rate and topped up. The Decree and a ministry of Finance circular confirm this.
Yet we have a minimum wage of just $2.32 and majority of our cane farmers receive less than what even a minimum waged worker would earn on a meagre wage rate. And our ordinary MPs receive just $50,000 with no benefits at all. But we don’t mind this at all. It should prick the conscience of Government at how disproportionate their salary and benefits are to others.
Ladies and gentlemen, this can only change in the next elections scheduled for 2018. But for his to happen the electoral laws and arrangements have to change as per the recommendations of the Multinational Observer Group and the Electoral Commission to make the next elections truly credible, free and fair.
While people had the right to exercise their freedom to vote, anomalies were found in the result. In our case a candidate receive only 1 vote in 251 polling centres where he did not even go while he did not receive the desired votes in polling stations within the proximity of his residence. There was not a single vote recorded at a polling station where one of our candidates voted herself. A polling agent of one of our candidates recorded 126 votes for him at a polling station as opposed to 186 for the PM. But when the results were tabulated there was no vote recorded for him at that centre.
Both the AG and he Supervisor of Elections recently said that there would be no changes to the laws. This is even before the Report of the Parliamentary Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights is tabled in Parliament.
We are gearing up already for our 2017 AGM where we will release our policy ideas for the 2018 Elections. We are giving you advance notice one year in advance to advise that we will be seeking your views and consulting extensively on this front.
We must press on regardless. We must shirk our fear and start looking at issues critically. This is not a time to be faint-hearted. This party was born out of the struggle for dignity, equality and justice of our ordinary people.
Together, as a mighty collective force we will prevail.