Parliament of Fiji
July 11, 2017
As I listened to the Budget speech on 29 June, I kept coming back to one thought – that after the government changes next year, how much work there will be to do.
The Minister promised us a short speech. Instead, he gave us about an hour and a half monologue on how fantastic the Fiji economy is now. So let me begin by talking about that.
The Minister talked about the size of the economy. He talked about continuous economic growth. He talked about foreign reserves. But let us remember what he did not talk about.
He skipped over the rising tide of government debt, now over $5 billion. One way or another, these are debts that both our current and future generations will have to pay. More and more tax revenue will be needed to pay the interest on this debt. He did not talk about how many jobs the economy has created, because he has nothing to report. And he did not talk about why the incomes of Fiji’s poorest people have not improved.
These are some of the things I want to talk about in my Budget response today. But I also want to talk about the broad economic policy areas in which the NFP, if it comes to government, will drive change.
A vision for the Fiji economy
Madam Speaker the Government says it has suddenly discovered, after 10 years in the job, that the Budget is a strategic exercise, not just a year-by-year allocation of Government and taxpayers’ funds. But you need strategy. And we are asking – what is your strategy for the economy? The Government seems to make it up as it goes along. Last year’s slogan was “green growth”. Now all we are hearing about is “climate adaptation.” And that is all very good, I am sure. But while we are obsessed about climate change and our Prime Minister pops up in every corner of the world giving speeches about it, the global economy continues to develop and adapt. There are many other areas in which it is growing.
Madam Speaker the Government has effectively presided over aneconomy built on tourism, government spending and overseas remittances. This is an economic vision that requires zero imagination. Tourism is an established industry and it grows by itself. It is true that Government gives it money for marketing. But this is a fraction of the 25% tax imposed on tourist spending that is now making Fiji an uncompetitive tourism destination. It also helps to explain why Government’s ambitious economic targets for tourism have not been met.
The Government’s next idea to grow the economy is to give away taxes, such as income tax and VAT. It is very good to raise the income threshold for income tax. But if you do not earn more than $16,000 in income, this is no help to you at all. Finally, we have overseas remittances. Our people are using their skills to grow other countries’ economies – and are sending their wages back to Fiji. Fiji citizens need a government with a strong long-term vision. We need to know that the Government understands how the world works and how the global economy is developing. They need to understand how Fiji will take opportunities from the global economy. They also need to know that the Government is listening to their ideas and willing to be criticised.
Madam Speaker one of the first things that the NFP will do in government is bring back the annual National Economic Summit. This will be a two or three-day annual meeting in which all sectors of the economy – including business, the unions, social and community organisations, resource owners and representatives of the poor – are able to communicate freely not just with the government, but also with each other. Working together, we can share ideas and create strategies and opportunities. The National Economic Summit will have a fulltime secretariat which will continue to work with stakeholders throughout the year to implement the ideas that have been created and the strategies that have been shared.
Right now, Madam Speaker, Government’s economic consultations are carefully stage-managed affairs, usually reported by the Fiji Sun with pictures of Ministers holding a microphone – only the location is different. The government’s latest brainwave has been to consult high school students, obviously in a bid to woo first-time voters. That is fine. But the point is – all the economic consultations are fed through government and come back out through government. This government is obsessed with controlling every dialogue and every idea. We want the stakeholders in the Fiji economy to work with each other. Government must play its role in creating the right economic and political climate for investment. It must build the infrastructure. It must regulate sensibly and sensitively. But it must then get out of the way and let the people of Fiji work with each other. Opportunities are in abundance. Has the Government thought about the fact, for example, that the demand for timber in the world is likely to double by 2050? We have vast areas of land available for forestry. And yet we are still importing wood for construction. When the world’s demand for food is increasing strongly, how is it that our agricultural exports are so small? Why have we not been able to attract the world’s biggest agricultural investors to Fiji? Our people have a strong advantage over many others in the world – they are educated in and speak the English language, which continues to grow as the world’s global language. We set up the tax incentives for call centres in 2009.
And yet our call centre industry employs fewer than 2,000 people. Our people have proven skills in the areas of personal service, particularly for the sick and the aged. They use these skills all over the world, including in the United States and the Middle East. Medical tourism and offshore retirement centres are a growth industry all over the developing world. The ageing populations of Australia and New Zealand offer us these opportunities. Why can we not do anything about them? Think of rapidly growing global phenomena like the sharing economy. AirBnB allows people to offer their homes to visitors to earn income. The Government is obsessed with hunting them down so they can tax them. Services like Uber and GoGet create imaginative transport solutions, where people share their cars rather than leaving them sitting idle all day after driving to work. These are ways we could ease traffic congestion and bring better and more flexible transport options to urban travellers. Where is the Government’s thinking on these big issues? Does it even know these things are happening?
Madam Speaker, this is tiny fraction of how the world is changing. What we can learn from the world economy is that the nature of work is changing. Fewer people will work in waged employment. More and more people will work for themselves, in small and medium enterprises. In particular this is the way many of our young people will make their way in life. They are adaptable to technology. They use social networks for business. They are connected to their peers around the world and quickly pick up their ideas. What they need are simple, uncomplicated tools for getting into business. They do not want to waste their time filling out forms.
Government’s vision for small and medium enterprise is a joke. Fiji’s World Bank ranking for starting a business is 155 out of 189. A few months ago the Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism said the Government was going to address this. He said that this pathetic ranking was not the Government’s fault. It was all the fault of lawyers and accountants who deliberately slowed things down to make money for themselves.
Madam Speaker, blaming everyone else is what this government is good at. The Minister for Trade blames professional people for slowing down investment. The Minister for the Economy blames supermarket owners and distributors for the high cost of living calling them bandits. The Minister for Health even blames people for being sick! The Minister for Education used to blame the teachers for poor quality! That is the clearest sign that this is a government that is out of ideas, and it is time for this government to go.
Madam Speaker the Minister very quickly and quietly glossed over what is a major problem with this Government – that it cannot deliver what it promises. Every year, the Budget promises fantastic things. New roads, school and health centre upgrades, welfare payments – the list goes on. Various Ministers travel around the country, closely followed by the Fiji Sun of course, to be photographed alongside new water supplies and solar panels as a sign that they are doing something. But the facts, as the Minister for Economy himself has confessed, is that the Government cannot do the work it has promised to do. What did the Minister tell us? That last year’s projected Budget deficit of 4.7% of GDP will be only 2%. This is because, he tells us, there were “unforeseen delays in implementation of some of the capital projects as a result of bad weather, shortage of materials and non-availability of construction companies.” In other words, “we did not deliver.” This is a government that cannot plan its capital projects around bad weather. It cannot plan ahead to get the building materials it needs. And it blames construction companies for “not being available.” If you cannot plan these things properly, why do you promise them?
Madam Speaker, ask the victims of Cyclone Winston how well this Government has delivered. The disastrous “Help for Homes” initiative has done nothing except waste tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds, enrich the hardware companies and shatter people’s hopes. Those of us who have talked to the cyclone victims know what has happened. The Government went around handing out $1,500, $3000 and $7,000 debit cards. The hardware companies swooped in, took orders and received payment. And then the people waited and waited. It took months for goods to arrive. When they arrived, not everything arrived. Sometimes the cement arrived, but not the timber. By the time the timber arrived the cement had gone hard and was useless. There are people still living in tents, in temporary structures all over Ra and the Lomaiviti Group. The government makes a big deal worrying about 96% of schools not being cyclone compliant. But there are thousands of people living in homes that will blow down in a minor windstorm. The Prime Minister is seen at conferences in hotels around the world talking about climate change. But he is rarely seen in the communities affected by Cyclone Winston. Perhaps Qorvis advised him that it is too late – there are no votes there.
Now Madam Speaker, let us talk about delivery in the area that Government is most proud of and where it spends the most money – roads. A few weeks ago, the Chief Executive of the Fiji Roads Authority suddenly resigned. His resignation, it was announced, was for “personal reasons.” Only a few days ago he told ABC Pacific Beat that Government and FRA Board had, I quote, “unrealistic expectations about how to repair Fiji’s transport infrastructure.” And the story goes on: “Fiji has suffered from trying to initiate cosmetic, quick-fix solutions, but the roads cannot be fixed properly without a long term, sustainable plan.”
Madam Speaker, that sums up this Government in a nutshell. Too much of its capital expenditure, the huge amounts of public money it is spending, is for show. It is for a Fiji Sun photograph. It is to make a Government Ministers look good when they give a so-called directive that this road will be fixed or that bridge will be repaired. We have all seen roads which have been the subject of intensive road works and then fall apart in a few months’ time. This is how, Madam Speaker, the Government spends our money. This is why the Government of Fiji is more deeply in debt than ever before. Fiji’s young people will be repaying a debt that was created only to attract the votes of their parents to the Fiji First Party. And it is politicising issues by dangerously spending the public’s money to do it.
Cost of living and raising incomes
Madam Speaker, read the newspapers and talk to the people and you will hear that the cost of living is one of their key concerns. The government however, says that this is all wrong. They tell us that this is all the fault of politicians for politicising the issue and greedy supermarket owners who are charging too much.
Madam Speaker the problem is not just the cost of living. It is that incomes have not risen, particularly for the poorest people in our country. This is everybody’s problem. None of us wish to live in a society which is so unequal that only the middle class and the rich can get ahead and the poorest people are permanently condemned to poverty. But that is what is at risk here. And that will bring with it many of the social problems associated with poverty including crime, poor health and increasing strain on our health and education services.
The Government thinks that increasing welfare allowances, social pension allowance, subsidised bus fares, raising the tax threshold etc. Will solve this problem. Giving away tax doesn’t help our poor. The Government has increased the tax-free threshold above $16,000 to $30,000. But it is ridiculous to give away tax on the first $30,000 for people like us and especially the ministers. We can afford to pay it and we should pay it. You can still help people earning below $30,000 by giving them a tax rebate. Once again, the government is not thinking clearly. It’s all politics-driven panic, and the only solutions they have are to just give away more tax. But more importantly, if people don’t earn $16,000 to begin with, this benefit is useless. And that includes people earning $2.68 per hour, or less than $6,300 per year.
Madam Speaker, this wage rate is a disgrace. And it must be fixed. We are criticised for saying that this hourly rate must be increased to $5 so that there is a living wage and living income. Of course this cannot be done in one strike after election day. This must be introduced in consultation with employers and other stakeholders. But that must be the target and we must stay focused on achieving that in the shortest possible time. We will not just ignore the lowest paid people and only worry about their wage rates when election time is coming. The government says this is unrealistic. We have to think about the costs to employers, he says. Think about the tourism industry. They are happy to add 25% in taxes for hotel owners to pay to the Government.
Why don’t they think about reducing those costs to employers, and allowing them to pay their workers more instead? They make the ridiculous suggestion that in their economy, employers are doing so well that they are paying above the minimum wage. If that is so, then it should be no problem to increase the minimum wage!
Madam Speaker, the 14.3 percent average pay rise for civil servants, particularly our teachers is abysmal, to say the least. This equates to 1.43% for each of the last ten years. This doesn’t even adjust the Cost of Living that has increased in the last ten years. On top of that teachers are now being asked to work additional days. This is ridiculous. Our teachers are the most over
worked and under-paid civil servants given the importance of the work they do – shaping the future of our nation. Worse still Madam Speaker, teachers and other civil servants are being compelled to sign contracts for a restricted tenure of their employment to qualify for the pay rise. A memorandum from the Ministry of
Education clearly states that teachers whose employment is permanent will not get the pay rise if they do not sign the contract. This is blackmail. It is holding a civil servant to ransom. In the case of teachers, they are now being asked to be on duty for seven extra days. This is not to teach but to upgrade their skills. What nonsense? As it is, because the entire year’s curriculum is crammed into two terms, teachers are taking extra classes in the weekends. Teachers do not get paid for providing extra lessons during weekends and after normal hours during weekdays. This is unreasonable burden on both teachers and students.
Madam Speaker the contracts being offered to civil servant and teachers breaches Bill of Rights of the 2013 Constitution, albeit the Bill of Rights have water-tight limitations. The Honourable Attorney General and Minister for Economy,deliberately or otherwise, made no mention of the need for civil servants to sign new contracts, which is also applicable to those on permanent employment to qualify for the 14.3% pay rise. I have here a copy of such a contract dated 4th July 2017. Some of its regressive provisions are: –
(a) Renewal of the contract is at the absolute discretion of Government
(b) The Civil Servant irrevocably agrees that non-renewal of the Contract will not give rise to any course of action whatsoever against the Government
(c) The duration of the Contract expires immediately upon a civil servant reaching the retirement age of 55
(d) Renewal of the Contract is subject to Government requiring the services of the civil servant and that too if he or she agrees to enter into another contract on mutually agreed terms
(e) The decision of Government to transfer a civil servant on the existing terms of the Contract to anywhere in Fiji’s final
(f) Government has the right to change or vary the Contract anytime
Madam Speaker contractual employment, especially what is being forced upon our civil servants will not result in a harmonious, unified and productive civil service. Contracts like this demoralise our civil servants and teachers as such a Contract is like the Sword of Damocles, ready to fall on the neck of a civil servant, who has no avenue to challenge any decision made by Government in relation to his or her employment. Such draconian contracts are subjugating our civil servants and teachers. They have no place in a genuine democracy and an NFP Government after the elections will ensure that all contracts and its draconian provisions are revoked and restore dignity and employment security of our civil servants and teachers.
Madam Speaker, the SME or Small Medium Enterprise grant is a good example of why lack of monitoring has resulted in it not providing he desired results. Recently one grateful beneficiary of this grant appeared on TV saying he was grateful for the grant even though he had forgotten the reason why he had applied for it. That, Madam Speaker, sums up the whole Fiji First Party so-called “small to medium enterprise strategy.”
Madam Speaker, if our country is to thrive economically, we have to be focused on increasing welfare payments to our poorest people, on increasing the wages of our poorest workers and making it easy for our entrepreneurs to make the most of the economic opportunities we have. It is incomes that must rise. And that is what NFP economic policy will be focused on.
Madam Speaker, earlier on I spoke about a vision for the economy and the need for commercial agriculture. And let us not forget the biggest component of our commercial agricultural sector – the sugar industry. Whenever we say anything about the sugar industry, the Government accuses us of playing politics. And yet it is this government, frightened by a bad opinion poll in The Fiji Times, rushed out a sudden package of $10 million in goodies for cane farmers in May. What was the package? It was “don’t worry about this cane payment, the Government will pay for everything.” It was unbelievably short sighted. It solved no problems. And it wasted 10 million dollars. As a letter-writer to the newspapers said, if the money is that easy to come by, what about dalo farmers and yaqona farmers and pineapple farmers?
Madam Speaker, the sugar industry is in a shocking state. If any of us were in any doubt, they only had to read the highly informative series of articles in The Fiji Times a few weeks ago. The Fiji Times did the people of Fiji a great service. It reminded the rest of us of the importance of the industry, the mess that it is in, and most importantly that farmers, and their families, have human faces and human problems. They and their families are not just thousands of faceless people. And let us remember squarely where the responsibility for this lies. It is this government, in its military form, that sacrificed $350 million of European Union funding for the industry over the last decade, because it would not give the people their democratic rights. By destroying the Sugar Cane Growers Council, it is this government that has destroyed the means by which farmers have dialogue with other stakeholders. Farmers are demoralised and angry. They do not want their children to stay on the land. If that is so, where will the next generation of farmers come from?
Madam Speaker the NFP is attacked for saying it will rebuild Penang Sugar Mill or that it will pay a $100 per tonne price for sugar cane. We are told that it is economically unrealistic. But what this government done for the industry in the last 10 years is economically unrealistic. It has managed to write off hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to FSC – and achieved nothing. Now, because we have been demanding that it tell us its vision for the sugar industry, it has come up with a so called sugar industry strategic plan that is full of holes.
Madam Speaker, I can assure the government side that I am in better contact with cane farmers than they are, and, unlike the government, cane farmers are not afraid to tell me the truth. For 10 years this Government has neglected this vital industry. It may not be as profitable as it once was and it may not be as fashionable as it once was. But it still offers many opportunities. We have the basic infrastructure and the basic skills. And most importantly, tens of thousands of people depend directly on it. And let us not forget Madam Speaker that the export proceeds that cane farmers earn go right around the economy. Those of us who sit in our offices and shops and homes in Suva also benefit from this money. We too will be affected if this industry goes down.
Our vision for the economy
Madam Speaker, I regret that this year I have only 20 minutes to speak. I am sure that the Government is relieved about that. But they should not rest too comfortably. So I want to be clear about NFP’s vision for the economy. This is what we want:
– We will renew and reinvigorate the National Economic Summit process, as I have said
– We will slash the red tape and simplify the rules and regulations for all investors, whether they are large foreign corporations, or young people who wish to market an app
– We will simplify the tax system and ensure that it is attractive to foreign and local investors and that people spend less time worrying about whether they have met all the rules and regulations
– We will hold nationwide consultations on the issues that are vital for Fiji going forward – land use, education, the sugar industry, health and housing. These will be the focus of an NFP government.
– We in the NFP will have a lot to say about these things in the coming weeks and months. So to the people of Fiji, we say, enjoy the benefits that the Government has given you. After all, it is your money they are spending. But better government, and better economic management, is coming. CHANGE IS COMING!
Parliament of Fiji
July 11, 2017
Madam Speaker, as I was penning my thoughts on what has been described by some, and you know who, as a fantastic budget, a phenomenal budget etc, the realisation struck me: Is the 2017-18 Appropriation Bill really a budget, a strategic plan to cure the fundamental problems faced by our people and many sectors of our economy?
Or is it a campaign statement of a panic stricken government, which in its combined total governance period of both as a military regime and as a Fiji First government of over ten years since January 2007 has driven many sectors of our economy and taxpayer’s people’s lives to ruin? Yet desperately and aggressively trying to camouflage the reality of its failed policies of the last ten years!
Madam Speaker, what I then concluded is that this budget is a reactionary one. It is a direct response to what NFP has been proposing to the people of Fiji as real pragmatic solutions. So you see Madam Speaker, the NFP does not need to move from here to the other side to effect change. We are grandmasters of change from wherever we sit. Our track record speaks for itself.
The Honourable Attorney General and Minister for Economy made their reactionary stance to NFP obvious when he said while announcing the budget on 29th June and I quote: –
“We hear the simplistic cry to single out products for VAT exemptions. It‘s the siren song of populism, a shameless appeal to emotion that tries to conceal a fundamental lie. But this Government, Madam Speaker, prefers to treat problems, not symptoms. We prefer a systematic cure and sound economic management, not magic elixirs and Band Aids – a cure that reflects the real way people live and shop”. unquote
Madam Speaker, the electorate knows all too well who the snake merchants are in this august House. The very things that the Minister is accusing the NFP and others of doing, is what this budget is actually all about.
To paraphrase the Honourable Minister’s own words, the 2017-18 Budget is the siren song of populism, a shameless appeal to emotion that tries to conceal a fundamental lie. Nothing else. It is a budget as rightly described by the honourable leader of NFP, as one full of promises and lies — and a good, bad and downright ugly budget.
This budget does not even genuinely attempt to cure one of the greatest sicknesses of all – our enslavement from the rising cost of living. Even the announcement of pay rises for our civil servants is strictly conditional – more stringent than the “conditions apply” inscribed in very fine print for the small number of discounted seats on a Fiji Airways flight.
Madam Speaker on one hand, the Minister announces that public service vehicles like taxis, rental cars, mini buses and hire cars can now renew their permits every ten years instead of three years, and that bus route licences are now valid for 15 years. Well and good. But in the very next breath, civil servants, teachers and nurses are being subjected to administrative trickery to reduced work-life tenure.
One can only presume that this is an underhanded attempt to phase-down the Government SEG1 expenditure.
In the eyes of this government, the value of sound, secure employment of an individual civil servant is insignificant. While bus companies with an annual turnover of less than $1.5 million are entitled to loans at an interest rate of 5%, our civil servants and teachers cannot obtain long-term loans to invest in properties and decent homes because commercial banks insist on tenured employment.
This is one of the most painful examples of how the current government, in the honourable Minister’s own words, is treating problems and not symptoms through magic elixirs and band aids! The lives and guarantees of security of employment of our civil servants, teachers and nurses are not a priority of this Fiji First Government.
This modern day slavery forces them to enter into non-negotiable contracts in return for a meagre pay rise. We would seriously counsel the Government to check their campaign strategy, because this animosity against our civil servants is an unwise move if they intend to, as the Hon Prime Minister said, remain on that side of the House.
Consider this, Madam Speaker. Salaries, per diems and allowances of the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament are locked in through the Parliamentary Remunerations Act. It cannot be reduced unless there are austerity measures such as during a recession.
But if our civil servants want to qualify for a meagre 14.3% pay rise, they have to lock themselves in a contract. Where is the justice and fair play? Or is this the Government’s version of true and equal citizenry? Perhaps it is even a case of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where some are more equal than others?
Madam Speaker, I wish to tell the honourable Minister that the enslavement and subjugation of civil servants, teachers and nurses will end after next year’s general election. This is not a shameless appeal to emotion but the naked truth. An NFP government will change this by revoking the contracts with permanent employment and increasing the retirement age to 60 years.
Madam Speaker, right here in this Parliament we heard an electioneering speech from the honourable Prime Minister who said his Fiji First Government was looking at the bigger picture. Pictures tell a thousand words.
The only bigger picture of the Fiji First Government that we can see is:
- the stratospheric rise of cost of living,
- hikes in unemployment levels,
- introducing a meagre minimum wage of $2.32 to be increased to only $2.68,
- rising cost of doing business,
- widening the gap between the rich and the poor,
- describing businesses as bandits,
- labelling housing occupied by the poor as ghettos,
- ignoring Government’s social responsibility to the people of Ra by closing down the Penang Mill,
- refusing to adhere to recommendations of the Multinational Observer Group to change electoral laws and the design of the ballot papers,
- using its parliamentary majority to amend Standing Orders to ensure Government controls and Chairs the Public Accounts Committee contrary to common practice in 67% of Commonwealth nations,
- refusing to hear the pleas of our kidney patients by not increasing grants for dialysis yet allocates millions of dollars in grants to organisations like Fiji Airways and Fiji Broadcasting Commission,
- wasting a few million dollars on an anti-patriotic exercise like changing the Fiji flag,
- re-imposing VAT on 7 basic food items in a blatant betrayal of a promise in the Fiji First manifesto, which clearly stated that zero-rating on these basic food items will continue,
- the honourable Minister for Economy with all his portfolios probably controls 60% of the total Budget, $1.94 billion dollars or almost 45% of the budget is under “R” or Requisition,
- the national debt level is ballooning with borrowing done against an inflated GDP,
and the list goes on…
Madam Speaker, the call by the NFP through its Leader that an NFP Government will increase the food basket of basic food items from 7 to 15 and ensure that they are zero-rated and VAT free has been described by the honourable Minister for Economy as a siren song and a shameless appeal to emotion.
This basically means Madam Speaker, that in the bigger picture of Fiji First, the poor don’t matter. Simply, those who were already below the $16, 000 threshold have received nothing in terms of cushioning the high cost of living. That includes almost two-thirds of our workforce. Duties and VAT on basic food items remain. It is simply ludicrous to assume that the poor will not benefit from reduction of duty on items like towels, shoes and baby wipes — can they eat that? Our poverty stricken people will only benefit if the basket of basic food items is increased to 15 VAT free basic items. NFP will do this.
Madam Speaker, much has been said about the sugar industry. An industry that weathered many storms, natural disasters, floods and even four military coups. An industry that remained year in and year out the backbone of our economy for over a century because every single cent derived from the industry circulated right here in Fiji.
But Madam Speaker the industry has taken so much of a battering in the last ten years that it is now staggering. And this battering is man made, primarily influenced by the current Government. The number of active cane growers fell by almost 6,000 to under 12,000 in the last ten years. Cane production declined from 3.2 million tonnes to 1.38 million tonnes – a reduction of 1.82 million tonnes.
After enormous pressure from the NFP and growers, the government finally decided to provide increased subsidies for fertilizers, weedicides and cane planting.
A responsible government would have also extended the subsidies for other categories of agricultural farmers like, dalo, yaqona, rice, vegetables and other crops. If for anything else, but for our food security in such high climate risk times such as these. They also need major injection of funds to boost their production because they also contribute to the economy and to our agriculture exports. So do our dairy farmers who have been denied an increase to the price of milk.
But is this enough? Or is it too little too late? The latter is seemingly correct.
Growers harvest an average of 20 to 30 tonnes of cane per acre. On an average, 6 bags of fertilizer is used in an acre of cane. This means growers save $69 in fertilizer subsidies for every acre.
For a grower producing 20 tonnes in an acre, the savings equate to $3.45 per tonne of cane. For a grower producing 30 tonnes in an acre, the subsidy equates to $2.30 per tonne. And if you add the weedicide subsidy of $1 per tonne, the total savings per tonne is $4.45 per tonne for a 20 tonne per acre producer and $3.30 per tonne for a 30 tonne producer.
Even if we are producing 2 million tonnes of cane annually, the subsidy will be the total value of the fertilizer and weedicide will be $6.6 million to $8.9 million.
What growers need is a meaningful increase to the price of cane. And this can only happen if a minimum guaranteed price of $100 per tonne is implemented with an annual subsidy of $50 million that will cover both the subsidy and the guaranteed cane price.
At the current average cost of production of $45 per tonne, growers will earn a net income of $55 per tonne minus cultivation, production, harvesting and delivery expenses. This plan to be implemented as a priority by NFP will mean growers receive between $50.55 and $51.70 more per tonne of cane as net income, rather than the monetary value of subsidies provided by the current government.
Madam Speaker, I have seen two Strategic Plans that have been presented to Government by the Fiji Sugar Corporation. One plan was presented to the honourable Prime Minister last year by the then Executive Chairman of FSC. We now have another plan outlining key priorities for FSC from 2018 to 2022.
The plan looks like it was written in a mad, overnight rush. It says all the usual things about upgrading the mills and the feeder roads and the skills of the workforce, etc etc. But it says nothing about how it will keep the farmers committed to staying in the fields to grow their cane. What is the point of upgrading the sugar mills if the growers are not going to be there to grow the cane? The strategic issues are not addressed. How will we address long term land tenure? How can we add value to our raw sugar to increase the industry’s profitability? How are we going to create the economies of scale that growers need to grow their cane more efficiently? And, given that we know that the Government cannot deliver anything, once we have a plan, how will we make it work?
But this is how FSC plans to make it work Madam Speaker – one of the key priorities is to defer loan repayments so that FSC can better manage its cash flow operations. FSC plans to sell off its assets and for Government to take 100% control of the Corporation. And in all likelihood, this control extends to growers who have been denied a legitimate and democratic voice as the largest and most important stakeholders in the industry.
The NFP will ensure that growers regain their legitimate voice with the democratisation of the Sugar Cane Growers Council by holding elections so that growers can choose their own representatives and hold them accountable.
Madam Speaker, FSC for all intents and purposes is intending to behave like the Colonial Sugar Refining Company by enslaving growers through their support and plea to Government to accelerate the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund (Amendment) Bills – Bills 19 and 20, which have been totally rejected by the growers and their representatives.
This plan will not work Madam Speaker. Deferring loan repayments or converting government loans into equity will also fail because without cane growers and without sugarcane, there is no sugar industry and neither is there an FSC.
Changing the management of FSC without first establishing why it became technically insolvent under the previous management is a vain attempt to gloss over the fundamental ills of both the Corporation and the sugar industry.
The FSC needs an injection of $600 million to clear its massive debt and other fundamental problems plaguing the Corporation and its mills. The taxpayers of Fiji recently guaranteed a further $202 million, in addition to $120 million in 2015 to FSC.
Guarantees and loans are necessary because sugar is an industry that is far too important for it to be allowed to die. But to continue pumping money into an organisation without knowing what happened to the previous injection of millions of dollars is not prudent management of taxpayers’ funds. In this regard, we ask what has been the progress if any of an investigation that was supposed to be instituted into the Corporation and its former Executive Chairman, following his resignation last October?
Madam Speaker, when all is said and done, this Election Budget as clearly stated by the honourable Prime Minister is anti-poor, anti-worker and not for our ordinary citizens. It is not a catalyst for real economic growth, job creation, reduction in the cost of living, or revive our sugar industry and other agricultural sectors like dairy, yaqona, rice to name a few.
Essentially, this budget is all about pure electioneering by a rudderless Fiji First Government.
Parliament of Fiji
July 10, 2017
Madam Speaker, thank you for allowing me to present my thoughts on the 2017-18 Appropriation Bill, specifically in response to the Health budget and issues for the Northern division.
Regretfully, I focus my comments on state of our national Healthcare system and the budget allocations presented to us. While the health budget is still centrally managed, the issues I will raise are magnified for the electorate in the Northern division where I am from and where I live, and undoubtedly similar for the West and outer islands.
In the health budget the current Government has presented to the people of Fiji, unreal, piecemeal solutions that will not cure our health and medical services delivery.
The increased allocations for projects are mere promises that have been untouched in the last three years under (Requisition-R). Every public servant knows that projects pegged under “Requisition” have a small-to-nil chance of coming to fruition — in essence it is aspirational or wishful.
There are no new projects for which funds have been actually committed. Even the talked up National Kidney Research and Treatment Centre to be managed by nephrologist Dr. Amrish Krishnan, costing $1M — is under “R”!!
Additionally, the government should have allocated funds to provide free kidney dialysis to low income earners. But the $300,000 allocation has not changed despite pleading by kidney patients. And this Budget has made allocations for other things like hiring of consultants to improve Government’s image, marketing grants, golfing, and to Fiji Broadcasting Commission.
AID by Donor partners factored in on page142 of the Budget Estimates is largely technical support with an attached dollar value, not addressing the true budgetary allocation per se.
Let’s look at the ratio’s, Madam Speaker. For Health and Medical services, the ratio of Health to Government Expenditure to date for Fiji is 9.4%. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended ratio is 14.4%, while for Low & Medium Income Countries (LMIC), the average recommended ratio is 11.6%.
Let us look at the 2017-18 Budget then in terms of Health to GDP ratio’s. Fiji’s ratio is 4%. WHO recommends a 5% minimum ratio. The Low & Minimum Income Countries recommended ratio is at an average of 6.6%.
Fiji’s 2017-18 Budget in terms of Health to GDP ratio is 4% — again, far below the recommended ratio.
I now turn to our Health expenditure breakdown. While the State bears the burden of 66% for health expenditure, the Out of Pocket (OOP) cost borne by the taxpayer is 34%.
This means that taxpayers are shouldering additional burden on top of their taxes- 34% is for health expenses, most of the time unplanned for, that they pay out of their pockets.
Madam Speaker, for our vulnerable and poverty stricken people, getting sick means they are further entrenched in the darkness of poverty. For those in the middle class, it means they can dive into poverty. It means that houses become mortgaged and loans need to be taken just to ensure that their loved one’s can undergo medical treatment. This is the sad, painful but unmistakable reality.
The state of our healthcare in Fiji right now means that if you become ill, if you have the means you have a fighting chance. If you are poor, the odds are heavily stacked against you.
Madam Speaker, Turning to our medical professionals…
The announced recruitment of three tranches of Specialists is wishful thinking. When the bold promise of 33 specialists in the first tranche was announced, this is on top of previous promises of additional medical personnel over the previous 3 budgets. So, where are they? By now, Fiji should be teeming with these medical professionals, should it not?
We are aware that there is just one ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) specialist that was recruited in 2014. The lack of specialists is alarming.
Our local medical personnel are being submerged at the expense of wholesale expatriate recruitment. The recruitment drive in India early this year may help but we need to build on our local expertise as much as we can.
There are obviously 75 places for local recruitment at the ground level – these 75 internship level spots need to be filled every year, but this number has just been met in 2015 -17. This means we are still playing catch-up in terms of health internship manpower needs. There are batches of medical students from Cuba, and other overseas destinations due here shortly to address the shortfall in numbers, but the sudden urge to raise these numbers overnight, is an exercise in futility.
To aggravate the situation, our “Fijian Made” medics returning from abroad are given a difficult time upon their return. They could add quality to our current set up in specialist areas but it’s not happening.
Obtaining a full complement of additional doctors is not the total solution. What will the additional numbers mean when the ministry cannot provide the appropriate beds, medication, technology, or if the consumables are out of stock?
We understand that new specialist units such as the Neurological, Urology, Cardiac teams remain without medication and operative equipment. Most are not fully operational, yet our “Fijian Made” medics have been trained locally and exposed internationally for these roles. Can we see the mismatch in these issues?
Health systems are not built on numbers alone. The building blocks of healthcare include:
- adequate and appropriate facilities and infrastructure;
- sufficient supplies of medicine and consumables; adequate health financing;
- improved health information and research; cross cutting leadership & governance; and
- a content, inspired, compassionate and accountable workforce all working towards exemplary healthcare service delivery.
Our medical graduates do not always move to green pastures on their own accord, but are pushed out by poor administrators, planners and politicians — evident now by this year’s fast-tracked amendment to the Medical & Dental Practitioners. To our healthcare system’s demise, the push factor is greater than the pull factor.
Increasing the intake at medical schools, middle level study in areas of clinical interest and provision of scholarships serve to keep the locals on their own turf.
Turning now to our Nurses Pay Rise…
Madam Speaker, The much lauded civil service reforms seems to have been short-circuited with the pay rise for salary increases.
Shockingly the “Job Evaluation Questionnaire’s” circulated by PWC to nurses as part of the civil service reforms seemed like generic, off-the-shelf templates that offered no appreciation for the complicated pressures, structures and often overlapping roles shouldered by our nurses, nor the extra effort needed on top of workloads, to complete these unnecessary & complicated details.
The nursing pay rise is a welcome relief, but is as at odds with the ratio of the pay rise given to doctors last year, and which a cohesive and seamless job evaluation exercise would have addressed.
The nurse practitioners’ salary increase by 75% is commendable, but there are just under 40 nurse practitioners who will benefit from this.
Our midwives in the maternity areas are struggling and a 25% incentive would have been more appropriate. Again, a cohesive and seamless job evaluation exercise would have addressed these disproportionate increases.
But then, what of the state of the nursing cadre who have been weaved into the administrative services by way of career progression, are they entitled to the 25% increase? What of the specialist nursing structures, should they be realigned? If the lack of re-alignment continues unaddressed, corrupt practices can emerge.
The nurses’ salary increase of approximately 15% is acknowledged and appreciated. But again, a cohesive and seamless job evaluation exercise would have addressed these disproportionate salary ratios.
The mid-level training of nurses needs urgent review. Birthing surges in the face of facility and infrastructure inadequacies creates adverse maternal and neonatal birth outcomes and midwifery training is absolutely essential. The shocking revelations of the spate of deaths of new-born babies is still fresh on our minds and we expected more prioritisation of our neonatal unit.
This now brings me to the issue of our junior Doctors who are made to work up to 32 hours at a stretch. Surely such stretched hours are a violation of labour standards in a profession where life and death are daily challenges? Is the Ministry actively monitoring these unrealistic and inhumane expectations of new entrants?
When the workload was lighter in the past, it was fairly tenable but the new structure does not even address this.
Madam Speaker – the supply of Pharmaceuticals and Medical Consumables…
The budget announcement made a brief mention of the Free Medicine Scheme, selectively labelling it as “medicine subsidies”..
That is because the scheme is completely dysfunctional. With the stated 140 plus items for release to the public in 2015, the retail pharmacists are still not provided with a list of what is to be dispensed after two years of waiting on this announcement.
Only about 20,000 people are registered for the scheme, when we know full well that 50% of the population are living below or around the poverty line.
If pharmaceutical supplies to our hospitals is inadequate, how is it logically possible for this scheme to still be allocated $10 million and continues to remain largely un-utilized in the last two years with a high wastage rate. Recall that for the past years, except this year “Free Medicine” has been under R (Requisition).
This year’s budget allocation for health addresses the purchase and maintenance of health-related high end equipment. So the question is are these important pieces of health-related equipment still without service contracts after the warranty period comes to an end?
The allocation of $1 million has been put aside for this but it is our understanding that MRI, CAT scanners, radiology, general lab equipment etc. are not in working order as a result of invalid service contract agreements.
In a similar fashion, consumables such as lab reagents and chemical reagents for x-rays are out of stock as well.
It is our hope that the newly announced National Kidney Research and Treatment Centre will also look into renal transplantation with urgency. This will allow some patients to benefit from a one off surgical procedure and not suffer the three/per week dialysis lifelong exercise, at great cost. Appropriate laws will have to be enacted.
There are other important health developments that this budget document has failed to address. What is the progress in the development of the Cancer Unit?
Furthermore, I understand that a senior Health official, had urged MPs of the threat of the oncoming NCD crisis, at a parliamentary workshop a couple of years ago, where even the Consumer Council and other experts made similar pleas. The presenters specifically requested MPs to put in place tax measures to help alleviate the NCD crisis — which has now reared its ugly head on a national scale.
We look forward to the development of a modern Mental Health Clinical, Training and Research Hospital which seems to have fallen off the radar. We are told that support for this establishment was available from a bilateral donor partner with a Memorandum of Agreement again sitting on someone’s desk since 2013.
For our elders for whom we all owe a great measure of indebtedness, the state of the senior citizen’s homes, the development of retirement villages, improved and wider/in-depth training of caregivers including the professional cadre-gerontologists/rehabilitation experts, specialist nurses, enrolled nurses, counsellors, field and community workers, palliative/public health nursing systems needs urgent reviews, as once Mahatma Gandhi had said and I quote
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
Briefly Madam Speaker, let me quickly address the infrastructure needs for Vanua Levu if we are to transform it into a hub as part of the Government’s “Look North” idea’s.
- Waiqele Airport (Labasa)
The Labasa Airport needs to be able to cater for night flights with some upgrades with lights installed for night landing.
Upgrades and tarsealing of roads are needed for:
- Major trunk road around the island of Vanualevu
- a) Coqeloa to Nacavanadi to open up land for resorts and hotels
- Cross country roads
- Namuavoivoi to Cogea
- Nabouwalu to Nabalebale (Wainunu)
- Nayarambale Road Junction (Daramu) to Vanuavou.
- Labasa By- Pass Road
Labasa needs a by-pass road to alleviate the alrming congestions causing delays to all and affects school children mainly.
For roadworks 15-20 km from Labasa Town
- Boubale, Urata, Dreketilailai, Anuve
- Flooding at Siberia and Vunimoli, Vunivutu Health Centre
- Wainikoro/ Navualevu Crossing
For shipping, there should be freight subsidies and concession for Vanualevu manufacturer’s, spare part dealers, supermarkets. The cost of living is doubled often tripled in the North.
- Rural Electrification
Electrification for rural areas in Vanua Levu, is very slow and neglected, the following areas need urgent power supply:
- Seaqaqa interior, Vunivere, Seva,
- Nabouwalu, Nasarawaqa, Lekutu, Kolikoso
- Nacavanadi towards the Natewa bay costal road side to. Navakaka and from Nagigi towards Matakunea to Buca Bay.
- Lagalaga to Namuka-i.e. Naua, Visogo, Laremba
- Lagalaga to Nubu, Dogotuki
- Interior of Navitia,Wavuwavu, Vunivutu
- Uluidau school to Vunikabula. Rural Electrification will enable excess to power and usuage of IT to access internet as per the Govt’s “Knowledge Based Society” push.
For Sporting, it is of some consternation that there is no public swimming pool for northerners – Labasa and Savusavu, and there is nothing specific in the budget for sports in the North. Our children need to be able to learn how to swim properly.
- Sugar Industry
Our tramlines need improvement, portable lines, rail trucks.
- Water Supply
- Advisory Councillors
- JP’s in Rural Areas
I thank you for your indulgence.