Open mind, open government

BY THE LEADER OF NATIONAL FEDERATION PARTY,

PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD

The first thing needed for open government is an open mind.

Government is not a series of publicity stunts designed to make Government Ministers look good. It is service.

We have an imperial government, with overpaid senior ministers driving in convoys of tinted-glass vehicles, surrounded by security guards, sycophantic civil servants and business associates.

They are followed around by Qorvis Communications functionaries and journalists from newspapers, TV and radio stations they control – and whose purpose is to report only good news.

This government is about them. It is not about us.

This is why the government must change. We need a government made up of people minded to serve, not those who want to travel the world, claim allowances and hide behind tinted glass.

Sacrifice, not pageantry

Anyone who sincerely agrees to serve – even in a sports organisation, a school committee, a charity – knows that they will not always look good. They will make mistakes. They will be let down by others. They will have to make hard choices that do not please everyone.

The job of government is not to hand out freebies while the TV cameras roll so they feel good. Government’s job is to give power to the people to make their own decisions, work together and improve their own lives. The government must provide the framework – that is, good policies, good infrastructure and good services. The government must provide leadership.

The most important element of leadership is trust.

A government earns trust by sharing information. Government information does not belong to the Government. It belongs to the people. Their taxes pay for the Government. They have a right to know what the Government is doing.

There are many models of open government around the world that Fiji can follow. Some of them can be found as nearby as Australia and New Zealand.

And here is the most important point – open government costs nothing.  Of course, it needs public servants to compile information and provide answers.  But this can all come from the existing government payroll. This is not a promise which is expensive to keep.

What is happening now

Government ministers used to talk incessantly about “transparency and accountability”. Now, not so much.

They have been in government for 12 years.  They have never admitted a mistake.  Perhaps they are a perfect government. Or perhaps they are just working harder than ever to cover up their incompetence, wastefulness and greed.

Section 121  of the Constitution requires Fiji to have a “Transparency and Accountability Commission” with “powers to receive and investigate complaints against permanent secretaries and all persons holding a public office”. It has never been set up.

When the Auditor-General – a constitutional officer – criticised the Economy Ministry’s practices, he was forced to appear in a humiliating press conference where his office was unjustly attacked.

When the Public Accounts Committee – under my chairmanship – began to expose wastefulness and incompetence in government spending, the Fiji First Party changed Parliamentary rules to make a Government MP the chairman. Since then, the Public Accounts Committee has been quiet.

The Attorney-General refused to issue ethnic data from the national census. He said it had not been compiled. In imperial government fashion, he behaves as if this information belongs to him, not the people of this country, who paid for it.

With much fanfare, the Government passed an “Official Information Act” earlier this year. But this Act is not about Government information. It is about your personal information. You have a right to ask about the information the Government holds about you.  You do not have a right to ask the Government what it is doing with your money.

What an NFP government will do

We will:-

  • Pass a new Official Information Act. This law will allow people to ask the Government what its Ministers are doing, who they are meeting and how much money it is spending. Any citizen will be able to ask the Government a question. And as long as there is no commercial, security or other need to keep the answer a secret, the Government must answer the question.

 

  • Pass the Code of Conduct Act that governs the conduct of the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, Leader of the Opposition and Parliament itself. This law has sat around in draft for years. The Fiji First Government, which can pass a law in two days if it wants to, has never had the courage to enact it.

 

  • Publish every six months the amounts claimed by Ministers and Parliamentarians for salary, allowances and expenses. This follows the practice in New Zealand. NFP has already said that it will immediately reduce all salaries and allowances by 25% while they are examined by an independent committee.

 

  • Publish updates of what the Government is spending. Under the current government, we are told on Budget night how the Government will spend its money – but we never know if this happens. We will publish regular updates of Government spending and whether it is in line with the Government’s budget, over-spending or under-spending. This is  so the news media and the citizens can check the Government’s performance and demand changes if they are needed

 

  • We will give more power to the Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee. Inefficiency, wastage and even fraud are part of the business of every government. Governments are large organisations whose spending is not easy to control. The best form of control is public knowledge. We will give the Auditor-General more staff (taken from other Ministries). We will give the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament a bigger role to question Ministers and civil servants about how they are spending people’s money. And yes – the chair of the Public Accounts Committee will come from the Opposition side.

 

  • We will change the laws that prevent court challenges. Many current Fiji laws prevent a Government decision being challenged in Court.  That means that Government bureaucrats do what they want to, never worried that a court will never overrule them. This is ridiculous.  Ministers and civil servants must be afraid of the law. They must make their decisions knowing that their bad decisions can be reversed by the courts – and they will be exposed for corrupt or poorly-informed choices.

 

  • We will make available all information about community projects – for example, what the Government is spending on a water project, a road, or a solar power project, or why it is delayed.

 

  • We will hold Cabinet meetings outside Suva. Under previous governments, the Cabinet would sometimes travel to another centre, or to a rural school or village hall, to hold a Cabinet meeting. That way they could meet the people and spend time with them after the Cabinet meeting – so that people could discuss with them their current problems and the services that they needed from Government. We will bring back this practice.

 

  • We will untint the windows. And yes, we will untint the windows of Government Ministers’ vehicles, make them follow the speed limit and not flash their lights and claim priority over other drivers. This may seem a small thing – but it is about showing the people that Government Ministers are not gods. They are servants. We promise democratic, not imperial, government.

 

FSC lying to cane growers: NFP

The National Federation Party  says sheer incompetence and dictatorial attitude of Fiji Sugar Corporation executives as well as their on-going misleading campaign on the effectiveness of  the sugar mills has become intolerable.

Party Leader Professor Biman Prasad says  as a result cane growers, cane cutters and lory operators are suffering because of  breakdowns  at the Lautoka mill and the slow throughput or crush rate at Rarawai Mill.

Professor Prasad said  it was deceitful of the FSC to announce early this week that Lautoka mill  was on a scheduled stop when the reality was that it had broken down.

“We have been told by growers and lorry operators that they were not compensated. FSC had announced that it would pay $5 per tonne of harvested cane if the any of its mills broke down. But we have been told that previously growers received only $3 while lorry operators got $2. But even this has not happened this time”.

“It seems FSC is trying to wriggle its way out of this commitment by claiming the Lautoka mill breakdown was a scheduled stop. Under the current management, FSC is behaving like the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR)”.

“We are told by growers that FSC restarts its mills just before the  6 hours timeline that kicks in the compensation plan and then shuts it down to escape the payment to growers. This is again deceitful. We ask FSC to clarify with evidence whether or not this is true”.

“This week harvested cane from Lautoka and Nadi were being taken to Rarawai. And to make matters worse the extremely slow crush rate or mill throughput at Rarawai worsened the problem, resulting in  harvesting quotas being withdrawn in  the Western Division cane districts especially Rakiraki where growers are already suffering from the forced closure of the Penang mill by this Government”.

“This is happening because FSC refused to heed our call for an audit of its mills to determine their state of preparedness. Instead FSC stated more than two months ago that it had invested $16 million in mill maintenance and upgrade  at Lautoka mill alone. It is now becoming clear that this money was wasted because there hasn’t been an audit to determine on what it was spent”.

“The problem  with the sugar industry  is that it is now totally controlled by Government with growers having no say whatsoever in how the industry is being run”.

“This is because of total lack of democratization of the Sugar Cane Growers Council that was dissolved in 2009 and appointments to key positions in the industry including Boards of personnel who have little knowledge of the industry”.

“This is exacerbated by the fact that unlike previous parliaments before the 2006 coup, this Government refused to allow a bipartisan parliamentary select committee on sugar, which in situations like this, could have met and  make decisive decisions that  would have compelled FSC to abide by them”.

And we have a Minister for Sugar, who happens to be the Prime Minister, missing from the country quite frequently and preaching unity and Talanoa to world leaders when he  refuses to practice what he preaches in Fiji”.

“Throughout this season, he has not said anything about why the mills are not performing and  its adverse impact on the welfare and livelihood of  the most stakeholders of the industry”.

“As a result  the growers who are the largest and most important stakeholders in the industry are suffering along with cane cutters, lorry drivers, and all their families. This is the legacy of this Government that  claims all Fijian families matter”.

Authorised by:

Professor Biman Prasad

NFP Leader

Throttling poverty

BY NATIONAL FEDERATION PARTY LEADER,

PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD

 

On Monday 9th July 2018, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama attacked the Opposition, accusing it of exaggerating the extent of poverty in the country.

The PM said under the leadership of his Fiji First government, poverty was steadily declining and the last household survey in 2013-14 showed poverty to be at 28.1%.

For argument’s sake, even if the PM is right and the survey results have not been tinkered with, then it means that almost 250,000 of our people from a population of  about 885,000 people as determined by last year’s nation population census live in poverty.

And this is against a backdrop of what Mr Bainimarama and his government like to brag about – implementation of unprecedented measures like free bus fares for school children, tuition-free (definitely not free) education, Toppers  scheme, TELS and increase in  the amount of grants for social pension schemes or social welfare payments for children, the disabled or intellectually handicapped, increase in maternity leave to 98 days and the $1,000 parental assistance payment on the birth of a baby in this year’s budget.

Not forgetting the $1,000 hand-out under the so-called SME or small medium enterprise program, supposedly aimed at providing starting capital for a small business. And here it must be remembered that the bulk of the funds have been donated by the Indian Government – over $15.5 million so far.

So nothing to brag about by the Fiji First Government despite using the money  as hand-out  as well as a well-choreographed publicity stunt.

The bottom line is – social welfare or pension payments  are linked to wider issues that need to be resolved  immediately. Welfare assistance is meaningless if implanted in a climate of fear and treated like freebies and hand-outs.  Our needy population are poorer for this kind of gimmick implemented haphazardly for votes.

What does this mean

This simply means that something is wrong – with multi-millions of dollars being channelled to social schemes like welfare or poverty alleviation payments etc., claims of reduction of unemployment to an all-time low, claims of the poverty rate declining further than the last recorded statistic of 28.1% are hollow given the increase  in the budget of women, children and poverty alleviation.

While Government would argue that the increase  in the budget each year during its rule is necessary because the amount of payment has increased like $100  per month for social pension scheme and implementation of other benefits – it still doesn’t correlate to the actuality on the ground.

And  the unmistakable reality is that more and more people, whether or not they live in poverty or abject poverty – are in danger of slipping into poverty because of government’s regressive  taxation policies, astronomically high cost of living, a meagre minimum hourly wage of $2.68  meant for what government calls “unskilled” workers, conditional implementation of some welfare assistance schemes and indiscriminate distribution of funds under  the various schemes resulting in genuine cases receiving far less than what they actually deserve.

While poverty and social welfare schemes  should be intrinsically linked to ensure those in need benefit the most, the current government’s policy of “conditions apply”, regularly witnessed by the expert eye but missed by a vast majority on special air fares offered by Fiji Airways because its written in fine print,  is pushing more and more people  into either poverty or abject poverty.

Therefore the PM’s claim that his government is providing such people a “leg-up” is  in fact pulling the rug  from under their feet when our poor, down-trodden and ordinary citizens belatedly realise how they have been taken for a ride,

 

Two bitter examples

 There are  two examples of such “conditions apply”  or restrictive policies in the current budget. They may sound like music to the ears but reality is starkly different from what was announced with much fanfare.

The first is the free bus fares for the pensioners. This was what was announced. The reality came out during the Minister for Economy’s budget consultations.

And that is that a pensioner is entitled to $25 per month as free bus transportation. If he or she uses this in single a day, then the entitlement is exhausted.

For example if someone travels  from Lautoka to Suva or vice-versa to visit his or her grandchildren, the entitlement is exhausted in one single journey. They won’t have the means to travel the distance from their home to bank or to even the Social Welfare office to collect their food voucher and monthly social pension allowance.

Won’t it make a difference if pension allowances are  handed out in each locality as determined by the data base?

Won’t it make a difference if bus operators are offered incentives to carry pensioners and school children to all destinations within their routes, irrespective of  fare stages  or other restrictions  without money wasted on government bureaucracy in monitoring such schemes?

The other example is the payment of $1,000  parental assistance  upon the birth   of a new-born for those on a combined family income of less than $30,000.

Providing $500 upon the birth registration of a child and another $500 when the child is enters Year 1 in school, as a part of a “parenthood assistance payment” is short-term and short-sighted relief that does not empower those families that need help.

This means $1000 will be given to a mother in two instalments over a six-year period. And that too to a mother whose household income is less than $30,000. This means that if both parents are working, their total income should be less than $30,000 or not more than $15,000 each.

This is a gimmick. A mother and child need wholesome support and care. Will this be done with $1,000 in six years?

For the first six years, with only $500 in the bank account, it equates to $83.33 per year. This is a farce and a painful reality.

Therefore, the approaches taken to lift the majority of our people out of poverty are short-term and disjointed.

What’s better

Won’t it be better if the cost of living, the price of basic food items, milk and medication is brought down by removal of VAT and reduction of duty? Such a measure would result in savings of almost $100 per month.

Compare the difference – $83.33 per year for the first six years after a child is born and registered or a total of $500 – or our policy of making VAT-free 15 basic food items and prescription medication including lowering of duties on certain items – that would result in savings of $100 a month; $1200 per year or $7,200 in six years.

This will help every family and not discriminate anybody. This is genuine equality, dignity and justice – and we haven’t shirked these principles for the last 55 years since the Party’s birth in 1963 under a mango tree in Rakiraki.

This is the difference between real, practical solutions and pie-in-the-sky theories of this government.

And together with our minimum living wage of $5 an hour and review of the current imposed taxes – some that are as high as 25% for designated businesses like restaurants – which is being paid by the ordinary people of Fiji, it is the beginning of a genuine LEG UP, that can help the majority of our people who need a hand, to allow their dollars to stretch and boost their ability to provide for their families.

As well as implementing a minimum guaranteed price of $100 per tonne of cane for cane growers as well as $1.25 per litre to be paid to dairy farmers for raw milk, plus subsidies for agricultural farmers, is what we will do in the first 100 days in office in an NFP Government.

No one likes to feel demeaned like a beggar or pauper. Everyone wants to live meaningful and enriching lives from the sweat of their efforts. And they could if the policy space that was in the Budget was innovative and realistic.

The bundled package highlighted is only just the beginning. Expect more in our manifesto that will be released once the Writs for Elections are issued.

Change is coming for the betterment of one and all. And the NFP will be the vehicle for this welcome change,

 

 

Mr Frederick William Caine (Fred Caine) Eulogy

This is a difficult time for all of us, particularly Mrs Margaret Caine, Abel and Chris and the entire family.

We gather here this morning to farewell a  husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, cousin and a dear friend.

We gather here to farewell a retired veteran politician, a veteran trade unionist, a former military officer, an adventurer of the seas, a businessman, a community and social worker and a devout Catholic who lived by his Christian values.

Frederick William Caine or Fred who like to be called by his friends as YUMBO, which is the registration plate of his vehicle, was a man of many talents. His unique ability to be at ease amongst young and old and new people demonstrated his humility and kindness.

His care and concern for the people of Fiji was admirable. For the last five years, Fred was not only a member of the National Federation Party but a stalwart.

He became a permanent fixture at the NFP Headquarters. He was amongst those who could walk into the Leader’s Office and have a private conversation with him – often providing the Leader a snapshot of what was happening on the ground and offering counsel and advice.

Fred accompanied the Leader to many meetings   during the 2014 election campaign and thereafter until he fell suddenly ill. We say he was a permanent fixture because if  Fred won’t be seen around for a single day, the Leader would ask his whereabouts.

And if someone else was missing, Fred would start asking around. Such was the camaraderie.

The Leader Professor Biman Prasad, who is unfortunately not here due to prior and pressing commitments overseas, was devastated like all of us when he was relayed the message that Fred will never come to the NFP HQ anymore.

He visited Fred a few times in hospital, the last being just before Fred was being taken for an operation. Being the jovial person that he was, Fred said nobody should worry as Change is Coming.

He said the same to another colleague who went to visit him after he came out of coma. That was Fred – even  when on a hospital bed his mind was elsewhere – thinking about general elections  and how to effect change that he very much desired and sought for the people of our beloved country.

At 30 years, Fred  became a Member of Parliament in the April 1977 general elections, five months shy of his 31st  birthday. He was re-elected during the snap general elections in September when he turned 31. At that time he was the youngest Member of Parliament and this in itself was a remarkable achievement. He was a youth MP – youth is defined between the ages of 18 and 35 years.

He served the  then ruling Alliance Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara with distinction. Fred declined to contest the July 1982 elections even though he wasn’t 35 years old.

He opted to launch a vigorous campaign to get his political mentor re-elected as Prime Minister as the 1982 elections was too close to call with the NFP under the leadership of Honourable Justice Jai Ram Reddy running neck to neck with the ruling party.

However political rivalry aside, Fred became good friends with Justice Reddy, Mr Siddiq Koya albeit he served with him in parliament briefly but lived in the same city of Lautoka and Mr Harish Sharma.

He also told us about the important role that Public Accounts Committee played during his tenure of parliament – and that there was total respect for the Opposition and the then PAC Chairman the late Mr H M Lodhia – Hargovind Madhavji Lodhia – whose son Chandrakant Lodhia is the current NFP Treasurer.

And he used to tell us how he admired the  lawn tennis prowess of Mr Harish Sharma. And how he told Justice Reddy that he should leave politics and become the Chief Justice.

The lesson here is that Fred believed in bipartisanship – cooperating with the Opposition in the national interest. Personal interests were cast aside. True there were bitter, acrimonious debates  and finger-pointing in parliament but national interest prevailed.

And the lack of it is what irked Fred – as national interest has been buried in the current parliament. It was so unlike him to get angry and use four letter words – but he did when watching parliamentary proceedings in exasperation – at what was going on.

And he took to his i-pad to show the way for the wanna-be politicians and leaders. He was fearless. He was a giant in every sense of the word – beyond harm by mere mortals – but his friends a gentle giant.

Having a tanoa of grog – then urging others to have one for the road – then if there was time – a baby mix – before taking to their respective homes  his Namadi crew in two other invaluable personalities in his YUMBO.

Now only one is left and the circle around the tanoa is thinner by two. Two of the three Namadi crew have left to watch us to effect Change. We will not fail them.

Frederick William Caine has done all his duties required of him as a mortal. He has completed his duty to his family – apart from scraping coconuts for the biscuits etc. – served his country – and the people with dignity. Above all he served God.

Fearless, yet passionate, kind, caring and a person of humility. While you are irreplaceable and we will miss you, we will ensure that Change will come to the country that you so dearly loved.

Goodbye, dear Fred.

The National Federation Party is deeply disappointed at the total lack of consensus and dialogue between both Government and the Opposition as well as the main opposition party  of SODELPA with NFP regarding the appointment of the President in Parliament tomorrow.

NFP Leader, Professor Biman Prasad says apart from the flawed process in convening parliament, the total lack of consultation to achieve unanimity on a single candidate for the Office of the President between Government and the Opposition as well as SODELPA and NFP does not augur well for the President that as Head of State symbolizes national unity and harmony.

“On a matter of highest significance to Fiji, Government has ignored the Opposition, despite the constitutional provisions allowing both sides to nominate a candidate”.

“Yet on the issue of exorbitantly increasing parliamentary allowances for MPs and per diems for the Prime Minister and Cabinet Minister enriching all of them personally, both Fiji First and SODELPA  demonstrated bipartisanship on 29th September 2016”.

“This is the kind of parliamentary democracy we have witnessed since October 2014, culminating into a façade where less than 48 hours’ notice was given to MPs to attend parliament to appoint the President who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Army”.

“We also make it clear that we disassociate ourselves from a statement issued by the Opposition Office today. We were not part of any discussions on  the Opposition’s position and are not even aware of who SODELPA’s nominee will be”.

“Similarly, we do not know who the Prime Minister will nominate for Presidency. While the PM travels around the world harping on about Talanoa, dialogue and consensus when reaching solutions to tackle Climate Change, Government cannot practice what it preaches where it is needed the most – in the highest court of the land”.

“We will attend parliament tomorrow because our voters expect us to represent them in the People’s House. While we would like to see our current President be nominated for a second term because he is eligible for re-appointment, provided he is willing to serve as our Head of State for another three years, we also do not know who Government’s nominee will be”.

“We will make our position known in Parliament tomorrow.

Authorised by:

Professor Biman Prasad

Leader

Resign Joel Abraham: NFP

The National Federation Party says the Chief Executive Officer of the Fiji Competition and Consumer Commission (FCCC) Joel Abraham should immediately resign following his public display of  blatant political bias towards the current Government.

Party Leader Professor Biman Prasad said Mr Abraham told Fiji Broadcasting Corporation news  that those having pocket meetings with people were lying about reducing the cost of living.

Professor Prasad said Mr Abraham, who hasn’t had the  courage to name the  (provisional) candidates and the political party,  was obviously referring to NFP since it is the only party that has in the last 14 months publicly announced it will reduce the cost of living by removing VAT from 15 basic food items  as well as reducing duty on them and other selected essential goods.

“Mr Abraham has totally compromised the neutrality and independence of  his position as well as that of the Institution. He should have remained apolitical and completely refrained from making political comments. An ordinary civil servant is disallowed from even to be seen at political party meetings or gatherings as it is construed as showing support towards a political party”.

“Recently even owners and operators of higher education institutes owned by religious and cultural organisations were warned by the Ministry of Education to refrain from showing support to any political party. While this is wrong, we ask whether the rules are different for the likes of Mr Abraham”.

“He is  paid  by the taxpayers through Government funds allocated to FCCC. Yet he chooses to campaign for the current Government by maligning others under the guise of his so-called public consultations”.

“Instead of telling the people why  the FCCC unable to reduce inflation by ensuring there  are lower prices for basic food items, he is  twisting their queries by attacking us. This is symptomatic of a thoroughly incompetent and politically biased  person who unfortunately heads a body that is supposed to protect our people”.

“The FCCC is  supposed to be an Independent State Institution. Unfortunately, Mr Abraham has given it a semblance of a political wing of  Government and the Fiji First Party. His office should be more important and thoroughly independent of any interference, politicization or political involvement”.

“His comment, which is a campaign statement is also intimidating voters. He is basically  accusing us of making false promises. Who is he to judge our credibility? Its obvious people would have asked him whether cost of living could be reduced. Instead he makes a political statement”.

“If Mr Abraham wants to behave like a politician, he should resign his position and contest  the general elections and tell them why the cost of living cannot be reduced despite it  being the number one concern of 50% of our people”.

“The NFP once again calls upon officers in all independent  and statutory state institutions  to remain apolitical at all times. Simply, in Mr Abraham’s case, he should put up or shut up”.

Therefore, Mr Abraham, who has blatantly shown his political bias, should resign so that he can campaign freely for the current Government and the Fiji First Party without tarnishing the credibility FCCC”.

Authorised by:

Professor Biman Prasad

Leader