23 September 2015: Transcript of NFP Leader, Hon Prof Biman Prasad’s contribution to the debate on the Motion by the Acting Prime Minister, Hon Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum to thank His Excellency The President for his Speech at the Opening of the 2015-2016 Session of Parliament

NFP Leader<Please check against delivery>

Madam Speaker, I rise to speak on the Motion before Parliament. In his address, His Excellency spoke about democracy, rule of law and legislation that Government intends to enact in the coming year. I sincerely wish him and his family continued good health as he exits the High Office.

Madam Speaker, traditionally the Head of State comprehensively outlines Government’s plans for the ensuing year. This is the norm in every democracy and we are no exception because the address is largely the handiwork of Government. Indeed last year, the President when opening Parliament, outlined Government’s initiatives as free water, electricity subsidy, minimum wage etc. But it is clear that freebies have their own life.

Madam Speaker, now we are being told that debt is not a negative thing. Indeed the Honourable Minister for Finance went to great lengths to sugar coat the reality. I will leave the economy, debt management and GDP for the 2016 Budget debate.

Madam Speaker, for the past two days, honourable Members from Government have commented on stability and democracy.

Allow me Madam Speaker to repeat what I said in Parliament during my maiden speech on 15th October 2014 and I quote: –

“We have two obligations at the core of our role as MP’s. First, we have to make our democracy work; and second, we have to make our democracy work for our people.

To make our democracy work; we need to ensure that our citizens and their organizations are able to freely comment, support and when needed criticize policies and programs being debated by this House. They need to know that our media will amplify their voices and ensure that we directly hear their voices. This way we will know how citizens feel about and experience government policies and programs. Our democracy will grow from this new openness.

Second, we need to make our democracy work for our people” – Unquote

Unfortunately Madam Speaker, this Parliament has not made giant strides towards making democracy work for our people.

Madam Speaker, As the Honourable Leader of the Opposition pointed out yesterday, Parliament will have to debate possibly 24 different legislative Bills over 4 weeks. This is four days in a week for a total of a mere 16 days. As the Standing Orders state, Fridays is for Members’ Business therefore 4 days are out. This is yet another indication that Government will railroad legislation using Standing Order 51.

Madam Speaker, Government used His Excellency’s speech to define democracy and stability. Democracy is a prerequisite to stability. But democracy is not only about being elected to govern in a general election. Democracy is not about flexing mandate to ride roughshod over people. Democracy is about listening to the people, agreeing to disagree, consultation, upholding and promoting fundamental rights and freedoms, and above all finding solutions through consensus building, dialogue and negotiation.

Madam Speaker, the total lack of dialogue both within and outside Parliament between three political party leaders in the past year has stood out like a sore thumb. The Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and I have not had even an informal conversation, let alone a cup of tea together, apart from sometimes hi’s and hello’s, during parliamentary breaks. This is a far cry from the past when leaders from across the political divide mingled together and discussed issues informally, out of which arose policies that were beneficial to the people and supported by all sides.

Madam Speaker history has shown that imposition hardens attitudes, leads to disenchantment and disquiet. Therefore dialogue is necessary for national unity, inclusiveness, consensus, and bi-partisanship.

The 2013 Constitution, Madam Speaker, has been touted as the panacea for all ills. In reality it is the catalyst for uncertainty through erosion and restrictions of fundamental rights and freedoms. Worse, the Constitution is subservient to Decrees and Promulgations, which override fundamental rights provided for in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. And these restrictions are further enforced through limitations of most rights.

The first example of this is Section 17 – Freedom of Speech, Expression and Publication. Amongst many limitations, this freedom is not preventing making provisions for the enforcement of media standards and providing for regulation, registration and conduct of media organisations. This limitation is enforced through the Media Industry Development Authority Decree. Only one amendment was made, removing fines against individual journalists for breaches. But heavy fines, imprisonment terms or both, remain against Editors, Publishers and media organisations themselves.

Similarly, Madam Speaker, Section 19 – Freedom of Association – is limited quite severely. This freedom is taken away for the purposes of regulating essential services as well as collective bargaining. This is further strengthened by the designation of almost all labour sectors as essential services under the Employment Relations Promulgation (Amendment) Act – much more than even the Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree, which was repealed.

The same, Madam Speaker, applies to Employment Relations – Section 21. Apart from limiting this right for the purposes of regulating essential services and collective bargaining, this right is also limited for the purpose of regulating trade unions.

Madam Speaker, Section 23 – Political Rights – has limitations for trade unionists or anyone employed by a trade union. They cannot become members or hold office in political parties because they are defined as public officers. This is also enforced by the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding & Disclosures) Decree and the Electoral Decree.

These, Madam Speaker, are just some examples of limitations and flaws, necessitating the establishment of a Constitution Review Commission to look at these deficiencies and find common ground in a bipartisan manner.

Unfortunately, Madam Speaker, Government has flatly rejected our calls for bipartisanship for the last one year. This has been witnessed through the enactment of legislation, which will be harmful to the long-term future of our democracy and stability. In his Maiden address to Parliament last October, the Honourable Prime Minister offered to work together to overcome our challenges. This did not happen and apart from legislation promulgated in this Parliament, the contributions by Government MPs as contained in the Hansard of parliamentary sittings confirm what I am saying.

Madam Speaker, let me reiterate that we still have time before the 2018 election to deal with some of the contentious issues before us. It would serve our people well if government changes its course and tune in dealing with the promises it made to the people before the general election.

When I look at the direction in which the government is going, it reminds me of President Ronald Reagan who once said that “there are nine most terrifying words in English Dictionary and they are as follows “I’m from government and I’m here to help you”. Madam Speaker, Ministers are still trying to be everything to everyone and in the process have ended up disappointing many people. Some ministers announce policies and changes as they travel around and have been reactive to issues raised by people. Government’s role is to strengthen institutions and organisations and empower people running those organisations to deliver the services to the people. What people need from government is a systematic approach to dealing with problems faced by people through appropriate institutions and the people who run these organisations. But this is not happening.

An example of this is the enactment of the Employment Relations Promulgation (Amendment) Act. This is despite Government signing an Agreement to make necessary changes to the now repealed ENI Decree in conformity to ILO’s conventions.

The sad reality is that we now have a Commission of Inquiry looming in the near future – a decision on this will be made in November. Government, especially the Attorney General, need to work on convincing the International Labour Organization that Fiji does not need an inquiry.

Two months ago, we heard the Prime Minister say the Opposition and trade unionists did not know how a modern economy works and referred to the Amended ERP as a necessity for a modern economy.

The question is will the ILO accept that erosion of trade unions and workers’ rights and freedoms are necessary in a modern economy?

Surely not because it is suppressing workers’ rights and freedoms in gross violation of ILO core conventions in the name of economic progress.

Madam Speaker, it is still not to late to change course and avert the inquiry because it will have devastating impact on the economy and the livelihood of workers. Government, as a tripartite partner, signed an agreement in March, delaying the decision to have an inquiry in November. This basically bought it time. But it seems a so-called modern economy is more important to government than full compliance to ILO Conventions 87 and 98, namely Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining.

We need to avert the Inquiry and the only way is compliance and adherence to the Agreement Government signed in March.

Madam Speaker, Government through His Excellency reminded us about the conduct and results of the 2014 general elections. There has been reference to the Multinational Observer Group (MOG), which found the people of Fiji had exercised their will in a credible election. At the same time, MOG made several pertinent recommendations.

The Fijian Elections Office and the Electoral Commission must implement the recommendations of the Multinational Observer Group (MOG) contained in its final report on the 2014 general elections.

We believe the report and its recommendations should be incorporated in any strategic planning undertaken by the Elections Office as part of preparations for the next general elections scheduled in 2018.

But Madam Speaker, this can only happen after Government brings before Parliament, the Media Industry Development Decree, Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding & Disclosures) Decree and the Electoral Decree, to make the necessary changes as recommended by the MOG to make the next elections not only credible but totally free and fair.

The recommendations contained in the 53-page report are credible and highlights the difficulties and frustrations faced by the political parties, candidates, the media and non-governmental organisations (NGO’s).

The contents of the report on Media Environment, Media Industry Development Decree and Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) show the ineffectiveness of MIDA.

The MOG rightly recommended the need for regulation as well as an independent institution to prevent and adjudicate media bias thus ensuring a level-playing field amongst election participants, as well as a review of penalties in the Media Decree.

The fact that the MOG has recommended for an independent institution proves MIDA’s lack of neutrality because it is a body appointed by Government. A free. fair, credible and unfettered media industry in Fiji is rendered meaningless if MIDA continues to exist.

Madam Speaker, The MOG report also highlights the need for amendment to the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding & Disclosures) Decree. It rightly points out that the broad definition of a public office holder excludes a large number of citizens from freely participating in the political process. And furthermore the report notes the prohibition on trade union officials being members of political parties is a limitation on political freedom.

The MOG has recommended for requirements to be reduced for political party registration as well as allow public office holders and trade union officials to be political party members. This has been the case throughout our Independent history. It is ludicrous to disallow trade unionists from becoming members of political parties.

The MOG has recommended changes to the Electoral Decree. Most importantly, the MOG notes that the absence of political party identification from the ballot paper and National Candidates List was unusual – the lack of any names, symbols and photographs on the ballot paper. The MOG also observed that voters were prohibited from brining how-to-vote pamphlets into polling stations and anyone caught breaching this provision faced a hefty fine of $50,000 or imprisonment of a term up to 10 years, or both.

Furthermore, NGO’s were denied the right to be election observers. The MOG has recommended for this to change to ensure credibility of the election process; symbols and names of candidates to be included on the ballot paper and the National Candidates List; penalties for election related offences to be reviewed in accordance with international standards and practice; and that Government to review and finalise all existing electoral laws and regulations well in advance of the next election.

Therefore Madam Speaker, the onus now is on Government to implement the recommendations of the Multinational Observer Group to ensure the next general elections are absolutely credible, without any perceived or real fear of suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Madam Speaker, we have are constantly reminded about common and equal citizenry. But what is common and equal citizenry? It is not just a simple matter of one-person one vote or every vote of equal value.

Common and equal citizenry, Madam Speaker, in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation like Fiji it is important that common and equal citizenry extends beyond equal vote for equal value and common name. It necessitates the creation, promotion and offer of equal opportunity in all sectors based on meritocracy, not nepotism, cronyism or reward for loyalists.

This Madam Speaker, means economic growth must generate employment, not increase unemployment as recorded at the National Employment Centre 33,000 in July 2014 to 46,277 in July 2015; meritocracy in the civil service and appointments being made at least in proportionate to the population of our ethnic groups; as a start having a quota for recruitment of personnel from other ethnic groups in the military, again on meritocracy to give it a semblance of multiracialism; having bipartisan committees to collectively look at serious challenges facing our sugar industry; and again bipartisanship to look at reviewing the Constitution in accordance with recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the working committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Madam Speaker, these are achievable but it needs firstly political will and capacity to dialogue with the ultimate aim of finding solutions through consensus. These are the virtues that we as a political party have demonstrated for the last 52 years. We preached and practiced the virtue of talk, not force; of national interest before self-interest; and above all equality, dignity and justice for all our citizens.

And we intend to do just that in the remaining three years of parliament.

Before I resume my seat, allow us to convey our best wishes to our national rugby side the Flying Fijians who will take on the might of the Australian Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales at 3.45 tomorrow morning.

Madam Speaker, this is a battle of David versus Goliath. Australia has won the World Cup twice and its last victory in 1999 was at the very same stadium. Indeed in this pool of death Fiji will have three monumental battles – England, which was last Saturday, Wallabies early tomorrow morning and then Wales.

But we are confident that with the never-say-die spirit, our team will once again do the nation proud. Japan’s Cherry Blossoms showed us last Sunday that impossible is nothing – therefore let us light up Fiji at 3.45 tomorrow morning and cheer on our team.

Thank you Madam Speaker.