24 September 2015: Transcript of NFP Whip, Hon Prem Singh’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

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Honourable Deputy Speaker – I rise to contribute on the Motion before Parliament. But before that I wish to say Bravo Fiji for a scintillating performance of both running and power rugby against the number 2 ranked side in the world, Australia, at Cardiff early this morning. We lost by 15 points but ran the Wallabies ragged in the 2nd half.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, I too join other honourable Members in thanking our President for his service to our nation over many years and in several capacities.

I developed a close relationship with His Excellency during my 11-month tenure as Leader of the Opposition from October 2001 to September 2002 when Ratu Epeli Nailatikau was the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was an extremely fair and impartial Speaker, always facilitating the requests of the Opposition within the ambit of the Standing Orders.

Might I add Honourable Deputy Speaker we had many informal Talanoa sessions over a tanoa as camaraderie was developed not only with myself but other Honourable Members as well. I wish him, Adi Lady Koila and the family prosperous health.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, we have been told that the State of the Nation is healthy and prosperous and the economic growth of 5.3%, increasing reserves, infrastructure development and so on, are being given as a reason for our economic advancement.

But it seems to me Honourable Deputy Speaker that we now have a consumption driven economy and growth is based on this factor. And it is clear that such an economy is not creating jobs. A 5.3% growth in 2014 should have created thousands of jobs. Instead people looking for work, 80% of who are youth – and this is even admitted by the Minister for Women who on 22nd July said majority of them were university graduates.

Furthermore Honourable Deputy Speaker the Honourable Minister for Employment confirmed in June 2015 that the number of job seekers registered with the National Employment Centre was 46,277. This increased by more than 13,000 from July 2014 – and we have had a 5.3% growth!

The Fiji Times of 1st June reports the Minister Honourable Jioji Konrote as saying and I quote: –
“My advice to the students is to work hard and make the right choice because it’s not easy to find a job. I’ve got thousands of people lining up here looking for jobs and employment, I have a mandate to look for a job for everybody”.

“My advice to the unemployed youths here in the urban centres is to go back to the village and plant some more tavioka.” – Unquote

If the current trend continues, then close to 60,000 job seekers will be registered with National Employment Centre by July next year, unless of course the Minister has concrete plans to generate employment apart from telling our youth to plant cassava.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, 2015 has been a year of confusion as far as Education is concerned. We have heard delays in distribution of textbooks, milk and cramming of curriculum into two terms. This forced teachers to take extra classes after normal school hours including weekends. We have had re-introduction of examinations and lowering of entry marks for tertiary institutions from 250 to 200 on the basis that it will be raw marks.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, Yesterday following concerns raised by Honourable Mika Leawere, the Honourable Minister for Education confirmed leak of examination papers of Year 8, who are already sitting for examinations.
How were the papers were leaked in the first place? What measures are in place to ensure that papers for examinations for Year 10, 12 and 13 are not leaked?

Having raised the expectations of the students and parents, the Ministry has now decided to restrict the free bus fare scheme to students falling within Stage 1 or nearest school – and that too to students whose parents have a combined income of a maximum of $16,500.

This is just a mere $500 above the tax threshold. And if a couple individually earning income below the tax threshold but collectively their income is above the $16,500 set by the Minister, then their children are disqualified from the free bus fare scheme. This, Honourable Deputy Speaker, is a betrayal of the trust of voters by the Fiji First Government. God forbid but may be the next announcement possibly during the 2016 Budget will be the qualification for Tertiary Education Loans Scholarship Scheme based on the same threshold!

Honourable Deputy Speaker, we have been told by the Education Minister through the media that this is being done to prevent abuse of free bus fare vouchers by students, schools and bus operators. But until now, the Minister has not produced any evidence of vouchers being abused by them. On the contrary an Education Ministry employee was charged in October 2013, together with a worker from a corporate company for fraud relating to payment of vouchers.

The question that arises Honourable Deputy Speaker is this; If the economy is growing, revenue collection by Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority is increasing, then why benefits offered to the people of Fiji, as promised in the Fiji First election manifesto last year, are being diluted? What has happened to the mother of all budgets that we heard in December last year?

What has happened to the slogan of “turning promises into deeds”?

Honourable Deputy Speaker, I expected Government, through His Excellency, to lay out comprehensive plans on rehabilitation programmes in our cane belt and agricultural sector following the prolonged drought, which is still ravaging the Western and Northern Divisions. This is despite some rain, which has provided some respite.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, in some areas tanks have been placed and residents are required to travel to these locations to fetch their emergency supply. These tanks quickly run out of water. This is a departure from the past practice of trucks carrying water carts to homes in settlements.

And we all know the natural phenomenon that after a drought there is always a major flood, the two recent devastating floods of 2009 and 2012 are a testimony to this fact.

Furthermore Honourable Deputy Speaker, a survey has to be done to assess the impact of the drought on agricultural crops, livestock and sugar.

Only a comprehensive survey will able to determine the kind and amount of assistant and crop rehabilitation packages needed for the recovery of these industries or sectors. With intermittent rain being experienced in the drought affected areas, the time is right to rehabilitate the crops but this can only be done through proper management and utilization of funds in the relevant areas.

But this needs a comprehensive Crop Rehabilitation Programme and Government must immediately move in this direction, apart from supplying and improving the distribution of emergency water supplies.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, our dairy farmers have also serious concerns about the dairy industry, which is impacting their livelihood. In their representations to us, the farmers have stated they are still being charged Value Added Tax (VAT) for supply of milk per litre. When Fiji Dairy Cooperative Ltd pays them for the supply of milk, they deduct 15% VAT from the proceeds.

Early last month the Permanent Secretary for Industry Trade and Tourism said large-scale farmers are being refunded VAT that was deducted but small-scale farmers are exempted from paying VAT. However in their representations, the small-scale farmers have claimed they are subjected to VAT deduction by FDCL. We ask the Ministry of Public Enterprise to clarify this matter because this is reducing their income.

Furthermore Honourable Deputy Speaker, the outbreak of tuberculosis is having a serious effect on the industry. Large herds of dairy cows are being lost to tuberculosis and there are no replacement cows or calves given to them. The Ministry of Agriculture must urgently look into this issue because this has the potential to cripple the industry.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, neglect and mismanagement of the public health sector has led to a frightening deterioration of our health services.

Our extremely poor health service is blight on our nation. There is no other way to put it. Go to any hospital in the country and you will see the pathetic conditions.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, I have visited a number of hospitals and health centres in the past 6 months. I visited them before the elections as well. My latest visits have shown no improvement in service delivery. Patients especially women and children are waiting for more than 5 hours to see a doctor. The physical condition of many hospitals is shameful. Our hospitals should never run out of essential medicines for diabetics and high blood pressure, or of basic equipment such as syringes for blood tests.

Until last week, the blood testing facility at Lautoka Hospital, the country’s second largest hospital was not working. Patients traveling as far as Ra and Valley Road in Nadroga arrived at the hospital after referrals from their respective health facilities only to find out that the facility has been out of order for five weeks. This is unacceptable.

Even the expectation of clean and hygienic conditions at our hospitals is just too high an expectation from this Government.

Further, Honourable Deputy Speaker, last December the Minister for Health promised a full inquiry into the death of a new-born baby at Lautoka Hospital following my Adjournment Motion on the matter. He also assured Parliament that measures will be implemented to ensure such tragedies are not repeated in our hospitals.

I am deeply saddened to say that I have once again received a complaint from a member of the public on the loss of her baby Shahzaib Shuyab Dean and what apparently transpired at Nadi Hospital, and Honourable Deputy Speaker through you, I offer my sincerest and respectful condolences to baby Shahzaib’s family. I will furnish details of this complaint to the Honourable Minister for Health.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, until recently, the issue of payment of overtime to health personnel was unresolved. A circular issued on 29th June by the Health Ministry’s Deputy Secretary Finance and Administration in respect of overtime work by government wage earners and established staff. Amongst other things the circular states and I quote, “The 2015 Budget has been exhausted, therefore all overtime payment will cease. Accumulated hours for all staff shall be taken as time-off in lieu of payment on hour to hour basis”. – unquote

The Minister for Health needs to clarify this issue because an overworked and underpaid workforce is the last thing we need, especially in the health and medical care facilities.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, healthcare despite major reforms has not improved. This is the painful reality.

That is why we need a bipartisan approach for an inquiry into all aspects of healthcare and medical services. There is little use of building new hospitals when our existing hospitals lack facilities.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, the role of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces has been the subject of much scrutiny. On Tuesday, The Honourable Minister for Employment, himself a former senior military officer, praised the role of the RFMF and its then Commander – the current Prime Minister – in restoring law and order following the coup of May 19, 2000, saying the coup was an action by extremists who had racist and selfish ambitions to run the country.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, the question is who carried out the coups? It wasn’t ordinary citizens. It was people trained to be soldiers and belonging to an institution, revered worldwide because of its reputation in peacekeeping, but also famous for executing coups.

I refer to a statement made by the Honourable Prime minister as Commander of RFMF. While addressing villagers in Nadoi, Rewa on May 22, 2008 following the opening of a church extension, he stated in the indigenous i-taukei language why the military carried out the coups.

He said and I quote the translation from Fiji One National News In-depth Report of 23rd May 2008, covering proceedings of his opening of a Church in Nadoi, Rewa ; “We have taken over leadership because politicians have failed us, that is why the military took over in 1987, 2000 and 2006.” – unquote

Honourable Deputy Speaker, in 1987, The NFP/Labour Coalition Government was only 5 weeks old when it was overthrown. How could politicians in Honourable PM’s words – which was Dr Timoci Bavadra’s government have failed the people of Fiji in such a short time of 5 weeks?

This is the answer that needs to be provided, amongst other things, before we are told to extoll the virtues of democracy and constitutional rule – something that we have always upheld and will continue doing so.

Honourable Deputy Speaker, true nationhood, common and equal citizenry can only be achieved if we collectively start doing some of the following:

Economic growth to generate employment; 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 sectors like the sugar industry, health and medical services

My point here, Honourable Deputy Speaker is that its all very well to finger-wag on what should be acceptable parliamentary conduct and what it is not, but reciprocity, humanity and national interest should be our guiding values if are to succeed at bipartisanship, and not arrogance and condescension. We on this side of Parliament continue to offer our hands for bipartisanship. It is now up to the other side to reciprocate sincerity and respect in the national interest.

That is the bottom line.