30 September 2016: Remarks by NFP Leader, Hon Prof Biman Prasad on the Debate on H.E. the President’s Address, Friday 30 September 2016

(Please check against delivery and/or hansard)

Madam Speaker I wish to begin by acknowledging the sad news item to the nation last night about the passing of the former Vice President of Fiji, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi.

I understand that the news item would have breached protocols and I may be doing so too by saying these few words but Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi transcended very many barriers and confines and I seek the forgiveness of his family and Vanua for taking this liberty.

Ratu Joni will always be remembered as an embodiment of chiefly authority and wisdom whose humility, care and concern for all our ordinary people and adherence to the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedoms was paramount. The people of Fiji are indeed poorer for Ratu Joni’s loss.

Madam Speaker, As protocol dictates, I also join other Honourable members of this August House in thanking His Excellency for his most gracious address.

While this has been an inaugural speech for His Excellency in terms of his Presidency, there is no doubt he was in familiar surroundings and well versed with parliamentary process having served as a Cabinet Minister before his elevation to Government House.

Madam Speaker, apart from outlining Government’s legislative programme for the ensuing year – a few of the Bills stated in his address are already before us in Parliament, his address reflected on our democracy achieved through elections a little over 2 years ago, as well as reflecting on the devastating effects of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston.

His Excellency also spoke at length about the outpouring of unity generated by Fiji Sevens team’s historic gold medal win at the Rio Olympics. We do unite during both in times of triumph and tragedy as witnessed twice this year. We united after the triumph of our national sevens team whose performance in Rio was poetry in motion. We united as a nation in an outpouring of grief and immediate assistance to victims of Severe TC Winston.

Unity during triumphant and tragic days is laudable but sadly it doesn’t transcend nationally, and tragically this Parliament remains fragmented as we struggle to find our feet to give true meaning to democracy because of “My Way or the Highway” attitude. For the last two years democracy has been used to ride roughshod over the people’s mandate.

We saw example of this on Monday Madam Speaker, when moving the motion to thank His Excellency for his gracious address, the Honourable Prime Minister ungraciously launched a vitriolic attack against the oldest and most principled political party in the country, the National Federation Party.

The National Federation Party has survived for the last 53 years, and will continue to do so for the next 53 years.

Madam Speaker, Leaders and Prime Ministers have come and gone, and will also come and go in future, but the NFP is an impregnable fortress of principles that it has never shirked for the last 53 years, is and will not shirk them come hell or high water.

On Tuesday the new Honourable Minister for Fisheries likened the Opposition to singing the same tune and being bereft of ideas. This is from a Member who as Honourable Minister for Employment told Parliament on 31st May 2016 during a motion on Occupational Health and Safety compliance issues in Fiji Sugar Corporation’s mills following fatalities of workers, that accidents were a fact of life and loss of life was not a new thing!

Madam Speaker, To borrow the slogan of the taxpayer funded Fiji Broadcasting Commission or FBC TV, “the difference is clear”. It is the Fiji First Government, which is bereft of ideas, sound and sensible solutions for the social, economic and political advancement of our nation.

Unfortunately, Madam Speaker His Excellency’s gracious address showed Government was bereft of ideas geared towards national unity, nation building and true nationhood. Because the statement by His Excellency is what Government wants to do in the ensuing parliamentary year. Essentially it is the Government’s statement of intent. Therefore His Excellency could only outline Government’s programme. My colleague Honourable Singh alluded to some statements yesterday made by His Excellency.

But Madam Speaker the Honourable Prime Minister’s senseless attack against the National Federation Party President, Honourable Roko Tupou Draunidalo who is not even in Parliament to defend herself and me as Leader of NFP, cannot go unchallenged. For the sake of posterity, we need to rebutt his statement of describing the NFP and its leadership a sham.

Firstly, the Honourable Prime Minister said NFP’s boycott of the opening of Parliament on 12th September by His Excellency was an insult to the President and Parliament.

Madam Speaker, Let me make it very clear, my arrest and incarceration in a police station cell for a total of 30 hours that ended on the night of Sunday 11th September along with others, especially a trade unionist who also twice served as Leader of NFP, was an insult to the many thousands of our supporters. This was done under the Public Order (Amendment) Decree 2012, one of the many Decrees that violate fundamental human rights and freedoms. The NFP Management Board decided and rightly so that we do not attend the opening of Parliament the next morning because violation of fundamental rights and freedoms under parliamentary democracy must be condemned in the strongest manner.

Even if it were “orders from the top” as we were told by police, true, we could have been treated differently, instead of being arrested from our homes in front of our families, causing them mental anguish, psychological trauma. To them this was intimidation and political persecution.

Secondly Madam Speaker, the Honourable Prime Minister said I boycotted the Constitution Day celebrations and described the document as a sham despite participating in the elections under the same Constitution – and because we won only three seats, we oppose the Constitution.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Madam Speaker both in 1992 and 1994 the NFP participated in the general elections under the racist, unjust and feudalistic 1990 constitution that it described as a façade on democracy, with the sole objective of changing the Constitution within the 7 year timeframe stipulated in that Constitution.

And the then NFP Leader Honourable Justice Jai Ram Reddy and then Prime Minister Major General Sitiveni Rabuka are rightly credited for giving us the much acclaimed 1997 Constitution through genuine dialogue, consensus building, painstaking negotiations and perseverance.

And the NFP and I participated in the elections under the 2013 Constitution with this objective as well, as clearly stated in our 2014 elections manifesto where we stipulated what legislation and draconian decrees need to be changed or repealed. And this can only be done by reviewing and repealing draconian decrees preserved under Section 173 of the Constitution.

Madam Speaker, the relevance of President Barack Obama’s last speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week to what I am saying is highly important and I quote:

“I believe in a liberal political order — an order built not just through elections and representative government, but also through respect for human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law”.

On correcting economic imbalance so that economic growth benefits all instead of Governments legislating control of the economy, President Obama stated:

“I do believe there’s another path — one that fuels growth and innovation, and offers the clearest route to individual opportunity and national success. It does not require succumbing to a soulless capitalism that benefits only the few, but rather recognizes that economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor, and growth is broadly based. And that means respecting the rights of workers so they can organize into independent unions and earn a living wage. It means investing in our people — their skills, their education, their capacity to take an idea and turn it into a business. It means strengthening the safety net that protects our people from hardship and allows them to take more risks — to look for a new job, or start a new venture”.

Madam Speaker, I subscribe to these principles. I was not bitter about not leading my party to victory in the elections because we were campaigning against a party that was in power as an unelected government for seven and a half years and most importantly in control of the Treasury and making unilateral decisions on how to spend taxpayer funds.

But we must be doing something right and adhering to our principles and objectives that I stated in my maiden address in Parliament on 15th October 2014, to have the Fiji First juggernaut in a worried state of mind and for them to launch vitriolic attacks on the NFP.

I thought the intervention on Wednesday of once the NFP flag bearer in Ba, Honourable Parveen Kumar for 12 years when he was the NFP mayor for 12 years until the Council with others nationwide was dissolved by military regime, but the same government that he is now serving, was symptomatic of a person who is confused about his or her own identity and loyalty.

Madam Speaker, Honourable Kumar called the protest actions of NFP under my leadership a joke, but he forgets that he repeatedly lobbied with his mentor and father like figure Mr Vinod Patel for me to become leader of the NFP as early as the beginning of 2014. He even called and congratulated me after my unanimous election as leader on March 29, 2014. So definitely it is not me or NFP who are playing flip flop politics but the likes of the Honourable Minister who jumped ship for reasons known to many of us.

Madam Speaker, I repeat what I stated on 14th October 2014, in my maiden speech and it nullifies the claim by the Honourable Prime Minister that I am still bitter about not leading the NFP to victory in the elections. I quote excerpts of that address:

“Madam Speaker, our people have spoken. They have elected their government for the next four years. We wish the Prime Minister Honourable Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama and his government well for the next four years”.

“To those who have had the privilege to be elected to this parliament; let me say; 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”.

“What do I mean by that?”

“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 their voices are directly heard by us. 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. The Honourable Prime Minister called for our support to his program for Government. We will extend that support. In extending that support, we will hold the Honourable Prime Minister to his own words”.

“When necessary we will criticize government’s policies. When we shall do so, it will not be for the sake of doing so, but because we in our considered view are able to provide credible alternatives”. – Unquote

Madam Speaker, if adhering to these principles and objectives is a sham, then I make no apologies. At halftime of our parliamentary democracy, my optimism for consensus building, dialogue and bipartisanship is fast evaporating. I wish I was wrong but the painful reality is that this parliament is perhaps the most fragmented and compartmentalized into two with the mace bearing witness to what is more and more becoming a place where majority rule prevailing at all times and sound and sensible solutions being swatted aside like flies.

The question that arises Madam Speaker is, are we beholden to a personality or personalities? Or should we be loyal to the people who placed their faith and trust in us?

For the last four days I have heard nothing but praises of the 2013 Constitution, especially of its provision of a common name of “Fijian” for all and “common and equal citizenry”.

Talk is cheap Madam Speaker. Does being a Fijian and common and equal citizenry guarantee every one employment on merit or equal opportunities? Does it guarantee a decent voluntary retirement from employment instead of enforced job loss at the age of 55 years? Does it guarantee employment on merit again in proportionate to the make-up of our multiethnic population? Does it guarantee decent pay for decent work for everyone doing the same job?

It does guarantee something Madam Speaker, By July next year each of our citizen will bear the average of burden of $6000 debt following the increase of our debt levels to five billion dollars. It does guarantee majority of our cyclone ravaged schools remaining unrepaired or un-built while Government’s “build it back better” scheme, which is in its infancy, struggles to find its feet. It does guarantee that children in the Cyclone ravaged district of Ra are dropping out of school because they do not have food.

And Madam Speaker calling everyone a Fijian, “guaranteeing common and equal citizenry and appointments based on meritocracy guarantee recruitment into the civil service and other job market on merit?

For example people have come to me and expressed their concerns about the full list of police recruits that was published in the Fiji Sun newspaper on 28th May this year.

I am requesting the Honourable Minister for Defence to provide us the criteria of the recruitments so that we can be satisfied that the recruitment of all 131 personnel was meritorious and in conformity to the principles of the Constitution. After all the Fiji First Government has repeatedly emphasised meritocracy as the benchmark for all appointments and this is exactly how it should be, nothing else.

Madam Speaker yesterday Parliament voted to increase the allowances of MPs. Yet Fiji First voted against my Motion during the Budget to provide $50 million a year for the next three years towards sugar rehabilitation to guarantee a minimum price of $90 per tonne of cane for growers, that will instill confidence in growers and increase crop production, subsidize land rentals and encourage landowners into cane farming.

Maybe Madam Speaker this Government thinks my Motion was a sham. But what really is a sham, is the decline of the sugar industry in the last ten years – primarily under the leadership of the Honourable Prime Minister.

There is no question that in the past 10 years, all the production indicators have fallen badly. We produced 220,000 tonnes of sugar from last year’s crop, down from 310,000 in 2006 — 30 per cent less. We grew 1.8 million tonnes of cane in 2016, down from 3.2million in 2006 — 44 per cent less. The number of active growers has fallen by 5674 from 18,636 to 12,872.

The only reason for the Prime Minister’s anger with the NFP is that we are questioning the value of his Government’s so-called reforms. We are doing so not to bring down the Government. We are doing so because long experience has told us what will work in the industry and what will not.

Madam Speaker, We have asked the Government to join hands with us and work together to save the industry. But the Government, as usual, wants to do things its way. It believes that it will get it right and claim all the political credit. It does not see the value of co-operation of a dissenting view. And it does not care if it is wrong — it will just think of another trick instead to cover up its mistakes.

The sugar industry is made up of thousands of growers. If they do not actively participate in it, there is no industry. It is as simple as this.

Madam Speaker, I can go on and on but I conclude with the remarks of the outgoing Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon who told the UN General Assembly in New York on 20th September and I quote:

“In too many places, we see leaders rewriting constitutions, manipulating elections and taking other desperate steps to cling to power,” he said. “My message to all is clear: serve your people. Do not subvert democracy; do not pilfer your country’s resources; do not imprison and torture your critics.”

Thank you Madam Speaker I know that the next time we meet will be February next year and therefore I take this opportunity to wish all the people of Fiji a Happy Diwali and a Merry Christmas.

May God Bless Fiji.