Category Archives: Opinion Pieces

Enslavement of Growers

Truth about sugar should be told

By Bala Dass
The Fiji Times. Saturday, March 11, 2017

I believe the FijiFirst Government has enslaved canegrowers and subjugated them under the Fiji Sugar Corporation.

This follows revelations by the former director of sugar, as reported by The Fiji Times that former FSC executives in December 2008 recommended the termination and dissolution of the democratically elected Sugar Cane Growers Council as well as dissolution of two other industry organisations — the Sugar Commission and Fiji Sugar Marketing.

This is a very serious issue. This is similar to the days of the CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining Company), which throttled the rights of growers subjecting them to injustice. It was the founder of the National Federation Party, the late AD Patel (Ambalal Dahyabhai Patel), who led the struggle to drive out CSR from Fiji.

Patel’s impressive and comprehensive submissions led to the formulation of the Denning Award that stipulated the 70/30 sharing of proceeds formula in favour of growers in 1969. Lord Denning himself had stated that it was the persuasive arguments of Mr Patel that led him to rule in favour of growers.

I believe this released the growers from the shackles of CSR and its subsidiary the South Pacific Sugar Mills (SPSM).

FSC’s role

Who is FSC to determine the livelihood and future of canegrowers?

And worse still it was done by a group of former FSC executives who compiled a report within a few weeks that formed the basis of Viliame Gucake’s Cabinet paper recommending the termination of the 38 elected growers councillors and dissolution of SCGC.

And with the dissolution of SCGC, the last vestiges of democracy in the sugar industry that safeguarded the interest of growers, disappeared, forcing them under total control of FSC and Government.

And not satisfied with terminating elected representatives of growers, I believe the Government is now attempting to tear apart their livelihood by introducing Bills No 19 and 20 — Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund (Amendment) Bills — in Parliament that are being scrutinised by the Parliamentary select committee on Economic Affairs.

We demand that Government through either the prime minister or minister for sugar or his permanent secretary publicly reveal the report and recommendations of the former FSC executives.

Similarly, Government must make public the FSC’s strategic plan that was referred to in Parliament two years ago as being in existence by the prime minister as well as the report of a consultant (Professor Steven Ratuva) hired to look at reviewing the Master Award.

Mr Gucake’s revelation of government’s underhand manner of adopting the recommendations of former FSC executives, confirms why Government doesn’t want bipartisanship in collectively overcoming challenges facing the industry so that it remains vibrant.

Decline in production

When Voreqe Bainimarama became Prime Minister and named his military cabinet and on January 16, 2007, Decree Number 1 was promulgated to terminate the chief executive of the Sugar Cane Growers Council Jagannath Sami.

Decree Number 1 of 2007 stated Mr Sami was being terminated because of the “moribund state” of the sugar cane industry and because of mismanagement of the said industry.

This decree was promulgated after the High Court granted Mr Sami a Stay Order following his removal.

I believe the decree’s intent was to portray that the dismissal was legal.

And what of the reason given — “… moribund state of the industry and mismanagement”.

Moribund means the industry was regarded at the point of death, in terminal decline, lacking vitality and vision. An industry that produced 3.22 million tonnes in 2006 and 310,000 tonnes of sugar, and on the verge of benefiting from $350 million grant from the European Union for the next seven years, was described to be at the point of death.

And within a year what was considered moribund started a death dive — in 2007 cane production declined by over 750,000 tonnes and sugar production declined by 73,000 tonnes.

This free fall towards death has continued and last week NFP leader Professor Biman Prasad pointed out statistics prove sugarcane production declined by a massive 1.84 million tonnes or 57.14 per cent in 2016 from 2006.

Sugar production (despite improvement in TCTS) declined by 170,638 tonnes or 55.02 per cent in 2016 from 2006. And the number of active cane growers decreased by 5764 in the past 10 years.

Now the revelation by the former director of sugar that former FSC executives recommended the termination of appointments of the elected Growers Council almost two years after Mr Sami’s termination confirms the intention of totally suppressing the rights of growers.

And all this was done under the pretext of reforming the industry — and statistics show that the so called reforms did not restore the industry’s vitality, but has genuinely made it moribund.

Exorcising the ghosts

It is time to exorcise or drive out the ghosts of what transpired in the sugar industry since the military coup of December 2006.

Those responsible for the decimation of the sugar industry, starting from the events of January 2007, must be bold enough to admit that they tinkered with the industry and politicised it like never before through appointments based on nepotism and cronyism, and implementation of ill-conceived policies.

In this regard the PS for Sugar is more honest and truthful of what actually transpired in the industry and the FSC and that problems facing the industry can only be resolved by working together.

The following questions need to be answered truthfully:

* who held the portfolio of the minister for sugar in the military government when Jagannath Sami was terminated as Growers Council CEO?;

* who replaced those holding legitimate positions in the industry and the Growers Council before the coup?;

* who twice recommended to the military cabinet that Growers Council elections originally scheduled for April 2007 be deferred because elections would be an impediment to reforms?;

* who stated that if the European Union refused to give $350 million as grant to the sugar industry because of the coup, the military cabinet would look for money elsewhere?;

* who ordered the deduction of $1.98 per tonne of cane or a total of almost $4.6m from cane growers’ share of income to be pumped into the cash strapped South Pacific Fertilizer Ltd?;

* under whose watch in December 2008 former FSC executives recommended the dissolution of the Growers Council?; and

* who implemented the recommendation of the former FSC executives to terminate the elected councillors and dissolve the SCGC in 2009?

This is just the beginning of what could be an endless list of committal of acts and implementation of policies that has led to the decimation of the sugar industry. Let the truth telling begin.

* Bala Dass is the general secretary of both the Fiji Cane Growers Association and the National Federation Party. 

http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=392333

 

How Government is destroying the sugar industry

Sugar sector analysis: Caught up in cobwebs

Professor Biman Prasad

The Fiji Times, Saturday March 4, 2017

ON February 10, 2017, the FijiFirst Government trampled upon a National Federation Party motion in Parliament calling for the establishment of a bipartisan parliamentary select committee on sugar to collectively overcome challenges facing an ailing industry so that it remains a vibrant industry in future.

The ramifications of what transpired in Parliament that day as well as the rhetoric and logic used by Government in rejecting outright a motion that would have been a sound and sensible way forward to resuscitating an industry that is already staggering towards its demise, will be felt throughout our cane belts.

Government accused Opposition politicians of being responsible for the industry’s demise describing them as spiders weaving cobwebs. Government members of Parliament also claimed their leader Voreqe Bainimarama was a saviour for growers in the past 10 years (after the December 2006 coup).

“Madam Speaker, when we want to get rid of the cobwebs, we have to get rid of the spider.

“Unfortunately for the sugar industry for a long time, we were just trying to dust off the cobwebs but the spider was well alive and active and doing all the damage that it was doing.

“Madam Speaker, Government got rid of the spider so that we can get rid of the cobwebs… To me, this bipartisan approach is what I call crocodile tears.” — Inia Seruiratu, Minister for Agriculture, Rural and Maritime Development and National Disaster Management — Parliamentary Hansard, February 10, 2017.

Undoubtedly Mr Seruiratu, like his FijiFirst colleagues who spoke and opposed the motion for the establishment of a parliamentary bipartisan select committee on sugar that was moved by National Federation Party’s parliamentary whip Prem Singh in Parliament on February 10, 2017, was rubbishing the motion that was eventually and not surprisingly defeated by Government.

The basis of FijiFirst Government’s rejection of Mr Singh’s motion was that the industry had been heavily politicised before Voreqe Bainimarama’s military coup of December 5, 2006 removed politicians and politics from the sugar industry.

All FijiFirst MPs who spoke against the motion adopted the same theme — Prime Minister Bainimarama has been the saviour of the industry and canegrowers for the past 10 years and therefore there was no need for the establishment of a bipartisan select committee on sugar.

Simply, FijiFirst did not want any politician from the Opposition to have a say in determining the future of the industry and canegrowers. So what is the record of the Bainimarama-led governments of the past 10 years and who actually has been the spider weaving cobwebs?

Myopic view and painful reality

The truth is that the views of the FijiFirst MPs were myopic. In truth, statistics of the industry’s performance in the past 10 years (that necessitated Mr Singh’s motion), prove that the spider that weaved and got entangled in the cobwebs was the interim/military and FijiFirst governments headed by Mr Bainimarama.

This is the indisputable truth and the painful reality that FijiFirst MPs must accept.

The statistics speak for themselves. Statistics prove that sugarcane production declined by a massive 1.84 million tonnes or 57.14 per cent in 2016 from 2006. Sugar production (despite improvement in TCTS) declined by 170,638 tonnes or 55.02 per cent in 2016 from 2006.

The number of active canegrowers decreased by 5764 in the past 10 years. FijiFirst is claiming that a vast majority of sugarcane land leases have been renewed.

If this is so, then why are canegrowers exiting the industry in droves?

FijiFirst is either deliberately avoiding addressing this issue or is simply clueless as to why this is happening.

But FijiFirst thinks that plummeting the sugar industry and the livelihood of canegrowers to record low levels is good riddance of influence of politicians and a sure sign that the industry is vibrant! This goes beyond the pale.

Mr Prem Singh rightly stated while moving his motion that, “in the last 10 years there has been no politics in the sugar industry. So this Government and the Honourable Prime Minister cannot blame the politicians but the blame lies squarely with his Government. This Government, led by the Honourable Prime Minister both in his capacity as military commander and elected PM, has been the judge, jury and executioner as far as the industry is concerned because they have total control of the industry.

“Madam Speaker, the industry’s best hope of recovery 10 years ago was derailed by the December 2006 coup. The military government deliberately sacrificed the injection of a $350 million grant to the industry by the European Union.

“Had this materialised, Fiji from 2011 onwards would have been producing a minimum of 4 million tonnes of cane and 400,000 tonnes of sugar, using more efficient methods than we are using now.

“Sugar is a ‘lifeblood’ industry. It is far too important for it to be allowed to die.

“But this government, both as a military regime and now as the FijiFirst administration, instead of providing both theoretical and practical solutions, has been adopting a firefighting approach, which in reality just like most fires witnessed in the country in the last two years has destroyed the properties it was supposed to protect.

“So again Madam Speaker, it is clear where the fault lies. Not with the politicians, but squarely with this Government, which has politicised the industry like never before. People who cannot tell the root of a cane plant from its top are tasked with making decisions to the detriment of the growers and the industry as a whole.”

Exodus of growers

Despite FijiFirst Government allocating millions of dollars so far for cane planting, production declined steadily and the exodus of growers continued. This is not likely to change.

And this factor, together with questionable management practices in Fiji Sugar Corporation under the leadership of Bainimarama in the past 10 years until recently has led to FSC being technically insolvent and unable to even advance a special payment of $2 per tonne of cane to growers at the beginning of this year.

I believe the problem is that this Government has miserably failed to instil confidence in growers or implement concrete solutions to boost their income on the face of rising cost of production, harvesting and delivery of cane to the mills.

The cost of producing, harvesting and delivery of one tonne of cane averaging $45-$50 and if the price averages $75 per tonne, some 9000 growers who produce less than the average 150 tonnes of cane earn a nett income of $4500 in a season.

This is $11,500 below the tax threshold of $16,000. That is why growers are in debt in perpetuity.

This low income declined even further last year — 9000 growers producing an average of 150 tonnes would have received $4029 as nett income for the 2015 season minus the average cost of production of $45 per tonne of cane.

This is almost $1400 less than the paltry $5428.80 earned annually by a worker on the meagre minimum wage rate of $2.32 an hour.

The need for bipartisanship

That is why Mr Prem Singh told Parliament on February 10 that with the abolition of European Union sugar production quotas on September 30, 2017, our industry will be doomed unless cane production is significantly boosted.

He rightly stated that Government must realise its reforms are unworkable and furthermore, its plans and reforms for the industry has been an exercise in futility, driving growers out of canefarming and making the FSC technically insolvent because the four mills do not crush sufficient cane to remain profitable.

“It is still not too late for this Government to reconsider our proposal that was flatly rejected last year.

“A kind and caring government, which FijiFirst professes to be, will gladly embrace any realistic and constructive solution proposed by anyone, even the Opposition, to fix problems that it has failed to resolve for 10 years.

“Despite bitter acrimonious debates, bipartisanship worked well in the past. We can do the same Madam Speaker — 200,000 people are looking at us for solutions. We cannot and must not wait any longer.

“A joint parliamentary select committee involving bipartisanship is the only way forward,” Mr Singh said while commending his motion to Parliament.

A joke

The attitude of FijiFirst towards a motion to save an industry that had been the economic mainstay of this nation for more than 100 years until the turn of the century is best illustrated by the contribution to the debate by PM Bainimarama, who is also the Minister for Sugar.

He described bipartisanship as “getting together of two parties”. And the PM said in the spirit of Valentine’s Day (which was four days later on February 14), NFP and SODELA should get together.

The laughter from FijiFirst MPs in response to their leader’s comments confirm the low opinion they have of canegrowers.

Here was a motion seeking co-operation and collective effort to overcome the challenges facing an industry that directly and indirectly impacts the lives of about 200,000 people of our nation.

Parliamentary Hansard will prove that SODELPA was genuinely concerned about the plight of growers and fully supported the motion by both through their contribution to the debate and as well as voting for the motion.

Not the FijiFirst, especially MPs who profess to be representatives of growers, hail from the cane belt or are average growers themselves, as proven by their cane production statistics that we have obtained.

But they too chose to be entangled in the cobwebs and weave half-truths from scripted notes provided to them, as has been the case since resumption of parliamentary democracy in October 2014.

Half-truths

PM Bainimarama, deliberately or otherwise even erroneously stated that former NFP president, Roko Tupou Draunidalo, boycotted the visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi (on November 19, 2014).

He was replying to Mr Prem Singh who had quoted Roko Draunidalo’s contribution to a debate on changes to the Sugar Cane Growers Council (Amendment) Bill on August 25, 2015 in Parliament, highlighting the positive role former NFP leaders and the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara played in making the industry the engine room for our nation’s growth and prosperity. Correspondence and the Secretary-General to Parliament will prove beyond any doubt that Roko Draunidalo conveyed her apologies because she was travelling to Wellington, New Zealand, to speak at Victoria University.

Her apology was conveyed to the Business Committee of which the PM is a member.

To distort facts and especially try and denigrate a person who is not in Parliament to defend him or herself is most unbecoming and unparliamentary of any MP, worse still if it happens to be the Prime Minister.

Misleading answer

That the PM in his own words was being economical with the truth, stated on February 6 when he was questioned by Mr Prem Singh as to why he did not authorise a special payment to growers in January.

The PM replied he wasn’t requested by anyone to do so.

We ask him to deny whether or not:

* the Sugar Cane Growers Council made a request on behalf of growers for a special payment to enable growers to meet the school needs of their children on January 6, 2017?

* the FSC declared its inability to make a special payment because of the lack of funds?;

* the PM’s representative met with industry stakeholders and conveyed his (PM’s) refusal to authorise a special payment?; and

* the publication of news reports by the daily newspapers The Fiji Times and The Fiji Sun declaring FSC’s inability to make the payment during meetings with growers in Ra and Tavua in the presence of the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Sugar?

Bipartisanship

Bipartisanship means co-operation between two sides of Parliament — Government and the Opposition — not two parties.

Our history since independence is full of examples of bipartisanship when it came to upholding national interest.

And the success of the sugar industry in overcoming challenges, until the 2006 coup, has been a shining example of bipartisanship despite bitter and acrimonious debates across the political divide.

Sadly however, the only example of bipartisanship or extension of a hand of co-operation from Government came on September 29 to increase allowances or parliamentary emoluments.

PM Bainimarama’s definition of bipartisanship as being co-operation between two parties maybe arises from the voting trend on September 29, 2016, when he led his party to vote for hefty increases to parliamentary emoluments and allowances. And in the PM’s case, a 300 per cent increase.

Only the NFP opposed and voted against and refused to accept the increase because we were not going to be part of MPs who voted for an increase for themselves.

But when it came to national interest, to try and resuscitate an industry that shaped and grew our nation from its infancy, bipartisanship was meaningless for FijiFirst Government.

But then maybe, climate change affected PM Bainimarama and FijiFirst’s definition of bipartisanship from personal interest to national interest, forcing it to be entangled in cobwebs and therefore clouding its vision of national interest.

http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=391423

Staggering Industry – Opinion by NFP Leader

Staggering’ industry

Professor Biman Prasad: The Fiji Times. Monday, November 28, 2016

“MR Deputy Speaker, one of the most remarkable stories of the last few years is the remarkable turnaround of the FSC, Fiji Sugar Corporation. Government funding to the FSC in 2011 and 2012 allowed the organisation to reduce its accumulated loss from $175 million in 2010 to $36.5m in 2011 to finally recording a profit in 2012. The FSC is now able to stand on is own two feet. Government does not need to provide it any direct funding since 2013.” — Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar Voreqe Bainimarama’s Ministerial Statement on sugar in Parliament on February 11, 2015 (Parliamentary Hansard).

Government’s devious plan

It is apparent Government’s last throw of the dice at rescuing FSC are Reform of the Sugarcane Industry Bill and Sugar Cane Growers Fund (Amendment) Bill.

The Reform Bill should be renamed subjugation of canegrowers Bill. Because this is precisely what the Bill intends to do if enacted.

Under it, the Master Award can be changed without the input of legitimate representatives of growers. Instead, those appointed to the SCGC board by Government from the three cane producers associations, two divisional commissioners, an official of the Sugar Ministry and the latest proposal to have a representative from each of the eight canegrowing districts will be consulted.

Since all are government appointees, little if any resistance is expected from them on proposed changes to the award in respect of the current formula of 70/30 in favour of growers in terms of sharing of proceeds from the sale of sugar.

All growers and their legitimate representatives have opposed the Bills.

They have conveyed this message in no uncertain terms to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Economic Affairs which is expected to report to Parliament next February.

If Government thinks making lukewarm changes to the Bill, which it proposed during its July roadshow after witnessing the vociferous opposition to the Bills, and bring growers directly under the control of Government and the FSC, converting its $173m loan into equity, or reducing growers’ share of proceeds, will result in profitability of the corporation, it is sadly mistaken.

Without instilling confidence in growers to achieve the minimum desirable target of 3.5 million tonnes of sugarcane annually and production of 350,000 tonnes of sugar, there is no way the FSC can remain a viable organisation. In other words, without canegrowers and canefarming, there is no sugar industry and no FSC.

Growers losing confidence

The total payment for the 2015 season received by growers will even erode faster the diminishing confidence of growers in terms of making a concerted effort to boost cane production on the face of rising cost of production, harvesting and delivery of cane.

The total payment for 2015 season cane was only $71.86 per tonne inclusive of the $1.38 per tonne top up to the final cane payment of 72 cents to make it $2.10 per tonne. And without this top up, the payment would have been $70.48.

More than 70 per cent of canegrowers numbering over 9000 received $4029 as net income for the 2015 season minus the average cost of production of $45 per tonne. This is almost $1400 less than $5428.80 earned annually by a worker even on the meagre minimum wage of $2.32 per hour.

The FijiFirst Government, FSC and other stakeholders in the industry who are controlled by Government have hoodwinked growers by claiming the total payment is much higher and around $76.66, have included the special payment of $4.80 in their claim.

It must be pointed out the total payment included two special payments totaling $4.80.

The first special payment of $2.80 was made on November 9, 2015 while the second special payment of $2 was made on January 15, 2016. These special payments do not and should not form part of the total payout because canegrowers have repaid $3.80 of the total amount of $4.80 with the remaining $1 to be deducted next year. This was confirmed by the PM and Minister for Sugar in a written answer to my parliamentary question (71/2016).

Canegrowers have already paid this amount in two deductions of $1.40 from the second payment in December 2015 and $2.40 from the fourth payment in May.

Performance should be scrutinised

The total payment for 2015 to growers was $9.14 less than $81 per tonne growers received for the 2014 season.

This raises the question of how effective the former executive chairman was in terms of marketing our sugar because he was solely responsible for this important task that previously was an industry effort inclusive of growers as the most important stakeholders.

Mr Khan (FSC’s Abdul Khan) was allowed to relinquish his position immediately in October, with several questions remaining unanswered about both his and the FSC’s performance and the corporation’s lack of direction during his tenure is unacceptable and against good governance in a organisation in which taxpayers have a stake through majority ownership by Government. This is clear from FSC’s 2015 annual report.

The performance of FSC’s mills, questionable projects and the one-man handling of both FSC and marketing of sugar cannot be tolerated by canegrowers any longer. The industry has now lost every fibre of transparency and accountability. This has now become intolerable. The annual report shows FSC is technically insolvent and is wholly dependent on borrowing worth $359m, guaranteed by Government and taxpayers of Fiji.

In Mr Khan, FSC had a CEO who as executive chairman did not hold the corporation’s AGM for four years until May last year. He was a board member from October 2009 until December 31, 2010. From January 1, 2011 he was FSC’s executive chairman enjoying a hefty salary, perks and privileges while FSC’s debt continued to rise astronomically.

There have been many allegations labelled against Mr Khan especially about his salary, perks and privileges. Appointments have been allegedly not based on merit. The procurement of mill equipment from India is also highly questionable because it is extremely necessary to establish whether tenders were called by FSC.

It is also very important to establish the amounts and types of equipment procured and whether all of it was solely used in the mills. And if not where is the remaining stock of the equipment?

Any shareholder in a company should be concerned, especially if it happens to be the Government, which is the largest shareholder and has pumped in several millions of dollars of taxpayer funds in loans and guarantees into FSC. FSC’s 2015 annual report states Government has lent $173m.

When announcing Mr Khan’s appointment as FSC chairman, the PM and Minister for Sugar credited him for improvements to the industry.

But once again, this Government demonstrated the appointment was to try and save the technically insolvent FSC at the expense of writing off its government loans and subjugating cane growers through the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund (Amendment) Bills, which have been totally rejected by growers.

Furthermore, his recent CEO appointment was seemingly part of FSC’s strategic plan that has never been revealed to the canegrowers who are the largest and the most important stakeholders in the industry.

That is why we reiterate Mr Khan should not have been allowed to quit FSC without an independent investigation. Relinquishing his position immediately with several questions remaining unanswered about both his and the FSC’s performance and the corporation’s lack of direction during his term was unacceptable and against good governance in a organisation in which taxpayers have a stake through majority ownership by Government.

While we acknowledge the Office of the Prime Minister’s announcement to investigate Mr Khan, we still firmly believe that for the sake of accountability, transparency and good governance, we call upon the chairman of FSC to appoint an independent investigation comprising personnel who are experts in financial and forensic accounting and audit to extensively scrutinise all aspects of FSC’s operations and management practices in the past five years.

* Professor Biman Prasad is the leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed here are his own and not of this newspaper.

Staggering Industry – Opinion by NFP Leader

Staggering industry

Professor Biman Prasad : The Fiji Times, Saturday November 26, 2016

“MR Deputy Speaker, one of the most remarkable stories of the last few years is the remarkable turnaround of the FSC, Fiji Sugar Corporation. Government funding to the FSC in 2011 and 2012 allowed the organisation to reduce its accumulated loss from $175 million in 2010 to $36.5m in 2011 to finally recording a profit in 2012. The FSC is now able to stand on its own two feet. Government does not need to provide it any direct funding since 2013.” — Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar Voreqe Bainimarama’s ministerial statement on sugar in Parliament on February 11, 2015 (Parliamentary Hansard).

Picture of optimism

This was the picture of optimism painted by the PM in Parliament. He also attacked National Federation Party parliamentarian Prem Singh for “misleading the nation in quoting wrong statistics about the sugar industry in an effort to paint a bleak picture of the industry”.

And his ministerial statement was basically a response to what Mr Singh had raised in both his maiden speech and reply to the 2015 Budget in Parliament in October and December 2014 respectively.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The legitimate question that arises is this: Is the remarkable turnaround of FSC that the PM referred to on February 11, 2015, the disastrous financial performance of the corporation, which having recorded so-called $6.9m profit in 2014 made a staggering $31.7m loss in 2015 financial year?

Not to be outdone, the Attorney-General and then Minister for Finance Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, while announcing that FSC would top up the fourth cane payment for 2014 season by nearly $8, said in The Fiji Sun newspaper of May 27, 2015 under the headline “Big Cane Cash”; “We are able to do this only because of the tremendous performance of the FSC under its present management especially its executive chairman Abdul Khan. We have taken politics out of the industry and given the FSC the guidance and support it needs to properly manage the industry.”

He continued: “We have Opposition figures like NFP leader Biman Prasad, hell-bent on politicising the industry and trying to impose structures that are irrelevant to the needs of farmers who can see for themselves very clearly who best serves their interests. Instead of the grandstanding by the Opposition, the FijiFirst Government is delivering real outcomes for farmers and their families.”

FSC’s financial performance, which is nothing short of scandalous, paints an entirely different picture.

Government as the largest shareholder is equally responsible for this disastrous result. Both the PM and the A-G and Minister for Economy have misled Parliament and the nation respectively by claiming FSC and Mr Khan were doing a remarkable job and the Opposition was trying to politicise the industry.

Their statements were diabolical on the face of what was actually transpiring in FSC under the leadership of Mr Khan as well as ministerial responsibility and control of the PM in his capacity as Sugar Minister.

If the PM and A-G can claim credit for any good that happens, in this case FSC’s profit in 2014, then they must also, under doctrine of ministerial responsibility, take the responsibility for their abysmal failure in monitoring the performance of FSC under Mr Khan which resulted it plummeting from a so-called profitable organisation to a colossal financial disaster. This is unprecedented.

Direction change

I believe it has become clear that the FijiFirst Government is clueless about reviving the sugar industry which is staggering towards death. This is inevitable unless Government immediately changes directions and bites the bullet — or simply swallow the bitter pill that it simply cannot enforce its reforms arbitrarily without the participation, input and consent of all stakeholders of an industry that had been the lifeblood of Fiji’s economy for more than a 100 years until more than a decade ago and still, directly and indirectly supports the livelihood of about 200,000 people.

This has been reiterated by the PM, but his Government for the past 10 years, both as a military regime and the FijiFirst Government has miserably failed to resuscitate the industry. The statistics for the past 10 years are crystal clear. Government has time and time again rejected our calls for bipartisanship and the formation of a Special Parliamentary Select Committee on Sugar to jointly search for solutions.

Instead, it was quick to approve the formation of an Emoluments Committee, which on September 29 recommended huge increases to allowances of the Prime Minister (by 300 per cent), Cabinet Ministers, Speaker and members of Parliament. Only the two NFP MPs voted against it and have refused to accept the increased allowances.

The question that arises is which was more important — voting to increase one’s own allowances or agreeing to our proposals on how to rescue the sugar industry?

Again on the contrary on September 30 in Parliament, while giving his right of reply to His Excellency’s address, the PM twice stated that my knowledge about the industry could fit his little pocket and gestured to his trouser pocket. Such petty remarks and gestures are an example of “Emperor Nero fiddling when Rome was burning”.

We have time and again pointed to both Government and the people of Fiji the depressing state of the sugar industry.

In summary, cane production has declined by a massive 44 per cent since the military coup. Sugar production has declined by 30 per cent. These percentages will undoubtedly increase given the battering the industry received from Severe TC Winston this year, particularly Western Viti Levu.

Worse still the number of active canegrowers has declined by 5674 by from 18,636 to 12,872 since the 2006 coup. Both the Bainimarama-led military and FijiFirst governments tinkered with sugar industry structures, removing experienced personnel and replacing them with regime lackeys. So much so the legitimate organisation of the canegrowers, the Sugar Cane Growers Council (SCGC) was dissolved and with it the last vestiges of democracy in the industry disappeared.

The dissolution of the SCGC is predominantly responsible for the erosion of confidence among growers.

* Continuation on Monday — Part II: Growers loss of confidence and scrutinising performance.

* Professor Biman Prasad is the leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed here are his own and not of this newspaper.

29 September 2016: NFP Leader, Prof Hon Biman Prasad rejects the Emoluments Motion in the house

NFP Leader, Prof Hon Biman Prasad rejects the Emoluments Motion in the house today and has stated that he and Hon Prem Singh will NOT take the increases even if it is agreed to by majority.

Contribution on the Emoluments Motion by NFP Leader, Hon Prof Biman Prasad, 29 September 2016 (Please check against delivery and/or hansard)

Madam Speaker – 

At the outset let me say that we oppose this Motion.

Firstly, allow me to give a background of what has transpired in this Parliament since 6th July 2015. 

That is the day last year when the Leader of Government Business in Parliament moved the following Motion, which was passed. And it was to this effect Madam Speaker: –

“That in accordance with Standing Order 129, and in line with the provisions outlined in the Parliamentary Remunerations Decree 2014, that Parliament establishes an Emoluments Committee to investigate into and report upon the determination of remunerations for the President, Prime Minister, other Ministers and Assistant Ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and Members of Parliament. 

The Emoluments Committee shall – 
(a) Commission an independent organisation to consider the appropriate level of remunerations for the President, Prime Minister, other Ministers and Assistant Ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and Members of Parliament; 
(b) Review the independent considerations and report back to Parliament with recommendations no later than Monday, 24 August 2015.

The membership of the Emoluments Committee shall be –– 
(a) Hon. Jone Usamate;
(b) Hon. Veena Bhatnagar;
(c) Hon. Sanjit Patel;
(d) Hon. Roko Tupou Draunidalo; and 
(e) Hon. Salote Radrodro.” 

There was a recommendation that the Committee be given more time until February 2016. But what happened to the work, if any, carried out by the Committee is unclear, except that it could not engage an independent organisation to review Emoluments of all Members of Parliament including office holders, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, the Speaker and the President.

Following the Business Committee meting of 21st August 2015, both the Honourable Leader of the Opposition and I had jointly written to your office Madam Speaker, reiterating the need for the Committee to engage independent organisations or consultants to review emoluments. 

Now Madam Speaker without us fully knowing what work if any that Committee did, another Emoluments Committee was established on 8th July 2016, comprising of Whips of all three parties and two other Members. 

We were surprised that contrary to the principles of transparency, the terms of reference especially relating to the commissioning of an independent organisation was ignored this time around. 

National Federation Party’s Parliamentary Whip, Honourable Prem Singh, who was appointed a member of the Committee on 8th July, wrote to the Committee Chairman on 11th August 2016, and thereafter did not attend any meetings of the Committee. 

I will quote in full what Honourable Singh stated in his submission: –

“We submit that it is morally and ethically wrong for parliament to prescribe its emoluments. Indeed the prescription of salaries and allowances for all Members of Parliament inclusive of His Excellency the President, Honourable Speaker, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Assistant Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition, was not done in a transparent manner.”

These were prescribed through the Parliamentary Remunerations Decree 2014 (Decree No, 29), promulgated by way of an extraordinary gazette on Friday 3rd October 2014. The current Fiji First Government promulgated this Decree, almost two weeks after it was sworn in as a democratically elected government following the 17th September 2014 general elections. 

Simply put, the current Fiji First Government prescribed emoluments for itself and determined salaries of all others stated in the Decree. This is totally against accountability and transparency. 

Historically, every parliament in Fiji appointed an independent Emoluments Committee to determine salaries, perks and privileges of Parliamentarians. The last such Emoluments Committee was in 2003. 

As legislators in the highest court of the land, we need to practice what we preach, more so when the Code of Conduct Bill is being scrutinised before being enacted.

We strongly believe that the Emoluments Committee should recommend for the establishment of an independent Emoluments Committee which then can independently and with impartiality recommend appropriate salaries, perks and privileges for all Members of Parliament including His Excellency the President, Honourable Speaker, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Assistant Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition. 

The Report of the independent Emoluments Committee will be an act of transparency and necessitate the repeal of the Parliamentary Remunerations Decree 2014 that was enforced by this Government.” – Unquote

Madam Speaker, given that the Parliamentary Remunerations Decree was promulgated after the Fiji First Government was elected, it is only ethical and transparent that an independent Emoluments Committee be appointed to review the Decree. It is inexcusable to say that nobody independent was willing to take up this task. This is simply a ridiculous reason. 

There is no doubt that huge disparities exist in emoluments when compared to the level and rate of salaries, perks and privileges of the last Parliament. This is due to huge increase in salaries of Cabinet Office holders. 

For example in the last 10 years the salaries of our civil servants have not been fairly adjusted. In comparison Madam Speaker, the Prime Minister’s base salary in 2006 was $106,000. Since October 2014, it is $328,750. The base salary has increased by a massive 210% through the Decree. Our civil servants, teachers, doctors, cane growers and those earning 2.32 an hour are on modest or below poverty level income. This is adding salting to their injury.

We have seen in the last few years persons in statutory organisations being convicted and imprisoned for approving monetary benefits for themselves or organisations they have interest in. And they were convicted of abuse of office. 

We will be seen to be doing the same if we as Honourable Members Parliament approve this Motion.

Madam Speaker, another issue is in the Decree itself. Any determination made by Parliament will mean amendment to the Decree. I have been told it can be done outside the scope of Decree but I remain unconvinced. 

Section 9 of the Decree states that the Secretary-General to Parliament must publish the report in the Gazette within 14 days of it being tabled here. The Secretary General has to ensure the Report is publicly available 15 days after it is Gazetted. 

We are obviously doing things in reverse. We are being asked to approve the Report that would mean increase in emoluments and then one month later our citizens can have full access to the Report. This is ridiculous. 

Madam Speaker, I cannot emphasise more for the need to have an Emoluments Committee or independent organization to consider appropriate levels of remuneration and allowances. 

The independent organization or persons of repute who have are either former Members of Parliament or prominent citizens will do justice to the task on hand but also do it transparently with members of the public invited to make submissions. 

The last Independent Commission was in 2003 resulting in parliamentary emoluments report of 2003. That was 13 years ago. We must revert to the terms of reference of the Motion of 6th July last year for the sake of transparency. 

I have been told that Government wants consensus on this Motion. We have right from day one of this Parliament and in the public through the media as well, called for consensus and bipartisanship in finding solutions to our social and economic issues, as well as amending or repealing draconian decrees that make the Constitutional provisions subservient. 

We even pleaded for consensus and compromise when Government through the Privileges Committee brought Motions to the floor of Parliament to suspend Honourable Ratu Naiqama Laabalavu and Honourable Roko Tupou Draunidalo respectively for two years – contrary to the values and principles of Inter Parliamentary Union of which Fiji is a Member. 

But sadly Madam Speaker, our pleas were ignored and Government used its majority to pass the Motions. We were basically swept aside. 

But now our consensus and agreement is needed for something that is most un-transparent and unethical for the reasons I have stated. 

Yes Madam Speaker, we do need sufficient resources that are commensurate with our work. And this is primarily our service to our members or constituents. We are unable to do justice to them because despite there being a single national constituency, we do not receive constituency allowances to able to serve and meet them. 

And worse still, we are severely handicapped by lack of parliamentary office resourcing. Our repeated requests for sufficient resourcing to be able to pay decent salaries to our staff and equip our office sufficiently have fallen on deaf ears. We do not even have an office in Parliament except a cubicle in the Opposition Chambers. 

We are operating out of our own office and all expenses are funded by us because the $45,000 annually is similar having an impoverished party office. The formula adopted in January 2015 by the Secretary General was upon a directive by the Attorney General through a letter, which has been ruled to be confidential in nature and therefore our questions for parliament to reveal its contents were refused under the Standing Orders. 

Madam Speaker, we cannot support the Motion before Parliament as it is against the principles of transparency and accountability – and more seriously it undermines the original intent of the Motion of 6th July 2015 when Members of Parliament recommend increases to their own parliamentary allowances. 

And let me state this clearly Madam Speaker, both Honourable Singh and I will not accept any increases in emoluments even if they are approved by Parliament. We will inform both you Madam Speaker and Secretary-General Accordingly. 

The NFP opposes the Motion in accordance with the decision of the Party that has been endorsed by the NFP Management Board, for the reasons I have stated.

Fiji Times Opinion: Another view of the sugar industry by NFP Leader, Hon Prof Biman Prasad

FT feature - another view of the sugar industry

 

THE prime minister’s so-called roadshow — better called a political circus — led him through the eight cane growing districts on Viti Levu and Vanua Levu last week talking about his so-called sugar industry reforms.

As in most circuses, the PM produced some magic tricks, promising to immediately fix a road here or a water supply there.

Alas, the PM’s audience will soon find that, like most magic tricks, they look good for a short time before they fizzle out.

His court jesters carried breathless headlines like “Farmers Sing Praises of PM” and “PM’s sugar visit a huge success”.

What is most amazing is that they reported there weren’t any problems at all.

It is nice to be able to hear about a problem, get on your mobile phone and order civil servants around. But this is like ordering a nurse to bring a Panadol to a heart patient. These circus tricks may win the FijiFirst party some votes in the 2018 election but they do not solve the deep structural problems of the sugar industry.

A few more farmers may vote for the Government but in a few years’ time their children will leave the land. By then they would have realised that the sugar industry promises nothing for them.

The reality is that without a decent sized cane crop averaging 3.5 million tonnes a year and producing a minimum of 350,000 tonnes of sugar even at a modest TCTS of 10 (tonnes of cane required to make one tonne of sugar), the mainstay of our economy for more than a 100 years until the turn of the century will suffer a painful death.

This will not just see the end of the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) — already technically insolvent — but more tragically cause a major economic upheaval and lead to social decay and destroy the livelihood of the tens of thousands of people directly or indirectly dependent on the industry.

Not a word was said by either the PM or the AG on what plans they had to boost cane production and rejuvenate the confidence of our growers.

And of serious concern is the fact this roadshow usurped the role and work of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economic Affairs tasked to scrutinise Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund (Amendment) Bills. The Bills are still before the committee, which has two rounds of public consultations and is yet to deliberate and finalise its report.

Apart from usurping the role of the committee, Government is also pre-empting the recommendations of the committee. If the FijiFirst party wanted to make submissions on what it wanted, it should have made submissions on the Bills to the committee instead of spending taxpayers’ money on a prime ministerial circus jaunt. Once again the parliamentary process has been undermined.

Who is to blame?

The PM accused the Opposition of spreading lies and misinformation amonge growers on the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund (Amendment) Bills.

His principal target was me, as the leader of the National Federation Party, and honourable Prem Singh. What can he blame us for? The NFP has never held political power. It has not made any decisions about how the sugar industry is to be managed.

Who, for the past 10 years, has been making those decisions? It is Mr Bainimarama himself. In fact, one of his first acts in December 2006 was to sack Jagannath Sami, the then chief executive of the Sugar Cane Growers’ Council (SCGC). This was apparently to improve the sugar industry. But for the next 10 years, he did nothing.

The industry statistics are published in the table below. They are not all bad.

In some years production is up and for some production is low. There is a general improvement in the TCTS ratio (which is good) in the last two years. Cane production is improved for 2014 and 2015 (but it will collapse again in 2016 because of the effects of weather).

However, there is no question that in the past 10 years, all the production indicators have fallen badly. We now produce 220,000 tonnes of sugar in 2016, down from 310,000 in 2006 — 30 per cent less. We are growing 1.8m tonnes of cane in 2016, down from 3.2m 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 the only party that is 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.

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 circus 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. The 1984 sugar industry reforms were designed to ensure farmers had a say in how their industry was run.

Why was this? Because those who framed these reforms recognised that if farmers do not have a say in their own industry, they will not stay in it.

When one looks at the so-called reform laws, there are very few things in the new laws that are different from the old laws. Many of the inefficient things in the old laws are left unchanged. The key differences are:

* Minority shareholders in the FSC have had their shares confiscated from them;

* Increased fines and jail sentences are imposed for breaching the laws (the only draconian provision that Government has indicated it wants removed);

* The right of farmers to elect their own representatives to the SCGC is removed; and

* The Master Award can be changed any time the Government feels like it.

It is a mystery why this Government, which forever talks about “true democracy”, is denying farmers a democratic voice.

The easy answer to this question is for the Government to say “we must take politics out of the sugar industry”. But at least if farmers elect their representatives, all farmer viewpoints are heard.

Now, the only farmers’ representatives will be yes-men from one political party. The politics will still be in the industry — just one party’s politics!

$85m bungle

The PM claimed the SDL Government he deposed bungled the $85m loan from Exim Bank of India.

He said this resulted in more than 50 per cent of it being wasted and 50 per cent of it being used in failed upgrading works.

The truth is PM Laisenia Qarase negotiated the loan in 2005 during his State visit to India. But by the end of 2006 he was no longer PM. Almost all of the money was spent by FSC under the stewardship of the PM’s military regime. FSC’s annual reports clearly show this.

In FSC’s 2007 annual report the then chairman, Bhoo Gautam (appointed in February 2007 two months after the coup), said $28m worth of equipment was acquired for the mill upgrading project. He said: “The project will be implemented over the next two years”

The next two years were 2008 and 2009 when Mr Bainimarama was the PM. Two years later, FSC reported the project had to be accelerated so it could be completed by April 2010. So the bulk of the $85m bungle happened on Mr Bainimarama’s watch. He was the head of Government as well as Sugar Minister.

Both The Fiji Times and the Fiji Sun reported in May and July 2012 respectively that Mr Bainimarama wanted the Indian Government to write off the loan or convert it into a grant because the mill upgrading project was unsatisfactory and increased inefficiencies.

This is a similar story to the construction of the Public Rental Board flats in Rawaiqa, Suva, by Chinese contractors. The funds were sourced from Chinese Government. The cost of the project ballooned, incredibly, from $9m to $22m — again when Mr Bainimarama ruled.

The only politicians Mr Bainimarama can blame for these bungles are himself and his party members.

SCGC and Master Award

The PM is not doing any favour to growers by increasing the size of his appointed council to include one representative from each of the eight cane growing districts. They will not be elected but also appointed. This is making the SCGC a toothless tiger.

Currently, the undemocratic council comprises nine appointees including six from the three cane producers’ associations, two divisional commissioners (North and West) and a representative of the Sugar Ministry. The chairman is also appointed by the sugar minister who is the PM.

The new proposed SCGC will therefore have a total of 17 members. They will all be beholden to the PM because they are his appointees. Even if the six cane producers’ representatives disagree with any proposal, they will be outnumbered and outvoted.

Therefore it will be easy to change the Master Award. The PM says the Master Award can only be changed if both the council and FSC agree to the changes. That will not be hard because both are controlled by Government.

It may well be part of FSC’s strategic plan to change the current formula by which proceeds from sale of sugar are shared 70/30 in favour of growers. FSC’s plans have not been revealed. Growers are the largest stakeholders in the industry. They should work in partnership with FSC. But they have been left totally in the dark.

FSC appointees

Former ANZ chief executive Vishnu Mo­h­an’s naming as FSC chairman seems strange. He is a career banker, has no agricultural, engineering, industry or manufacturing experience and lives in Canada.

At the time of the events of 2006, Mr Bainimarama criticised the way the deposed government gave numerous board positions to only a few people. He solemnly said this would end. And yet now, all over Fiji, a chosen few appear on multiple boards. So it is with Mr Mohan, who is also chairman of the Public Service Commission.

Abdul Khan, the former executive chairman has suddenly become FSC chief executive officer. He became CEO without any advertisement seeking other candidates or any kind of wide search for a CEO that normally takes place. One hopes he will be able to understand how a company operates since he did not hold the corporation’s AGM for four years until May last year.

Land leases

The PM also blamed some Opposition politicians for inciting landowners not to renew leases. We agree with him that the land issue was politicised by both representatives of the landowners and the farmers from 1998. But exploitative politics is not the sole cause of land leases not being renewed.

The PM could have redressed this issue when he was in charge after the coup. In his 2009 New Year’s message, he said 77 per cent of the land leases that had expired would be renewed. But official statistics from the iTaukei Land Trust Board show otherwise. The statistics show that:

* From 1997 to 2014 8151 cane leases expired. A further 1373 leases have and will expire in the three years from 2015 to 2017 bringing the total to 9524. Only 5105 or 53.6 per cent of leases have been renewed so far;

* Between 2007 and 2014, when there was no democracy, 2899 cane leases expired. Out of this 1722 leases or 59 per cent were renewed;

* Between 1997 and 2006, 5252 cane leases expired. 3001 cane leases or over 57 per cent leases were renewed; and

* Under this Government’s stewardship from 2007 to 2018, 4272 leases will expire until 2017. And from 2007 until 2017, 2104 leases will be renewed.

The 49.25 per cent rate of renewal under Mr Bainimarama’s leadership is worse than those of previous governments. It is almost 28 per cent below the PM’s pronouncement on 1st January 2009.

If the PM is serious about renewal of sugarcane leases, he should have imposed a moratorium on expiring leases and then negotiated lease renewal with landowners. But he did not do this.

Real alternative

The only realistic solution to boost cane production, improve the livelihood of growers and increase income for FSC is to inject $50m per year for the next three years towards growers following the loss of the European Union grant of $350m as a result of the coup.

$150m for the next three years is not a lot of money. It will be money well spent in terms of improving the livelihood of growers and generating economic growth. No growers means no FSC or the industry.

The cost of producing, harvesting and delivery of one tonne of cane averages $45-$50. With the price averaging $75 per tonne, some 9200 growers who produce less than the average 150 tonnes of cane earn a net income of $4500 in a season. This income, in annual terms, is less than the $2.32 per hour minimum wage. That is why growers are in debt in perpetuity.

We have even outlined how the $50m per year should be used.

It is absolutely necessary to provide growers a minimum guaranteed price of around $90 per tonne to give them confidence to boost production. With the abolition of European Union sugar production quotas on September 30, 2017 our industry will be doomed unless cane production is significantly boosted.

Even if we were to produce two million tonnes of cane for the each of the next three years, $30 million will be needed each year to guarantee a price of $90 per tonne. The remaining $20m can be used for cane planting programs and be provided as premiums to landowners to renew land leases of arable sugarcane land as well as supporting landowners themselves to enter sugarcane farming.

Mr Bainimarama’s military regime failed to resuscitate the industry and his FijiFirst Government does not have much idea either of how to do it. We reiterate, our, the Opposition’s offer, to help revive the industry in the national interest through bipartisanship.

This means the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee on sugar to find long-term and permanent solutions. This is vitally important because the absence of such a committee, in which critical issues are resolved through consensus and dialogue, has crippled the industry.

This is the only sound and sensible solution for a way forward. Mr Bainimarama can continue with his circus tricks or he can stop being afraid of differing views and work with others who care about this vitally important national industry.

* Professor Biman Prasad is the NFP leader. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

23 July 2016: Fiji Times Opinion – For a better election, NFP Leader Hon Prof Biman Prasad

FT headg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a better election
Professor Biman Prasad
Saturday, July 23, 2016

GENUINE and parliamentary democracy can be achieved to some measure if the recommendations of the annual Report of the Electoral Commission for 2014 and, especially the Report of the Multi-national Observer Group (MOG), which monitored the September 2014 election, and the annual report of the Electoral Commission are implemented for a truly credible, free and fair general election scheduled for 2018

Fourteen months after the MOG, Electoral Commission and the Joint EC/SOE Reports were referred to it by the Honourable Madam Speaker in May 2015, the parliamentary standing committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights is scrutinising the reports.

On April 15, 2015, soon after the release of the MOG’s final report MOG, Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem, in a statement to the media, welcomed the report’s findings.

A report on Fiji Live stated: “Fiji’s Supervisor of Elections Mohammed Saneem says the report by international observers on the 2014 election will assist the Fijian Elections (Office) in efforts to achieve international best practices and adopt innovation.

“Welcoming the 53-page MOG report, Mr Saneem says the FEO will carefully review the report and its recommendations as it prepares for the 2018 election.

“The MOG which was co-led by Indonesia, India and Australia conducted itself in a professional and courteous manner and their insights has been a great benefit to the FEO,” Mr Saneem said.

“While the MOG’s general endorsement has been known for some time, this report offers useful analysis on special aspects of the election.”

MOG report
It is therefore vitally important that recommendations of the reports be incorporated in any strategic planning by the FEO as part of preparations for the next general election scheduled for 2018.

This can only happen if 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 election credible.

The recommendations contained in the 53-page MOG report are credible and highlight the difficulties and frustrations faced by political parties, candidates, the media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) during the last elections.

Media
On the media, MOG rightly noted that harsh penalties in the Media Decree prevented most media outlets from effectively reporting on election issues.

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

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

The fact 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.

Decrees
The MOG report also highlights the need for amendment to the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding & Disclosures) Decree. It rightly points out the broad definition of a public office holder excludes a large number of citizens from freely participating in the political process. Furthermore, the report describes the prohibition on trade union officials from being members of political parties as 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.

The MOG has recommended changes to the Electoral Decree. Most importantly, it notes 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 voters were prohibited from bringing “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.

The NFP had made submissions to the Electoral Commission on the need to change the ballot paper to include symbols of political parties and names of candidates.

Right of voters
Section 23(2) of the 2013 Constitution states: “Every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections for any elective institution or office established under this Constitution.”

We firmly believe a ballot paper with numbers denies this constitutional right because it erodes the principle of free and fair elections. We maintain a voter is unable to exercise a meaningful choice in the absence of names and symbols.

Voters recognise political parties by their symbols. The Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) Decree 2013 requires political parties to set out the symbol of any proposed party. This is re-confirmed in the decree’s second schedule that outlines the contents of the constitution or rules of a political party, which among other things, requires the logo and symbol of a party.

The symbol is the identity of a political party and candidates sponsored under its banner.

This identification was totally missing from the ballot paper, as was the link between a candidate and his/her nominating party.

This led to promotion of single numbers.

Furthermore, in the last election, NGOs 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 should review and finalise all existing electoral laws and regulations well in advance of the next election.

If Government truly believes in common and equal citizenry and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, it should have no hesitation in accepting the recommendations of the MOG, which observed the election in strict compliance with Government’s terms of reference.

The recommendations have to be implemented to ensure the next general election is credible without any perceived or real fear of suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Electoral Commission’s Annual report
The Electoral Commission, through its 2014 annual report, has pointed out its work was affected by it not having the services of an independent legal adviser. The commission stated repeated requests for an independent legal consultant to the Minister of Elections remained unanswered.

This confirms concerns raised by the NFP as well as other political parties were not appropriately addressed because of the inability of the commission to seek independent legal advice.

Some of the concerns, after our submissions were rejected, that we raised in writing, in meetings with the commission, electronically or verbally over the phone were:

1. Ballot paper size and visibility of the number, tick in counting stations for counting agents verification;

2. Counting result certification by party agents at each polling station;

3. Voting guide booklet to include candidates listed together by party, party symbol against each candidates name and number;

4. Polling station venues to be also assigned by maximum walking distance of 1km for each voter;

5. Soft copy of polling station voter rolls to be expedited and given to parties;

6. Voter guide booklets to be given to parties as soon as possible or at least two weeks before polling;

7. Count agents to be able to take pens and pencils to record results during counting;

8. The non-presence of police just outside count centres. They were instead stationed 50 metres away at polling stations;

9. Procedure surrounding the announcement of protocol of results;

10. Stoppage of announcement of protocol of results; and

11. Non-verification by political parties and certification of the IT system in which results phoned from count centres were entered.

Who is the boss?
The commission also noted it was inhibited in fulfilling its role in directing the Supervisor of Elections on matters concerning his performance. The commission also pointed out that the Supervisor of Elections position be re-advertised but was informed by the Minister of Elections of the appointment of Mr Saneem.

These are serious concerns that cannot be ignored. The observations of the Electoral Commission clearly point out that the independence of the office of the Supervisor of Elections was compromised before the general election.

Last year one of the commissioners, Professor Vijay Naidu, resigned and also told the media the supervisor was not acting upon the instructions of the commission.

The commission also recommends changes to the decrees and amendments to the decrees governing the conduct of political parties and elections. It also recommends changes to the Constitution on reducing the 5 per cent threshold to 3.5 per cent (Section 53(3) of the Constitution).

We were denied two capable candidates in Makereta Waqavonovono and Jone Vakalalabure on residency qualifications, which require candidates to be ordinarily resident in Fiji for two years. Citizens working or studying abroad cannot be candidates. But those working for Government and serving in peacekeeping missions are eligible to be candidates. This wasn’t the case under the Electoral Act of 1998. What we have now is clearly a case of double standards.

Conclusion
We strongly believe the Standing Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights should incorporate all recommendations of the MOG and Electoral Commission reports in its report.

This can then be thoroughly scrutinised and debated in Parliament. The recommendations are too important to be ignored by any government, especially one that consistently preaches about international best practices, true democracy and common and equal citizenry.

Any deviation from the recommendations would render the 2018 general election meaningless and may also prompt the NFP to re-consider its participation in the next election under the current regressive and draconian decrees and constitutional provisions relevant conduct of elections.

* This was the NFP’s submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights scrutinising the MOG, EC and Joint EC/SOE reports.

* Professor Biman Prasad is the leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed here are his and not of this newspaper.