“Is it true Democracy”

WE are repeatedly told by the Government that we now have “true democracy”. But that is not how the rest of the world judges it.

In 2017, the highly-regarded Economist Intelligence Unit categorized Fiji as a “hybrid regime” and ranked us 81st out of 167 nations in its annual Democracy Index.

A hybrid regime is the second worst categorization. It is just above the category  of  “authoritarian regime” that describes countries like North Korea and Syria.

Fiji has a score of 5.59 out of 10 – something that we know in education as a C-minus grade.

So we are basically a C-minus democracy.

Yet the current FijiFirst Government’s mantra is that we have an A-grade Constitution. Once again, this is proving to be a pipe dream for this Government and its leadership.

Hybrid regimes are known to combine democratic values like holding of elections with autocratic behaviour like political repression.

A hybrid regime, also defined as an “illiberal democracy”, is also called a “partial democracy”, “low intensity democracy” or “empty democracy”.

It is defined as a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties.

It is certainly not a “true democracy!”

The 2017 Freedom Index, published by another organization – Freedom House, which measures political rights and civil liberties around the world, ranked Fiji “partly free”.

Disappearing democratic ideals

How has it come to this? How has our nation plummeted from that historic day in November 1986 when the then Pope, His Holiness Pope John Paul II, described Fiji as a symbol of hope to the world?

We are sure the rest of the democratic world, including our neighbours, do not want to be like Fiji any more – in terms of the conduct of democracy, unilateral implementation of decisions and the manner in which parliamentary democracy is practised.

The categorization and ranking of Fiji’s democracy and freedom respectively is a slap in the face of the current FijiFirst Government, which trampled upon democracy in its former role as a military regime.

Government’s rhetoric about so called “unprecedented provisions and achievements in the 2013 Constitution”, imposed upon the people of Fiji, is fooling no one.

This Constitution does not promote true and genuine democracy. Nor does it guarantee common and equal citizenry and meritocracy.

The Government recently passed a law that changed the names of all of the previous military regime’s Decrees and Promulgations to make them “Acts”. Acts are laws passed by Parliament.

There can only be one reason for doing this – to pretend to the rest of the world that all of its Decrees and Promulgations – many of them draconian and regressive in nature and which restrict the rights of citizens, restrict media freedom and weaken democratic institutions – were debated and voted on by representatives of the people. In truth, no such thing happened.

All these are clear signs that Fiji is a democracy in name only. The reality is that it is an “illiberal democracy” or a “hybrid regime”.

An example of dictatorship

For all of its talk, there is no semblance of transparency, accountability and good governance in this government.  We offer you one simple example below. Basically, our democracy is being run like the Fiji First Party, whose decisions are made by two people.

On 3 October 2014 – three days before the first sitting of Parliament under its new constitution – the military regime issued its last Decree. This Decree was not about the welfare of the people of Fiji but about how much would be earned by the President, Speaker, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Leader of the Opposition, Assistant Ministers and Members of Parliament.

This was the Parliamentary Remunerations Decree.

This Decree was one of those laws later ludicrously re-named as an Act. The salaries set for Government Ministers were astronomical. To borrow one of the Government’s favourite words “unprecedented in our history”.

The Decree fixed the PM’s salary at $328,750 per annum, topped up by other benefits. The Attorney General’s salary was fixed at $235,000 per annum. The salaries of three Cabinet Ministers, namely Health, Education and Infrastructure & Transport was fixed at $200,000 per annum. The salaries of other Cabinet Ministers were fixed at $185,000.

The salary of the Leader of the Opposition has traditionally been the same as that of a Cabinet Ministers (at least before the military coup of 2006). Now it was set at $120,000 – that is, $65,000 less than than the salary of a Cabinet Minister.

Assistant Ministers received salaries of $90,000.

This is more than the basic salary of a full Cabinet Minister before the coup.

The PM’s salary was more than doubled compared to the PM’s salary before the coup ($106,000).

No transparency

In a democracy, there is accountability, transparency, good governance and ethical conduct. Not so under the current Government.

To add salt to the wound, an Emoluments Committee of MPs increased overseas travel allowances for MPs in 2016.

The travel allowance of the PM increased by a massive 300 per cent. The PM now receives a $3,000 daily allowance when travelling overseas. In one day he collects the wages of a minimum-waged worker for six months!

It was wrong for MPs to decide on how much they should be paid from taxpayers’ money. Where is the transparency and accountability in that?

Only the NFP opposed the increase. We said we would not receive the increased allowances. Parliament said that under the law we were forced to take the new rates.

So we decided to open a relief and welfare account. Whatever increased allowances we got we now spend on relief and welfare assistance.

Nowhere in the world does an employee increase his or her own salary and allowances. This is morally and ethically wrong. The proper practice is to appoint an independent parliamentary emoluments committee.

Independent people should judge what Parliamentarians are worth, and should recommend salaries based on submissions from all sectors including the public. This is the only fair method. Nothing else.

But FijiFirst thinks otherwise. FijiFirst thinks that fixing and voting for one’s own increase in salaries and allowances is OK!

No wonder the world calls us a “hybrid regime”.

If NFP becomes the government, one of the first things we will change is how Ministers and MPs are paid.

Saving democracy

As team NFP travels around the country, it is becoming clearer that our people can see through this façade.

The time for dictatorship and arrogance is over. Now is the time for dialogue. Now is the time for accountability, transparency, ethical conduct and good governance.

The time has come for bipartisanship in Parliament. It is time to free the media, and it is time to engage meaningfully with our development partners. It is time for the people to receive and be equipped with meaningful solutions to enhance their livelihood.

Most importantly, it is time to change course. Change is coming. Change is inevitable.

True nationhood, common and equal citizenry can only be achieved if we put aside our personal agendas and differences and work together. Reciprocity, humanity and national interest should be our guiding values. This is different from the “My Way or the Highway” approach of the current FijiFirst Government.

We cannot and must not be afraid of change for the better. Equality, dignity, justice and principle have been the cornerstones of NFP’s 55-year-old history since our birth in 1963.

Our existence is primarily based on our truly democratic ideals as a political party that was, is and will remain a principled impregnable fortress. The roots of our mango tree under which the idea of the party was first mooted in Rakiraki by Alparti Tataiya, are unshakeable.

Fiji is at a critical cross-roads. But we all must be brave, not faint-hearted in demanding that our leaders act democratically and accountably.

Together, we shall prevail.