Maiden Speech to Parliament by Hon Prem Singh

MAIDEN SPEECH

PARLIAMENT OF FIJI

THURSDAY OCTOBER 16, 2014

BY HON PREM SINGH

 Madam Speaker, I join other Honourable Members in thanking His Excellency the President for his most gracious speech.

His Excellency has had a long and distinguished career, serving Fiji in many capacities. Personally, I became well acquainted with him during my 11-month term as Leader of the Opposition between October 2001 and September 2002, when he was the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Firstly Madam Speaker, I wish to correct some misconceptions in the Honourable Attorney General’s maiden speech this morning.

The Honourable Attorney General named NFP stalwarts and founding fathers of the 1960’s saying if they were in Parliament they would be sitting on Government benches. Those Members were giants of their time in the ability, understanding and perception of the problems facing Fiji.

They would have never, Madam Speaker, supported a coup or benefited from one.

I am also amused at the Attorney General’s suggestion that voters mistook number 297 for 279 in the recent elections and had those votes gone to 279, NFP would not have been in Parliament.

There is something seriously flawed in the A-G’s mathematics because even if it happened, it would not have made any difference whatsoever to our percentage because the total votes cast would have remained the same. If that is the quality of his mathematics, then I shudder to think about his performance as Minister for Finance in charge of the nation’s purse strings.

But Madam Speaker the serious aspect of the honourable minister’s observation here is that if that were indeed the case then many thousands of voters have committed similar errors. For example voters who intended to vote for 155 voted in error for number 255, leading to the obvious conclusion that the open list system of election is seriously flawed. Under a closed list system the voters would not have made such errors.

Madam Speaker, I also congratulate you on your election as the first woman Speaker and am hopeful that under your stewardship, Parliament will maintain dignity and decorum for the next four years. The election of Marama Bale Roko Tui Dreketi Honourable Ro Teimumu Kepa as the first woman Leader of the Opposition is also historic and both positions go a long way towards the political empowerment of women in Fiji.

As stated earlier by the Leader of the NFP, the people of this country have spoken and elected their government. I also wish Honourable Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama and wish him and his government well for the next 4 years.

I also wish to thank Team NFP, my campaign team (they know who they are), my wife and my children for their extremely hard work during the election campaign. I also offer my gratitude to the team of experts from UNDP for their invaluable assistance towards the restoration of our parliamentary democracy.

Madam Speaker, I return to Parliament after my controversial exit 12 years ago. But this pales into insignificance when compared to the absence of parliamentary democracy in our nation for a total of 14 years since the start of the coup culture in this very chamber 27 years ago on 14th May 1987.

Madam Speaker, His Excellency the President reminded us of the events of 14th May 1987 when the then Royal Fiji Military Forces removed the NFP/FLP Coalition government of Dr Timoci Uluivuda Bavadra. In the process, His Excellency was also usurped as the Commander of RFMF in his absence.

He also rightly pointed out in his address that the cycle of instability that plagued our nation and retarded its development must never be repeated.

Madam Speaker the overbearing stench of coups has overpowered our nation in the last 27 years. His Excellency the President in reference to the first coup of 1987 said and I quote, “It was the first of four disruptions to elected government and the beginning of a cycle of instability that has plagued our nation” – Unquote

These, Madam Speaker, are pertinent questions that must be addressed because His Excellency the President categorically stated that the cycle of instability caused by coups must never be repeated. On this we agree with His Excellency.

As honourable members, we must frankly acknowledge that the four coups were nothing but power-grab at gunpoint that retarded the nation if we are to herald in a new era of unity and purpose as stated by His Excellency the President.

We cannot be enslaved in the past but Madam Speaker, we must truthfully acknowledge our mistakes of the past and the cardinal sins and treasonous acts of the last 27 years, and move on to work collectively in the national interest.

There is no justice without compensation but in this case those personally, physically, psychologically and financially aggrieved by the 2006 coup cannot seek compensation from Government or the Court due to the watertight measures of the various Decrees and the Constitution totally preventing them from doing so.

There is no denying that many people have suffered the hurt, discrimination and isolation over the last 27 years. It is our responsibility as a Parliament and indeed as a nation to put all of this behind us. We can only do this through a process of Truth and Reconciliation and I sincerely hope that the Government considers this seriously. There are good examples around the world from which we can learn.

Madam Speaker, His Excellency spoke about Government’s commitment to provide free prescribed medication to those earning less that $20,000 per annum. We commend this but at the same time point out that our extremely poor health service is a blight on our nation.

There is no other way to put it. Go to any hospital in the country and you will see the pathetic conditions.

Even the expectation of clean and hygienic conditions at our hospitals is just too high an expectation is buried when one visits a public hospital is like a mirage on the horizon. An example of the deteriorating health system is that the blood testing machine at the Lautoka Hospital has not been functioning for the last 3 weeks. This week the Lautoka Hospital ran out of morphine tablets given to patients to ease their severe pain. This is totally unacceptable.

Government needs to pay immediate attention to this chronic problem.

Madam Speaker, Fiji needs a comprehensive health care modernization program. Such health care modernization program should place our citizens at the heart of rebuilding health care.

Government should ensure medical care that is focused on compassion, respect and dignity life for all our citizens. Regardless of age and place of residence, citizens must have access to decent health care. To achieve this, a Personalized Health Care framework is needed.

Funding must be committed to ensure that Fiji has well-placed and well-resourced team of medical workers. Our citizens should know that in hospitals, they will be seen by doctors within a specified time and not wait endlessly.

Madam Speaker, Public provision of health care in Fiji is a foundation on which this country is built. Investing in health is investing in our future.

I come from the cane belt and have been a cane farmer all my life. Unfortunately, there has been no mention of the sugar industry in Government’s plan for the ensuing year that was outlined by His Excellency.

Madam Speaker, the sugar industry has weathered many storms for over a 100 years when it was the mainstay of our economy. But our sugar industry has been staggering for the last 8 years. This is not an exaggeration.

Madam Speaker the reality, that is the decline of the industry is reflected by the following statistics: –

Year/Season Number of active Growers Total Cane Crushed Total Sugar Production Tonnes of Cane required to make one tonne of sugar (TCTS) Price paid to Growers (Per tonne of cane)
2006 18,636 3.226m 310,140 10.4 $58.60
2007 18,791 2.478m 237,418 10.44 $59.65
2008 18,683 2.321m 207,966 11.16 $59.70
2009 17,762 2.247m 167,611 13.4 $56.59
2010 16,827 1.778m 131,506 13.5 $45.67
2011 16,259 2.096m 167,000 12.55 $54.87
2012 13,000 1.546m 154,813 10 $81.82
2013 13,000 1.608m 180,000 9.1 $82.12

Madam Speaker, the number of active growers have fallen by more than 5,000 since the coup until 2013. Cane production fell by 1.618 million tonnes from 2006. Sugar production fell by 130,140 tonnes. This is the unmistakable reality.

The deteriorating state of the sugar industry is also largely linked to the problems faced by cane farmers. And the problems of the farmers remain largely unresolved. The SCGC was tinkered with and the legitimate authority usurped, spearheaded by the unlawful sacking of the SCGC Chief Executive Officer.

Almost three years later in 2009, the SCGC was scrapped, which meant that the last remaining democratically elected institution comprising of elected representatives of the cane growers was abolished.

Farmers, however still continue to pay levy to the SCGC through deduction from their proceeds to fund its operational expenditure. The SCGC now is basically like a toothless tiger, unable to effectively raise the concerns of the farmers, let alone find meaningful solutions to their common problems.

Madam Speaker, Some of the basic problems faced by cane farmers are: –

(i)          Land tenure. Failure to renew majority of expiring land leases has been a contributing factor to declining cane production.

(ii)        Rising cost of cane production, harvesting and delivery. The average cost of cane production, harvesting and delivery was $45.50 per tonne of cane.

The cost includes hiring of farm labourers and cane cutters during harvesting season, purchase of a 50kg bag of fertilizer at a price of $31.50, weedicides, land preparation for new crop such as ploughing and harrowing, and delivery of cane by lorry due to the state of decay of the rail system. Cane farming has become a non-profitable business for at least 70% of farmers who produce only 30% of the total cane crop while 30% of farmers produce 70% of the crop.

Madam Speaker, since 2009, Government has pumped in $220 million into the Fiji Sugar Corporation. And since 2009, cane farmers have received a meagre $36 million through Government subsidies on fertilizer, cane planting and repair of cane access roads.

Madam Speaker, the European Union had earmarked a total of $265 million in planned assistance between 2007 and 2013 to help Fiji adapt to globalization and to lower prices of sugar exports to the EU due to the total withdrawal of preferential prices by 2009.

This grant was lost. It was aimed at economic diversification in the sugar sector and to provide assistance for social impact mitigation measures for displaced farmers who could not meet their increased cane production targets.

If the coup hadn’t destroyed democracy, Fiji could have now been producing around 4 million tonnes of cane and manufacturing around 400,000 tonnes of sugar. The sugar industry would have been salvaged.

Fiji and the cane farmers are poorer for the loss of the EU grant. We urge the Honourable Prime Minister, who is the Minister for Sugar and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to negotiate with the European Union to salvage the grant or what remains of it.

Alternatively Madam Speaker, Government needs to invest between $250 -$300 million in the industry, specially targeted at farmers to revitalize the confidence of cane farmers. There is no other way.

Madam Speaker, The Government is urging farmers to plant more cane but this will not become a reality unless Government injects substantial funding towards our farmers by way of paying premiums to TLTB for land lease renewals or acquisition of new leases. Furthermore, Government must announce in the Budget a 50% subsidy for farmers for the purchase of weedicides and farm inputs. And most importantly, farmers need financial security and a minimum guaranteed price of $85 per tonne would be an ideal way to offer them his security.

Madam Speaker, Fiji’s leadership have to emulate the wisdom and vision of those who put national interest above personal and political advancement if they genuinely believe in their philosophy of a united, harmonious and stable Fiji. The three issues that I have highlighted will never be resolved if we cannot rise above narrow and parochial interests.

We have two shining examples of the oppressor and the oppressed casting their differences aside and coming together in the national interest. Sitiveni Rabuka and Jai Ram Reddy in Fiji ; F W De Clerk and Nelson Mandela in South Africa prevailed because the vast majority of the citizens of their respective countries willed that it be so.

They put aside mistrust, fear and hatred that had gripped their respective nations for many years. They defied all odds and did the unthinkable. They prevailed because they genuinely believed in a common future and genuine reconciliation.

Similarly, all honourable members have to cast aside our political differences. The barrel of a gun, alienation of political rivals, entrenchment of discord, fear and mistrust has not succeeded anywhere in the world. Fiji is no exception.

Thank you and may God bless Fiji