NFP Working Committee Meeting – Remarks by Party Leader

REMARKS AT NFP WORKING COMMITTEE, NFP HQ, 124 PRINCES RD, SUVA, 10.30AM, SATURDAY 19 NOVEMBER 2016

BY NFP LEADER HON PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD

The Vice President Mr. Parmod Chand, General Secretary Mr. Bala Dass, our Organising Secretary Mr. Tuinadave Radogo, stalwarts and branch delegates.

I join the Vice President in welcoming all of you to today’s meeting. We meet after what many have described as the most successful NFP AGM and Convention in the last 16 years hosted by our Rakiraki Branch more than two months ago. It was an outstanding effort by our Branch led by the dynamic Semi Titoko.

Rakiraki has set the benchmark and will be a hard act to follow. But more importantly it sent out a strong and clear signal that the NFP will be a force to be reckoned with in the next general elections. No doubt the meeting later today will discuss how we deal with issues confronting our people, the challenges we face and policies that we will put before the electorate for lasting social, economic and political advancement.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have completed two years of our so-called genuine parliamentary democracy. It is therefore appropriate for us to consider our country’s scorecard, post September 2014. As I said in my maiden speech in Parliament in October 2014, we were ready to work with the Fiji First Government on important national issues. We also promised to hold the government accountable through the parliament.

I am extremely disappointed to say that our optimism and hope has been badly shattered by the actions of the Fiji First government.

In fact we now believe that the process of vote buying for the 2018 general elections has already started, ably supported by two media organisations that are basically funded by the taxpayers of our country, one directly and the other indirectly through exclusive Government advertising.

I have always defended the media and journalists because they work under restrictions imposed through the draconian Media Industry Development Authority Decree.

But despite this most media organisations have at least tried to bring some semblance of balance as far as coverage of Opposition Parties is concerned, both in and out of parliament.

But not so the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation and the Fiji Sun. I make no apologies for saying that both the FBC and Fiji Sun have become a shameless mouthpiece of the Fiji First Government’s propaganda against the opposition. This is no exaggeration ladies and gentlemen.

Almost no press release from NFP is ever given any coverage by these two media organisations. In fact, sometimes you see government’s response to our press releases without our statements being given any coverage. Hardly ever, we are asked by the Fiji Sun to comment on government statements and especially those that are related to our policies or us. In addition, we have political analysis from some at that newspaper which is not only biased but also without any substance.

We can understand that government gives exclusively all its advertisement but that does not mean that they should not cover any stories of the opposition and especially that of our party. In fact they should realize that government advertisements are paid by the taxpayers of this country.

It is the taxpayers and about 40 % of them did not vote for the government also deserve coverage in the Fiji Sun.

But no ladies and gentlemen. This newspaper, which publicly declared its support for Government even before the 2014 general elections, has no semblance of balance, ethics and fair coverage. It is not even seen to be doing it.

I will just give two recent examples. On 27 th September, the newspaper ran on page 3 the Prime Minister’s attack on NFP in Parliament a day earlier, by way of his response to His Excellency the President’s Address.

I replied to the PM’s accusations in my address in Parliament on 30 th September. But not a word was printed by the Fiji Sun on 1 st October or any other later edition.

Instead on the front page of 1 st October, the newspaper ran the PM’s response to my point of order raised during his right of reply when he commented on the clothing being worn by the Honourable Salote Radrodro. And it concocted a story about my remark of skirt journalism made in July 2015 as saying worse things about women. Nothing can be further from the truth.

If in May last year I labeled Fiji Sun’s Managing Editor Nemani Delaibatiki’s article on cane payment as an example of skirt journalism, which the newspaper printed as a Letter to the Editor, does this mean that Mr. Delaibatiki is a woman? Or does it actually mean skirting around the real issue?

The second example is our statement issued on celebrations to mark the 100 th anniversary of the arrival of the last boat carrying indentured labourers, through a press conference, that was attended by the Fiji Sun on 14 th October.

The reporter who covered the press conference never wrote a news item for the next day. Instead the Managing Editor News in her analysis said I was politicizing the issue. If this is not blatant bias, then what it is?

Then ladies and gentlemen, comes the taxpayer funded national broadcaster, FBC. This entity is entirely funded by the taxpayers. In fact FBC received more than $11 million dollars in the last budget. We had written to the Chairman of the FBC board several months ago asking several questions such as: Why has the NFP leader and shadow minister not once been invited to any of the radio or television shows? Why does FBC not take comments from NFP when NFP is mentioned in their news?

For example, the Prime Minister, labeled NFP as a racist party. That was reported on FBC TV without our response. Even, after we responded, which is our right, no coverage was given. We ask why?

I don’t blame any of the journalists in these two organisations. We know for a fact that stories are doctored, why they are not covered and how there is interference in the newsroom. Can the CEO of FBC categorically deny that he does not interfere in the work of the news? Because we have had experience of his directive stopping our election advertisement, which was the Leader’s message from being aired. And this was a paid message.

And may I emphasise here – that this is in direct contravention of the Media Code of Ethics and Practice – that the Fiji First Government has established through the media decree, and uses against all other media outlets except the FBC and the Fiji Sun.

Where is our “Opportunity to Reply” that is stated in the code where “Media organisations have an obligation to give an opportunity to reply to any individual or organisation on which the media itself comments editorially.”?

Most of these articles are editorials and not fact-based hard news stories – let us make it clear. They are editorials and opinions – masquerading as factual news – and to add salt to injury, we are not offered that opportunity to reply as clearly stated in the Media Code of Ethics and Practice.

And while I am on this – the NFP and the rest of Fiji are also asking as to the state of the Media Industry Development Authority – or MIDA. Who runs MIDA? Who has replaced the Honourable Matai Akauola – who is now a Fiji First MP, as Director of MIDA? The Director of the Fiji Human Rights Commission, Ashwin Raj is also the Chair of MIDA – so may we ask – is he wearing two so-called independent hats and running both bodies? How do we then consider the quality and the independence of reports and investigations from both bodies?

Ladies and gentlemen, I took time to highlight problems we face with two mainstream media organisations because this is part of the process of rigging our polls.

Rigging does not only happen on polling day contrary to widely held perception. It is deliberate and systematic suppression and even throttling the voice of opposition well before elections so that we are prevented from effectively spreading our message and the truth about governance to all people. And on the other hand, in what is clearly vote buying, Government is using taxpayer funds to give what it calls grants but is effectively handouts.

This is causing disquiet amongst our members and supporters.

Where in a democracy do members of parliament need permit to meet more than 3 people? Where in a democracy opposition members would be stopped from speaking at prize giving functions in schools? He I want to point that the Minister for Education and his PS have not replied to my questions on the email sent by the PS directing a school to invite government officials and not opposition members. The Minister for Education is lying when he says that there is no ban?

Where in a democracy members of parliament have no resources to visit people and work for them? Where in a democracy we see such media control through draconian media laws? These things only happen in a dictatorship.

For the first time, we had to obtain a permit for this meeting, which is held in a private place and is for members only. But police has a new interpretation and meaning about permit requirement, which is a permit is needed if issues of national interest are discussed. What is national interest? Nowhere in the Public Order Act or the Public Order Amendment Decree is the requirement to obtain a permit on the basis of national interest. This is the suppression of a fundamental right and freedom of speech and assembly.

In fact we now believe that there is a partnership and collusion between the big businesses, some media outlets, key government institutions and key players in the Fiji First government to continue with the dictatorship in the country.

The ordinary people, the small businesses, the intellectual community, civil servants, farmers, villagers, those in settlements and those not in the partnership for dictatorship are too fearful and timid to raise any issues.

Even, when some have tried the different arms of government have come hard on them. There is now culture of oppression and people’s freedom to raise issues have been severely eroded through threats and intimidation by various arms of government and Fiji First politicians. We have received several examples where two Ministers have tried to openly ridicule and snub persons they believe are NFP supporters.

So ladies and gentlemen, we have a difficult environment. Against this backdrop the country’s problems remain. We are worse off than where we were more than 2 years ago.

Let me highlight some of the issues of concern to all of us.

1. Cyclone Winston Recovery strategy has been a failure. The report on the damages and cost of those damages were never presented to parliament. In fact the whole recovery effort by the government has been a disaster. Apart from the haphazard response immediately after the cyclone, not much appears to have worked. The help for homes has been a scandal where few hardware companies have benefited. Those taking in the cards and not being able to supply the materials have not been able to explain why? Taking the money by swiping the card and not being able to supply the materials tantamount to taking money on false pretenses. This scheme and its operation must be investigated by an independent body to ascertain if there was corruption involved and unfair advantage to the hardware companies at the expense of the victims of the cyclone.

2. Deteriorating health services- drug shortage, shambolic free medicine scheme. Even the newly appointed Health Minister has publicly admitted that it will take her time to fix some of these ills plaguing our public health system. Only three days ago an elderly retired civil servant went to the CWM Hospital pharmacy to obtain basic medication. He was told that while medicine would only be made available to those who have been registered under the Free Medicine Scheme and not any other patient. This is preposterous. It shows the Ministry is rationing medicine and there is no improvement since we highlighted this problem through the media more than three weeks ago.

3. Increasing youth unemployment is putting the future of our young in jeopardy. The last time the National Employment Centre released unemployment figures of youth registered with them was in July 2015 and the figure stood at 46,277. In 2014 it was 33,000. If that trend were taken into account then by mid-2016 it would have been almost 60,000. Furthermore, an insignificant number of our youth are seen to have been recruited for the seasonal work scheme in Australia and New Zealand. Even Government through the Employment Minister has publicly stated that Government prefers to recruit workers from the same tikina and settlement. This policy clearly discriminates against others in urban and peri urban settlements seeking to be recruited as seasonal workers.

4. The Cost of Living has increased. And TC Winston is not the sole factor that has contributed towards this hike. The 30% increase in freight charges, increase in indirect taxes on service oriented goods have contributed to rising Inflation. For examples most restaurants are now required to charge 25% tax on items they sell. This means out of every dollar 25 cents is tax. Then there is VAT on prescription medication. From January next year hybrid vehicles that were duty free would be slapped with duty.

5. The Education Sector is in a mess. This is confirmed by only a 65% pass rate in the Year Eight Examination Results. And the Minister blamed TC Winston and scrapping of examinations as the reasons for this pass rate. This is laughable because the Minister himself said that some schools destroyed by Winston recorded a 100% pass rate. Then he says that the 35% of students who failed will enter Year 9. Then why have examinations? Why do students have the stigma of being labeled as failures? Another example is the Zoning Policy. More than 99% of schools in Fiji are owned and operated by community organisations, religious and cultural bodies. By implementing this policy and then saying schools may recruit students from outside their designated zones is curtailing the freedom of students to choose schools of their choice. This also contradicts the Minister’s earlier policy of withholding grants from schools who enroll students outside of their zones. Even this was a discriminatory policy because no one has the right to dictate the use of taxpayers’ money outside of official policy. Like many others, we are amused by his antics and wonder why this Minister continues to hold this important portfolio despite implementing many ill-conceived policies.

6. The sugar industry has not shown any signs of improvement in the last ten years under both the military and Fiji First Governments. The country’s cane growers had a bleak Diwali because they were shortchanged following the announcement of the final payment for the 2015 season. The total payment for 2015 season cane is 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. Over 70% of cane growers numbering over 9,000 have received $4,029 as net income for the 2015 season minus the average cost of production of $45 per tonne. . This is almost $1,400 less than $5428.80 earned annually by a worker on the meagre minimum wage of $2.32 per hour.

Special payments of $4.80 do not and should not form part of the total payout because cane growers have repaid $3.80 of the total amount of $4.80, with the remaining $1 to be deducted next year. This is confirmed by the Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar in a written answer to my parliamentary question (71/2016).

Cane Growers have already paid this amount in two deductions of $1.40 from the 2 nd payment in December 2015 and $2.40 from the 4 th payment in May. The total price is therefore $71.86 per tonne inclusive of the $1.38 top up to the final payment. This is $9.14 less than $81 per tonne growers received for the 2014 season.

This raises the question of how effective the former CEO of FSC Abdul Khan 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.

What happened last year? Has help from Government disappeared because growers are overwhelmingly and vehemently opposed to the Reform of the Sugarcane Industry and Sugar Cane Growers Fund Amendment Bills? Because growers expected the Government to naturally top up the payment to ensure the total price was over $80 per tonne, given a similar action last year.

Or is there another reason?

Ladies and gentlemen, on 26 th October on FBC TV News, the Prime Minister labeled the National Federation Party as racist just because the Party champions the interests of the cane growers. He stated that “that the National Federation Party now is not the same as the NFP of old” and furthermore said, “I would think that the NFP party now is a racist party that’s why they all in the cane fields because of the vote of the Indo-Fijians. Their policies are totally at the extreme nowadays.”

If fighting for the interests of cane growers make us racist, then the PM must use the same logic to answer the following: –

1. Does he know that almost 30% of cane growers are Fijians of i-Taukei descent?

2. Is he refusing to accept sound and sensible solutions proposed by the NFP to resuscitate the sugar industry and improve the livelihood of cane growers because he thinks upholding the interest of growers who comprise of 70% Indo-Fijians and who are descendants of the Girmitiya is racism?

3. Does this mean that the Prime Minister who is also the Minister for i-Taukei Affairs is a racist because the Ministry exclusively looks after the interests of our i-Taukei community?

4. Does this also mean that the Prime Minister, who was Commander of Republic of Fiji Military Forces for 15 years, an organisation whose personnel are almost exclusively i-Taukei, is a racist?

5. Does this mean that just because the elite arm of RFMF (CRW Unit) helped George Speight execute the coup in May 2000 to overthrow a Government led by an Indo-Fijian, make the Prime Minister racist because he was Commander of the Army?

6. Does this mean that the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution and then Commander Bainimarama’s refusal to re-instate the Fiji Labour Party Leader as Prime Minister following the end to the hostage crisis in 2000 , actions later proven in Court of Appeal to be in defiance of the rule of law was an act of racism?

7. And does this mean that when as Commander, Bainimarama executed the coup to topple an iTaukei led multi-party multiracial Government in December 2006, was yet again a racist act?

Ladies and Gentlemen: There are many other issues. We are now at the crossroads. But we must press on regardless of the obstacles in our path. We have done so for the last 53 years and we will continue doing so in future without shirking the founding principles of this great Party.

And together we will succeed.