Open mind, open government

BY THE LEADER OF NATIONAL FEDERATION PARTY,

PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD

The first thing needed for open government is an open mind.

Government is not a series of publicity stunts designed to make Government Ministers look good. It is service.

We have an imperial government, with overpaid senior ministers driving in convoys of tinted-glass vehicles, surrounded by security guards, sycophantic civil servants and business associates.

They are followed around by Qorvis Communications functionaries and journalists from newspapers, TV and radio stations they control – and whose purpose is to report only good news.

This government is about them. It is not about us.

This is why the government must change. We need a government made up of people minded to serve, not those who want to travel the world, claim allowances and hide behind tinted glass.

Sacrifice, not pageantry

Anyone who sincerely agrees to serve – even in a sports organisation, a school committee, a charity – knows that they will not always look good. They will make mistakes. They will be let down by others. They will have to make hard choices that do not please everyone.

The job of government is not to hand out freebies while the TV cameras roll so they feel good. Government’s job is to give power to the people to make their own decisions, work together and improve their own lives. The government must provide the framework – that is, good policies, good infrastructure and good services. The government must provide leadership.

The most important element of leadership is trust.

A government earns trust by sharing information. Government information does not belong to the Government. It belongs to the people. Their taxes pay for the Government. They have a right to know what the Government is doing.

There are many models of open government around the world that Fiji can follow. Some of them can be found as nearby as Australia and New Zealand.

And here is the most important point – open government costs nothing.  Of course, it needs public servants to compile information and provide answers.  But this can all come from the existing government payroll. This is not a promise which is expensive to keep.

What is happening now

Government ministers used to talk incessantly about “transparency and accountability”. Now, not so much.

They have been in government for 12 years.  They have never admitted a mistake.  Perhaps they are a perfect government. Or perhaps they are just working harder than ever to cover up their incompetence, wastefulness and greed.

Section 121  of the Constitution requires Fiji to have a “Transparency and Accountability Commission” with “powers to receive and investigate complaints against permanent secretaries and all persons holding a public office”. It has never been set up.

When the Auditor-General – a constitutional officer – criticised the Economy Ministry’s practices, he was forced to appear in a humiliating press conference where his office was unjustly attacked.

When the Public Accounts Committee – under my chairmanship – began to expose wastefulness and incompetence in government spending, the Fiji First Party changed Parliamentary rules to make a Government MP the chairman. Since then, the Public Accounts Committee has been quiet.

The Attorney-General refused to issue ethnic data from the national census. He said it had not been compiled. In imperial government fashion, he behaves as if this information belongs to him, not the people of this country, who paid for it.

With much fanfare, the Government passed an “Official Information Act” earlier this year. But this Act is not about Government information. It is about your personal information. You have a right to ask about the information the Government holds about you.  You do not have a right to ask the Government what it is doing with your money.

What an NFP government will do

We will:-

  • Pass a new Official Information Act. This law will allow people to ask the Government what its Ministers are doing, who they are meeting and how much money it is spending. Any citizen will be able to ask the Government a question. And as long as there is no commercial, security or other need to keep the answer a secret, the Government must answer the question.

 

  • Pass the Code of Conduct Act that governs the conduct of the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, Leader of the Opposition and Parliament itself. This law has sat around in draft for years. The Fiji First Government, which can pass a law in two days if it wants to, has never had the courage to enact it.

 

  • Publish every six months the amounts claimed by Ministers and Parliamentarians for salary, allowances and expenses. This follows the practice in New Zealand. NFP has already said that it will immediately reduce all salaries and allowances by 25% while they are examined by an independent committee.

 

  • Publish updates of what the Government is spending. Under the current government, we are told on Budget night how the Government will spend its money – but we never know if this happens. We will publish regular updates of Government spending and whether it is in line with the Government’s budget, over-spending or under-spending. This is  so the news media and the citizens can check the Government’s performance and demand changes if they are needed

 

  • We will give more power to the Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee. Inefficiency, wastage and even fraud are part of the business of every government. Governments are large organisations whose spending is not easy to control. The best form of control is public knowledge. We will give the Auditor-General more staff (taken from other Ministries). We will give the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament a bigger role to question Ministers and civil servants about how they are spending people’s money. And yes – the chair of the Public Accounts Committee will come from the Opposition side.

 

  • We will change the laws that prevent court challenges. Many current Fiji laws prevent a Government decision being challenged in Court.  That means that Government bureaucrats do what they want to, never worried that a court will never overrule them. This is ridiculous.  Ministers and civil servants must be afraid of the law. They must make their decisions knowing that their bad decisions can be reversed by the courts – and they will be exposed for corrupt or poorly-informed choices.

 

  • We will make available all information about community projects – for example, what the Government is spending on a water project, a road, or a solar power project, or why it is delayed.

 

  • We will hold Cabinet meetings outside Suva. Under previous governments, the Cabinet would sometimes travel to another centre, or to a rural school or village hall, to hold a Cabinet meeting. That way they could meet the people and spend time with them after the Cabinet meeting – so that people could discuss with them their current problems and the services that they needed from Government. We will bring back this practice.

 

  • We will untint the windows. And yes, we will untint the windows of Government Ministers’ vehicles, make them follow the speed limit and not flash their lights and claim priority over other drivers. This may seem a small thing – but it is about showing the people that Government Ministers are not gods. They are servants. We promise democratic, not imperial, government.