On 30th December 2014, with only a 10 minutes notification, the Office of the Secretary General informed our parliamentary office that the S-G Mrs Viniana Namosimalua and the Deputy S-G wanted to meet the Party Leader or any other NFP MP.
During their meeting with me and my office Senior Administration Officer, Mrs Namosimalua stated she had just received a letter from the Attorney General directing her on how to allocate resources to Parliamentary party offices, namely to allocate funding on the basis of $10,000 per MP.
Based on that formula, she said the NFP with 3 MPs would receive $30,000 annually and the money would be deposited directly to the Party’s account ad used to recruit staff, who would not be paid by the Legislature from 1st January.
I told her this was unconstitutional and to put the proposal in writing and to also furnish us a copy of the Attorney General’s letter.
On 30th December the S-G wrote to us outlining the funding proposal of $10,000 per MP and also stated that our staff would be made redundant. But she failed to state that she had been directed to do so by the A-G.
We responded to her letter on 6th January rejecting the proposal. We also requested that she release the Attorney General’s letter. We pointed out that her office was independent and above any influence from anyone under Section 79(7) (8) of the Constitution. And Section 79(10) of the Constitution empowered her to effectively and independently exercise her powers.
Under the proposal outlined in her letter of 30th December the allocation was as follows: –
Fiji First (32 MPs): $320,000
SODELA (15MPs): $150,000
NFP (3MPs): $30,000
On 8th January Mrs Namosimalua wrote back to us increasing the amount to $15,000 per MP thereby allocating us $45,000. Fiji First allocation increased by $160,000 to $480,000 and SODELA’s allocation was $225,000.
We replied to her letter on 9th January rejecting the allocation and reminded her that when allocating staff to our office, she said the appointments would be for a period of 3 months and then the positions would be advertised.
We also told her that the allocation of resources should not be solely based on size of parties but a minimum threshold – that is on fundamental principles and parliamentary duties.
While Mrs Namosimalua is yet to respond to our letter, she went ahead and revoked the appointments of our staff.
We find the S-G’s proposal illogical, unconstitutional. If the Secretary –General allows herself to be directed by the Attorney-General, then it is direct interference in the work of Parliament and renders meaningless her powers under Section 79 of the Constitution.
It is obvious that the Attorney General is hell-bent to render us as an ineffective parliamentary party.
We once gain call upon the Secretary-General to release the letter from the Attorney General in the name of transparency. This goes against every fibre of democratic norms.
When we say the S-G’s action is unconstitutional, we base it on Section 79 where it is her role to appoint, terminate or discipline staff. She cannot delegate this role to anyone else, in this case to political parties. She is directly responsible for administering funding and is answerable only to the Speaker, not to any Minister or anyone else.
This matter is unprecedented. We have been the longest parliamentary party in Fiji’s history since Independence 44 years ago, except in 1999, 2006 and for 4 years after the 2001 elections.
We understand and know fully well the basis on which political party offices in parliament are resourced, especially Opposition parties. Since the start of Parliament last October, we have been at the benevolence of SODELPA who have kindly allowed the three MPs and our staff to use the Opposition Leader’s Office facilities. As a parliamentary party, we are entitled to a separate fully equipped office. We were assured by the Secretary-General that we would be provided one but that has failed to materialize.
This has now become a matter for our Party and we will have a Party’s Working Committee meeting at the end of this month to inform our delegates of the attempt to stifle our role and for the Party to take a decision on this matter of critical importance.
1. 30th December letter by S-G
2. NFP’s Reply to S-G’s 30th December letter
3. S-G’s letter of 8th January 2015
4. NFP’s Reply to S-G’s 8th January letter
5. Revocation of appointments by S-G
15 hours ago
The Opposition Office has labelled the exit of Fiji National University Vice Chancellor Dr Ganesh Chand as unfortunate and unwarranted.
Opposition whip, Isoa Tikoca says this latest incident involving a public official raises more questions.
The change in leadership at the Fiji National University that was announced by the Minister of Education, Dr Mahendra Reddy yesterday questioned by the members of the Opposition.
At a press conference today, Opposition whip, Isoa Tikoca labelled the change as injustice.
“The unexplained and forced removal of Dr Chand is a direct assault on academic freedom at the University. Academic freedom is a fundamental principle upon which universities operate. This is a blunt attempt to kill academic freedom and lawful dissent in the country,” said Opposition Whip, Isoa Tikoca.
There also wanted clarification on why former Acting Permanent Secretary for Education resigned.
“The issue of Mrs Basundra Kumar’s removal as Acting Permanent Secretary for Education and her suspension also smacks of interference by the Education Minister.
This has eventually led to Mrs Kumar tendering her resignation under duress. Once again this issue is embroiled in controversy and all fingers are pointing towards Dr Mahendra Reddy in the absence of any genuine validation for the action from both the Education Minister and the Public Service Commission,” Tikoca said.
Opposition member, Dr Biman Prasad says that those who have been replaced need to be given the opportunity to tell their story. “Basically what we are saying and calling upon the government is to observe the principal of natural justice, follow procedure, give the people who are concern the right and opportunity to defend themselves so that the due process is followed,” said Opposition Member, Dr Biman Prasad.
THE recent removal of now-former vice-chancellor of the Fiji National University, Dr Ganesh Chand, has not been received well by members of the Opposition, who claim the removal is the result of Government interference.
At a press conference in Suva yesterday, chief Opposition whip Ratu Isoa Tikoca and National Federation Party leader Professor Biman Prasad questioned the forced removal of Dr Chand and the suspension of acting permanent secretary for Education, Basundra Kumar.
“The forced removal of Fiji National University vice-chancellor Dr Ganesh Chand and the suspension of acting permanent secretary for Education Basundra Kumar raises more questions about Government’s interference in employment issues, as well as the blatant disregard and violation of constitutional rights, employment and natural justice,” Ratu Isoa said.
“The removal of Dr Chand and the suspension of Mrs Kumar come soon after the forced removal of two Fiji Television executives and the absence of any response to the Opposition’s statement that their sacking was due to Government interference.
“In the case of Dr Chand’s removal as FNU vice-chancellor, it is quite apparent that his forced exit has nothing to do with the university’s strategic plan and future direction as claimed by Education Minister and FNU Council Chair Dr Mahendra Reddy,” Ratu Isoa claimed.
Ratu Isoa went on to say that Dr Chand’s unexplained and forced removal was a “direct assault on academic freedom” at the university.
“Academic freedom is a fundamental principle upon which universities operate. This is a blatant attempt to kill academic freedom and lawful dissent in the country.”
Ratu Isoa and Prof Prasad also said Mrs Kumar’s sudden removal was somewhat controversial.
“The issue of Mrs Basundra Kumar’s removal as acting permanent secretary for Education and her suspension also smacks of interference by the Education Minister. This has eventually led to Mrs Kumar tendering her resignation under duress,” they claimed.
Several attempts to obtain comments from Education Minister Dr Reddy on the matter yesterday were unsuccessful.
December 2, 2014
Please Check against Hansard and Delivery
The 2015 Appropriation Bill has been scrutinised during parliamentary debate for the last few days.
A national Budget is an important statement for all our people. It lays the income and expenditure statement of the Government for the ensuing year.
But more importantly Madam Speaker, a Budget is supposed to be a statement of confidence, unity and a national strategy for development.
The 3.336 billion dollar budget has been described as a mother of all budgets by honourable members on the other side of this House. We have heard stories of stones changing into rocks in quick time as they are pushed from a road.
We have heard of the sky shining brightly making me wonder if the sun, moon and the stars that have shone brightly before the history of mankind, have suddenly disappeared. And we have heard of the need for the Opposition to get listening or hearing aid and to listen to and see things carefully.
The honourable member from Ba can be rest assured that we have certainly been listening and watching things carefully as far as his conduct, as they say in sporting terms, on and off the field is concerned, but Madam Speaker, it would be un-parliamentary for me to report our observations.
Madam Speaker, I do understand that Government is overly concerned about its electoral promises. However, Government should not be driven by its political interests but to take heed where our nation is heading. It is important that the Budget is used to build productive capacity in the economy.
Our debt level is steadily rising. What future are we bequeathing to children and grandchildren? As the saying goes, blessed are the youth for they will inherit the national debt!
One perfectly understands Government’s aim of creating economic growth and attracting greater investment but investment, apart from being based on external factors is dependent on confidence. And confidence is a fickle thing.
In this regard Madam Speaker, I have serious doubts about the revenue forecast of 3.1 billion dollars for next year. We can see that, apart from Government’s intention to borrow 363 million dollars, reduction in deficit is reliant on sale of profitable State assets that the Honourable Finance Minister describes as divesting Government shares. As the saying goes, it is the same difference. Whether you sell or divest shares, it means the same thing.
Madam Speaker, selling off profitable State assets for the purpose of balancing our books or reducing deficit is like selling one’s soul for 30 pieces of silver. Government is proposing to sell three key assets namely our Ports, Fiji Electricity Authority and Airport. It would have made sense if non-profitable State assets, statutory organisations or government commercial companies are sold or government shares divested (as the Finance Minister likes to describe it) to cut State losses and make these organisations more efficient in service delivery.
But why sell assets that lay that lays the golden eggs? And what about job security of the workers? The Honourable Finance Minister indicated to Parliament three days ago that talks have already begun on the sale of our Airport. Why the secrecy? Why can’t the Finance Minister tell us who are the interested buyers?
Madam Speaker, will a new employer, even a minority shareholder, honour existing jobs and collective agreements of the workforce in these State entities? I am sure any new owner or even a majority shareholder will clearly say, “Yes we are a new legal entity. We do not know your previous agreements. If you want to work for us now, hereon, you will have to work according to terms and conditions that we lay down”.
Now Madam Speaker, both Airports Fiji Ltd and Fiji Electricity Authority are very profitable organisations. They are not losing money. In the case of FEA, even if its loans are guaranteed by Government, its financial statements as well as government guarantees scrutinised by the Auditor-General reveal that FEA is more than capable of fulfilling its repayment obligations.
Therefore it makes little commercial sense for Government to sell these assets. Some 507 million dollars is being forecasted as revenue for the State from these sales. If this is realized, then it caters Government’s appropriation needs in terms of reducing deficit for one year. What happens in 2016?
Will it, Madam Speaker, mean increased borrowing to reduce the deficit or meet our capital and expenditure budgets if the national appropriation sits around the current levels? Will it mean identifying and selling off more of the dwindling list of assets that we have? These are pertinent questions that need answers.
Madam Speaker as the Opposition spokesperson for National Disaster Management, I see that Government has allocated a sum of $3 million for disaster rehabilitation and disaster risk and mitigation.
I am sure that more funds are needed for disaster rehabilitation and one million dollars allocated specifically to this programme is not enough given the adverse effects of the drought. While there is provision for more allocation from the miscellaneous Head of the Budget, there is no allocation for dredging of major rivers, particularly Nadi as parts of Nadi is below sea level.
We all know the natural phenomenon that after a drought there is always a major flood, the two recent devastating floods of 2009 and 2012 are a testimony to this fact.
Furthermore Madam Speaker, the Honourable Ministers for Agriculture, Sugar and National Disaster Management should inform this Parliament if any survey has, is, or will be done by their respective ministries to assess the impact of the drought on agricultural crops, livestock and sugar.
Only a comprehensive survey will able to determine the kind and amount of assistant and crop rehabilitation packages needed for the recovery of these industries or sectors. With intermittent rain being experienced in the drought affected areas, the time is now right to rehabilitate the crops but this can only be done through proper management and utilization of funds in the relevant areas.
Madam Speaker, my honourable colleague the Tui Cakau Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu spoke about the urgent need to revitalize the sugar industry through injection of meaningful and sustained funding.
In my maiden speech on 16th October, I had pointed out that the industry’s crop production had declined by 50%. There has been a slight improvement when one looks at the end of season statistics for the 2014 season. Cane production is 1.83 million tonnes with sugar production at 226 thousand tonnes. But Madam Speaker we are still a long way from achieving a production of more than 3 million tonnes of cane and 300,000 tonnes of sugar.
I see that the Fair trade coordinator and development manager Habib Khan through the media recently also emphasized this fact by saying around 3.6 million tonnes of cane was needed to be produced in the next three years.
I could not agree with him more but Madam Speaker if the TCTS ratio of 8 tonnes to one tonne to sugar is maintained from his season then 3 million tonnes of sugarcane will produce 375,000 tonnes of sugar. This will be the ideal minimum benchmark.
The Honourable Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar while addressing the 46th session of the ISO Council in London on November 29th said and I quote: –
“The abolition of EU sugar production quotas post 30 September, 2017 and the consequent adverse implications on sugar prices poses a very big challenge indeed. Moreover, EU sugar prices have already come under pressure, with significant falls compared to prevailing prices over a year ago. So suppliers like Fiji are having to prepare for a reduction in our export revenues even before 2017 – a sobering prospect for any developing nation”. –
A sobering prospect indeed Madam Speaker. The allocation of 5 million dollars for cane planting for the last few years has seen little impact in the increase of cane production. Much more is needed. I can see from the Budget that there is a little over 36 million dollars listed under Head Number 35 as Aid in kind from the European Union for social mitigation programme. There is no explanation in the Budget Estimates or in the Supplement as to what his means and the Minister for Finance in his right of Reply should clarify this.
The issue of expiring leases Madam Speaker is a factor that is significantly affecting the productivity of cane farmers and the industry as a whole. The Fiji Sun on 4th November 2014 reported under the heading “6284 land leases renewed under Bainimarama leadership”, quoting the Permanent Secretary for Sugar Manasa Vaniqi as saying that reforms undertaken by the Bainimarama government in the sugar industry had resulted in the renewal of 6284 sugarcane land leases.
But Madam Speaker, the official statistics from the i-Taukei Land Trust Board shows otherwise. The statistics show that from 1997 to 2014 8151 cane leases have expired. A further 1373 leases will expire in the next three years until 2017 bringing the total to 9524. Only 5105 or 53.6% of leases will have been renewed.
The Honourable Minister for Agriculture Inia Seruiratu is right that land has been the subject of exploitative politics. But he is wrong in blaming past governments for this problem. Between 2007 and 2014, when there was no democracy, 2899 cane leases expired. Out of this 1722 cane leases orb 59% have been renewed. Between 1997 and 2006, 5252 cane leases expired. 3001 cane leases or over 57% 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. This is 49.25% rate of renewal, worse than the period of what Honourable Seruiratu describes as race-based politics.
Madam Speaker there is an urgent need to resolve the issue expiring ALTA leases to have a viable sugar industry beyond 2017.
December 2, 2014
(Please Check Against Delivery)
Madam Speaker, it is my honour and pleasure to present a response today to the budget address as a Shadow Spokesperson for Immigration, National Security & Defence.
This is not a task that I take lightly for my views on the matter of national security and defence are no secret.
I take this opportunity to say upfront that what I say here today – I say with a lot of love.
Love for the institutions, the country and all of us – the people of Fiji.
I will continue with the Shadow Finance Minister’s emphasis on good governance as the absolute foundation of good economics.
The Government address by the Honourable Minister has us fixated on moving forward and this Budget is the government’s part in that push forward.
And, it is the responsibility of a good and responsible Opposition to continue to express caution and constructive opposition where it is required.
Especially if we have been on a perilous pathway so that we avoid repeating mistakes. Yes, no one person or thing is perfect.
But this morning, I say to this Honourable House that some mistakes are all too legible and costly.
In looking to learn from the past Madam Speaker, allow me to touch on the cost of coups and the steady “mission creep” of military spending to emphasise the point of past journey’s and pathway’s.
It is also the context in which the 2015 Budget, particularly military spending sits.
In the Budget Estimates for 1988, we learn that the actual total expenditure for the Royal Fiji Military Forces for 1986 was $16,518,000.60.
The 1986 Estimates also show as an interesting indicative point of comparison, that the Estimates for Health Services was almost three times more than the RFMF budget.
1986 as we are all too aware was the pre-coup year.
Moving swiftly on through the years, especially the post-coup years, mission creep of military spending continued and thrived.
By 2001, the year after 2000 coup, the RFMF’s actual total expenditure was $79,346,000.50.
By 2007, a year after the 2006 coup, the RFMF’s actual total expenditure had catapulted into the 100-million dollar mark and total actual expenditure was pegged at $126,285,000.10.
For 2015 Madam Speaker, People of Fiji will be expected to now cough up the bill for military expenditure that hovers close to the $200-million dollar mark.
What is more disconcerting is that the estimated cost is not presented as per the norm under one Head, but the costs have been insidiously spread out across several Heads.
The intent perhaps to hide the glaring burden on the nation’s coffers.
Madam Speaker, I am no economist but my rudimentary understanding of economics from my second favourite economics teacher Ms. Singh at Suva Grammar (she is now relegated to second favourite as i have had the great fortune of listening to and learning from the Professor of Economics sitting next to me for the last year) – but back to Ms. Singh – her favourite mantra was that resources are scarce and we have to make the best possible use of those resources for maximum benefit.
Therefore, as responsible elected representatives of the people who all pay taxes directly and indirectly – we have to ask the hard questions:
a. Do we all agree with this ‘mission creep’?
b. Do we all agree that the steady increase in military funding from 1987 up to and including Budget 2015 is the best use of scarce resources for the maximum good?
c. Do we all agree that “mission creep” or the steady increase in military spending is to be allowed to continue and for how long?
d. Do we all agree that all of this military spending is the best use of our scarce resources?
e. Have we critically evaluated the benefits (if any) and disadvantages of lavishly funding our military?
f. Apart from the dichotomy between military coups and peacekeeping for the moral free zone that is the United Nations (and perhaps it is no dichotomy) – what are we funding our military for?
g. Do we all agree that all of the money diverted to the military is best spent there over and above building more and better schools and hospitals?
h. Do we all agree that all of the money diverted to the military is best spent there over and above better wages and salaries for our government nurses, teachers, doctors and all of the other civil servants? I will make special mention of the village nurses and turaga ni koro in villages who perform important functions for the State for almost no pay at all.
i. Do we all agree that all of the money diverted to the military is best spent there to unnecessarily rack up national debt for our children and grandchildren to pay?
j. Couldn’t we use all of the money diverted to the military to train our people inside and outside of the military for far better employment that does not include coup making or peacekeeping for the moral free zone which is the United Nations?
k. Couldn’t we use all of the money diverted to the military for job creation for the young people looking for jobs?
l. Couldn’t we use all of the money diverted to the military for better health care equipment at our hospitals?
m. Couldn’t we use all of the money diverted to the military to give more funding for scholarships to our young people?
These questions Madam Speaker are to be considered in light of the fact that the greatest security breaches and threats that this country have known have been from our military.
Giving them more and more money will only encourage them to believe that they are the final arbiters of fact and issues in national public life – that they know much better than the other Fijians, including all of us who speak through the ballot box.
This is significantly encouraged too by the military’s elevated status, written in the Constitution of 2013.
I say again Madam Speaker before I end my small contribution this morning – I have said all that I have said with a lot of love.
It has not been said to target any individual or group but as a means of reflection as we move forward.
I am confident that many men and women serving in our military will agree with having the hard discussion – as they too would appreciate up skilling and alternative employment, they too use our government services and they too have children and families who use public schools and young people in their families who expect and want much better employment and other opportunities that the government can create the environment for – if only it had the extra few billions that coups have cost us – so too the hundreds of millions diverted to unnecessary military spending.
Thank you Madam Speaker.
Madam Speaker, May I first of all thank the Honourable Leader of the Opposition and SODELPA Leader (Ro Temumu Kepa) for giving me this opportunity to address the House on the 2015 Budget, as the Opposition Spokesperson on Finance while being the Leader of the National Federation Party.
I thank the Minister for Finance for the budget address. I also thank all the senior civil servants for their work and input in the budget. It is of some relief that our national budget can finally undergo some semblance of public scrutiny after 8 years of a military dictatorship. We remain hopeful that the establishment of parliamentary democracy will bring about confidence and we do expect investors to expand the scope of their investment so that Fiji can realize better growth in the future. However, this confidence could erode quickly if we are not able to quickly bring about media freedom, the removal of fear, removal of the some of the draconian decrees and overbearing micro-management of the economy.
Madam Speaker, Before I move on, I must record the Opposition’s dismay at the lack of respect shown to members of Parliament and tax payers who foot these costs by the Minister of Finance in not making his budget speech and budget estimates available to parliament on time. Many of us did not receive the Budget Estimates until 22 November and the budget speech came six days later on 27 November, which is a clear departure from the rules set out both in our Standing Orders and the Constitution. I don’t think this has ever happened in the history of Fiji. Of course this allows the Finance Minister to get undisputed praise for all the positive aspects he talked at length about, without the Opposition Members and the public being able to criticize weaknesses.
Only yesterday Madam Speaker, the Minister for Finance once again tried his excellent salesman skills by telling us that the Supplement to the Budget Estimate was in fact THE official Budget Document. Nothing can be further from the truth. During his maiden speech he displayed his lack of mathematics knowledge. Yesterday in Parliament the Minister showed his lack of understanding of vocabulary.
The document that he referred to yesterday was the Supplement to the Estimates. Surely Madam Speaker, the Minister knows that Supplement means completing or enhancing something. Just like Vitamin Supplements or Supplementary Questions that have been asked in this Parliament. This Supplement to the Estimate contains details of programmes. The Estimate, Madam Speaker is THE official budget document. It outlines the total Appropriation Bill from Head 1 to Head 52. This Parliament, like our predecessors will have to scrutinise each individual Head and programme in the Committee of Supply, as stipulated in the Standing Orders. Even the publication of the Supplement is not a normal practice but a waste of taxpayer funds.
This document, Madam Speaker, the 2014 Budget Estimates is the complete document. It contains the full Estimates of individual Heads and programmes. This long-standing budgetary practice was adopted by his predecessor and Prime Minister as well as other former Finance Ministers. Therefore it is grossly misleading that the 2015 Estimates say in bold print “As presented to Parliament” because it NEVER was and this is a breach of the 2013 Constitution and the Standing Orders.
Madam Speaker, There is great room for improvement by this government to display magnanimity after winning the election. It continues with its egotistic, know-it-all, dictatorial and vindictive attitude and has presented a budget, which in the medium-to-long term is going to make our future even bleaker. It is a budget, which is going to increase the gap between rich and poor. It is a budget that is going to increase income inequality continuing with previous tax policies, such as the increase in VAT and reductions in income and corporate tax, brought in by previous budgets. Above all it is a budget which is unrealistic and unsustainable in the medium term based on likely recurrent revenues. As I said in my maiden speech, Fiji today is a work in progress and my hope was that this budget was going to give the country a vigorous impetus to turn back the negativism that we have seen in the last several years and build the Fiji of tomorrow despite the uncertain and somewhat unpredictable global environment.
Madam Speaker, In the first part of my response, I will deviate from the norm of just looking at the allocation on which a lot of time was spent in the budget speech. A budget of 3.3 billion dollars comprising, water subsidies, electricity subsidies, subsidies on medicine, free education, bus fare to students are all positive features that have been continued from last year and we welcome this. But these alone cannot be the only thing one can talk about in reply to a national budget.
Madam Speaker, A national budget is a central political process. It is not only a process which lays down the expenditure and income of the government but provides a platform for a long-term vision for our country, political credibility and confidence for the future. It is about achieving resilience in the face of adverse conditions and improving Fiji’s fiscal position so that we are not caught in the headlights of global capital market concerns with high and rising debt. The budget is about mobilizing the people’s creative energies to collectively move the nation forward. It is essentially about building trust in the economy.
There are elements in this budget that can be measured quantitatively. They are important but they are not everything. Issues such as vision, leadership, governance, genuine democracy and the quality of life of people on a sustained basis are equally important. A budget is an opportunity to sow the seeds of inclusivity by reaching out to all the people with sustainable economic and social policies.
2. Need for good governance to implement the budget successfully
Madam Speaker, In the last 8 years we have seen a rapid breakdown of state institutions, and the ineffectiveness of them to work for the benefit of the people. Minister after Minister admitted in their maiden speeches that not all has been good in their Ministries these last eight years during which the Bainimarama Government has had total control without having to account to tax payers of Fiji. The Minister for Health laid down a number of problems in the health sector: lack of doctors, lack of nurses, equipment, lack of timely services, lack of drugs in hospitals and so on. The Minister for Education has already started in earnest with reforms in his Ministry and has pointed out things like the lack of commitment from teachers and an inadequate curriculum. He has already announced the reintroduction of exams which were abolished by the previous Bainimarama Minister for Education, as well as other major changes.
Others also pointed out problems in their various ministries. It is a clear admission that the Interim Government had lost its way in many areas. It is a clear demonstration of the failure of governance, reform and policy over the last eight years for which they were predominantly in control. Esteemed Madam Speaker, allow me to remind the Minister of Finance of the famous words of Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts And not everything that counts can be counted”
At the heart of our country’s problem in the last 27 years and indeed exacerbated in the last 8 years has been the lack good leadership and appalling standards of governance at virtually all levels. The unleashing of bad governance, lack of accountability and transparency after all the coups has become a norm. Good governance is not merely a cliché and catch phrase. The principles of it are logical, equitable, transparent and of critical importance for the progress and prosperity of our beloved nation.
Government has talked about the civil service reform and that is welcome. However, the civil service deterioration and militarization has been presided over the interim government. Public service must always remain an independent and impartial implementer of government policies. The government of the day makes policies and the civil service implements it. The role of the Public service commission has been destroyed. The decision to give permanent secretaries powers for the recruitment, promotion etc is a regressive step. The government must revert back to the old principles and robust and consistent Public Service Commission and it should be given the responsibility to manage the public service in the public interest.
Government has talked about the civil service reform and that is welcome. But reforms must empower public servants to undertake decisions regarding implementing policies made by Government. What we have today is a civil service that is besieged, that is demoralized and fearful. Many senior civil servants feel terrorized and insecure about their jobs should they disagree with their masters, and are unwilling to make decisions or are simply not allowed to make decisions. The reform must there put in processes and policies where civil servants take ownership of implementing and enforcing policies in an independent and impartial manner. There can be no room for an overlord mentality.
Madam Speaker, Let me say a bit more on governance at the Executive level, the Cabinet. The imposed Constitution clearly mandates the Attorney General as the Chief Legal Adviser to the Government. That is why in most parliamentary democracies, the Attorney General comes from outside the elected members but when they come from the elected members, they hold only that portfolio. What we have in Fiji today is that the Attorney General will end up advising himself and making the decisions himself as Minister responsible for Finance, Planning, Statistics, Public Enterprises, Public Service, Information, Civil Aviation, Parliament and Elections. Might I also hasten to add that the Attorney General is also the General Secretary of the Fiji First Party.
Madam Speaker, If anyone wants to see and understand the paradox of good governance they should study Fiji now. There is more than one PhD thesis possible! Continuing on the paradox of good governance, we have a litany of examples of nepotism in appointments in the civil service, statutory organisations, appointments of boards and their chairman. The Government worryingly continues to hold Executive Chairmanship of a number of key organisations.
Madam Speaker, Please I repeat what I said in my maiden speech in October. The continuation of regressive and draconian decrees will render meaningless all talk of Fiji once again being a genuinely democratic nation. The Media Industry Development Authority Decree, the Essential (Employment) National Industries Decree, the Political Parties Decree must be repealed by Parliament because they curtail the rights of the media, ordinary workers, trade unionists, and ultimately our people.
Madam Speaker, The fight against corruption is an important element of Good Governance. The setting up of FICAC is an important development but FICAC must be allowed to operate independently and must not be used by government to intimidate and harass its opponents. On a score of 4 out of 10 Fiji was ranked 55 out of 159 countries in 2005 and we don’t have the scores for the last several years. Fiji also had below average integrity ratings as measured by the Annual Corruption Perceptions Index. This means that most people think at corruption level in Fiji is very high.
3. Discussion of the Budget
Madam Speaker, We were looking for a vision in this budget, something to spark the imagination of the people. A clear vision of a worthwhile future that stretches beyond what we have in this country today. This budget and this government have gone into what we would call a brain glitch because they cannot truly see the basis of the future for this country. They talk about mandate, yes they may have the mandate of 59% of the voters in this country but Madam speaker when Governments after winning begin to talk about mandate, you know that they have simply lost the plot and have no original ideas.
We can understand what might have happened in the last 8 years. We are not even going there. There is this strange view that business as usual in governance would be good. Some supporters in the media parrot the view that if they talk about following Singapore’s model, Fiji could become like Singapore. What utter nonsense and shallow journalism! Singapore’s context is totally different and there is no relevant comparison to Fiji’s circumstances. If there is any country we should try to compare and emulate, it is Mauritius. If we have to learn anything on good governance we should learn from Mauritius. A country with a genuine democracy, a country with a good sugar industry, a nation that welcomes millions of tourists, which attracts large foreign investments; a country which has free education from pre-school to the University, free medical for every citizen including heart surgery. A country, which has an unregulated media and where the media freedom, is not under threat from draconian decrees. A country where trade unions flourish and defend worker’s rights. A country where an electoral system rules under which free and fair elections are conducted. A country which had an average growth rate of more than 5 percent for more than 30 years. The heart of Mauritius’s economic and social success is Good Governance and genuine democracy, and the absence of a powerful military that does coups every few years, and retards the country by decades, every time it does so.
Madam Speaker, Unfortunately, the government seems to have looked for a bad example from Mauritius and that is to follow their model of government acquiring fuel in bulk, and supplying it to private companies. This is a bad decision in which the specific details of the benefits to the taxpayers are absent, while an initial investment of $250,000 is to be made that will for sure – and we will all be witness to this come next year – suggest a more taxing burden of even more public funds in such a huge, volatile and investment-intensive sector. This is yet another example of government trying to meddle in the economy unnecessarily. What we can already envisage happening, is that it will eventually lead to increase in fuel prices and it would be very difficult to control. It will be open to abuse and control and manipulation by a few. Energy security is central to the economy of any nation and any central control over the supply of it should always be treated with great caution. We suggest that if the government’s sole objective is to stabilize fuel prices, then, there is a better way of doing it. Government should set up a Stabilization Fund through a levy which can be used to do that. This will avoid the set up another state venture and the yet unknown flow-on associated costs.
Madam Speaker, This budget lacks clarity in direction and depth. There does not seem to be a coherent link between vision and action and between strategy and objectives. There is confusion and inconsistency between the economic policies and some ill-devised populist policies. We are talking here about a budget of a nation and not a company. As stated by Nobel Laureate in economics, Paul Krugman ‘A Country is not a Company’. This means that a national budget must be based on some general principles and not some specific strategies that are normally used by private companies. For example, responsible governments do not make tax policies targeted at certain individuals or companies, offer tax breaks to some and not others, duty concessions to some and not to others. There have been several cases of this in the last 8 years and I see that being continued. The only difference this time around is that there will be vigilant oversight from the Opposition.
4. Reforms and Cost of doing Business
Madam Speaker, For the last 8 years Government claimed that their reforms have improved the business environment in the country. However, the IMF in its recent report says that deeper and more rapid structural reform is needed to lift Fiji’s potential growth and reduce external vulnerabilities and reduce poverty. The report further states that ”priority should be given to improving the investment climate by streamlining government regulations, relaxing price controls while protecting the most vulnerable and further enhancing of the use of land and upgrading infrastructure.”
Fiji’s rankings on starting a business, highlights the number of procedures for starting a business and the numbers of days to register a business have all increased in 2013 compared to 2012. These suggest that compared to other economies, bottlenecks for starting a business have increased in Fiji. The aggregate ranking on the ease of doing business for Fiji in 2013 was 60 out of 185. In 2014, Fiji’s ranking went down to 73 and further decreased to 81 for 2015. In terms of starting a business, we rank 160 out of 189. Investments cannot be expected to thrive in Fiji under these conditions.
Madam Speaker, We can only improve our business environment and the cost of doing business if government stops micromanaging the economy. It has it hand in every aspect of the economy and has created unnecessary bottlenecks at all levels. Those responsible for facilitating business are in a state of paralysis. At one time in India they used to describe these conditions as “Inspector Raj”. In Fiji, we have ended up with a ‘decree raj’ or as some say the ‘Attorney General’s raj’. Government really has “no business being in business” neither is that what they’re being paid to do.
5. Economic Growth
Madam Speaker, One of the strangest aspect of this government’s eight years is that they have been “business as usual”, without a single major government initiative to create new industries with good incomes.
There are two areas which we economists have been advocating for more than a decade which are call centre and data processing industries (which require cheap telecommunication charges which we have failed to deliver), and a retirement homes industry which requires specialist medical services for the elderly, which Fiji currently lacks. There are some good moves in the latter direction with FNU initiatives, Madam Speaker, but we have been hearing this since 1999 when Apollo Hospitals first approached Fiji, and little has been done since.
On the retirement homes front, Madam Speaker, this government has put a spanner in the works, by banning the sale of freehold residential land to foreigners, which will actively discourage many overseas retirees to Fiji, and the employment and capital they have been bringing.
This government has continued to claim unprecedented growth and they have claimed credit for it. It appears that the word unprecedented has been misused in an unprecedented manner. Government claims a lot of credit for recovery in the economy and they make it sound as if this is the only government which has done something to achieve high growth rates. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Fiji in the first decade of independence, grew at an average of more than 5%. If we did not have a coup in 1987, if we did not have another one in 2000, we would have grown at an average growth rate of more than 5% for the last 30 years. That would indeed have been an unprecedented achievement.
But more importantly, Madam Speaker, let us be clear where this moderate growth over the last four years is coming from. Is it coming from the private sector? Is it inclusive? Has it created many jobs? Is it coming from our local businesses, big, medium and small?
Madam Speaker, much of the growth between 2012 and 2014 has been borrowed growth and public sector investment with very little private sector commitment. The Bainimarama Government has freely borrowed from FNPF (whose board it totally controls), and even increased our borrowings from abroad, thereby increasing our overseas expenditure.
The only thing unprecedented and historical about these past 8 years, part from the propaganda and hype from government ministers, is the increasing bondage of debt our people have been placed under, and sweetened only by the meagre freebies that are not really free but paid for by themselves, and VAT in particular whose burden falls on the poor and middle classes. Never in the history of this country have we used such unprecedented expansionary policies based on borrowing. The Honourable Prime Minister keeps talking about the NBF saga and he is right in saying that we should not repeat that. The $220 million loss from the NBF saga indeed was a big hole in the nation’s coffers and had to be paid for by increased public debt, financed by the $253 million sale of government’s ownership in ATH shares.
But Madam Speaker, the massive infrastructure spending last year and the allocation of more than 630 million for next year funded through borrowing and planned asset sales of more than 500 million could leave the biggest dent yet in our budget and it is our people who will be shackled by the burden of debt. This is unprecedented.
Also unprecedented, Madam Speaker, and bigger than the NBF disaster, is the massive losses made by Bainimarama controlled boards of FNPF investments at Natadola and Momi, where more than $350 million have already been written down, and more will probably be written down in the future, as this government experiments with building five star resorts, which function should be left to our tourism industry and the private sector. It will be interesting if not painful for taxpayers to see if this Government will lose more of their money in the investments at Momi.
6. Revenue and Expenditure policy
Madam Speaker, If we analyse the revenue and expenditure policy between 2009-2013 we find that government has increasingly relied on indirect taxes. In 2011 government increased the VAT to 15%. VAT is a regressive tax and the burden of this tax falls more heavily on the poor. In addition, from 2010 government also increased fees, fines and charges, which are again a huge burden on the every day person in this country.
In 2013, the capital budget was underspent by $140 million and similar patterns are bound to be found in 2015. I expect that in 2015, the $653 million allocated to Fiji Roads Authority will not be spent and if it is spent it will be spent in a hurry at the end of the year, just as it was done this year, with much wastage. Inflating expenditure and not delivering it has been the strategy used by this government to take the people for a ride. This budget priority for the second year running must ensure that the bulk of these funds remains in Fiji and the money is used for the purposed that it was intended. We will vigilantly monitor from this side of the House to see that it is so.
In 2014 for example, about $400 million from asset sales has not been realized. But the government still claims that its deficit will be only 2% of GDP. How did they arrive at this? The only conclusion we can draw is that they would not have spent what they told the people in the budget. Most funds are under requisition and government has used that to withhold expenditure and probably used that to manage its cash flow. For example, the $10m for first home buyers in 2014 has not been used by many people and I am aware that just prior to Election’s there were showy newspaper advertisement but there was never any intention to actually spend that money.
7. Government Debt Position
Government debt has increased by $1.136 billion between 2006 and 2014. This represents a 39 percent increase over that 8 year period. Debt as a percent of GDP has fluctuated between 48 to 53 percent during the same 8-year period.
There was a sharp increase in deficit (as compared to previous years) in 2009. This increase also reflects the fact that the government moved away from a position of fiscal consolidation adopted in 2007 and 2008.
Government guarantees and contingent liabilities are fiscal obligations contingent on the occurrence of particular events. These obligations are not budgeted and accounted for or considered in conventional fiscal analysis. However, to have a complete scenario of the fiscal position, government obligations outside its budgetary system should be considered.
Between 2006 and 2012, guarantees and contingent liabilities have increased by $748 million or 56 percent. In 2012, it stood at 28.8 percent of GDP. Therefore, one can add 50.9 percent (% debt to GDP) and 28.8 (% guarantees and contingent liabilities to GDP) and argue that total stands at 79.7 percent of GDP.
Although the debt (without contingent liabilities) should not raise immediate concerns, the government should outline a debt policy for sound and effective management of public debt to a sustainable debt position in the medium to long term.
There is another serious question to the government’s contention that the deficit for 2014 is 1.9 percent of GDP. If we exclude the revenue from the sale of government assets, the budget deficit would be 7.8 percent of GDP. Is the government deliberately using the old Government Financial Statistics (GFS) standards instead of new Financial Statistics?
This is a pertinent question because if the government had used the new Government Financial Statistics of 2001, then the sale of government assets would not have been treated as revenue and the budget deficit would be 7.8 percent of GDP in 2014, not the 2.0 percent they are boasting about.
Madam Speaker, Another notable trend is the steady increase in overseas borrowings. Repayments for these borrowings would have to be in foreign exchange. The global bonds of USD $150 million was a standby facility at 6% interest rate under the SDL government. The interim government used it. When it was time to pay, they went and borrowed an additional USD$250 (F$452) million at an interest rate of 9% when there were clearly options for it to borrow at a lower interest. This bond payment is due in 2016. By 2016 government would have paid $207 million in interest alone. This is $207 million that would have gone a long way towards state services such as education and health, or welfare payments. The continued overseas borrowing will require additional foreign exchange earnings. In addition, the Government must top up the sinking funds which stood at about $182 million at the end of 2013 because the sinking fund is what enables Fiji to ensure that it is able to meet its debt repayment.
Madam Speaker, The long and short of this is that the people of this country are and will continue to pay for it. Based on 2013 figures, each woman, man and child had a debt burden of about $4,440. A child born today automatically inherits a debt of $4,440 upon birth – before they’ve even opened their eyes, grown their first tooth or taken their first steps. Each household would have a debt burden of more than $20,000. Every family will forego the opportunity to buy a $20,000 car or invest $20,000 in a house because they presently and against their will owe and be indirectly paying off $20,000 towards the servicing of these loans. They are already paying for it from increased prices, poor health services etc because large amounts of funds are going towards paying our debt including interest payments. There has never been a time when the need for sound financial management has been more critical! We should set clear targets on debt and concise clear targets for borrowings. How do we spend public funds? Is spending another $12 million dollars on hosting an international a golf tournament next year the best use of public funds when it could be used to build 600 homes for our people in the squatter settlements? I take this opportunity to suggest to the government to conduct cost benefit analysis of major spending to provide clear thinking to the taxpayers regarding the worth of how their funds are spent.
8. Trade Policy
An import duty of 32% placed on all importers bar one which gets a zero duty to import cream/milk and sell them to consumers at a price which many are not able to afford, makes the argument by government to protect the local dairy industry pretty hollow. This favoured company which has got zero duty has no incentive to promote the local industry when it can continue to rake in millions of dollars by simply importing. This too is at the expense of the ordinary consumers who are paying very high prices for milk and milk products. One on hand when government is giving millions of dollars to one private company, it is trying to provide milk to class one students thereby putting more profits into the pockets of the same company.
The simpler and more sustainable policy for government would be to reduce the duty on cream and milk. This would allow every child and every family to afford milk.
The gimmicky nature of this policy by the Minister of Finance is easily seen when you ask, if tax payers are going to provide milk to class one students, why not to pre-school students who probably need milk more? What about class two students? Every child needs milk and milk products. Indeed, I would like to ask the Minister for Finance if he consulted with the Fiji Food and Nutrition Centre, whether this was the best way to tackle malnutrition among our children, throughout the length and breadth of Fiji.
There are some ridiculous discretionary tariff policies adopted by this Government, quite at odds with our commitment to WTO trends.
We urge the government to immediately review this policy. If it wants to help the dairy industry, we would suggest that it should be through direct support to the farmers in improving their pastures, breeding, infrastructure and close extension and advisory support to the farmers.
When we talk about trade policy we are not only taking about export policies and strategies. Good trade policy puts emphasis on good import policies. Protecting one company to promote local dairy industry by assisting their imports, will be a colossal failure. Import substitution policy is an age-old policy which has failed elsewhere, it has previously failed in Fiji and there is no doubt that it will fail in this case. The losers will be ordinary consumers and dairy farmers in this country.
The same kind of cronyism and favouritism in trade policy continues in this budget. It is an immature and irresponsible decision to raise duty to 32% on printing and photocopying papers and exercise books! It is preposterous to put a special rate of $1 or 32% whichever is greater on exercise books. A 200-page exercise book costing $1.70 now will cost $2.70 as a result of the increase in duty. What good then is free milk, education and bus-fares when any savings will then be diverted towards buying exercise books and paying higher prices for paper for all the children at all levels, primary and secondary, including those in tertiary education?
Another example of lack of any economic logic is the duty of $5 on blank DVD, supposedly to help protect against privacy. Again this is to protect one company. But is this simply an admission of the total failure of the Government in prosecuting the dozens of music and video outlets which sell pirated products?
Again, what is the rationale for this action. Who is this government trying to help at the expense of consumers?
It is critically important for the Fijian government to continue with the trade liberalization that it began in the 1980s. A reversal of trade policy in this area will not provide support for broad-based economic growth. Fiji’s experience from the past suggests that it cannot go back to an inward-oriented strategy by providing protection to domestic firms in order to encourage production and employment. The potato example is strongly relevant in the case against an inward-oriented strategy such as the import substitution policy. Despite the subsidy from the government to encourage farming, the industry has failed to take off. Just these last few days, we hear that the Ministry of Agriculture were importing seed potatoes from NZ, a temperate country, when we should have been importing the red pontiac variety from tropical Australia. Goodness, did our decision makers in the Ministry of Agriculture not know this simple basic geographical fact? Or were they experimenting with our farmers?????
Trade restrictions will end up restricting growth and produce a loss of real income. This will go on as long as certain sectors of the economy is protected. The argument that protection will protect jobs is not supported by the empirical literature. While protection, in the short term, may help create more jobs in the protected industry than it otherwise would be generated, it does not mean that protectionist measures can increase the total volume of employment in the economy. In fact, empirical evidence from around the world argues to the contrary. While costs such as job losses are likely from import competition, the solution to this is not trade restriction but other policies to help workers adjust.
9. Cost of Living
Since 2006, food prices have increased by 59%, heating and lighting has increased by 60% and transportation has gone up by 50%. Between 2006 and 2012 alone, food prices went up by 54% while non-food prices increased by 32%. This has left most households worse off in very real terms. In particular, households have been affected because while the cost of living rose, incomes/wages have not kept pace with most sectors across the economy. The sharp rise in food prices has disproportionally impacted the poor as poor households spend a large portion of their household budget on food.
The government has always quickly jumped to the conclusion that VAT is zero rated on basic food items. It is true that VAT is zero on tinned fish, flour and sharps, powdered milk, edible oil, rice and tea.
I challenge the Minister of Finance to show to this House that his policy has actually worked in keeping down price increases for these products between 2006 and 2014. Or have retailers taken advantage of the zero rating to still increase prices, and profits, as the Minister of Finance himself admitted at the Budget Forum.
Madam Speaker, more importantly, a typical poor household does not only consume these items. A typical basket for any poor household also includes the electricity bill, water bill, mobile phone recharge, frozen meat, bread, processed food, transportation and entertainment. Further, even the poor and the middle classes now consume more fresh meat products such as chicken, sausages, fish and goat (which have all increased in prices). The poor simply consume less meat and hence protein intakes, or consume far more unhealthy meat cuts, which are high in fat and hence extremely bad for their health.
10. Poverty and Social Sectors
The 2002/2003 Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) showed that 35% of the population lived in income poverty. The 2002/2003 HIES also showed that 40% of the population in rural areas were in income poverty. This proportion of people living in poverty in rural areas increased to 43% in the 2008/2009 HIES.
By 2008/2009, the rate of overall poverty recorded a slight decrease to 31%, particularly due a decline in urban poverty. Despite this decrease, it still remains clear that almost a third of our population live below the poverty line. This is a serious economic issue and needs to be encompassed in any agenda towards greater and inclusive economic growth. I understand the most recent HIES is being analysed now. Well, looking at the per capita growth rates of real GDP, I can say that poverty rate would still be over 30%.
Madam Speaker, in the first five years of the Bainimarama Regime, when there was economic stagnation and freezing of nominal incomes, and a decline in employment, real incomes of our people may have declined by as much as 30%, because of the continued increase in cost of living.
Poverty remains high because unemployment rates have been high and the country’s continued low economic growth has been ineffective in reducing poverty, although we expect some improvements these last three years based on the moderate economic growth and high infrastructure spending.
Fiji needs high inclusive economic growth that translates into more employment, higher earnings, and increasing family incomes. Only such changes can make any significant dent on poverty by improving the living standards of the poor and the middle class.
11. Education and Health
Madam Speaker, We wholeheartedly support the continuation of the increase spending on health and education. We support free education including for preschool.
We also support the Ministry’s plan to provide flexibility in the use of grants to schools and address student-to-teachers ratio and additional teachers. However, let me once again implore upon the Minister for Education to set up an independent education commission to look at the whole education system. The Minister for Education announced it in his maiden speech but there is no mention of it in the budget speech. We have had so many changes over the last 2-3 decades that educationally, we have gone this way and that, often reversing policy, so that today, we really don’t know where we are. An independent and expert commission should be able to provide recommendations for change which should be sustainable. The last one was set up 2000 but because of the coup the Commission could not complete its full report.
I am also surprised that University of Fiji had its allocation reduced by a million dollars. It is unclear what the basis for this was? The University of Fiji is a great example of a display of community spirit by a committed group of people to provide choice for students wanting to pursue higher education. There are so many allocations which we can point out in this budget that are not a priority and wastage of taxpayer funds. We ask the government to restore the grant to the same level as 2014 and if possible increase it to $4.5 million. Perhaps we can reduce the infrastructure budget by $2m or even $200 million, as I am sure the Honorable Minister for Infrastructure would not mind as he is well aware that they cannot spend it all in 2015, if it is done efficiently and wisely.
We support the increased allocation and the plans by the health ministry to recruit more doctors and nurses to provide better services to our people. However, there are several questions that arise from the plans for the health ministry in 2015 for the recruitment of 150 additional doctors next year. What plans has government got to recruit all of them? It is our understanding that only 75 local graduates come out every year. Where will the other 75 come from? Will graduating standards be reduced so as to increase the number of graduates? Will they be recruited from overseas? If so, when is that expected to take effect so that the new year has the full complement of 150 new doctors by January 1? As the Minister himself admitted, the real issue is quality of service delivery and I hope the public service reform will address some of the staffing issues within the Ministry of Health including allied health workers.
The $8 million allocation for free drugs for household is welcomed but consequently also raises a lot of questions on the logistics of implementation especially with regard to the income threshold requirements. Government has not come out with any clear plan. First, we understand that all current pharmaceuticals supplied in the public hospitals are already free and those available in pharmacies, 74 of them are under price control. It appears that the public availability of medicine has failed and the Government must re-look this first.
With respect to the $8 million free medication, how will government determine the $20,000 threshold? How is this to be monitored? Will the free medicine be available at all pharmacies or are only some favoured ones likely to get the nod? We suggest that Government appoint a holistic expert committee to seriously look at how this $8 million dollar free medicine is to be distributed. This $8 million allocation must reach the people for whom it was intended and we will vigilantly monitor from this side of the House to see that it is done.
With respect to Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 Fiji seems to have made good progress and that is commendable but with respect to MDG 6 and the looming NCD crisis there is room for improvement. Death rates as a result of NCD related diseases such as diabetes, pressure and heart attacks has shown significant increase over the last several years. Finally, our health budget of 2.7% of GDP and 8% of total expenditure is below the international benchmarks. We need to at least raise the expenditure to about 10% of the total expenditure. Of the $47 million increase in the health budget for 2015, about 17 million goes to capital expenditure and only 16 million for operational expenditure. This is inadequate for the Ministry if it is seriously considering improving health services at all levels. The Government should seriously consider additional allocations to operational expenditure specifically targeted to improving services at our public hospitals, reducing waiting time and improve doctor and nurse availability after hours.
12. Economic Sectors – Sugar
The Government once again congratulates itself for an increase in sugarcane production by12% in 2014 over the 2013 output. That is understandable. But they are not telling us that the number of active growers has decline to 13,000 from more than 16,000 in 2011. They are not telling us that total cane production has declined by 50% since 2006.
Madam Speaker, The truth is that the sugar industry which is still very important for Fiji seems to be on a permanent decline. Farmers have lost confidence in the industry and unless there is a major injection into the industry to restore that confidence I am afraid that the sugar industry will be dead and buried in the next 5-7 years. An allocation of $9.7 million for the industry, less than the $12 million allocated for the Natadola golf tournament, is not going to remove the binding constraints currently facing the industry.
Madam Speaker, Farmers have been short-changed over the last several years. While they have received the share for the sale of molasses, they have not received their share for the electricity generation. We suggest that FSC immediately rectify this and pay the farmers the arrears of the shares that they have not been paid. This could restore their confidence in the industry. They’re several more possibilities for high value by-products which should be considered by government.
Tourism is a key sector for our economy and will remain so in the future. But what is it that is holding back the tourism industry? What is stopping us to get a million to tourists to visit our shores? We need simple answers to these questions.
If we do a simple analysis, we find that the infrastructure is enough to get more than a million tourists to Fiji. There are enough rooms alone in Denerau that can accommodate a million tourists. Fiji Airways decision to purchase the three A330’s does not justify the fact that it can be the major carrier of tourists into Fiji. Current Fleet: 3 x A330 = 242 seats per aircraft = 726 seats per day and 3 x 737 aircraft = 150 x 3 = 450 seats per day. The total available seats per day is 1176. At 70 % seat factor we are looking at only 823 seats per day.
Fiji Airways has 300,468 seats that it is available to contribute. If Fiji Airways does trips twice daily to all destinations it will still not come close to carrying 70% of total inbound tourists.
It is also quite evident that Fiji Airways cannot be the sole contributor towards achieving 1 million tourists in the next 3 years. Partnerships with other airlines and new airlines is necessary for Fiji and the Government should consider this.
Madam Speaker, let me also say that I have serious doubts with the financial reports of the Fiji Airways showing significant profits. The financial reports should be provided in full. Additionally, we note that in three years we are in a search for a third CEO and the Airline is now being run by expatriates when many local people are available to do those jobs.
We welcome the allocation of $23.5 million dollars towards Tourism Fiji. However, we are concerned that tourism numbers have only grown by 43,000 visitors between 2009 and 2013. The record visitor arrival was achieved in 2011 of 675,050 visitors still a long way to achieving million tourists per year. There should be a total overhaul of Tourism Fiji because the best way to promote Fiji is to have our local people representing us in many of our marketing office. With the last local CEO Joe Tuamoto, we were doing well. Since 2011 Tourism Fiji has seen 3 CEO’s and now looking for the fourth one. Government wants to promote Fiji products. Fiji is a Fijian product. We must promote Fiji with Fijians. I am told some expatriates representing us in our marketing office cannot even say Bula properly!
Madam Speaker, In wrapping up, I wish to reflect on the poignant remarks delivered by the Honourable Prime Minister during his maiden address where he made reference to His Excellency the President’s reminder of this chamber having borne witness to some of the greatest moments in our history and also some of the worst.
I too, share His Excellency’s observation on the symbolism of the highest court of the land returning to this very chamber. I also share the Honourable Prime Minister’s view of the need to work together to achieve a future that our people deserve – he can count on the Opposition to do exactly that and ensure that any legislation and policies that passes through us will be robustly debated, questioned and to the best of our abilities, reflective of the good interests of the people. It is what we have been called to do.
Madam Speaker, it was reassuring to see the supplications of the esteemed Government Members of Parliament with hands outstretched from the other side of the chamber beseeching us to work together. I totally agree with that sentiment.
However in “moving forward”, as seems to be the intense catch-phrase of the Government, let us never forget how we got here and the legacy of past coups that our people who elected us, continue to be hurt by. The coup culture must be purged, and the Honourable Prime Minister has an opportunity to indeed come full circle, right these wrongs and truly, but not tokenistically, champion what is good for Fiji by convening a Government of National Unity.
Madam Speaker, our people throughout Fiji are yearning for magnanimity, wisdom, statesmanship and moderation that bequeaths a way forward that binds; that unites; that leads; that compromises and that heals
Madam Speaker, People are also looking at being freed from an environment of fear and vindictiveness… and is without vindictiveness. On vindictiveness, Madam Speaker, I have many examples. But one that I would like raise in particular is the government’s continued victimisation of former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. He was promised in December 2013 that his Prime Ministerial Pension will be restored but today he is still waiting for it. Why?
This government currently wields absolute power and has created a culture of servility and sycophancy amongst civil servants, the media, the professionals and the private sector.
In fact never in the history of Fiji have we had such shocking levels of servility, sycophancy and fear of those wielding government power. It is very depressing to find people who are fearful of even shaking hands with an Opposition member. I have taken it upon myself to assure many of them to shake hands quickly and move away lest they find themselves suddenly being considered “55 years of age”. This is real.
Madam Speaker, In a multiracial society such as ours and a presence of a strong indigenous community we must build a culture of respect, tolerance and inclusivity. We need inclusive and democratic institutions. There are many institutions that we as a country need to collectively re-look at. We need to honestly re-examine our Constitution using a consensus approach as was being done by the Ghai Commission which this Government had itself appointed, we need to build trust in our rule of law equally to all in our society without bias, we need a vibrant and independent press as an active watchdog on government and opposition. We need respect for property rights all of our people and investors both local and foreign, and above all we need to remove all forms of intimidation and fear. We need a clear pathway and mechanism to do this.
Madam Speaker, A Government of National Unity comprising representation from all our three parties, can provide one such Pathway, which would moreover give great confidence to our people and investors. All it needs is a firm first step – from both sides of the house. Lest this become construed as me personally trying to get into government, let me assure the people of this country that I would be quite happy to continue to serve Fiji as a backbencher holding such a Government of National Unity to account as part of the Opposition, with other backbenchers drawn from all our parties.
Madam Speaker, the winter-take-all concept of governance has and will result in bitter, acrimonious debates and finger pointing.
Madam Speaker, there several good policies in health and education and infrastructure that we support but there are serious shortcomings in the budget and some of the policies based on which the opposition is unable to support this budget.
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)|
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