Remarks by the Leader of the NFP, Hon Prof Biman Prasad at the AGM and Convention today

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Party supporters listening at the AGM and Convention proceedings held today in Rakiraki. Image (c) Sadhana Sen.
Party supporters listening at the AGM and Convention proceedings held today in Rakiraki.
Image (c) Sadhana Sen.

This is a historical convention for the National Federation Party before the 2018 General Election. It is in this town of Rakiraki that the NFP was born under a mango tree and later formalised and launched in Nadi. Just nearby the area of Nakauvadra is also the cradle of many iTaukei roots so I believe that it is no coincidence that we are gathered here today to determine our political pathway in the lead up to the 2018 Elections.

It is here that the late Alparti Tataiya in 1963 mooted the idea of justice for all, fairness for all, and equal rights for everyone to Mr A D Patel, Mr S M Koya and Mr James Madhavan. His noble virtues became the seeds for Fiji’s oldest and first political party and so was born the NFP, firstly as the Citizens Federation, with its founder leader being Mr A D Patel.

That same year Mr Patel, together with Mr S M Koya and Mr James Madhavan officially became the first Members of the then Legislative Council. And Mr Patel ably supported by Mr Koya, Mr Madhavan and later 6 more NFP Members of the Legislative Council became the winds of change all over Fiji that resulted in independence and democracy for all our people in October 1970.

And Fiji collectively and united as a sovereign nation, embraced freedom after 96 years of Colonial rule as well as the symbol that has become the most powerful source of pride and patriotism of our nation – our noble banner blue flag.

All of us here today and indeed throughout the world who have Fiji at heart are indebted to the founding fathers, our pioneer Members of the Legislative Council, and indeed the foundation members of the party who as a mighty and united collective force rallied behind Mr Patel and his courageous troops who put national interest above self-interest, made personal sacrifices, and saw their vision of an equitable, just, fair and a truly independent Fiji realized on 10th October 1970.

This had seemed impossible 10 years before 1970 but the NFP and its founders believed that nothing is impossible through consensus building, dialogue, perseverance and painstaking negotiations.

So much so that our founder leader Mr A D Patel ignored orders by doctors to strictly have a complete rest because of his health issues, tragically died on 1st October 1969 at the age of 64 years, while finalizing his speech to be delivered next day on the occasion of the birthday of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi – an icon of the 20th Century.

It is symbolic that Mr Patel had titled that speech “Hail Deliverer”. Mr Patel made the ultimate sacrifice but 374 days later on 10th October 1970 his vision of a free and independent Fiji was delivered through the Instruments of Independence by Prince Charles to our first and longest serving Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Almost 46 years later, we are fighting and waging a peaceful struggle not for Fiji’s Independence, but our Independence and Freedom from being suppressed by draconian Decrees and regressive limitations in the 2013 Constitution imposed upon this nation.

We are at the cross roads in this country. We are reeling under an imposed Constitution. We are operating a dysfunctional democracy. We are under strict media censorship. We are living under fear. We are facing a destruction of the sugar industry. We are going through the pain of high cost of living. Deteriorating health services and haphazard education reforms are a long-term menace to the future of our children. We are going through high levels of unemployment and poverty. We are going through a culture of fear, sycophancy and servility.

Despite all this we hear claims from Fiji First Government about progress. We hear about development? We hear about unprecedented levels of economic growth. We hear about becoming Singapore, even Geneva. It is one thing to have lofty ideals. It is another to use it to achieve peace and prosperity for all our people.

Government has provided support to education through free tuition and free bus fare, subsidy for electricity, water, and free medicine for those under an income of $20,000. Additionally, its social welfare payments and pensions are also helpful for those in destitution and no income support. However, all these support, when compared to the low incomes through low wages and high cost of living, dissipate into insignificance and many of the households continue to struggle to make ends meet.

Two years after the election what is the record of this government? Has growth resulted in a better life for the majority of the people? Have we been able to address the rising cost of living? Did we address the low wages for many of our workers? Have we improved our health services? Have our roads improved after massive spending by Fiji Roads Authority? Have we increased Sugar cane production? Have we increased our exports? The answers to these questions are a big no.

Yes, we have had some growth. Yes we have had increase in government spending and investment. Yes we have some speculative private sector investment. What have we achieved through these increases remains a big question?

The Fiji First Government’s scorecard since the resumption of parliamentary democracy in October 2014 is as follows: –

1. Cost of living has increased with imposition of 9% VAT on basic food items. There are people working for 40-50 hours per week and are still living below the poverty line. And most of these workers earn the basic minimum wage of $2.32 an hour, which for a 45-hour week comes to $104.40 gross or $96.05 minus the 8% FNPF contribution. There is no way a single minimum wage earner can support his or her family of an average of two adults and two children, despite free bus fare for school children, free medicine – which is shambolic or negligible water and electricity subsidies. People forget that for many goods and services, particularly in the service industry a tax of 25% is levied by businesses inclusive of the Service Turnover Tax of 10%, Environment Levy of 9% and VAT of 9%. This is 6% more than what consumers paid when VAT was 15%. So who is Government trying to fool? A major restaurant chain in Fiji displayed signage in January this year to say the prices of its products had increased because of rise in taxes, in a bid to calm down irate and unsuspecting consumers who naturally thought the prices would be reduced because VAT was now 9%. So Government is getting 6% more revenue in indirect taxes than before. However, the size of he package of freebies like bus fares for children, free medicine, electricity and water subsidies remain the same. Therefore people of Fiji are paying more taxes than the value of freebies, which camouflages Government’s deviousness in milking every penny from its citizens.

2. Excessive government influence in almost every sphere. What we see is directives, warning, false promises commonly known as million dollar talk and tragically summary dismissals of people and victimization. Crony capitalism is at the forefront of this democracy- big business is influencing the way democracy functions and how the government is run. This is similar to greasing the palms of the powers that be or those in authority. Big business and many of their executives are sitting on boards of statutory organisations, for example constitutionally created organisations like the Public Service Commission and Constitution Offices Commission. The fact is that upper middle class and business are the biggest beneficiary of government policies, not ordinary citizens and workers who contribute the most to drive the economy and ensure the profitability of the employers.

3. Weakened workforce, weakened unions- we have casual employment, intermittent employment, part-time employment and disguised employed sometimes camouflaged by ‘petty entrepreneurship’. Unions are weakened and cannot really negotiate anything decent for workers in this country including seeking increases to low and disproportionate wages and salaries of its members, as befitting a just living wage and dignity in employment.

Only two days ago in Labasa, while speaking at the Fiji Head Teachers Association Conference, the Prime Minister confirmed the Fiji First Government’s contempt for unions and workers by basically turning back the clock to the height of military dictatorship four years after his coup when the regime imposed draconian legislation like the ENI Decree to literally make workers subservient to employers. The PM said workers and unions had no right to determine who gets transferred or appointed let alone salary and wage levels in a modern day Fiji. This statement is the height of absolute dictatorship and confirms the Fiji First Government’s intention of making unions and workers totally subservient to Government in the public service and employers in the private sector.

It is a slap on the face of the two teacher unions, moreso the Fiji Teachers Union that supported the military coup of 2006v and five months after the overthrow of a democratically elected government, invited the very same person who was the coup leader and the military commander to be its chief guest at its conference in April 2007. It is also a slap on the face of the FTUC whose two leading executives embraced a military regime and gladly accepted Board appointments. And one should not forget that it was the FTUC that struck a deal in secrecy late at night early this year with Government and later informed the International Labour Organisation that there was no need for a Commission of Inquiry into union and worker rights in Fiji!

Worse still, it is a kick to the gut of workers who may have and will earn or deserve promotions and salary increases due to meritocracy and hard work but together with their respective union are powerless to seek redress if they are ignored.

The Prime Minister’s statement contravenes ILO Convention 98 that is freedom to organize and collective bargaining – a fundamental principle of any union. It also confirms Government will arbitrarily promote individual workers and determine salaries of the workforce without consulting the workers’ representatives.

This is all about crushing meritocracy and making appointments based on loyalty to bosses, which is nepotism, cronyism and polarization of the public service. And this arises from the 2013 Constitution that empowers the Minister and the Permanent Secretary to make and terminate appointments.

It is therefore of little wonderment that a school teacher was promoted to the position of Assistant Principal despite having a pass rate of only 3 students in a subject the teacher was tutoring. And this was over more capable, competent and qualified teachers for the same post!

4. This Government has horribly got its priorities wrong or is deliberately least bothered about the welfare of our teachers and students. More than 6 and half months after Severe TC Winston hit Fiji, schools are yet to be rebuilt. Whatever has been done has been by our neighbouring nations and international friends like Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. And had it not been for the assistance from our neighbours whom this Government constantly criticizes, we would be in a far worse state facing unimaginable consequences. Recently the Minister for Education stated that all damaged schools would be rebuilt by the end of the year. Two days ago the Prime Minister announced that repair works on damaged schools would start by the end of this year and contractors are on standby! Now who is right, Honourable Reddy or Honourable Bainimarama? Or is the case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing? This is the sad state of affairs in the governance of our nation. This means that once again next year our students will have to use damaged buildings and tents as classrooms yet the Education Minister expects a 100% pass rate?

5. The deteriorating state of our health services is a blight on our nation. I had asked the Minister for Health 12 questions in my Budget reply o 4th July, which he failed to answer. On 7th August I wrote to him again highlighting four major issues. His reply of three weeks later, ironically he is the only Minister who has responded in writing to a query by me or the Party, was unconvincing, other than admitting the rate of amputations of limbs of diabetic patients had increased from 2 to 3 every 24 hours. This is 1,095 amputations every year. There was no response by the Minister of the appalling salvage rates of our operating theatres that we know has dropped drastically.

Each year people with disabilities increases by 1095 from diabetic related amputations alone. This is unacceptable. To add salt to injury, Government for the last two years has refused to increase the allocation for kidney dialysis from $300,000 to at least one to two million. However, it has money to burn when it comes to giving $11.3 million to FBC, $18 million to Fiji Airways and $9 million to golf. Not forgetting the biggest chunk of the budget goes to Fiji Roads Authority with over $2.1 billion allocated over four years excluding last year’s allocation because of change in financial year. This year FRA has received $528 million while the health ministry has received $244 million. What does this mean?

It means good roads are a bigger priority to Government than the health of our people. But the condition of our pot hole riddled roads and defects in our newly built highways, coupled with delays in construction of simple bridges confirms even this massive budget has not been well spent. Government has refused to reveal how this budget has been spent in the last four years.

6. The free medicine scheme is in a shambolic state. The free medicine scheme has now expanded from the 74 items to 142. There continues to be great confusion as to what the expanded list actually entails, even from retail pharmacists. Almost all pharmacies were never fully stocked. Government’s free medicine scheme is chaotic with those eligible to access the scheme shocked to learn that not all medication is available and only selected medication can be dispensed by pharmacies. Our investigation has revealed that in the case of one pharmacy only 60 odd medicines were supplied.

Currently the particular pharmacy has only 26 medicines in stock under the free medicine scheme. In another case while a pharmacy has so far dispensed only $30 worth of medicine under the scheme, medicine valued at $500 has expired. When expired medication is returned to the Fiji Pharmaceutical Services, there is no replacement provided. We are told some three personnel are administering the scheme at the Pharmaceutical Service.

The Pharmacy Profession (Budget Amendment) Act 2015 imposes a $100,000 fine on a pharmacist refusing to participate in the scheme thereby compelling them to do so. But the Ministry has failed to provide them any support in terms of record keeping of those eligible under the scheme, storage facilities to safeguard perishable medicine or even monetary compensation for time spent in administering the scheme. Even pharmacies in hospitals and health centres have insufficient stock of basic medicine dispensed under the scheme with patients eligible for free medicine forced to buy alternative medicine not on the list. The concern is if the Ministry cannot supply 70 odd medicines, all of which except 5 are generic and cheaply sourced from approved laboratories and suppliers, how will the Ministry fulfill the new list of 142 medicines at both hospital and private pharmacies and also ensure stocks are replenished in time and reduce expiry and wastage of medicine through distribution of medicine to outlets in proportionate to the population around each centre?

The state of our sugar industry for the last ten years speaks volumes about the industry.

In some years production is up and for some production is low. There is a general improvement in the TCTS ratio in the last two years. Cane production has slightly improved for 2014 and 2015 (but it will collapse again in 2016 because of the effects of weather).

However, there is no question that in the past 10 years, all the production indicators have fallen badly. We now produce 220,000 tonnes of sugar in 2016, down from 310,000 in 2006 — 30 per cent less. We are growing 1.8m tonnes of cane in 2016, down from 3.2m in 2006 — 44 per cent less. The number of active growers has fallen by 5674 from 18,636 to 12,872.

The only reason for the Prime Minister’s anger with the NFP is that we are the only party that is questioning the value of his Government’s so-called reforms. We are doing so not to bring down the Government. We are doing so because long experience has told us what will work in the industry and what will not.

We have asked the Government to join hands with us and work together to save the industry. But the Government, as usual, wants to do things its way. It believes that it will get it right and claim all the political credit. It does not see the value of co-operation of a dissenting view. And it does not care if it is wrong — it will just think of another circus trick instead to cover up its mistakes.

The sugar industry is made up of thousands of growers. If they do not actively participate in it, there is no industry. The 1984 sugar industry reforms were increased fines and jail sentences are imposed for breaching the laws (the only draconian provision that Government has indicated it wants removed) from Bills 19 and 20 that have been rejected by farmers. But the Bills will do the following: –
* The right of farmers to elect their own representatives to the SCGC is removed; and
* The Master Award can be changed any time the Government feels like it.

It is a mystery why this Government, which forever talks about “true democracy”, is denying farmers a democratic voice.

The easy answer to this question is for the Government to say “we must take politics out of the sugar industry”. But at least if farmers elect their representatives, all farmer viewpoints are heard.

Now, the only farmers’ representatives will be yes-men from one political party.

SCGC and Master Award
The PM is not doing any favour to growers by increasing the size of his appointed council to include one representative from each of the eight cane growing districts. They will not be elected but also appointed. This is making the SCGC a toothless tiger.

Currently, the undemocratic council comprises nine appointees including six from the three cane producers’ associations, two divisional commissioners (North and West) and a representative of the Sugar Ministry. The chairman is appointed by the sugar minister who is the PM.

The new proposed SCGC will therefore have a total of 17 members. They will all be beholden to the PM because they are his appointees. Even if the six cane producers’ representatives disagree with any proposal, they will be outnumbered and outvoted.

Therefore it will be easy to change the Master Award. The PM says the Master Award can only be changed if both the council and FSC agree to the changes. That will not be hard because both are controlled by Government.

It may well be part of FSC’s strategic plan to change the current formula by which proceeds from sale of sugar are shared 70/30 in favour of growers. FSC’s plans have not been revealed. Growers are the largest stakeholders in the industry. They should work in partnership with FSC. But they have been intentionally and systematically marginalized.

Land leases
The PM has also blamed some Opposition politicians for inciting landowners not to renew leases. We agree with him that the land issue was politicised by both representatives of the landowners and the farmers from 1998. But exploitative politics is not the sole cause of land leases not being renewed.

The PM could have redressed this issue when he was in charge after the coup.

In his 2009 New Year’s message, he said 77 per cent of the land leases that had expired would be renewed. But official statistics from the iTaukei Land Trust Board show otherwise. The statistics show that:
– From 1997 to 2014 8151 cane leases expired. A further 1373 leases have and will expire in the three years from 2015 to 2017 bringing the total to 9524. – Only 5105 or 53.6 per cent of leases have been renewed so far;
– Between 2007 and 2014, when there was no democracy, 2899 cane leases expired. Out of this 1722 leases or 59 per cent were renewed;
– Between 1997 and 2006, 5252 cane leases expired. 3001 cane leases or over 57 per cent 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.

The 49.25 per cent rate of renewal under Mr Bainimarama’s leadership is worse than those of previous governments. It is almost 28 per cent below the PM’s pronouncement on 1st January 2009.

If the PM is serious about renewal of sugarcane leases, he should have imposed a moratorium on expiring leases and then negotiated lease renewal with landowners. But he did not do this.

Real alternative
The only realistic solution to boost cane production, improve the livelihood of growers and increase income for FSC is to inject $50m per year for the next three years towards growers following the loss of the European Union grant of $350m as a result of the coup.

$150m for the next three years is not a lot of money. It will be money well spent in terms of improving the livelihood of growers and generating economic growth. No growers means no FSC or the industry.

The cost of producing, harvesting and delivery of one tonne of cane averages $45-$50. With the price averaging $75 per tonne, some 9200 growers who produce less than the average 150 tonnes of cane earn a net income of $4500 in a season. This income, in annual terms, is less than the $2.32 per hour minimum wage. That is why growers are in debt in perpetuity.

We have even outlined how the $50m per year should be used.

It is absolutely necessary to provide growers a minimum guaranteed price of around $90 per tonne to give them confidence to boost production. With the abolition of European Union sugar production quotas on September 30, 2017 our industry will be doomed unless cane production is significantly boosted.

Even if we were to produce two million tonnes of cane for the each of the next three years, $30 million will be needed each year to guarantee a price of $90 per tonne. The remaining $20m can be used for cane planting programs and be provided as premiums to landowners to renew land leases of arable sugarcane land as well as supporting landowners themselves to enter sugarcane farming.

Mr Bainimarama’s military regime failed to resuscitate the industry and his Fiji First Government does not have much idea either of how to do it. We reiterate, our, the Opposition’s offer, to help revive the industry in the national interest through bipartisanship.

This means the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee on sugar to find long-term and permanent solutions. This is vitally important because the absence of such a committee, in which critical issues are resolved through consensus and dialogue, has crippled the industry.

This is the only sound and sensible solution for a way forward. Mr Bainimarama can continue with his circus tricks or he can stop being afraid of differing views and work with others who care about this vitally important national industry.

Now given the scorecard of the Fiji First Government – what is this Government doing to increase the real income of people? Nothing. And yet this Government is paying itself a hefty salary unprecedented in our nation’s history. And it has been through a Decree promulgated on 3rd October 2014 – three days before the start of parliamentary democracy.

Why would a Government promulgate a Decree just three days before the start of parliament after seven and half years of military rule? The answer is simple – to ensure they are paid handsomely.

The PM receives an annual salary of $328,750 plus hefty allowances. Before the 2006 coup, the PM’s salary was $100,000 plus benefits grossing $130,000.

This is a 210 percent increase from 2006. The Attorney General receives over $235,0000. Three Ministers namely Health, Education and Infrastructure receive $200,000 each while other Ministers get $185,000. And the allowances are so hefty that they can be used to pay salaries of many of our workers. The per diems are based on UN rate and topped up. The Decree and a ministry of Finance circular confirm this.

Yet we have a minimum wage of just $2.32 and majority of our cane farmers receive less than what even a minimum waged worker would earn on a meagre wage rate. And our ordinary MPs receive just $50,000 with no benefits at all. But we don’t mind this at all. It should prick the conscience of Government at how disproportionate their salary and benefits are to others.
Ladies and gentlemen, this can only change in the next elections scheduled for 2018. But for his to happen the electoral laws and arrangements have to change as per the recommendations of the Multinational Observer Group and the Electoral Commission to make the next elections truly credible, free and fair.

While people had the right to exercise their freedom to vote, anomalies were found in the result. In our case a candidate receive only 1 vote in 251 polling centres where he did not even go while he did not receive the desired votes in polling stations within the proximity of his residence. There was not a single vote recorded at a polling station where one of our candidates voted herself. A polling agent of one of our candidates recorded 126 votes for him at a polling station as opposed to 186 for the PM. But when the results were tabulated there was no vote recorded for him at that centre.

Both the AG and he Supervisor of Elections recently said that there would be no changes to the laws. This is even before the Report of the Parliamentary Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights is tabled in Parliament.

We are gearing up already for our 2017 AGM where we will release our policy ideas for the 2018 Elections. We are giving you advance notice one year in advance to advise that we will be seeking your views and consulting extensively on this front.

We must press on regardless. We must shirk our fear and start looking at issues critically. This is not a time to be faint-hearted. This party was born out of the struggle for dignity, equality and justice of our ordinary people.

Together, as a mighty collective force we will prevail.

May God bless NFP

May God Bless Fiji