Before I begin my response on the Budget, I thank the honourable Prime Minister for his comments on buttered lamb chops and beer. I realise that this food is below the standard served in First Class on his many overseas flights. I hope during the election campaign he will spend less time flying high and more time closer to the ground so that he is in touch with the reality.
We have received a copy of the Prime Minister’s speech. No doubt it is expertly packaged by Qorvis for distribution to the media. In fact we know this. The Word version of the speech shows that it was last edited by a person called Shea Agnew. Who is Mr Shea Agnew? We can find Mr Agnew’s identity on the internet. He is apparently a “geopolitical solutions consultant” with Qorvis Communications. Madam Speaker, the taxpayers of Fiji are paying Qorvis more than one million dollars per year to write these speeches. Perhaps the million-dollar Qorvis speechwriters could write about something more important than lamb chops!
The Government says that the theme of this Budget is “all families matter”. Let me offer an alternative theme. I call it “Fear, Freebies and Failures”.
12 years is a long time for one government to be in power. And, like all governments that have held on for too long, this government has become dictatorial, arrogant and out of touch. This government does not rule by consensus. It does not rule by consultation. It rules by fear. But the Government itself is afraid. It fears criticism. That is why only the Government is allowed to speak. Anyone who criticises the Government is victimised.
This has important implications for our country. A government that will not hear criticism is not open to innovation. It is not open to new ideas and new ways of working. Whatever the Government says, it is the people, not the Government, who grow the economy. It is the people, not the Government, who know the economy. But the Government does not want to hear. It does not want to be reminded about its failures.
This year the Government has a new idea. “All Fijian families matter”. Of course, this Budget is not really about Fijian families. It is about political propaganda.
Two weeks before the Budget, on the Fiji First Party’s black and blue billboards all over Fiji, what did we see? “All Fijian families matter”. The Honourable Economy Minister managed to say “families” 75 times in his Budget speech. He thinks that if he repeats it enough times, the people will believe him. Of course Fijian families matter. They have always mattered.
But one-third of Fijian families still live in poverty. Fijian families are dying from poor health. The Government thinks it leads the world on climate change. It forgets that Fiji now leads the world in NCDs and diabetes. What about these families?
Madam Speaker, next year the Government will spend $1.5 million on the Prime Minister’s travel and $3,000 daily allowances. This is what it spent last year. But there are Fiji families who cannot even afford good food. Do these families matter?
This year the Government will spend F$8 million on a new Prime Minister’s office. But what about families waiting for their cyclone damaged houses to be rebuilt? Should we not build their houses first? Do these families matter?
The Government spends millions of dollars every year on Fiji Sun advertisements and payments to Qorvis. But Fijian families are losing their homes because the Government will not fund kidney dialysis for a loved one. Two years after we brought this issue to the House, Government will now subidise families who earn less than $30,000 a year. But that support will be useless unless it is free treatment. Kidney dialysis will now cost $150 per session. If it is subsidised by 50%, where will a family earning less than $30,000 find $75 three times a week or $225?
The Government has spent F$50 million on its COP 23 presidency; it is spending F$10 million on hosting one single international conference this year. Madam Speaker, our Government Ministers love to be pictured shaking hands with the world’s high and mighty. I have just talked about $70 million in Government spending. None of this money helps Fijian families.
Madam Speaker, the amount of money that the Government has wasted after cyclones is a national scandal. Its so-called “Help For Homes” and “Home Care” schemes were hopelessly implemented. Tens of millions of dollars was handed out to people on smart cards. The hardware salesmen quickly signed them up and debited the cards. So the hardware merchants got the cash, but the people waited for their building materials. When it arrived, it came in dribs and drabs. The cement and nails arrived first, the timber and roofing iron came many months later. By then the cement had dried up and was useless. So, Madam Speaker, how was it for these families? Did they matter?
HomeCare money bought many Samsung mobile phones and Hisense television screens. But we ask – how many victims received the full amount of $7,000? We were told during the last sitting of Parliament 56 households received it at that stage. But we visited the flood-stricken areas in the West. Many, many homes were severely damaged. The families in those houses needed more than $7,000. The Government thinks that dishing out cheques solves every problem. But for some families it is too much. For some families it is too little. And for some families it is too late. What about these families? Do these families matter too?
Madam Speaker the one thing this Government can do is spend the public’s money – as long as someone is taking a photo. For years it has handed out so-called $1,000 “SME grants”. For some reason, a Minister must always be there to give the cheques. If a Government company is paying staff bonuses, the Economy Minister will pop up from nowhere to smile and give the cheques. If there is an accident compensation payment to be made, mysteriously, he will be there again to give the cheques. Now the Government is offering $1,000 baby bonuses. But, on behalf of all Fiji families, I make this plea to the Honourable Economy Minister – please, do not turn up at the maternity hospital with your cheques. Leave your election smile and your Fiji Sun photographers in your office. Please, give the new mothers a little peace. Just pray that they vote for you.
And as all of these freebies continue, where will the money come from?
The Honourable Minister is obsessed with his debt to GDP ratio. Let us talk hard numbers instead. From Independence till 2006, national debt was a over $2.8 billion. From 2007 till now, debt has risen to almost $5.169 billion – an increase of almost $2.3 billion. So in almost 12 years this Government has borrowed $2.3 billion. And the annual debt repayment in this Budget is over $635 million.
Every month, of every year, every Fiji citizen is paying towards more than $50 million that Government has to repay towards debt and interest. Fifty million dollars a month. Think of all of the useful things we could be investing in with this money.
Because with our reckless freebie culture, every year the debt gets bigger, not smaller. So much of this money has been wasted. But there is so much more capital spending we must still invest in. Because the Government has spent poorly today, there will be less money to invest tomorrow. The Government is spending money like drunks at a nightclub. They are having a good time. But they will not be feeling the hangover. That will be felt by the ordinary people of Fiji. This mess will be for the rest of us to clean up.
Madam Speaker, there is not one new idea in the Budget speech on how to grow the economy. The Honourable Minister said that Fiji had a “business friendly climate, rife with opportunity”. He said international financial institutions and credit agencies endorsed these so-called “hard facts”.
Let’s talk about some of the World Bank’s hard facts. Every year the World Bank surveys the ease of doing business of countries in the world. Over 10 years, Fiji’s world ranking has fallen dramatically. In 2008, it was 43. Now it is 101. For ease of starting a business, the numbers are even worse. In 2008, Fiji ranked 69. Now it ranks 160.
160! Madam Speaker, there are only 190 countries in the survey. Fiji scrapes along at the bottom. No 163 is Yemen – and it is in the middle of a civil war!
This is the Government’s so-called business-friendly climate. The business community cannot tell the Government this, because it is afraid of the Government. For the business community, there is fear, but no freebies, and no-one is allowed to talk about failures. If your own business people cannot tell you about your failures, Honourable Minister, then at least listen to the World Bank!
Madam Speaker, let us move on to performance. What has been promised in past years? And what has been delivered?
In his 2015 Budget speech the Minister said (and I quote) “Madam Speaker, we expect to divest shares in the Fiji Electricity Authority and Airports Fiji Limited next year.” It is now 2018. What has the Government achieved? It has managed to change their names. But that is all. The privatisation programme has failed. No private sector partners, no revenue raising to repay debt. In fact, all the Government has done is give away more money. Now it is handing out free shares in EFL. These shares will pay $10 a year in dividends in a good year. More gimmicks. Perhaps the Minister thinks that the “E” in EFL stands for “election”.
What about public service reform? I quote from 2015: “We are not reluctant to bring in skilled administrators from abroad for these positions. We embrace the idea that doing so will yield the best talent to serve the people.” But what has happened to the people the Government brought in from abroad? The Permanent Secretary for Infrastructure? The Permanent Secretary for Communications? The chief executive of the Fiji Roads Authority? The chief executive of the LTA? The chief executive of the Housing Authority? All have resigned or been driven out. All of them have left, apparently for “family reasons”. So, Madam Speaker – obviously their families matter too!
But once they are out of Fiji, these people have spoken out. They have been dictated to, bullied or made to serve the whims of politics. They have not been allowed to do their jobs properly and professionally. Because for this Government, Madam Speaker, it is not about doing the work. It is not families that matter. It is headlines and TV that matter. As long as the Government looks good, Fijian families do not matter.
In last year’s Budget speech, the Minister talked about housing. He said (and I quote) “We are consulting with development partners, to partner with the private sector to provide an immediate stockpile of public rental housing.” And here we are, one year later, and we are still waiting. And the Government is still talking. Now, it says, it will partner with Fiji National Provident Fund. Talk, Honourable Minister, is cheap. It will get you a headline. It does not get Fijian families into houses.
What about the sugar industry? In 2006, before the coup, we produced 3.22 million tonnes of cane and over 310,000 tonnes of sugar. Last year we produced 1.63 million tonnes of cane and a 180,388 tonnes of sugar. This wasn’t a sudden decline. It was steady, declining every year since the coup.
Government says land leases have been renewed. But the number of active cane growers fell from over 18,000 to a little over 12,000 under its rule. If this Government is doing everything it can, then why the huge decline of an industry that until the turn of the century was the mainstay of our economy for over 100 years and continues to directly and indirectly support the livelihood of some 200,000 people?
After years of neglect, talk, and no action, with an election coming, the Government appears concerned. It is now throwing money around in the canefields. Last year’s Budget allocation increased to $80 million. But this year it is only $62 million. What has happened? Do cane growers’ families matter?
Madam Speaker, Government has allocated $300,000 to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the first arrival of Indentured Indians from India, which as on 14th May 1879. Again too little and too late, having rubbished our proposal in April 2016 to observe a one-off public holiday and in a bipartisanship manner organise national celebrations to commemorate the arrival of the last batch of Indentured Indians that was on November 11, 1916.
Worse of all, this Government has for almost 10 years now, unjustly banned Fiji’s finest historian and renowned academic Professor Brij Vilash Lal and his wife Dr Padma Narsey Lal from entering Fiji. A descendant of a Girmitiya and the foremost authority on the history of Girmit in Fiji and indeed elsewhere, together with his wife, have been banished from the land of their birth just because of instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office!
Finally, Madam Speaker, we get to the question of the minimum wage. If the economy is growing so fast, why can’t the lowest-paid people cannot share in this economic growth? Last year, the Honourable Minister talked up wages. He said workers on $3.50 minimum wages were getting $7 an hour. The prospects for wages, he said, were good.
But if this is true, why can’t the Government increase the minimum wage from $2.68 per hour? What about the families of the lowest-paid people? Do their families matter?
Madam Speaker, an election is coming. And the NFP is working hard for that election. Shortly we will release our manifesto. It will be focused on housing, education and health. It will be focused on a decent minimum wage and rebuilding the sugar industry. We will be cutting Ministerial salaries and allowances. We will be cutting out the international conferences and jet-setting. We will keep Ministers at home to focus on making life better for Fijian families.
Madam Speaker, I agree with the Honourable Minister. Fijian families do matter. But he and his Government are out of ideas. It is time to get rid of his government and end the climate of fear, freebies and failure. And I hope that in this election Fijian families will turn out, in their thousands, and help us end it.