Reply to the 2018-19 Budget Parliament of Fiji Tuesday, July 10, 2018 By NFP Whip Hon Prem Singh

Madam Speaker

Last night we heard from a honorable Government Member that Fiji only made real progress and became a modern nation after 2006. This basically means that for 36 years from 1970 when Fiji gained Independence, every decision that successive Governments made were of no value. His speech was an attempt to erase our history and sounded like Fiji was a nation, only 12 years of age!

We understand his mis-guided passion about his party because we know he is amongst many who haven’t been told whether they will get an election ticket.

The Honourable Member bragged about his profession as a pharmacist and grossly mis-read our colleague Honourable Parmod Chand’s contribution on free medicine scheme.  The honourable Member is a professional and we sincerely hope he  doesn’t mis-read a medicine prescription of a patient from his Party.

But the honourable member, who accurately dispenses medicine prescribed by a doctor to cure the illness of a patient, last night dispensed political nonsense that was prescribed for him. His script tried to dispense a product that is about to expire  in the hope that people will be fooled into buying it at a heavily discounted price. Unfortunately for him, there ARE and WILL BE no takers of both him and his soon to be expired party.

Because Madam Speaker, if everything that happened in this country for 36 years was regressive, and there was no merit in anything that was done or in the recruitment of personnel for employment, how did his leader, the honourable Prime Minister rise through the ranks to become RFMF Commander?

Why did his party’s general secretary, the honourable Attorney General, return to Fiji after becoming a lawyer, obtain decent and meaningful jobs, and become politically active by taking up advisory role to two political parties during the 2001 and 2006 general elections respectively?

Madam Speaker, after driving down the sugar industry for the last 12 years, we are at least pleased that Government has copied our idea of a guaranteed price for sugarcane of $85 a tonne of cane, which is also based on creation of a stabilization fund that will also be supported by sale of assets that Fiji Sugar Corporation doesn’t need.

At least this Government has tried to match the NFP. But the die has been cast. Our plan is vastly different. It will implement a minimum guaranteed price of $100 per tonne of cane. This means that the price of sugarcane will not be less than $100 and in all likelihood, will be more than this because our sugar production will increase and if sold at the right price, growers will enjoy a financial windfall.

Because we will not only look at pricing, we will look at the field statistics, field services and financial aspects of the entire industry. Madam Speaker, the sugar industry is far too important for it to be allowed to die a slow and painful death to the detriment of our economy, and the livelihood of some 200,000 people who directly and indirectly depend on it.

It is beyond any doubt that the industry has been run down by this government in the last 12 years because of a total lack of knowledge and experience of how the industry works – right from cane planting to sugar production in the mills. Our industry has been run by those who cannot differentiate the root of a cane stalk from its top.

And this is no exaggeration. One only has to look at Government’s 5-year to 20-year National Development Plan on Sugar to verify what we are saying.

Madam Speaker, On 25th November 2017, the honourable Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Climate Change in a Fiji Times report titled “A-G clarifies NDP”, defended Government’s 5-year and 20-year National Development Plan, saying it was based on an output from a technical group who produced results and tables and Government stuck by those results. This is after the NFP pointed out the fictional forecasts on sugarcane and sugar production statistics.

Therefore, the honourable AG and Minister for Economy stood by grossly incorrect and future outputs and results on the sugar industry, that are simply unrealistic and unachievable by every world standard. Simply, Government and has taken ownership of what can only be described as a “pie in the sky” in relation to statistical output on the sugar industry.

Madam Speaker, The use of misleading statistics and projections on sugarcane and sugar production is unbelievable. No Government in the world apart from the “worst dictatorships”, would manufacture statistics in the manner that is contained in the National Development Plan, hypocritically also labelled as being about “transformation”.

The TCTS (tonnes of cane required to manufacture one tonne of sugar), crop and sugar production statistics, both for the 2016 and 2017 harvesting and crushing seasons, as well as in the future, are “totally misleading.

Madam Speaker, the sugar industry statistics are a fraud. Even statistics for the 2016 season, which were available when the Plan was formulated, are wrong. The Plan states in 2016, Fiji produced 1.6 million tonnes of cane and 164,000 tonnes of sugar.  The correct statistics recorded by the industry and is 1.38 million tonnes of cane and 139,503 tonnes of sugar at a TCTS of 9.9.

If this is not deliberately misleading the rest of the world then what is?

The same is true for statistics and projections for 2017 to 2021. The 2017 cane production is stated to be 1.8 million tonnes and sugar production of 313,000 tonnes at an unbelievable TCTS of 5.75. No sugar producing country in the world has ever achieved or will record such a TCTS”.

The actual production in 2017 was 1.63 million tonnes of cane and 180,388 tonnes of sugar a TCTS of about 9.03.

Madam Speaker, The fraudulent concoction of figures gets worse.

For 2018, cane production is forecasted at 2 million tonnes with 361,000 tonnes of sugar produced at a TCTS of 5.54.

In 2019, cane production is predicted to be 2.2 million tonnes and sugar production is stated to be 402,000 tonnes at a TCTS of 5.47.

For 2020 and 2021, cane production is listed to be 3 million tonnes and sugar production is forecasted as 438,000 at a TCTS of 6.84.

This is a sick joke Madam Speaker.

Fiji sugar industry’s best TCTS ratio was twice 7.4 in 1977 and 1987 and 7.9 in 1975 and 1994 when the four mills produced 517,000 tonnes of sugar.

This Government is clueless about how to revive the sugar industry. The Bureau of Statistics data shows that in 2015 only 39,000 hectares of cane were harvested compared to 58,000 hectares in 2006. This is a massive decline of 19,000 hectares. This confirms that the industry has taken a nosedive under both the military regime and the Fiji First Government.

The Plan also confirms that Fiji First will not build a new sugar mill in Rakiraki following its decision to close down the Penang Mill, because cartage to Rarawai is projected for the next five years.

Here again, the Plan erroneously states that Government provides cartage subsidy to Ra growers for 175,000 tonnes of cane when the total production in Rakiraki last year was only 118,000 tonnes.

It is absolutely shameful that the honourable Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar launched such an National Development Plan during COP23 in Bonn last November, that is full of false and unrealistic projections. As the Minister for Sugar, he should be concerned about the fraudulent statistics, because the buck ultimately stops with him.

The fundamental flaw of this whole charade is that if this national plan for development for the next 5 and 20 years, is based on erroneously flawed data such as those outlined already for sugar, then naturally other sectors of development are superficial and unachievable.

But cane growers, their families, cane cutters, farm labourers, mill workers and indeed the 200,000 people whose livelihood is directly and indirectly dependent on sugar need not worry because change is coming.

Madam Speaker, the Agriculture sector has also been entangled in cobwebs under this Government and like last year’s budgetary allocation, this year’s allocation of almost $97 million will be haphazardly used like managing a disaster.

Yet on 24th March last year in Parliament, Government, especially the Honourable Agriculture Minister joked about it and poked fun at the NFP for suggesting viable and credible alternatives.

However, 6 months later in September 2017, he admitted on FBC News that Fiji’s food import bill was high and a major concern, He said Fiji was spending an average of $788 million annually over the last 5 years to import what he called “high value vegetables” like cucumber, celery, capsicum and lettuce, that could be grown locally.

And this year, what does this Government do? It reduces duty on imported fruits and vegetables to zero. This is all well and good especially for fruits not grown locally. But will it reduce our import bill? Will it encourage our local farmers to plant high value vegetables?

Madam Speaker, The plight of the dairy industry and dairy farmers is an example of another Government reform or policy that has failed to meet its objective.

The reality of our dairy industry is excruciatingly painful. An average of eighty million litres of milk is consumed each year. Our dairy industry is producing less than ten million litres of milk annually. This means that 70 million litres of milk either liquid or in powdered form is imported. It also means we are producing only twelve and a half percent of Fiji’s total milk consumption while eighty-seven and a half percent is imported.

Our dairy farmers are struggling to survive but the monopolistic Fiji Dairy Limited, a subsidiary of Southern Cross Foods Ltd continues to be a healthy profitable entity – thanks to the 32% duty concession or zero duty it enjoys for milk and butter imports.

Dairy farmers are paid an average of 80 cents per litre of raw milk, which is graded in three parts.  And the consumers are paying exorbitant prices for butter made locally from zero-duty imported butter, which is only salted and packaged here. And the consumers are paying almost $10 for 500 grams of butter.

And what of the astronomical increase in the price of beer – the drink that poor and ordinary consume socially? Is it to control NCDs, or rake in multi-millions of dollars in taxes? Madam Speaker – let me give an example – under the new price hike, Paradise Beverages sells to retailers, a carton of Fiji Bitter that we know as long-neck, at a price of $65.38 VIP or $59.98 VEP. The company retains only $24.07. We have documentary evidence that we can give to the honourable AG.

Therefore, we ask the honourable Minister for Economy to clarify whether or not Government makes a minimum of $35.91 or a maximum of $41.07 on a carton of 12 bottles of 750 ml long-neck Fiji Bitter – apart from the consumers paying 9% VAT on it in shops? If this is the case, it is daylight robbery. Government makes more money than the brewer. A social necessity for the working class is being used to make multi-millions of dollars for Government at their expense.  The case is similar for cigarettes. Without the exorbitant rise in duty, this social drink would cost far cheaper. Increasing excise duty on beer and cigarettes hasn’t reduced NCD’s Madam Speaker – we are a world leader in this. All it does is rake in multi-million dollars in revenue for Government.

Furthermore, the elasticity of demand does not reduce beer consumption! Those who prefer beer will continue to purchase it, but the costs will be borne by their families and communities. Do all families then matter in such a policy direction? Or does government revenue, trump all?

Madam Speaker, yesterday we heard of developments of informal settlements or squatters and how well this government has done. Let us go back to December 23rd 2014 and Clopcott Settlement in Ba. There was HUGE fanfare, and residents believed they were getting a permanent lease.

This was not to be. All they got was an Approval to Lease and nothing happened. Three times in this Parliament, we have asked questions about Clopcott residents. In April the honourable Attorney General in response to our question said they residents would get a permanent lease in May.

May has come and gone. We have been told by the residents that the honourable Minister for Local Government together with the Ba Town Council has held meetings with not only Clopcott but residents of other squatter settlements in Ba.

We have been told that initially the residents were given a letter asking them to pay $1500 each, which was later verbally withdrawn. Instead they have been verbally told to pay $150 each to the Ba Town Council to be paid to i-TLTB. And that they will get leases in August or September! The answer is obvious Madam Speaker.

Almost four years later, Clopcott residents, the first to receive Approval to Lease notices, will be given proper leases, if the Minister’s assurance is to go by! So much so for providing approval to lease notices and promising them to almost every informal settlement. What a farce!

Madam Speaker, we have a thoroughly disenchanted civil service and teaching fraternity. This is an indisputable fact. They are forced to retire at the productive age of 55 years – they are on contracted employment and their employment security is uncertain due to regressive policies being churned out by this government every now and then. There is huge disparity in salaries.

Teachers who have worked for more than 25 years receive less because they don’t have a degree or diploma. Those who have entered the profession recently with qualifications are paid more.

This has to change. And we will do it. We will increase retirement age to 60 years. We will throw away the contracts and put all our civil servants and teacher on permanent employment so they don’t have to worry about their job security. And we will ensure their salaries are commensurate with their qualifications and experience.

Madam Speaker, We have had 12 years of farcical, surface level solutions and pie in the sky dreams. 12 years is a long time in the life of a government. It is time this government is shown the door and allowed to wander into extinction.

May God bless Fiji