Staggering Industry – Opinion by NFP Leader

Staggering industry

Professor Biman Prasad : The Fiji Times, Saturday November 26, 2016

“MR Deputy Speaker, one of the most remarkable stories of the last few years is the remarkable turnaround of the FSC, Fiji Sugar Corporation. Government funding to the FSC in 2011 and 2012 allowed the organisation to reduce its accumulated loss from $175 million in 2010 to $36.5m in 2011 to finally recording a profit in 2012. The FSC is now able to stand on its own two feet. Government does not need to provide it any direct funding since 2013.” — Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar Voreqe Bainimarama’s ministerial statement on sugar in Parliament on February 11, 2015 (Parliamentary Hansard).

Picture of optimism

This was the picture of optimism painted by the PM in Parliament. He also attacked National Federation Party parliamentarian Prem Singh for “misleading the nation in quoting wrong statistics about the sugar industry in an effort to paint a bleak picture of the industry”.

And his ministerial statement was basically a response to what Mr Singh had raised in both his maiden speech and reply to the 2015 Budget in Parliament in October and December 2014 respectively.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The legitimate question that arises is this: Is the remarkable turnaround of FSC that the PM referred to on February 11, 2015, the disastrous financial performance of the corporation, which having recorded so-called $6.9m profit in 2014 made a staggering $31.7m loss in 2015 financial year?

Not to be outdone, the Attorney-General and then Minister for Finance Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, while announcing that FSC would top up the fourth cane payment for 2014 season by nearly $8, said in The Fiji Sun newspaper of May 27, 2015 under the headline “Big Cane Cash”; “We are able to do this only because of the tremendous performance of the FSC under its present management especially its executive chairman Abdul Khan. We have taken politics out of the industry and given the FSC the guidance and support it needs to properly manage the industry.”

He continued: “We have Opposition figures like NFP leader Biman Prasad, hell-bent on politicising the industry and trying to impose structures that are irrelevant to the needs of farmers who can see for themselves very clearly who best serves their interests. Instead of the grandstanding by the Opposition, the FijiFirst Government is delivering real outcomes for farmers and their families.”

FSC’s financial performance, which is nothing short of scandalous, paints an entirely different picture.

Government as the largest shareholder is equally responsible for this disastrous result. Both the PM and the A-G and Minister for Economy have misled Parliament and the nation respectively by claiming FSC and Mr Khan were doing a remarkable job and the Opposition was trying to politicise the industry.

Their statements were diabolical on the face of what was actually transpiring in FSC under the leadership of Mr Khan as well as ministerial responsibility and control of the PM in his capacity as Sugar Minister.

If the PM and A-G can claim credit for any good that happens, in this case FSC’s profit in 2014, then they must also, under doctrine of ministerial responsibility, take the responsibility for their abysmal failure in monitoring the performance of FSC under Mr Khan which resulted it plummeting from a so-called profitable organisation to a colossal financial disaster. This is unprecedented.

Direction change

I believe it has become clear that the FijiFirst Government is clueless about reviving the sugar industry which is staggering towards death. This is inevitable unless Government immediately changes directions and bites the bullet — or simply swallow the bitter pill that it simply cannot enforce its reforms arbitrarily without the participation, input and consent of all stakeholders of an industry that had been the lifeblood of Fiji’s economy for more than a 100 years until more than a decade ago and still, directly and indirectly supports the livelihood of about 200,000 people.

This has been reiterated by the PM, but his Government for the past 10 years, both as a military regime and the FijiFirst Government has miserably failed to resuscitate the industry. The statistics for the past 10 years are crystal clear. Government has time and time again rejected our calls for bipartisanship and the formation of a Special Parliamentary Select Committee on Sugar to jointly search for solutions.

Instead, it was quick to approve the formation of an Emoluments Committee, which on September 29 recommended huge increases to allowances of the Prime Minister (by 300 per cent), Cabinet Ministers, Speaker and members of Parliament. Only the two NFP MPs voted against it and have refused to accept the increased allowances.

The question that arises is which was more important — voting to increase one’s own allowances or agreeing to our proposals on how to rescue the sugar industry?

Again on the contrary on September 30 in Parliament, while giving his right of reply to His Excellency’s address, the PM twice stated that my knowledge about the industry could fit his little pocket and gestured to his trouser pocket. Such petty remarks and gestures are an example of “Emperor Nero fiddling when Rome was burning”.

We have time and again pointed to both Government and the people of Fiji the depressing state of the sugar industry.

In summary, cane production has declined by a massive 44 per cent since the military coup. Sugar production has declined by 30 per cent. These percentages will undoubtedly increase given the battering the industry received from Severe TC Winston this year, particularly Western Viti Levu.

Worse still the number of active canegrowers has declined by 5674 by from 18,636 to 12,872 since the 2006 coup. Both the Bainimarama-led military and FijiFirst governments tinkered with sugar industry structures, removing experienced personnel and replacing them with regime lackeys. So much so the legitimate organisation of the canegrowers, the Sugar Cane Growers Council (SCGC) was dissolved and with it the last vestiges of democracy in the industry disappeared.

The dissolution of the SCGC is predominantly responsible for the erosion of confidence among growers.

* Continuation on Monday — Part II: Growers loss of confidence and scrutinising performance.

* Professor Biman Prasad is the leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed here are his own and not of this newspaper.