WEDNESDAY 22ND MAY 2019
In this Press Conference held at the National Federation Party Headquarters, NFP Party Leader touched on 4 National Issues:
- The Sugar Industry – A bleak future.
- EFL Submisson to seek electricity tariff increase by 17.27%.
- The Environment.
- The truth behind the ban of Professor Brij Lal and Padma Lal
1) SUGAR INDUSTRY – A bleak future.
Less than 24 hours after the Fiji First Government rejected a Motion by the National Federation Party for the establishment of a bipartisan parliamentary select committee on sugar to find solutions to rejuvenate our sugar industry, the Fiji Sugar Corporation announced one of the lowest forecast prices in recent years for sugarcane for the 2019 season.
The price of $53.69 per tonne of cane for this season is well below the forecast price of around $66 for the 2018 season. This has further dampened the morale of cane growers, especially at a time when they are supposed to be busily preparing for the start of the season which starts in a few weeks beginning at the Labasa sugar mill. The delivery payment of around $32 for this season is simply not enough to cover the harvesting and transportation costs that will be incurred by growers.
So, unless something is done immediately to redress this issue, growers will simply find it impossible to prepare for the 2019 season.
Already, growers are struggling to prepare for the start of the season due to severe financial constraints. So far for the 2018 season, they have been paid a little over $61 per tonne with over $23 outstanding based on government’s announcement last year of a minimum price of $85 per tonne of cane for three years.
And based on the 2018 total cane crop of 1.631 million tonnes, growers are still owed over $41 million in cane payments. The fourth cane payment is due before May 31 or in less than 9 days’ time. The final or commonly referred to as ‘wash-up payment’ is due before 31st October this year.
No other business or commercial entity is owed money for its supply of goods for more than 16 months after the services were first delivered. The only exception is commercial banks and lending institutions – but they supply goods in the form of lending funds. And they charge interest on the loans disbursed. And that is why they are profitable.
Our cane growers do not have that luxury of charging interest on overdue returns owed to them. The return on their back-breaking hard work is negligible.
The 2018 FSC Annual Report statistics should ring alarm bells and wake the authorities into action. But it has gone largely unnoticed or at best ignored. The Report stated that in 2018 there was only 11,871 active growers whose average production was 137 tonnes of cane per season.
70% of our growers are average producers. Based on FSC’s 2018 statistics, 8,309 growers produced 137 tonnes of cane and we believe this was even less than that.
But even if 137 tonnes average is the benchmark, then 8,309 growers would have earned, if the $85 per tonne of minimum price is fulfilled, a nett. income of $4,795 minus production, harvesting and delivery cost of an average of $50 per tonne of cane.
This is $1,476.20 less than the $6,271.20 a worker, working for 45 hours per week, would earn on the current meagre minimum wage rate of $2.68 an hour, inclusive of his or her 8% FNPF contribution.
Does this painful reality dawn on the Prime Minister who is also the Minister for Sugar who told Parliament on Friday 17th May that it wasn’t the sugar industry but the NFP which was failing?
We expect the PM and Minister for Sugar to give serious attention to the problems faced by growers. And ensure that their return is commensurate with their toil and sweat.
This is not the time to rake over smouldering embers. But we just want to emphasise the point, that had government listened to what we had been repeatedly saying and suggesting to them – we would have seen a thriving industry today.
In July 2016, we moved an amendment during debate on the 2016-17 budget to implement a minimum guaranteed price of $90 per tonne of cane for a period of four years starting from the 2016 harvesting and crushing season. I had sought to increase the budgetary allocation for sugar from Head 50 for this worthy cause.
It would have cost government a maximum of $50m to ensure both a guaranteed price as well as support for our landowners. It would have instilled confidence in our growers and reduced the need to offer cane planting grants that is not working because we don’t see increase in tonnage or acreage under sugarcane. It wasn’t until last year that government decided to implement a minimum price of $85 per tonne.
This week my office has been called by more than 100 cane farmers who say they don’t have the money to prepare for the start of the 2019 season.
This means that unless growers receive a minimum of $15 to $18 per tonne in the 4th payment, it will be difficult for them to prepare for harvesting. They have to meet many expenses including hiring of cane cutters or where mechanical harvesters are needed – with the growers footing its operational bill and paying for the operator.
Then growers are worried as to what will happen with the new restrictions imposed on carrying of cane loads. Cane lories can now only cart a maximum of 9 tonnes. They risk being fined $1000 a tonne for any extra load they carry – they were exempted before and carried 12 to 15 tonnes.
This means cane lorries will ask for more cartage fees – additional runs mean growers have to spend more and cane cutters will demand extra payment than the average of $20 per tonne they are paid because cutting and loading only 9 tonnes in a day doesn’t pay them enough as they don’t operate individually but as a harvesting gang.
Then there is the issue of expiring land leases. The new approach adopted by the military and Fiji First governments to enforce lease renewals have failed. There is no use blaming the past governments and politicians. The current government has been in absolute control of the industry for over 12 years.
Despite the Prime Minister being Minister for i-Taukei Affairs and Chairman of ITLTB Board, lease renewal is a big problem. For example, many, many productive growers in Nadi, particularly, Nawaicoba, have been given the option of leasing only 7 acres of their vast arable land for sugarcane cultivation. This is the sad but unmistakable reality.
It is therefore not surprising that the number of active cane growers have declined from over 18,000 in 2006 before the military coup to less than 12,000.
These are some of the problems that growers are currently facing. It is meaningless to gloss over their concerns and lead them up the garden path because our growers are fed up with fairy tales.
They want answers – and the current government owes them this in the form of meaningful and practical solutions.
2) EFL SUMISSION TO SEEK ELECTRICITY TARIFF INCREASE BY 17.27%
On Saturday 18th May, the FCCC or Fiji Competition and Consumer Commission placed an advertisement only in the Fiji Sun newspaper – in accordance with the current government’s ill-conceived policy to advertise only in the Fiji Sun -calling for submissions following Energy Fiji Limited or EFL’s submission seeking a 17.27% increase to electricity tariff per unit.
Consumers have time till 14th June to make written submissions and can view EFL’s submission and proposed hike on FCCC website.
Firstly, FCCC has badly handled such an important issue right at the outset. An issue of national importance should receive the widest possible publicity so that every consumer is aware of it.
We recall that a similar concern was raised by our citizens following Parliament’s decision, in the last term of parliament, to advertise only in the Fiji Sun when calling for submissions to be heard by the relevant parliamentary standing committees. This is because not everyone reads the Fiji Sun or the Fiji Times – or buys both newspapers.
The concerns led to the Parliament Secretariat changing its position and advertising in both newspapers.
We call upon FCCC to immediately advertise in both newspapers. Secondly, FCCC should also summarise EFL’s submission and advertise the proposed tariff increases and the reasons for it. To say that the EFL submission can be sourced from the FCCC website is simply not good enough.
Ordinary consumers do not understand the complexities of submissions and technical details that are in EFL’s submission.
Furthermore, FCCC should conduct public hearings on an issue of national significance. It cannot expect ordinary consumers to email written submissions. It cannot expect consumers to understand a lengthy document submitted by EFL.
FCCC’s role is to protect the consumers. It should fulfil this role diligently.
Without going into each and every detail of the proposal itself, we see that EFL is seeking the tariff increase basing it on an assessment by the Asian Development Bank. We also note that the proposed increase is to attract investors to buy shares into EFL following government’s decision to corporatize it through an Act of Parliament on 22nd March 2017.
And we note with concern that the EFL submission says tariff rates should be reviewed every four years. This obviously means that consumers must brace for tariff hikes every four years.
The issue here is why is EFL seeking a significant increase to tariff based on future projections? It is worth noting that FEA, until it changed to EFL in 2017, was making significant profits from 2010, except for 2014 when it made a marginal profit. The following are statistics contained in FEA’s annual reports.
In 2010 FEA made an after tax profit $8.4m. It paid staff bonus of over $1.3m for 2009 and 2010.
In 2011, FEA’s profit after tax profit jumped to $51.9 m. More than $1.1m was paid as staff bonus
Despite two devastating floods and Tropical Cyclone Evan, FEA still recorded an after tax profit of $75.3m
In 2013, FEA made an after tax profit of $32.5m. In 2014 FEA made a marginal profit of $0.97m due to what it claims was spending substantial money spent on fuel to generate electricity due to a prolonged drought.
An after tax profit of $39.7m was recorded by FEA in 2015. In 2016, despite Severe TC Winston, FEA’s profit rose to $59.6m.
In 2017, FEA changed to EFL but profits kept rising. It made an after tax profit of $60.9m. A staff bonus worth $1.5m was paid out. A dividend of $20m was paid to Government.
So why does EFL see the need to further increase its profits on the pretext of attracting private investors based on future projections?
EFL also claims that the tariff rates are the lowest in the region – even lower than some parts of Australia and New Zealand. This is nit-picking. The minimum, basic and sectoral wage rates in Australia and New Zealand are much, much higher than what workers are paid in Fiji.
EFL claims Government subsidizes tariffs by 15.9 cents for 100 units for domestic consumers whose combined family income is $30,000 or less per annum. A subsidy of 12.51 cents per unit for first 200 units is also applicable for primary and secondary schools.
We would like EFL to provide statistics on the number of domestic consumers who benefit from the Government subsidy because we recall that two years ago the number had dropped significantly. This is a further blow to our ordinary people as it will further escalate the rising cost of living. The cost of living is already unsustainable.
On our environmental issues, I’m afraid that it has become all too clear now that all the global hype about championing environmental protection has been laid bare for the hypocrisy that this Govt thrives on through Qorvis—its propaganda mercenaries that unfortunately our taxpayers pay for.
No one can refute the clarion truth’s exposed in the ‘60 Minutes’ programme that aired last Sunday night in Australia, as with the NZ Newsroom investigations last month.
It is a shocking, shameful and despicable display of unchecked and aggressive development with zero accountability and zero respect for our laws by “Freesoul Real Estate Pte Ltd” on Malolo — which lays squarely at the feet of this Government who is supposed to be in charge!
The Environment Minister’s response on 60-Minutes convinced absolutely no one because:
(1) The Police have STILL not found the ghost “rogues” who harrassed the NZ Newsroom journalists, and who the PM raised the alarm about in Parliament on the morning of 4 April 2019
(2) The law that the PM promised Parliament on that same day to be urgently introduced “in the next session of Parliament [which was last week] to permanently ban companies that blatantly disregard our environmental laws and protection” appears to be a ghost law.
(3) The Environment Minister himself does not appear to be in any hurry to visit the site because he seems more comfortable about his “processes” that took too much time, and ended up devastating that beachfront and reef area
(4) It took FOUR stop work notices to be issued before any preliminary action began by the regulators
(5) To date Freesoul does not appear to display any urgency or commitment to rehabilitate the environment to its original state as the court directed it to do.
The questions which are looming large on everyone’s minds are: is this Govt really in charge? Is there collusion such that no one is doing anything about it? Who should be sacked? Who is liable?
Ultimately that precious ecosystem in Malolo now desolate because of Freesoul, is a burden on the landowners to worry about. They did not sign up for that, nor did they agree to it!
I am quite sure this saga has not ended here and unlike the Bua Nawailevu mining operation that was allowed to run riot over the communities concerns until the previous parliamentary committee acted on the pleas of the community through a petition, the spotlight will not disappear from Freesoul’s actions any time soon because the visual devastation that we’ve all seen speaks much louder than any empty words.
4) THE TRUTH BEHIND THE BAN OF PROFESSOR BRIJ LAL AND PADMA LAL
On Sunday, the Attorney General, through FBC news, accused me of neglecting Girmitiya on the occasion of the 140th anniversary of their first arrival and focussing on the ban imposed on Professor Brij Lal and his wife Padma Lal.
FBC on Monday covered my response to the AG.
In his response to my intervention in parliament on 15th May to a ministerial statement by the Education Minister, I, while paying tribute to the Girmitiya – which I had also done through a message that was covered by sections of the media – I raised the issue of why this government had banned Professor Lal and his wife from entering the land of their birth.
The AG said last Sunday that I spoke about the issue and ignored the Girmitiya because I was still bitter about the election results. This is typical of a person who is bereft of any political morality.
Professor Brij Lal is a descendant of the Girmitiya. He is a pre-eminent historian on Girmit not only in Fiji but every nation where indentured labourers were taken by the Colonial rulers.
However, tragically, through no fault of either him or his good wife Dr Padma Narsey Lal, have both been banned from entering the land of their birth Since November 2009 and January 2010 respectively. In the last term of Parliament, we were told by the then honourable Minister for Immigration that Professor Lal and his wife were a threat to national security.
It must be recalled that soon after the September 2014 general elections and the formation of the Fiji First government, Professor Lal wrote to the then Immigration Minister Timoci Lesi Natuva requesting for the lifting of the ban on him and his wife.
Mr Natuva replied to Professor Lal via email on 24th November 2014 stating and I quote: – “I contacted Director Immigration and you are free to come to Fiji, however it is advisable that you contact the Director (Major Nemani Vuniwaqa) or Asistant Director (Edward Brown) on email for re-confirmation”. – Unquote
He provided Professor Lal with their email addresses.
Professor Lal then contacted Mr Edward Brown who on 15th December 2014 advised him and I quote –
“The latest development into your case is that both you and your wife’s names are still appearing in our system and we have established that the instructions to put your names on our Controversial List had been given by the Prime Minister’s Office. As such we will be delivering a letter to that office tomorrow the 16th of December seeking their comments and endorsement that your names should no longer be on the list and that the both of you can now travel to Fiji.
Once we get a response from them we will then be in a position to advise you of whether you can travel to the country or not”.– Unquote
Once again, it is abundantly clear that while Mr Natuva and the Immigration Department had no issues about Professor Lal and Dr Lal travelling to Fiji, they were powerless to lift the ban because instructions had come from the Prime Minister’s Office. The question then arises – who in the PM’s Office instructed Immigration to ensure the ban remained? Surely such a decision and that too a draconian one that overrides the authority of the Line Minister and the Immigration Department, cannot be made by a junior staff member!
Similarly, Mr Edward Brown informed Professor Lal via email in January and February 2015 that meetings were held on the issue but no decision had been reached. This is also confirmed from Mr Brown’s email to Professor Lal on 15th December 2014 when he says and I quote: “I will try and get a response from the PM’s Office as soon as I can and revert. I think it is best we get this clearance to avoid any unnecessary delays and attention when you do arrive”.- Unquote
This is preposterous. How can an internationally renowned academic and his wife with several publications of books and literature in their name be regarded as threat to national security with an armoury comprising of perhaps unequalled historical knowledge and their papers and pens? This is what the AG as the Chief Legal Officer of the State should comment about instead of uttering nonsense.
Professor Lal’s contribution to Fiji is significant. As a descendant of the Girmitiya, he was one of the three members of the late Sir Paul Reeves led Constitution Review Commission together with the late Mr Tomasi Vakatora that gave birth to the widely acclaimed 1997 Constitution abrogated by the military government on 10th April 2009.
Anyone wanting to learn about Girmit or the Indian diaspora cannot escape without coming across the publications of Professor Brij Lal. And a man who was honoured with the Distinguished Pacific Scholar award by an UNESCO sponsored organisation 14 years ago in 2005 has been told to stay out of his land of birth.
We are supposed to be a genuine democracy. Government ignored our calls for a bipartisan national celebration similar to the 100th anniversary in 1979 when the then PM Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and then Opposition Leader Jai Ram Reddy cooperated in the national interest to make the celebrations truly memorable.
But if Government genuinely wants to recognise the legacy of the Girmitiya, it should lift the prohibition of entry or ban imposed on Professor Lal and his wife in recognition of their contribution to Fiji and the history of Girmit.
Professor Biman Prasad