Throttling poverty

BY NATIONAL FEDERATION PARTY LEADER,

PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD

 

On Monday 9th July 2018, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama attacked the Opposition, accusing it of exaggerating the extent of poverty in the country.

The PM said under the leadership of his Fiji First government, poverty was steadily declining and the last household survey in 2013-14 showed poverty to be at 28.1%.

For argument’s sake, even if the PM is right and the survey results have not been tinkered with, then it means that almost 250,000 of our people from a population of  about 885,000 people as determined by last year’s nation population census live in poverty.

And this is against a backdrop of what Mr Bainimarama and his government like to brag about – implementation of unprecedented measures like free bus fares for school children, tuition-free (definitely not free) education, Toppers  scheme, TELS and increase in  the amount of grants for social pension schemes or social welfare payments for children, the disabled or intellectually handicapped, increase in maternity leave to 98 days and the $1,000 parental assistance payment on the birth of a baby in this year’s budget.

Not forgetting the $1,000 hand-out under the so-called SME or small medium enterprise program, supposedly aimed at providing starting capital for a small business. And here it must be remembered that the bulk of the funds have been donated by the Indian Government – over $15.5 million so far.

So nothing to brag about by the Fiji First Government despite using the money  as hand-out  as well as a well-choreographed publicity stunt.

The bottom line is – social welfare or pension payments  are linked to wider issues that need to be resolved  immediately. Welfare assistance is meaningless if implanted in a climate of fear and treated like freebies and hand-outs.  Our needy population are poorer for this kind of gimmick implemented haphazardly for votes.

What does this mean

This simply means that something is wrong – with multi-millions of dollars being channelled to social schemes like welfare or poverty alleviation payments etc., claims of reduction of unemployment to an all-time low, claims of the poverty rate declining further than the last recorded statistic of 28.1% are hollow given the increase  in the budget of women, children and poverty alleviation.

While Government would argue that the increase  in the budget each year during its rule is necessary because the amount of payment has increased like $100  per month for social pension scheme and implementation of other benefits – it still doesn’t correlate to the actuality on the ground.

And  the unmistakable reality is that more and more people, whether or not they live in poverty or abject poverty – are in danger of slipping into poverty because of government’s regressive  taxation policies, astronomically high cost of living, a meagre minimum hourly wage of $2.68  meant for what government calls “unskilled” workers, conditional implementation of some welfare assistance schemes and indiscriminate distribution of funds under  the various schemes resulting in genuine cases receiving far less than what they actually deserve.

While poverty and social welfare schemes  should be intrinsically linked to ensure those in need benefit the most, the current government’s policy of “conditions apply”, regularly witnessed by the expert eye but missed by a vast majority on special air fares offered by Fiji Airways because its written in fine print,  is pushing more and more people  into either poverty or abject poverty.

Therefore the PM’s claim that his government is providing such people a “leg-up” is  in fact pulling the rug  from under their feet when our poor, down-trodden and ordinary citizens belatedly realise how they have been taken for a ride,

 

Two bitter examples

 There are  two examples of such “conditions apply”  or restrictive policies in the current budget. They may sound like music to the ears but reality is starkly different from what was announced with much fanfare.

The first is the free bus fares for the pensioners. This was what was announced. The reality came out during the Minister for Economy’s budget consultations.

And that is that a pensioner is entitled to $25 per month as free bus transportation. If he or she uses this in single a day, then the entitlement is exhausted.

For example if someone travels  from Lautoka to Suva or vice-versa to visit his or her grandchildren, the entitlement is exhausted in one single journey. They won’t have the means to travel the distance from their home to bank or to even the Social Welfare office to collect their food voucher and monthly social pension allowance.

Won’t it make a difference if pension allowances are  handed out in each locality as determined by the data base?

Won’t it make a difference if bus operators are offered incentives to carry pensioners and school children to all destinations within their routes, irrespective of  fare stages  or other restrictions  without money wasted on government bureaucracy in monitoring such schemes?

The other example is the payment of $1,000  parental assistance  upon the birth   of a new-born for those on a combined family income of less than $30,000.

Providing $500 upon the birth registration of a child and another $500 when the child is enters Year 1 in school, as a part of a “parenthood assistance payment” is short-term and short-sighted relief that does not empower those families that need help.

This means $1000 will be given to a mother in two instalments over a six-year period. And that too to a mother whose household income is less than $30,000. This means that if both parents are working, their total income should be less than $30,000 or not more than $15,000 each.

This is a gimmick. A mother and child need wholesome support and care. Will this be done with $1,000 in six years?

For the first six years, with only $500 in the bank account, it equates to $83.33 per year. This is a farce and a painful reality.

Therefore, the approaches taken to lift the majority of our people out of poverty are short-term and disjointed.

What’s better

Won’t it be better if the cost of living, the price of basic food items, milk and medication is brought down by removal of VAT and reduction of duty? Such a measure would result in savings of almost $100 per month.

Compare the difference – $83.33 per year for the first six years after a child is born and registered or a total of $500 – or our policy of making VAT-free 15 basic food items and prescription medication including lowering of duties on certain items – that would result in savings of $100 a month; $1200 per year or $7,200 in six years.

This will help every family and not discriminate anybody. This is genuine equality, dignity and justice – and we haven’t shirked these principles for the last 55 years since the Party’s birth in 1963 under a mango tree in Rakiraki.

This is the difference between real, practical solutions and pie-in-the-sky theories of this government.

And together with our minimum living wage of $5 an hour and review of the current imposed taxes – some that are as high as 25% for designated businesses like restaurants – which is being paid by the ordinary people of Fiji, it is the beginning of a genuine LEG UP, that can help the majority of our people who need a hand, to allow their dollars to stretch and boost their ability to provide for their families.

As well as implementing a minimum guaranteed price of $100 per tonne of cane for cane growers as well as $1.25 per litre to be paid to dairy farmers for raw milk, plus subsidies for agricultural farmers, is what we will do in the first 100 days in office in an NFP Government.

No one likes to feel demeaned like a beggar or pauper. Everyone wants to live meaningful and enriching lives from the sweat of their efforts. And they could if the policy space that was in the Budget was innovative and realistic.

The bundled package highlighted is only just the beginning. Expect more in our manifesto that will be released once the Writs for Elections are issued.

Change is coming for the betterment of one and all. And the NFP will be the vehicle for this welcome change,