Recently, during the aborted debate on PAFCO, the public got a hint of what really goes on behind the scenes in the Senate. Now, in an attempt to do some damage control, the Attorney General and Minister for Justice has come out with a public statement that can, at best, be described as misleading.
He has also resorted to a number of unwarranted and demeaning allegations against me personally. (23/9/03) I would be grateful for the opportunity to respond to these.
It is obvious that the Attorney General has got himself into a bit of a flap as he seeks to defend the block voting of BLV members and the Prime Minister’s nominees against commencement of a debate on a motion to investigate the situation at PAFCO.
Trying to legitimize an underhand act of sabotage is not easy at the best of times. But when such an act unwittingly reveals a hidden truth (in this instance the sham of the government’s blueprint, and its callous disregard for the indigenous working class) some creative spin doctoring is needed in order to rebury the truth behind the public posturing.
The Attorney General has tried to sort out the mess on behalf of the government, but his arguments are far from convincing.
Contrary to his claims, the Senate is in fact expected to sit for a full day on Friday like any other day of the week. In fact, our Standing Orders even permit us to sit on a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday if we wish.
At the end of the day, we are public office holders accountable to taxpayers. We are duty-bound to serve the community, not push people aside so that we can arrive home at a more convenient time.
The Attorney General argues that starting the debate would have allowed me to make “expected allegations and typical insinuations” that would sit for a few weeks unanswered.
Evidently, the Attorney General seems to have acquired some prophetic skills that enable him to anticipate what I would have said when I introduced the motion. But even assuming he is a cut above the rest of us, it does not give him the right to stifle debate or block a motion that formed part of legitimate Senate business, simply because of my ‘expected allegations’ or ‘typical insinuations’.
Nowhere in the rules of the Senate is anyone permitted to force out an item that is already on the Senate order paper (agenda).
An item appearing on the order paper for the day is expected to be debated on that day, or certainly by the conclusion of the Senate meeting. This would have happened with the PAFCO motion had it not been for the manipulation by the Attorney General as Leader of Government Business. In fact, the motion was sitting on the order paper for virtually the entire week.
Moreover, the Standing Orders of the Senate specifically state that, on a Friday, private Senators’ business takes precedence over all other business. The PAFCO motion fell into this category and therefore should have been debated.
The Attorney General says that there wouldn’t have been time to complete debate on the PAFCO motion. There would, in fact, have been ample time if he and a few others had not gone to such lengths to spin out the time spent on two short Bills, the only government business scheduled for the week.
A look at the Senate Hansard will verify this. On Wednesday 10th September, the Senate sat for less than four hours, and on Thursday 11th, for just 3 hours. On Thursday, the House was adjourned twice to allow a few Prime Minister’s nominees to attend meetings away from the Senate.
It is interesting to see the Attorney General wave the rule-book of the Senate when it comes to restrictions on discussing any issue which is before the courts. He is absolutely right about the subjudice principle.
However, there is nothing in the wording of the PAFCO motion that says anything about a matter before a court or arbitration, so once again a specious argument is put forward to defend the stifling of a debate, and to obscure the real issues.
Perhaps most absurd of all the arguments put forward by the Attorney General is that the Senators who voted in favour of an early adjournment were intimidated by a group of poor defenceless women.
The public gallery is there for the public to watch and hear what is going on in both houses of Parliament. This is an important democratic right of the community, and it should be welcomed by any government that professes to be transparent and accountable. It is a fine thing to see groups of school or university students, villagers, and others coming to sit in the gallery from time to time.
Amongst our regular visitors are members of the corporate sector, individual government departments, and other organizations who have a direct or vested interest in a bill being debated. The Attorney General has never objected to their presence, nor been concerned about the possible intimidation they might pose for Senators.
So why does he have a problem with a group of poor village women who decide to make the long journey to Suva to watch and listen like anybody else? How is it that a police contingent is at the front gate of Parliament ready to turn them away?
Could it be that the Attorney General and certain other Senators simply did not want these humble and trusting women to hear them speak ‘against’ the motion, or witness them using their numbers to defeat it? Could it be that they did not want them to see the government’s blueprint for what it really is?
The Attorney General says that my motion on PAFCO and the ensuing debate would only politicize this important subject without resolving it. It is difficult to believe that he is serious.
Just about everything to do with human development and opportunities in life (including the Attorney General’s own job) is ‘political’ because these things are shaped by structures of political and economic power, and the policies devised by those who hold such power.
When the poor do not eat, this is ‘political’. When the destitute sleep on the streets, this is ‘political’. When big business enjoys tax holidays, this is political. So too, when a group of cannery workers in Levuka are denied a living wage and dignified conditions of employment, this is ‘political’.
We do not need to politicize that which is already political.
The Attorney General knows that, along with other groups and organizations, I have been agitating for a better deal for these women for close to 10 years now, through my writing and documentary film, as well as in the Senate since 1999.
In fact, I was preparing a motion for an enquiry into PAFCO early in 2000, before the coup, when I was sitting on the ‘government’ benches. So contrary to what the Attorney General implies, neither the current dispute, nor my own party political affiliation provided the impetus for the PAFCO motion I filed recently in the Senate.
The Attorney General correctly notes that I refused to withdraw the motion. But for the discerning public, this surely begs the question – why was I being asked to withdraw the motion in the first place?
Moreover, what he doesn’t mention is the pressure, bullying and personal abuse that went on outside the Parliamentary Chamber in an attempt to force me to withdraw. It was only after this intimidation failed that an alternative path to sabotaging the motion was taken.
It is indeed a sad thing that politics in the Senate have sunk to such low depths. As we all know, the main casualties are a group of indigenous working mothers who have spent most of their lives helping to build our industrial fisheries sector for very little return.
I would appeal to the Attorney General and the BLV members of the Senate to put aside narrow political interests and to work together in the national interest with those of us who represent the Fiji Labour Party in the Senate.
They can do this by lending their support to a motion that seeks to bring about greater equity, social justice and sustainability to the operations of a government owned cannery in Levuka.
They have the opportunity to do this in our next meeting in October.
Dr. ‘Atu Emberson-Bain