The Fiji Labour Party celebrated the 20th anniversary of its birth at the Party’s annual convention in Lautoka last week-end. A commemorative booklet highlighting the main events in the Party’s dramatic history , was launched at the convention.
Speaking on the convention theme Change the Future , Opposition Leader Mahendra Chaudhry told the 1500 Party officials and supporters present that the nation had to move away from the coup-culture if it wanted to create a stable, progressive future for Fiji.
His address highlighted the legacy of economic decadence, social distress and racial divisiveness perpetrated by the three coups. In contrast, he highlighted the achievements of the Labour-led Government in just one year in office in terms of ensuring good governance, prudent financial management, social justice and equity.
As Fiji heads for the 2006 general elections, the people had two choice. They could either re-elect the SDL government back in office and continue with more of the same – rampant corruption, economic decline, high unemployment, high cost of living, escalating poverty etc. Or they could change the Change the Future by voting Labour back into office as a caring government sensitive to the needs of the common people of all races.
The full text of Mr. Chaudhry’s speech is given below:
“It gives me great pleasure to see you assembled here in such large numbers. Your presence today is testimony to the respect and recognition that Labour now enjoys.
This convention is of special significance for a number of reasons.
First of all we have turned 20 – yes, indeed, the Fiji Labour Party is 20 years old this month. We were born on 6 July 1985 out of the aspirations of the ordinary people for a just and fair society.
In these 20 years, the FLP has run the full gamut of political experiences. Indeed, you can say our “cup runneth over” so to speak: twice we experienced the sweet taste of victory; we went on to form governments that were fairly popular; both our governments were overthrown by terrorists working for vested interest groups.
Our leaders and supporters have been abused, harassed, intimidated, physically assaulted and discriminated against. We have been arrested at gunpoint, held hostage for more than two months, thrown into jail and denied our democratic rights.
But through it all, we have remained with the people, fighting for their rights and for justice for all.
Over these past two decades, despite all the odds, the Fiji Labour Party has clung steadfastly to its founding principles, and at all times we have held aloft the banner of democracy, equality and social justice.
The Party’s founding principles were based on the following noble aspirations:
- the protection of fundamental political and civic rights;
- elimination of discrimination and exploitation of all kinds;
- the elimination of poverty: ensuring that income, wealth and opportunity are shared by all;
- the fostering of a national identity for the people of Fiji;
effective management and protection of Fiji’s resources and the environment;
- the sustainable development of agriculture and industry to benefit the people of Fiji;
- ensuring the dignity of workers and enforcing working conditions that are healthy and satisfying;
- Providing a decent standard of living in the rural areas and maintaining a link between rural and urban workers;
- The creation of full and meaningful employment.
These are sound objectives for ensuring the peace, progress and prosperity of a nation and her people.
Unfortunately, 20 years later, these goals remain as relevant and as urgent as when they were first pronounced. You may well ask why?
The answer is fairly simple!
It is because we have had governments that simply did not care about the masses.
Elected twice by the people to govern our nation, we as Labour Leaders were prevented from fulfilling our vision for a just and fair society, by corrupt and greedy elements with entrenched interests in our society.
The Fiji of today, then, largely shaped by 12 years of misrule by the SVT and SDL governments, has lost direction. It is chasing its tail, unable to take advantage of the superb strength that lies in the diversity of our people.
Most distressingly, it is this very diversity among us that is under constant assault by leaders consumed by selfish agendas who exploit communal passions to further their own interests.
The Legacy of the Coups
What is the legacy that they have left us, after three debilitating coups? Let ‘s look at the overall picture of the state of our nation today:
The prospects for our economy remain shrouded in uncertainty – low growth rates over the past four years have seen thousands more join the poverty queue.
The dynamic 9.6% growth rate achieved by the Labour Government of 1999 has today shrunk to a mere 1.5% for this year and is expected to go down even further to less than one percent next year. This is projection only, dismal as it is; the actual performance may be even worse.
Our national debt has exploded from $1.2 billion in 1999 to $2.3 billion at the end of 2004 – the government is now borrowing heavily to pay for operating expenditure – there is virtually no control over budgetary limits and it is estimated that several millions of dollars is chewed up each year by corrupt officials, politicians and businessmen
Viewed against such a backdrop, there is creeping anxiety about the future of our nation, characterised as it is by deep communal divisions and a disturbingly high rate of out-migration of our skilled people.
Our education and health systems are run down largely because of a serious skills shortage and inadequate financial and technological investment in these crucial areas.
Much of our land resources lie unutilised or under-utilised because of a chronic lack of investment in rural infrastructure and because of institutional impediments that lie in the way of turning these resources into productive assets.
Our Forestry and Fisheries sectors suffer from similar neglect under a bureaucrat-led political system as self-serving politicians and their associates divide up the benefits among themselves –
I refer here particularly to the fisheries licences and the Mahogany scams associated with some high profile SDL officials.
Now, let’s turn to the people scenario and see how the negative policies of these governments have affected the people. Indeed, our socio-economic statistics portray a frightening picture:
- Some 12% of our population, about 90,000 people live in 182 squatter settlements around the main urban centres. They make up some 15,000 households. Many live in shacks without any basic sanitation facilities.
- · Poverty has increased from around 8% of the population in 1977 to an estimated 45%, as at the end of 2004, and it is still rising.
- Some 20,000 currently receive the paltry family assistance allowance provided by the State. The queues get longer every day.
- Thousands of our under-privileged people are denied proper medical care. Tragically, many of these are the elderly who suffer from chronic diabetes, asthma, hypertension or kidney ailments.
- Moreover, our hospitals and health centres are in a pathetic state of neglect, under-resourced both in terms of personnel as well as equipment and drugs.
- · Some 15% of our children of school-going age drop out each year because their parents cannot afford to pay for their education. There is no State assistance to meet the high costs of school uniforms, books and other educational supplies for the children of the poor or the disadvantaged.
Perhaps the telling of all is Fiji’s massive fall in ranking on the UN Human Development Index – from the 40th portion at the time of Independence in 1970 to 81st at the end of 2003.
These statistics are indicative of the extent of social distress of our people, of all races, I may add. They have a direct bearing to the Coups of 1987 and 2000. These violent and tragic events in our history are responsible for much of the suffering our people are experiencing today.
These coups did not bolster indigenous rights, as claimed by its perpetrators; instead, they have left us the legacy of a shattered economy, lost opportunities, racial rivalries and tensions, political divisiveness, unprecedented levels of poverty and unemployment and so on – yes, that is exactly what the three coups have reduced our nation to!
The 12 years since 1987 brought us nothing but bad leadership and bad governance.
As general elections draw nearer, you, the people of Fiji have a choice. You have the choice to be governed by those who aim to keep us segregated in racial compartments so they can continue to enjoy their privileged status in society, at your expense.
If you, as the voters, exercise this choice then you must remain content with whatever has come your way in the past 4 years under SDL rule.
But, nay, you must indeed be prepared to face even worst times because under the SDL there will be more instability and divisiveness. The economy will dip further, more and more people will be leaving our shores and the resources of the indigenous people will continue to be shamelessly exploited by bureaucrats, unscrupulous politicians and their collaborators for their own gain.
A renewed mandate to the SDL will usher in more extremism, seriously eroding the confidence of investors in Fiji’s future.
The SDL/CAMV government has already announced its intention to enact legislation which will impact on the rights of the minority communities, seriously endangering their safety and the security of their assets and investment.
Prime Minister Qarase’s insistence on proceeding to enact the Amnesty Bill to give relief to terrorists of the May 2000 coup, in utter defiance of the widespread opposition to it, is a brutal blow to the sensitivities and feelings of the minority communities.
- denies them justice.
- undermines the very foundations of our democracy.
- erodes the constitutional independence of the judiciary, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Commissioner of Police.
- is a threat to national security just as the Army Commander has warned.
In short, the Bill retrospectively legalises the coup of 2000, the terrorist overthrow of a democratically elected government; and the numerous acts of violence and terrorism it unleashed, including the torching of business premises and homes, physical assault, sexual violence, hostage-taking and the forcible occupation of Indian homes and farms.
Is this the kind of future we want for our families and children? A future in which Fiji becomes a breeding ground for political terrorism, instability and human rights abuses.
What else can you expect from a government that has no ethics, and that has no respect for the Constitution and the laws of the land. Indeed, Qarase government has shown only a capacity for empty rhetoric, deceit, deviousness and manipulation.
Our country can ill-afford to allow destructive racial politics to take centre-stage again. This has brought us anarchy, strife and suffering three times in the past 18 years.
You, the people of Fiji, have another choice. A choice that will reinforce good governance, respect for the rule of law and sensitivity to the needs of the ordinary workers, the farmers, and the poor and marginalized of society: vote the people’s Labour Government back into office. Give us back the mandate to turn our vision for our people into reality.
We have a proven track record in office. The first Labour government was allowed to govern only for a month but in that short month we brought in several measure that showed our compassion for the poor and needy.
The second Labour Government was in office for a year and in that year we made phenomenal strides towards economic prosperity and the social well-being of our people. Everyone, people of all races, people of all bents in life – the farmers, the businessmen, the hoteliers – all benefited under the liberal and just policies of the Labour-led Government,
Working against the backdrop of the overwhelming mandate it had received from the people to govern, the Government moved swiftly to address a number of problems that were causing hardship and suffering to the majority of our people. Memories tend to be short so let me quickly highlight some of these.
- lowered the cost of staple food items by removing VAT and Customs Duty on them
- brought and additional 17 essential everyday household products such as toothpaste and soap, baby food under price control
- reduced water rates by 10%, electricity charges by 16% and international telephone charges by 10%
- substantially reduced premiums charged on Third Party policies
- introduced $1 million student loan scheme to assist needy students access tertiary education
- increased the overseas medical assistance for needy families from a nominal $2000 to a more realistic $200,000
- raised fee-free education to Form Five level and in some rural and peri-urban schools to Form Six level
- reduced interest rates on Housing Authority loans to 6% from a high of 13%
- and we also began work on the Integrated Village Development scheme which focused on improving housing conditions and sanitation in Fijian villages.
To implement this we began to compile a basic data bank on all villages throughout the country so that a work programme could be drawn up based on the needs of every village.
We provided a clean and open government, accountable to the people and untainted by any form of corruption. Our able and competent leadership and management of the country’s economy and finances, boosted investor confidence and stimulated economic growth.
Indeed, 1999 stands out as an exceptional year as far as economic indicators go. The economy under our direction grew at a phenomenal 9.6% that year – we had record exports and revenue from sugar, tourism and garments were the best ever.
Inflation was down to almost zero levels at 0.2%, the Fiji dollar was the strongest ever, $400 million of investment in the tourism industry alone promised to create thousands of new jobs and government finances showed a surplus for the first time in more than a decade.
This may sound very much like we are blowing our own trumpet. But I believe it is imperative that people begin to compare the Government they had under Labour with the present SDL/CAMV government and the SVT before us.
The thrust of our policies were to encourage rural development through a revival of agriculture and agro-based industries and the sustainable development of our sea and forest resources.
And if we are returned to office in 2006, we will pursue with these policies and the social and economic reforms we initiated in 1999/2000 – some of which were, unfortunately, reversed by the Qarase administration, compounding the suffering inflicted on the people the coup.
And this is my promise to you – a Labour Government will provide:
- · affordable housing to the poor
- · resettle squatters within our five-year term
- · give priority to extensive upgrading of our Health systems and educational facilities.
You are all aware of the appalling state of our hospitals and health centres. We will arrest the outflow of our skilled medical personnel by ushering in decent pays and better working conditions, concentrate on preventive health care; and modernise our systems so that we can cope adequately with life-style and degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart and kidney-related problems.
We intend to out source the management of health care in Fiji to private operators so as to inject much-needed capital to upgrade technology and bring in the competence and professionalism that we have lost.
At the same time we will ensure that affordable quality health care remains accessible to the poor. In this respect, Labour will hasten legislation to provide a national Health insurance scheme.
I have highlighted one sector of national life that needs urgent attention. Likewise, we will deal positively with other pressing problems – one of which is job creation.
Your Labour Government will push for a 6% annual growth in the economy. Anything less than this will not create the jobs, we need to bring down our massive rate of unemployment.
We need jobs that will provide a fair wages so that people can cater for their basic wants.
No doubt, you will feel that it is easy to make promises. But by now you should know that the Labour Party does not indulge in empty promises and hollow rhetoric.
We have a proven track; in one short year, we have shown what we are capable of. And I ask you to trust us on our record.
It is time now for you to take your future in your hands.
Make a choice. Make a calculated choice – will you settle for more of the same or will you take your courage into your hands to move for a future that will take you away from anarchy into order, peace and stability; from suffering into prosperity; from uncertainty to light and hope.
Change the Future – that is your responsibility to your children and grandchildren. Let us move away from this coup-culture that seems to have become a part of the Fiji psyche. Let us move away from the politics of race and parochialism. Let us embrace all the communities in Fiji, draw into the deep pool of our combined talents and skills to build a nation our children will be justly proud of; a society pregnant with hope built on the solid pillars of multiracialism, democracy, social justice and equity…
Change the Future – that is my message to you today.
To end, let me quote from an address by Nelson Mandela in 1994.
I will substitute the reference to South Africa in the quote to that of Fiji – and for this my apologies to this great South African statesman, leader and freedom fighter:
“Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.
Our daily deeds as ordinary (Fiji Islanders) must produce an actual (Fijian) reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, what more can anyone say?? The choice is now yours!“