Chaudhry opts for Opposition Leader’s job

  • 25th November 2004
  • 2004
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Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry announced Thursday he was ready to take on the post of Leader of the Opposition.

It follows Labour’s decision reached at the Party’s National Council meeting on Saturday not to pursue its right under Section 99 of the Constitution to join Laisenia Qarase’s government in a power sharing arrangement.

Chaudhry’s long-awaited announcement came in Parliament at the end of hard-hitting speech in response to the government’s 2005 Budget, accusing the SDL of gross financial and economic mismanagement and of bringing in policies that have only heightened the suffering and hardship of the poor.

A frustrated Chaudhry said the Labour Party could not accept anything less than “a fair and equitable power sharing arrangement”. It had, however, become clear after a long struggle spanning three years that justice and fair play was not to be expected from Prime Minister Qarase.

He said Labour was rejecting Qarase’s offer of token ministries with budget and staffing allocation that were laughable. Labour which was given 14 minor portfolios (mere sections or departments of existing ministries) claimed it was entitled to 17 cabinet positions in line with its representation in Parliament.

He accused the prime minister of not negotiating in good faith as ordered by the courts and of playing the race card.

Furthermore, the FLP made it clear it could not be part of a government that showed no respect for the constitution, no respect for the laws of the country, harboured within its ranks elements implicated in the 200 coup and practised blatant discrimination against half the country’s population on account of their ethnicity.

“It is time, Sir, for us to disengage ourselves. The Labour Party has heeded the call of the nation, given to the voice of its conscience.

“We cannot be party to the charade, the deception, the mismanagement and the corruption that spells the SDL government,” he said.
FLP’s battle for its constitutional right to power sharing took three long years when the case went before the High Court, was fast-tracked to the Appeals Court and later went to the Supreme Court.

Each court ruled in the Party’s favour underscoring the Prime Minister’s obligation to take on board the members of the Fiji Labour Party into his cabinet and ordering him to negotiate in good faith with the Labour Leader.

The Prime Minister obstinately refused to do so. In the end when he had no choice but to comply, he resorted to tokenism, Chaudhry said.

“We had persisted with the multi-party cabinet issue for so long because of our respect for the Constitution and to secure the future well being of our nation and all her people. We did not want to engage in superficial negotiations as the Prime Minister has been doing.

The power-sharing provisions of the Constitution hold the key to Fiji’s future stability and prosperity which have been severely damaged by the political upheavals of 1987 and 2000.

Any leader who refuses to share power on an equitable basis will not be able to deliver to the nation and her people. He or she is bound to go under.

As a last resort, Sir, I had even proposed a government of national unity within the constitution with Mr. Qarase as prime minister to give him time to get the nation back on track…get the communities together and move the nation forward.

Sadly, he chose to reject even this option.

Sir, the situation is getting quite untenable. The entire nation is fed up. The poor, feeling oppressed and victimised, are crying out for justice and some form of relief.

Calls are coming from all corners of the country, from all walks of life and all communities for us not to associate with the much-maligned SDL. They want the SDL out at the next elections, sooner, if possible.

It is time, Sir, for us to disengage ourselves. The Labour Party has heeded the call of the nation, given in to the voice of its conscience – we cannot be party to the charade, the deception, the mismanagement and the corruption that spells the SDL government.”

The full text of his speech follows:

Mr Speaker, Sir, under parliamentary convention the Minister of Finance is generally commended for bringing down the Budget. Unfortunately, Sir, I find little to commend in the 2005 Budget: it is a drag, lacklustre Budget which takes no initiative, bold or otherwise, to tackle the immense economic and social problems facing the nation.

I do, however, commend the Hon. Finance Minister, Sir, for finally having the courage to admit that the economy, far from being as rosy as government has been painting it, is actually heading for disaster in the next couple of years.

For 2005 projected growth has been revised down to 1.5% from an earlier forecast of 4.2%. For 2006, the picture is even more grim with growth expected to fall to 0.7% from an estimated 3%.

This grim reality is based on a picture of falling exports in key sectors of the economy such as sugar and garments. Let me point out, that bad as the figures look – they are projections only, Sir, the truth may, no doubt, be even worse than this.

Now, the point I wish to make is that I have actually been sounding this warning for the past few years -that government’s growth projections were not based on sound economic foundations or sustainable factors, as economists call them.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Kaliopati Tavola may once again brush this off as “being eternally cynical and pessimistic” but he cannot deny the truth of the warning. A bitter pill, no doubt, but one that the SDL government must swallow.

The blatant truth is that the government has failed to manage the economy on a sustainable basis. Budget 2005 is an admission of this failure.

In my response to the 2003 Budget as well as last year on the 2004 Budget, I had focused on the fact that all key indicators were pointing towards an economic disaster staring at us; that the high growth figures being bandied about by government could not be true in the face of the negative performance of a number of key sectors of the economy.

By convention, the performance of Fiji’s economy has been gauged by returns from sugar, tourism, garments, gold, fisheries and forestry products etc. All of a sudden since 2001, government began hailing high growth figures based on the retail and wholesale sector, restaurants, hotels etc… in other words consumer spending.

These are shaky foundations on which to base a nation’s well being. Our key exports have all shown a downward trend compared to the 1999 figures. Tourism has been the only growth factor but one must realise that tourism revenue is based on hypothetical projections and not actuals. Besides, leakage from tourism is very high – thus growth figures accruing from it should be heavily discounted to provide a more accurate picture.

But what do we see, Sir? Now that government has admitted a steep slide in the economy over the next few years, one would have expected it to announce measures to counteract this decline. The Budget fails dismally to prepare the nation for the hard times around the corner.

Regrettably, Budget 2005 provides no innovative measures or policies to counteract the anticipated downturn in the economy. There is no mention, for instance, of how the SDL government hopes to create additional or alternative employment to try and offset the huge loss of jobs likely to take place in the garment industry.

The grim reality is that the US is to withdraw its garment quotas from next year. As a result, exports to the US are expected to fall by 30% in 2005 and may completely disappear by 2006.

We face the prospect, at the very least, of some 5000 garment workers losing their jobs as factories like Ghim Li’s who export mainly to the US relocate.

Government is relying on growth in tourism to substitute for this downturn and make up for job losses.

But tourism by itself will not be able to offset the huge job losses likely to result from the closure of garment factories once US quotas are withdrawn.

Mr. Speaker, there is another trend that policy makers need to take note of. That is the possibility that more of our manufacturing industries may close down and relocate to China or India. Once preferences and protective barriers are withdrawn under the World Trade Organisation rules, our manufacturing sector will have great difficulty competing successfully on the international market, considering that we do not have the economies of scale and the competitive edge that China, India and other Asian countries enjoy.

The people of Fiji, and thousands of garment workers in particular, must now prepare for the shock that may come as early as 2005-2006. We can foresee more job losses in the next couple of years, bringing in its wake an acceleration in social problems.

The only half-hearted measures that can be gleaned from the Budget address to absorb the shock from this impending calamity are:·

  • The micro-enterprise development project
  • The extension of 40% investment allowance in agriculture
  • The extension of the 40% investment allowance for IT companies and
  • Growth in tourism

Let’s look at how effective these concessions will be:

The $3 million provision for small micro-enterprise development is grossly inadequate to meet the objectives it is designed to achieve. Most of this money will simply disappear in administrative costs leaving little for the project itself.

Nor is government’s 40% investment allowance in agriculture likely to achieve much. It would have been far better to allow subsidy on agricultural inputs such as fertiliser, seeds, weedicides and other chemicals etc. But then where is the land required to boost agriculture going to come from?

There has been absolutely no development of commercial agricultural lots which people can lease to eke out a living and produce enough to add to the GDP.

A similar concession to the IT industry is also meaningless unless the outrageously high international telephone and internet charges are brought down. High operational costs are the main impediment to the expansion of IT businesses in Fiji, or any other business for that matter. Fiji cannot, and will not, become competitive until we create favourable conditions for businesses to expand.

A major deterrent here is the cost of doing business. It has been a constant complaint of the business community that the cost of doing business in Fiji is comparatively high in several sectors; among the most notable being telecommunications, energy and bank and insurance costs.

Another major concern, is the skills drain from the country. The nation is starved of skilled people – the shortage has become so critical that it is hampering development and affecting investment.

As for tourism, Sir, the Minister for Tourism spoke rather glowingly about the rise of the tourism sector. It is, one may concede, the only positive picture on the economic horizon we have at the moment.

However, one should realise that tourism earnings are suspect in terms of their net contribution to foreign reserves. Indeed, this rosy picture of high tourism earnings is not reflected in the foreign reserves which have been coming down quite steadily.

It is common knowledge that most of the money from tourism is retained overseas in the form of pre-paid hotel and holiday packages.

In any case, this is a fickle industry, very susceptible to security risks and so on. My advice to the SDL government, if it wants to continue to rely on high tourism turnout is to stop showing partiality to terrorists.

We have had ample demonstration on two occasions of the devastating impact terrorist activities can have on the industry in Fiji and those employed in it.

Government Finances

This Budget has clearly exposed the SDL government’s inability and incompetence in the management of government finances. Despite this being their fourth Budget, the SDL has not been able to redirect government expenditure from consumption to capital works.

Let me explain: government proposes in its 2005 Budget to spend a total of $1,627,361,000 against an income of $1,257,374,000. It will have to borrow $369,987,000 to fund the deficit. Of the $1.6b total expenditure just mentioned, $1.3b or 78.5% will be spent on salaries, wages and other operating costs, including pensions and debt servicing.

Only about $240m or a mere 14.7% is allocated for capital expenditure with $110 million or 6.8% being payments for VAT.

But let me say that the $240m budgeted for capital works, will not be spent as pressure on government escalates during 2005 to contain the deficit to the budgeted level because of over-runs in several sectors of the operating expenditure.

The Finance Minister will have to come to this House for supplementary appropriation, quoting savings from the capital works allocation!

That, indeed, has been the SDL’s four-year record – it has never fully used up the capital works allocation in its past Budgets. 2005 will be no exception.

As can be seen, almost 80% of the expenditure is allocated to fund the day to day running of governmental activities. In four years, the least this government could have done was to have achieved a ratio of 65% operating – 35% capital. Had it done this, we would not be lamenting today the dismally poor growth rate figures for 2005/2006 and beyond.

Agriculture

Agriculture, the sector holding the most potential for employment and incomes for a majority of our people, has received scant attention under the SDL government. Let me demonstrate this in very broad terms with some facts and figures:

  • In 1995, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries contributed 20.1% or $476m to our GDP of $2373m. In 2002 – the latest available figure – this had come down to 16.3%, or $454m, against a GDP of $2795m (at 1995 constant prices).

Likewise, in the past five years, lending to this sector by the Fiji Development Bank, had fallen quite amazingly. In 1999, FDB loans to the agricultural sector totalled $62.4m. By 2003, it had fallen to a mere $29.6m.

Commercial banks and other financial institutions show a similar trend. Lending to agriculture, forestry and fisheries declined from a high of $41.5m in 1999 to $24.7m in 2003.

It is not difficult, against the backdrop of these revealing figures, to understand why there is such a massive movement of people from the rural areas to the urban centres.

The picture is clear: our rural areas are being abandoned because of a lack of adequate infrastructure and opportunities in that sector.

The state of our rural roads is shocking, to say the least. Most of our prime rural areas are without piped water supply or electricity, not to mention poor health services and educational facilities.

One wonders where the benefits of the $30 million from the SDL government’s scandalous agricultural assistance scheme have disappeared!

Let me sound a further warning here. The current drought is likely to have a devastating effect on agricultural production. Government’s growth forecasts for next year, therefore, may even be lower than the predicted 1.5%.

The cane crop has already been affected and cane production is likely to suffer as, no doubt, will other cash and commercial crops.

The government needs to consider drought relief assistance to those most affected to help offset a loss of income as well as to rehabilitate the following season’s crops.

Fuel charges

I now turn my attention to another major worrying factor, and a deterrent to investment in Fiji: the high cost of fuel.

Sir, the world price of oil is at an all time high and we continue to experience the ill-effects of this through hikes in fuel prices here.

But one wonders whether they ought to be as high as they currently are. The Fiji consumer is now paying $1.52c a litre for motor spirit, $1.19c a litre for diesel fuel and $1.43c for outboard motor fuel or pre-mix.

The recent post-Budget hike will no doubt send adverse ripples down the entire economy with prices of both goods and services going up to offset the increased cost of fuel. The inflation rate which is already hovering at 5% levels, will rise as well.

Yet, no initiative appears to be in place to stabilise the price of fuel considering the spiral effect the current hike cycle will have on cost structures throughout the economy. I believe the least that can be done is to provide temporary relief measures by way of a reduction on tax and duty on fuel.

Surely, the Budget would have been the right moment to announce any government initiative in this direction but it is now clear that the already heavily taxed public cannot expect anything from the SDL government to lighten their burden.

Currently, government collects Customs duty of 18c a litre on diesel; 44c a litre on motor spirits or gasoline; and 37c a litre on pre-mix or outboard motor fuel. In addition, government charges VAT at the rate of about 7.5c per litre on those items.

Altogether, therefore, government receives, by way of VAT and duty, 51c a litre on motor spirit, 26c a litre on diesel and 42c a litre on pre-mix fuel.

Surely, government is in a position to provide relief by reducing duty or removing VAT on fuel as a temporary measure until the situation stabilises. Fuel prices will eventually fall but that may take up to 12-18 months.

Meanwhile, it is critical to cushion cost structures in the transport, manufacturing, energy and the agricultural and fisheries sectors from the shock of this price upsurge.

For the long term, I believe an independent inquiry should be set up to examine to what extent the high price we are paying for fuel is absolutely justified.

I refer, Mr Speaker, to a letter in The Fiji Times last week, by one ND Mishra. He points out that because the Fiji dollar has strengthened against the US dollar, our fuel prices should actually be coming down, not going up. These are some of the factors that an inquiry should examine.

One other point, Sir. The oil companies are reluctant to show their audited accounts. When I was Finance Minister in 1999-2000, I had insisted that they provide their audited accounts to the Prices and Incomes Board if they wanted a price increase. There has to be transparency in such matters of vital national importance.

Escalating Poverty

It does not require too much foresight, Sir, to see who will be the worst affected by any increases in the price of goods and services. Bus and taxi operators are already crying for fare increases.

Carriers, trucks and minivans that carry fresh produce to the markets will raise their prices, sending the cost of these vegetables and root crops spiralling upwards.

The cost of basic food and other consumer items, already high, will soar as well.

Has government taken any budgetary measures to lessen the added hardship that the anticipated rise in the cost of living will bring to the lower income groups? I cannot see any, Sir. But then the poor were never of concern to the SDL Government anyway except to squeeze them for more!

Raising the tax threshold, although a welcome move, Sir, does not go far enough to offset the ill effects of a drastic rise in the cost of living. It will simply mean two or three dollars more in the pay packets each week of people earning between $6500 and $8500.

It must be remembered that 90% of our blue collar, or factory workers and all of our agricultural workers earn well below $8500. So, this so-called tax threshold is of no use to them.

As I have said, Sir, sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the poor has never been a hallmark of this government’s policies. Indeed, SDL’s policies over the past four years have laid a firmer foundation for poverty.

The Hon Minister of Finance continues to pay lip service to the budget theme of a peaceful and prosperous Fiji. The reality is completely the obverse. If there is prosperity, it is limited to the rich and elite of society whom government policies continue to pamper and further enrich.

For the rest of the nation, there has been an explosion of poverty, rising crime rates, increasing social problems. I am afraid, Mr. Speaker, this government has a pretty dismal record – its policies have aggravated the plight of the poor.

I refer to such policies as the re-imposition of VAT on staple food items, the increased in VAT from 10% to 12.5%, in addition, the increase in Customs Duty on a variety of 500 food and consumer items and, of course, the scrapping of the $28,000 resettlement grant for displaced farmers.

Sir, these issues have been adequately covered by my colleagues from this side of the House and I will not therefore dwell on them at any length.

It is quite obvious that these extremely insensitive measures have led to an escalation of poverty levels in the country, and compounded the hardship of the poor.

The 84,000 people who are today forced to seek refuge in miserable hovels and lean-to-structures in the mushrooming squatter settlements around our towns and cities bear visible testimony to the failure of this government’s socio-economic policies.

As is the 20,000 people who line up for government’s meagre destitute allowance. We are told there is a large waiting list.

Among these unfortunate destitutes are swelling numbers of the indigenous people. Mr Speaker, according to latest figures, Fijian families constitute some 5300 of the 8700 or 61% , who now live as squatters in the Suva-Nausori corridor.

It is obvious that apart from displaced farming families, many of the rural poor from villages and depressed rural areas are moving into towns each day seeking jobs and a better quality of life, which remains but an illusion for most of them.

The continuing decline in rural areas, the lack of income and the lack of any concerted effort to boost agricultural activities or improve the standard of living in the villages is forcing more and more of the Fijian people to move to urban areas. Who can blame them?

The SDL government talks quite glowingly of its affirmative action policies to improve the life styles of the indigenous people. But it is obvious that the benefits of the blueprint is not reaching the ordinary Fijian whose plight is worse today than it was in 1999.

If there are any beneficiaries of the SDL government’s affirmative action programmes, they are the Ministers themselves and the elite of Fijian society.

Indeed, Sir, to use a cliché: under this government the rich have become richer and the poor, of all races, have become much poorer …

Take for instance, the highly depressed economic conditions in the North. Problems there began with the violence and unrest created by the political mayhem of 2000.

Matters became worse with the indiscriminate displacement of hundreds of cane farmers on non-renewal of their native leases – again a politically motivated decision – and the consequent decline in cane and rice production.

The disastrous impact of Cyclone Ami in 2002 aggravated the situation in an already troubled economy. Yet, I have seen no special measures initiated by the SDL government to revive the economy in the North.

Hundreds of Vanua-Levu based families have simply packed up and left to seek better fortunes in towns around Viti Levu. They make up a vast number of those squatting in the Suva-Nausori corridor and elsewhere.

Everything said and done, Mr Speaker, we have a government in office with a pretty dismal record.
There has been a marked general deterioration of all aspects of life under the SDL government’s stewardship. Our health services have deteriorated to a pathetic state faced with a lack of resources and the out-migration of doctors, nurses and other skilled staff

Our infrastructure has been sadly neglected- roads and bridges particularly in rural areas, are in an atrocious state of disrepair.

Multi-Party Cabinet

Against this background of heightened economic and social distress, Sir, I wish to now turn the attention of this House to the multi-party Cabinet issue and the SDL’s pathetic performance on the political arena.

We have in office today a government that has not only ignored law and order by harbouring elements implicated in the 2000 coup within its ranks, it has also shown a marked defiance and disrespect for the spirit and intent of the Constitution in establishing a Multi Party Cabinet .

The Prime Minister, Sir, has been inordinately obstinate in refusing to comply fully with the mandatory requirements of Section 99 of the Constitution on power sharing despite several court rulings making it obligatory on him to negotiate in good faith with me as Leader of the FLP in establishing a multi-party cabinet.

I had in my response to the President’s address last August, presented before this Honourable House the whole saga from day one relating to the multi-party cabinet case illustrating who was playing games and why the Fiji Labour Party was fighting the issue.

By offering us token ministerial portfolios with a laughable budget and staffing, the Prime Minister has made a mockery of this very noble provision for power sharing among the two main communities.

He has also demonstrated his racist and exclusive policies in relation to the governance of this nation.

He continues to deliberately and wilfully ignore the very tenet on which the power sharing requirement of Section 99 is based. He wants to relegate the Fiji Labour Party and almost half the population of this country, of all races, to the opposition benches in denial and defiance of our constitutional right to power sharing on an equitable and fair basis.

By doing so, he shows utter disdain for the future of multiracialism in this country – a concept that Section 99 was designed to foster and promote.

I have said time and again, that the Fiji Labour Party will not accept token portfolios and create a precedence for the future.

For my Party, the issue is not one of sitting in the opposition or within government.

It is a case of fighting for principles, for multiracialism, for constitutional government and democracy, and, indeed, for the future of our nation and its people who have a right to a government formed by their elected representatives as provided for in the Constitution.

Mr Speaker, the Fiji Labour Party is the second largest party in Parliament with a substantial backing from the nation. We have a right to respect for our status and position in Parliament.

The Prime Minister fools no-one, not even the international community, with his insistence on token portfolios for the Labour Party.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s insistence on a Cabinet of 36 (now revised to 33) flouts all the principles of good governance. It will place a ridiculously heavy burden on the taxpayers, and is completely unjustifiable.

Ministerial portfolios must not be abused to become jobs for the boys. In many countries, there is a cap on the number of ministers and it is my opinion that we should seriously consider placing a constitutional limit on the size of our Cabinet.

Sir, the Prime Minister must learn to respect the constitution, the status of other political parties and in particular, to treat the leaders of other ethnic communities with due dignity.

Until such time as he can give us this respect, and give us our entitlement to a fair and equitable power sharing arrangement in proportion to our representation in Parliament, the Fiji Labour Party is not interested in joining his government.

This decision, Sir, was re-endorsed at the Party’s National Council meeting in Sigatoka last Saturday. It is not a new decision as our position all along, since the Prime Minister was ordered by the Supreme Court to invite FLP to be part of the cabinet, has been to accept no less than a just and equitable power sharing arrangement.

Delegates to the meeting voiced very strong opposition to joining a government that has no respect for the Constitution, that defies the laws of the country and has so badly mismanaged the nation’s finances and the economy that we are close to disaster, if not outright bankruptcy.

They object to the Fiji Labour Party joining a government that harbours within its ranks criminal elements implicated in the May 2000 coup; a government that continues to pay people who have been convicted and jailed for offences associated with treason!

A government that blatantly discriminates against half its population purely on account of their ethnicity!

It is a sad day for this nation, Mr. Speaker but the Fiji Labour Party will no longer be a party to this charade. We are rejecting the Prime Minister’s token offer of cabinet positions, as simply that – tokenism.

From the beginning, the Prime Minister was not sincere about honouring the power sharing provisions of the Constitution. On 10 September 2001, soon after the results of the general elections became known, he first wrote to me inviting the FLP to participate in his Cabinet in accordance with the provisions of Section 99.

The very next day, he withdrew his offer under the pretext that our policies were in opposition to those of his Party’s – an argument subsequently soundly rejected by the Supreme Court. The Fiji Labour Party was forced to seek redress through the courts of law. We had to engage in a lengthy and costly court battle to win our right to power sharing.

The case was first filed in the High Court but because of the urgency of the matter, the presiding judge, with the consent of the two parties, decided to fast track it to the Fiji Court of Appeal.

The Appeals Court delivered judgment on 15 February 2002, ruling in favour of the Fiji Labour Party.

The judges found that the Prime Minister had acted in breach of the Constitution and that the Labour Party was entitled to representation in Cabinet in proportion to its numbers in the House of Representatives.

Based on the Court of Appeal ruling, on 24 April 2002, Justice Gates gave orders in the Lautoka Court that the Prime Minister must comply with the provisions of Section 99 of the Constitution.

Despite the clear and unequivocal court order, the SDL government decided to take the matter to the Supreme Court on appeal. The stage was set for a long, inexplicable delay as the Supreme Court was not constituted to hear the case until 18 June 2003, some 15 months later.

The Supreme Court ruling delivered a month later on 18 July 2003 was another landmark ruling in Fiji’s constitutional history.

The Supreme Court upheld the principle of power sharing embodied in the 1997 Constitution. Indeed, it found that power sharing among Fiji’s different ethnic communities was “central to the Constitution”.

It pronounced that power sharing was mandatory and not just an obligation as contended by the Prime Minister and that it must be “implemented without further delay”.

The Supreme Court called on the PM to negotiate in good faith with the Labour Party and to consult with the Labour leader in selecting persons from the FLP for appointment to the Cabinet.

Despite this unequivocal ruling, the Prime Minister hedged, resisting and criticising the court ruling. Finally, he went through the motions of consultation for a multi-party Cabinet.

But then instead of negotiating in good faith as directed by the Court, the Prime Minister decided to circumvent the entire issue and proceeded to invite 14 hand-picked Labour MPs to join his Cabinet.

He acted unilaterally, without consultation with me as Leader of the Labour Party. He also deliberately left me, the Party Leader, out of his Cabinet list along with two very senior Labour MPs.

This was of course a deliberate move to undermine me as Party Leader and cause a rift within the FLP. It also made a mockery of the entire concept of power sharing.

To add insult to injury, he allocated to us token Cabinet portfolios that had been created from minor parts or petty departments of existing ministries.

We were not offered a single substantive ministry in the conventional sense nor were we given adequate budget and staffing allocations to run these so-called ministries. The entire matter would have been laughable, had it not been such a crucial constitutional issue, Sir!

The Prime Minister was playing a game of tokenism. Instead of honouring the power-sharing provisions of the Constitution, he was mocking it by giving us token ministries.

He then made matters worse, if this is possible, by proposing a highly bloated Cabinet of 36 Ministers and six assistant ministers, in order to keep his existing cabinet and still take on board 14 Labour ministers.

Acceptance of this proposal, would mean that Fiji’s cabinet would constitute a ridiculous 52% of the entire House of Representatives. A ludicrous state of affairs, putting a totally unjustified burden on the taxpayers!

We also objected to an allocation of just 14 Cabinet portfolios to Labour, insisting that we were rightly entitled to 17 positions in proportion to our numbers in the House of Representatives but this was largely an academic issue intended to get the proportional representation factor correctly interpreted because the Prime Minister was short-changing us and we did not want his interpretation to become a precedent for the future.

The matter of numbers was referred back to the Supreme Court for clarification and even though the latest ruling, in July this year, again vindicated the FLP stand, the Prime Minister has refused to budge from his earlier offer.

This then is very briefly the saga surrounding the multi-cabinet issue.

Despite all these setbacks, and, indeed, a prime minister who refused to deal honourably with us on the issue, FLP decided to put its grievances aside and continued to cooperate with him in the Talanoa Talks and Parliamentary Select Committees, for the sake of the nation.

But the Prime Minister did not reciprocate. It was obvious he could not tackle the problems facing the sugar industry on his own, he turned to me for assistance. I put aside my differences with him and agreed to work together to resolve the crisis plaguing this crucial industry.

It is clear, Sir, that his government has no idea how to tackle the pressing problems facing our nation. As captain of the ship, he has been steering the wrong course right from the beginning. On issue after issue, they have taken a wrong position – I refer to the agricultural scam, the very supportive stand taken by the government on persons implicated in the 2000 coup, the hostility it demonstrated towards the army commander for taking a strong line against coup/mutiny elements.

And more recently, government’s decision to continue paying salaries to those convicted and jailed for their complicity in the terrorist takeover of parliament.

Moreover, the SDL government has failed to bring before this House legislation on a Code of Conduct for holders of high public office as required under Section 156 of the Constitution … no doubt so that they can continue to plunder this nation!

Nor have they released the report of the anti-Corruption Commission appointed to look into the incidence of official corruption in Fiji and to recommend appropriate measures, including legislation, to combat this fast spreading cancer in our society.

We are now well past mid-way of the tenure of this parliament. General elections are due in 18 months from now. The SDL government has failed miserably to deliver on its promises to the nation, particularly the Fijian people.

We had persisted with the multi-party cabinet issue for so long because of our respect for the Constitution and to secure the future well being of our nation and all her people. We did not want to engage in superficial negotiations as the Prime Minister has been doing.

The power-sharing provisions of the Constitution hold the key to Fiji’s future stability and prosperity which have been severely damaged by the political upheavals of 1987 and 2000.

Any leader who refuses to share power on an equitable basis will not be able to deliver to the nation and her people. He or she is bound to go under.

As a last resort, Sir, I had even proposed a government of national unity within the constitution with Mr. Qarase as prime minister to give him time to get the nation back on track…get the communities together and move the nation forward.

Sadly, he chose to reject even this option.

Sir, the situation is getting quite untenable. The entire nation is fed up. The poor, feeling oppressed and victimised, are crying out for justice and some form of relief.

Calls are coming from all corners of the country, from all walks of life and all communities for us not to associate with the much-maligned SDL. They want the SDL out at the next elections, sooner, if possible.

It is time, Sir, for us to disengage ourselves. The Labour Party has heeded the call of the nation, given in to the voice of its conscience – we cannot be party to the charade, the deception, the mismanagement and the corruption that spells the SDL government.

We will now assume the role of the official opposition in the House. And we will work hard to be back in government come 2006.

On that note, I conclude my Budget address and – yes – I oppose the Bill, Sir.