Flawed democracy

  • 23rd July 2008
  • 2008
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The year under review has seen the restoration of political stability with the interim government of Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama in effective control of the nation.

You will recall that a special National Council meeting of the Fiji Labour Party in Ba on 16 December 2006 had decided to assist His Excellency the President return Fiji to democratic rule once executive authority was handed back to the President.

As a result of this decision, FLP now has three Party executives holding key positions in the interim Cabinet:

 FLP Leader Mahendra Chaudhry as Minister of Finance, National Planning, Sugar Industry and Public Utilities

 Assistant secretary-general Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi as Minister for Labour/Industrial Relations, Local Government, Urban Development and Environment

 Management Board member Tom Ricketts as Minister for Industry, Investment, Tourism and Communications

You will also recall that pre-December 2006 takeover, the FLP had been extremely concerned at the direction in which then Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was leading the affairs of the nation; in particular, the fact that he was refusing to consult on key national issues with the Labour leadership as his partner in the multi-party Cabinet.

Indeed, one of the FLP’s overriding national concerns since the 2001 general elections has been the flawed system of ‘democracy’ practised in Fiji under the Qarase government. Not only did Qarase refuse to honour the power sharing provisions of Section 99 of the 1997 Constitution, his government in 2001 and 2006 cheated its way into power through electoral fraud and massive vote buying schemes.

FLPs repeated calls for an independent inquiry into the conduct of the two general elections were not heeded until last year when the Fiji Human Rights Commission (FHRC) on its own initiative decided to commission an inquiry into the 2006 polls to determine “whether and to what extent, the right of all people in Fiji to vote in the 2006 general elections was respected”.

The findings of the inquiry, released in September last year, confirmed the FLP’s stand that the 2006 polls had not been free and fair.

FHRC inquiry into the 2006 polls

The inquiry was conducted by a team of three eminent persons: Suva lawyer and former Senator GP Lala, former deputy prime minister in the SVT government and educationist Taufa Vakatale and New Zealander, Dr. David Neilson, an author and senior lecturer in political science.

The team heard oral and written submissions from towns and villages throughout Fiji and drew on other sources of information for its report. The Fiji Labour Party made a comprehensive submission to the inquiry with Party Leader appearing before the team in Suva and individual MPs making their own submissions at various centres throughout the country.

The report found:

  • significant failures to ensure citizens’ rights to vote, and to have their votes correctly counted
  • significant bias in these failures against Indian voters to the unfair advantage of the SDL
  • inappropriate vote influencing, vote buying and vote rigging to the unfair advantage of the SDL
  • these fraudulent activities were largely concentrated in the key urban open constituencies which is where elections are won and lost .

It identified three major reasons for the failure to hold free and fair elections in 2006:

 significant technical failures in the election administration

 key problems in the staffing of the elections office and elections officials showing marked ethnic imbalance

 serious failures in the performance and decision-making of the Elections Office among them massive over printing of ballot papers and the failure to provide a final report on the 2006 general elections

The report found “there was more than just unintentional bias” associated with the conduct of the elections. The inquiry specifically expressed deep concern:

– about the number of reported incidents that indicated serious intentional corruption especially around vote buying, vote casting and vote counting

– the serious and unacceptable blurring by the SDL of distinctions between party, government and the broader State during the 2006 elections and throughout the whole SDL period of governance 2001-2006

Major recommendations of the FHRC report:

The report makes a total of 32 separate recommendations among them the need for:

 a robust registration system and the construction of a single national roll and updating procedures

 introduction of electronic voting machines

 introduction of a number of regulatory and monitoring agencies to minimize inappropriate campaign behaviour

 replacement of political party sheds with one big shed open to all voters, irrespective of race, before and after voting

 a major inquiry into the electoral arrangement including reconsideration of the AV system and communal constituencies – after the next elections to comply with requirements for voting in the 1997 Constitution

Observer Missions and External agencies

In a special note the inquiry team expressed concern at the negative impact on Fiji of the policies of countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, the United Nations and their observer missions with regard to:

 general elections and a return to democracy in developing countries regardless of whether such elections fall short of standards expected in their own countries

 the role of the military as being unacceptable regardless of why it took power and its intentions to institute fundamental democratic processes

 the use of threatening discourses and negative economic sanctions to force restoration of democracy

The end result of such an approach is that it intensifies the very things that these governments and agencies are opposing:

 economic decline and an authoritarian and ultra-nationalist political framework. Economic decline causes political instability which in turn causes extension of military presence. Economic decline also undermines the availability of public funds to prepare for free and fair elections in the shortest possible time.

“Fundamental to the dominant paradigm is the prioritization of an election, rather than being worried about whether it is really free and fair,” the report says.

The Fiji Labour Party has twice been a victim of the manipulation of votes and electoral fraud since 2001. It is in the Party’s interest to ensure a return to free and fair elections, if we are not to be cheated at the polls again. Otherwise, the entire process becomes undemocratic, and a farce on the nation.

Media accountability

FLP also welcomes a second inquiry commissioned by the Fiji Human Rights Commission – an inquiry into the freedom and independence of the Fiji Media.

Hawaii-based author, academic and a former Fiji trade unionist Dr James Anthony, was appointed inquiry consultant. The Fiji media and the Media Council officially boycotted the inquiry but individual media personalities, past and present, did make submissions.

Once again, the Fiji Labour Party which has had long standing grievances with certain media organisations going back to 1999, made a comprehensive submission to the inquiry with the Party Leader appearing before Dr Anthony in person.

In 1999/2000 the Labour-led People’s Coalition Government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry became a major target of media bias and racism. From almost day one of the government taking office, The Fiji Times and in particular, its senior reporter Margaret Wise collaborating with politicians and ultra nationalists in the Opposition, mounted a relentless campaign to embarrass and discredit the new government.

The Fiji Times gave full vent to the racism spewed out by bigoted extremists, and distorted and fabricated stories to feed to the anti-Chaudhry mania it was trying to kick up. Government was not given a chance. Its responses to correct these stories, explain its policies and put the truth before the nation in its true perspective, were either censored, distorted or so severely cut that the message failed to get through.

The situation got so bad that Prime Minister Chaudhry was forced to accuse The Fiji Times of “fanning the fires of sedition” in an address he delivered at the launch of the Media Code of Ethics in Suva in October 1999. The FLP is convinced The Fiji Times played a significant role in supporting, and even fomenting, the destabilisation campaign that culminated in Coup 2000.

It is utilising almost similar antics against the Interim Administration today.

In the past 19 months or so, The Fiji Times, and to some extent the Fiji Sun and Fiji TV have shown blatant political bias against the government and the Fiji Labour Party – manipulating and distorting news, giving full rein to critics of the government while censoring responses from government or those supporting it.

Negative reports and anti government statements and opinions are given undue prominence while government news and views are reported selectively. Statements, replies and corrections are twisted and distorted to suit certain agenda or not allowed proper coverage, or are published weeks later.

The end result is that government’s side of the story, or good developmental news are effectively withheld from the people. In doing so, not only do these organisations breach the Media Code of Ethics, they also show marked political bias. They cannot therefore be deemed to be neutral or impartial in their dissemination of news.

Complaints lodged with the Media Council take months to be addressed by which time they have effectively lost any relevance.

Indeed, the situation got so serious that government was forced to deport the expatriate publishers of The Fiji Times and Fiji Sun – Evan Hannah and Russell Hunter, respectively – on the grounds that they were a threat to national security.

Since then, there has been a slight improvement or wariness but the bias, the distortions and the lack of balance continue. The Fiji Labour Party continues to be victimised by these same media organisations – our responses to issues are usually not run, and not sought. When we write letters they are either not published or given a run in the inside pages three weeks later.

The Fiji Times even stoops to dishonesty in tempering with letters that expose its own stupid mistakes. Is this not abuse of media powers? Why is The Fiji Times afraid to admit to its own mistakes?

I certainly do not paint all media organisations with the same brush, but there have been some serious concerns for some time now which have to be addressed.

We all know that the media is an important institution. It has an important role to play in national development. It disseminates hard news, informs the people on important national issues, is supposed to encourage constructive debate on these and generally acts as a watchdog on matters of public interest.

But it can only perform these functions effectively, if it itself remains impartial, free of bias, and balanced in its treatment of news and events. The Fiji media is expected to operate under a fairly comprehensive Code of Ethics put out by the Media Council.

While the Labour Party believes in freedom of the Media and freedom of expression, it also holds that no freedom is absolute in itself. Along with media freedom, comes enormous responsibility to ensure accuracy, fairness, balance and the rights and privacy of individuals and organisations.

The media must, therefore, be held accountable and responsible same as other national institutions. It is not a law unto itself.

Similar views are held by the Fiji Human Rights Commission inquiry into the Media. The inquiry found that self-regulation by the media had failed and the State must therefore step in to regulate the media in order to hold it accountable.

Referring to the events of 1999/2000 the FHRC inquiry, based on interviews with former Fiji Times senior employees and independent observers, concluded that The Fiji Times from day one was out to “get Chaudhry” and then added:

“It was not as if this was a one-time occurrence: For the Fiji Times especially this was part of a long established pattern: race baiting, news invention, slanted, unsourced, imbalanced reporting; mangled, yellow journalism at its worst,” the consultant said. .

It is not surprising that the media has condemned and vilified the reports without publishing details of their content and findings so that the people of Fiji could themselves judge on the merit of the reports.

This tantamounts to the media imposing its own views on the people of Fiji, and denying them the right of information.

The media has no right to withhold vital information from the public. Fiji is going through a very fragile stage in its national development – we cannot allow an irresponsible, immature and politically biased media to create further divisiveness and instability through unfair and imbalanced reporting.

As FHRC Chair Dr. Shaista Shameem points out in the preface to the Media report:

“… if the media has fettered itself by forging alliances with political, ethnic, sectarian or any other forces, it cannot be relied upon to provide accurate information and news. Under these circumstances, the principle of media freedom may be exploited as a shield to avoid public scrutiny.”

The FHRC Media Report has noted the failure of the Media to self regulate itself. It has noted the failure of the Media Council to hold the media responsible and accountable.

FLP believes it is now time for government to step in and ensure that the Media observes its own Code of Ethics at all times, and is held responsible and accountable. Recommendations to ensure this were made to the commission of inquiry and we are pleased to say that they were accepted.

The FHRC media report recommends “wise restraints” to be brought in to ensure media accountability and responsibility. In the words of the consultant Dr. James Anthony:

“With great power comes great responsibility. When those who are charged with great responsibility fail to meet their obligations to act reasonably and in the public interest, then someone must step in and make course corrections.”

Main recommendations of the FHRC Media report:

 establishment of a Media Tribunal to provide expeditious inquiry into allegations against the Media and where necessary to provide a judicial remedy for aggrieved persons

 setting up of a Media Development Authority to monitor the operations of media organisations and ensure media responsibility in line with the laws of Fiji, to undertake training to raise standards of news reporting and to meet the skills and technical expertise required by modern media, to build cooperation between government and media, as well as the public

 enactment of legislation to provide penalties for the broadcast or publication of any material that can incite sedition or that is in breach of the Public Order Act

 a 7% tax across the board on all media advertising revenue and a further 7% on all revenues generated from licence and monthly user fees on consumers. The money generated to be used for the operations of the Media Tribunal and the Media Development Authority.

 all existing work permits (of expatriates) not be renewed and further work permits not be issued

 Scrutiny of cross media ownership from the perspective of its limitations on democracy

We believe it is time the government acted on the recommendations of the report to ensure media accountability and fair, balanced and impartial coverage of news.

State of the nation

Deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase who had been despatched to his island home of Mavana in the Lau Group at the time of the takeover, was allowed to return to Suva to attend his court case against the Interim Government, challenging his removal from office. The case has been heard but the Court has yet to deliver its judgment.

The Interim Government has continued to cut costs and stabilise national finances. The size of Cabinet reduced to 16 from Qarase’s highly bloated cabinet of 36, was further reduced to 12 early this year.

I am pleased to report that as a result of sound financial management and discipline, we have successfully rehabilitated State finances and pulled Fiji back from the state of bankruptcy it was left in by the Qarase government.

Fiji’s Foreign Reserves, extremely critical under the previous government, have stabilised, government’s debt levels have declined to 49% of the GDP from a high of 52% under the SDL, and the Budget deficit has been contained at less than 2% of the GDP from a high of 5.5%.

Interest rates have declined substantially from 14-15% to around 7%. The 5% cut in Civil Service salaries which had been necessitated by the unhealthy state of national finances inherited from the Qarase government, have been partially restored by 3%. The remaining 2% will be restored in December 2008.

These are real achievements based on tight control of government expenditure and firm policy directions. Unfortunately, the Media fails to highlight these achievements of the Interim Administration, preferring instead to dwell on negative issues.

Fiji’s exports have also recovered after six years of serious decline. Exports rose 33% to $405 million in the first four months of 2008, accelerating on the moderate increase seen in 2007.

The decline in the sugar industry has also been arrested with a highly focussed strategy of achieving 4.3 million tonnes of cane by 2010. A plan of action has been adopted on the ground to achieve this target and government has taken positive steps to make sufficient land available for the target to be attained. Details on sugar industry reforms will be given later in this report.

Tourism which suffered a setback after the events of 2006 is headed for a 10% growth this year. Government is undertaking a review of national airline Air Pacific to ensure it pursues policies which will further invigorate the tourism sector.

Agriculture is one area that needs more attention but considering that this sector has been grossly neglected since 1987, it will take some time for government policies to show results.

Government is, however, committed to pushing agricultural growth as part of a three-pronged strategy:

 to increase domestic production of food and grains

 promote rural development and encourage rural resettlement

 to raise the incomes and living standards of people in the rural sector.

In Budgets 2007 and 2008, special financial allocations were made to push government’s Northern Development Programme in order to revitalise its economy and repopulate the Vanua Levu after it had been decimated by the non-renewal of agricultural leases.

Noticeable improvements have been made to the chronic problem of water supply. Further work currently being undertaken will ensure a stable supply system.

Likewise, the power supply situation has also stabilised. Infrastructure, particularly roads, continue to be a problem due to the very rainy weather experienced this year. Funds have been allocated for major road construction and maintenance works but these will have to await improved weather conditions.

Impact of escalating fuel and food prices

Much of government’s efforts towards restoring economic growth and moving Fiji forward, have, unfortunately, been undermined by rising food and fuel prices, a global phenomenon which slowed down growth in much stronger economies such as the US, Europe, India, China, Australia and New Zealand into recession and fuelled high inflation.

The Fiji government must be commended for moving quickly to cushion the impact of these price increases on the general consumer, in particular the poor and the needy.

Effective June 1, Government has:

 increased the tax threshold to $15,000 from $9000
allowed in Budget 2008

 removed VAT from eggs and Customs Duty from
imported rice, tinned fish and cooking oil

Government also knocked back an increase in electricity tariff granted by the Commerce Commission as fuel surcharge for FEA.

This was in addition to relief measures provided in Budget 2008:

 Duty reduced by 12% on canned fish, white rice, chicken, beef and pork, and peas, beans and other legumes; duty on all types of dhal down to 5% from 15%

 First home buyers allowed tax deduction of $400 a year on interest paid on housing mortgage and

 A $200 tax deduction on interest earned on savings

Government’s relief measures have had a stabilising effect on the inflation rate, forcing it down to 5.8% in May from a high of 7.6% the previous month.

At the same time, the focus of Budget 2008 has been on agricultural development through concessions, tax incentives and other forms of support. The aim is to encourage greater food production as an import substitution exercise and to enhance self-sufficiency in areas such as rice, dairy and meat production, fruits, vegetables and other market produce.

Growing the Economy

The FLP, however, believes that for such policies to revitalise the economy, resources have to be opened up for sustainable development. Government’s policies on agriculture to be successful need land to be opened and made readily available.
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Fiji is fairly rich in natural resources but these resources have still not been developed to their full potential. The FLP has always believed that through better utilisation of their resources, the indigenous community will be able to greatly enhance their income, improve the quality of their life, and at the same time stimulate much needed national economic growth.

Escalating crime rate

he crime rate had declined dramatically following the December 2006 takeover. But once soldiers withdrew to the barracks, leaving the Police in charge of the law and order situation, the rate of crime has soared again.
In recent months the situation has worsened noticeably with increased home invasions, robbery with violence and even attacks on Police officers.
It is clear that the unarmed Police are unable to cope with the increasing violence and professionalism of robbers. Ordinary citizens, particularly the minority communities, no longer feel safe even in their homes, living constantly in fear of losing their lives as well as their possessions.
The security forces need to strategise and take quick action to combat the worsening situation otherwise both investors and ordinary citizens will lose confidence in the country. Citizens have a right to personal safety and protection of property.

The Sugar Industry

The sugar industry is headed for some exciting challenges. Government’s intention is to restore the industry to its former position as a key contributor to the national economy. But considering the serious decline it has experienced over the past six years, it will be sometime before we begin to see the positive results of reforms currently underway.

Despite this, there have been notable developments in the year under review. To counteract the 36% reduction in the price of sugar paid by the EU market and to cushion the impact of this on the growers, the industry has embarked on a number of reforms to reduce the cost of cultivation, harvesting and transportation.

The FLP is appreciative of the positive assistance the Government is giving to revive the ailing industry through direct policy measures, incentives and financial support aimed at making the industry more viable for growers.

Reducing the cost to growers

1. Fertiliser subsidy:

Cane production has suffered badly from poor application of fertiliser in the 2006/2007 season resulting in a marked decline in the cane crop in 2007.

This is partly due to serious financial difficulties faced by South Pacific Fertilisers Ltd (SPFL), the fertiliser company which has been running at a loss for some time now. As with other commodities, the world price of fertiliser has been on the increase largely due to the escalating price of fuel on the world market.

A price increase applied for by the SPFL in 2005 was denied. It forced the company to run at a loss because although the cost of production had risen, SPFL was forced to sell at $19.50 a bag when the realistic price should have been at around $24 a bag. What this means, is that the SPFL was subsidising the growers by around $4.50 a bag.

Government has now allowed the company a price increase in the form of a subsidy which will enable the price for a bag of fertiliser to growers to remain at $19.50. A $2.5 million support to the Sugar Cane Growers Fund has been provided to maintain fertiliser prices.

Meanwhile, the industry is exploring ways and means of reducing the cost of fertiliser. One option under consideration is to reformulate the existing blend; the other is to convert mill ash and mill mud to organic fertilisers. This will allow 25% local content, thus reducing costs.

With the reformulation and supply of local fertiliser, it is expected that the existing price will either be maintained or slightly reduced.

2. Harvesting and Transport costs

a. The industry is also working to reduce costs of production, harvesting and transportation to farmers to cushion the impact of the reduction in cane price. The aim is to reduce the cost of harvesting and transport to between $15-$18 per tonne from current high levels that range from $23 to $30 a tonne.

b. Trials on semi mechanised harvesting being undertaken in various sectors using manually operated machines should increase the productivity of harvesting gangs and reduce labour costs to growers.

c. Government is providing financial support of $0.5 million in 2008 to FSC, to assist with the maintenance of rail transport. Under this programme, the existing rail system will be upgraded and extended.

3. Drainage Levy

Government has scrapped the drainage levy. This was a long standing complaint of growers.

4. Rent subsidy on Land

Government will subsidise land rent for productive cane growers. To meet the concerns of landowners and to encourage continued leasing of native land for cane production, government is increasing rent for native land to 10% of the Unimproved Capital Value (UCV) from the existing level of 6%.

To ensure farmers are not burdened with the increased rent, Government will subsidise the rent. Farmers will continue to pay 6% UCV, with government paying the balance.

This scheme will only apply to farms that are under active cane production and where leases have been renewed.

Government is also considering the possibility of taking over premium payments to NLTB for lease renewals, so as to save additional costs to growers.

5. Cane bonus – a $3 a tonne bonus will be paid to farmers who produce cane above their Farm Basic Allotment (FBA). Growers will be paid the bonus for each tonne produced over and above the FBA as an incentive to boost cane production.

6. Resettlement grant – a review of the resettlement grant is being undertaken to encourage growers to get abandoned farms back into production

Cane Production

The overall aim of all these incentives and subsidies is to boost cane production to 4.3 million tonnes by 2010. All efforts are being made to realise this target. Considering that production in 2007 fell to a low of 2.6m tonnes, the industry has to produce another 1.4 million tonnes of cane, which is a huge challenge.

There is no doubt that major challenges continue to face the industry as we endeavour to return it to viability, and farmers are asked to do their share to enhance production. They are receiving unprecedented government assistance and encouragement – farmers should take advantage of this opportunity.

Increased cane production is needed to support diversification projects such as cogeneration and ethanol production as well as to ensure cane price stability.

Under the renegotiated sugar regime with the European Union, Pacific Island nations have been able to secure an additional market access of 30,000 tonnes. This means our total sugar exports to the EU will jump to 210,000 tonnes at an attractive price that is above the prevailing world market price.

Sugar Cane Growers Council Elections

Cabinet has deferred the SCGC elections which were due in April this year to April 2010, to take place after the general elections.

The deferred elections would also allow current reforms to the harvesting and transportation system to be completed before elections are held. Changes to the system are aimed at reducing costs to growers before they are hit with the next lot of cane price reductions in 2009.

The decision was taken in consultation with industry stakeholders. The view is that nothing should be allowed to disrupt and endanger the prevailing atmosphere of goodwill and cooperation between FSC and the Growers Council to ensure the smooth implementation of reforms currently underway.

People’s Charter for Change, Peace and Progress

A key objective of the Interim Government is to produce a charter that will serve as a guideline for good governance, law and order, the maintenance of racial harmony and equity, and to promote national growth and development.

To assist in drafting the charter, government established the National Council for Building a Better Fiji (NCBBF) made up of 45 representatives from a wide cross-section of society, headed by a Technical and Support Secretariat (TASS) and two co-chairs: Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and His Grace Archbishop Petero Mataca.

The Council is divided into three National Task Teams:

• Good Governance – co-chaired by Ratu Josefa Serulagilagi and Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum

• Growing the Economy – co-chaired by Ratu Josateki Nawalowalo and Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry

• Social Cultural Identity and Nation Building – co-chaired by Lorrine Tevi and Health Minister Dr. Jiko Luveni

Each of the task teams has three working groups to facilitate its programme. Work on each of the three task teams are progressing well and a draft charter is expected to be ready by August. The final and completed charter is expected to be ready by October. The NCBBF was initially set up to operate for 10 months, with work on the Peoples Charter completed by October.

Fiji Labour Party is participating in the charter process. In fact, the FLP made strong submissions to the NCBBF to bring in electoral reforms which will be less racially divisive and to consider legislation that will make the media accountable and responsible.

Political parties such as the SDL have hitherto boycotted the National Council but Prime Minister Bainimarama has made it clear that unless there is accord on a People’s Charter there will be no general elections.

General Elections

The Interim Government had initially committed itself to holding national elections in March 2009. There is now some doubt as to whether it will be able to meet this commitment in view of strong representations made in the NCBBF calling on the interim government to review Fiji’s electoral system so as to remove its heavy communal bias and to replace it with a system that is truly democratic and representative. If this review proceeds than elections will certainly be delayed beyond March 2009.

Meanwhile, a New Zealand lawyer Felicity Heffernan has just been appointed Supervisor of Elections. She will oversee work on the voter registration process and the preparation of a new National Voter Roll and carry out other preparatory work for the next elections.

The EU is funding the appointment of a Chief Technical Advisor to the Supervisor of Elections and Mr Xavier Noc has been appointed by the Interim Government to take up this post. Mr Noc has wide experience in the electoral field, having held similar substantial posts in Togo, Congo, Madagascar and more recently, Nepal.

The new Population Census which ought to have been carried out in 2006 has been completed. Data from this is being used by the Boundaries Commission to redraw constituency boundaries. Work on this is expected to be completed soon.

However, should the electoral system change, then boundaries will have to be redrawn to comply with the new arrangements.

The new Electoral Commission has been in place and active for sometime. It has recommended changes to the electoral system prescribed by the 1997 Constitution to make it more democratic and less racially divisive.

Prime Minister Bainimarama has announced his preference for a one-man-one-vote system or common roll. The United Nations and the Commonwealth have been invited to assist in the process of formulating new electoral arrangements. The Commonwealth has appointed Sir Paul Reeves, one of the architects of the 1997 Constitution, as mediator in this process. He has already begun work on initiating political dialogue to facilitate this.

The other major international player in assisting Fiji back to democratic rule is the European Union. An EU troika team undertook a week-long fact finding mission in Fiji in late June consulting widely with government, political and civil society bodies.

The Troika mission statement was released on 12 July expressing concern at the vulnerability of the rule of law and human rights under the current system. It also expressed concern that government may not hold elections by end of February 2009, as earlier stated.

“…there is deep concern that the election time-table is at risk of slipping,” it said, giving the indication that failure to do so could jeopardise EU aid.

At the same time, the Troika report welcomed the initiation of political dialogue headed by the Commonwealth special envoy Sir Paul Reeves to discuss changes to the electoral system.

It hoped that the talks would resolve election issues well before the end of the year, to enable the EU to go ahead with its 2008 assistance to the sugar sector. As mentioned earlier the EU is funding the post of Chief Technical Advisor to the Supervisor of Elections as its contribution to assisting Fiji’s return to democratic rule.

Fiji has suspended its participation in the Forum Joint Working Group. Prime Minister Bainimarama said this was prompted by the very negative attitude of Australia and New Zealand who had not shown good faith in engaging constructively with Fiji through this dialogue.

But the Pacific Islands Forum Ministerial Contact Group visited Fiji on July 15 to hold talks with government on its readiness to hold elections by March 2009, in line with commitments made earlier.

In his meeting with the Ministerial Contact Group, the PM stressed that Fiji had agreed in principle to holding elections in March 2009. The understanding with several of his Forum colleagues was that should the government not be able to comply with this date, the Forum would be flexible on the issue.

“I had not anticipated at the time that some Forum members, especially Australia and New Zealand, and additional others in the international community would later adopt an extremely rigid stance on this matter…,” he said.

PM Bainimarama said government had done all it could to prepare for the March 2009 election but had been compelled to reconsider the election date due to pressure for changes to the electoral system to make it more genuinely democratic by moving away from race based elections and adopting a system that would ensure a vote of equal value.

FLP’s preparations for general elections

The Fiji Labour Party welcomes moves to reform the electoral system to make it more democratic and to move away from racially divisive elections.

You may recall that FLP was the only party that objected strongly to the predominance given to voting along ethnic lines in the 1997 Constitution. We were ridiculed for our stand at the time but held fast to our principles.

We had also fought for a vote of equal value and the reduction of the voting age to 18 at the time. We look forward to participating in the dialogue for electoral reforms.

Meanwhile, the Party must begin gearing up for the next general elections and prepare the ground work for it. Those who are aiming for an FLP ticket must begin working now. I must make it clear that there will be no automatic endorsement for anyone – it will be based on merit and service to the community.

It is understandable that the Party machinery has somewhat slowed down since the dissolution of Parliament following the military takeover of 5 December 2006. Members of the House of Representatives (MHR) and the Senate had to readjust which in many cases for MHRs proved financially painful.

But we have to shake out of this mind set and show renewed drive and initiative. Branch offices need to be professionally run seeing that the Party has given computers, printers and photocopiers to the larger branches. Those who do not have basic communications equipment must show some initiative in acquiring these.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I thank you all for taking the time and effort to attend the Party’s annual delegates conference today.

I particularly, wish to express my gratitude to the Party President, former Parliamentarians and Senators, party supporters, officials and others who have remained loyal and active in the past 18 months, holding aloft the Party banner. I thank you for your cooperation and unflinching support throughout this somewhat testing period.

I know times have been pretty difficult for most of you. Some of you lost a ready source of income suddenly, within six months of taking office and have had to struggle to survive. We have all had to adjust to escalating prices and other economic woes.

FLP believes that the people of Fiji deserve better than the deprivation that they have been subjected to in the past twenty odd years brought on by gross misrule and bad governance. Fiji has been endowed with fairly substantial resources, a favourable climate and people with talent and skills.

 Once we have fair and equitable policies in place, good governance and a caring administration, we should be able to promote the growth, goodwill and prosperity we all have aspired to for a long time.

I know that the future continues to pose challenges but we also have been given an opportunity which we must fully utilise, to right the wrongs of the past and to move forward as a united, modern and enlightened nation.

Let us “Put Fiji first” – the rest will fall in place.

May God Bless Fiji.

Mahendra P. Chaudhry

Secretary General