Interim Ministers Mr Mahendra Chaudhry, Mr Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi and Mr Tom Ricketts; Party Delegates; Party Officials and Invited Guests – it is an honour as Party President to once again welcome all of you to our Annual Delegates Conference for this year 2008.
Firstly, let me thank the organizers of this year’s conference for their hard work, sacrifice and expenditure of necessary funds in ensuring that all obligatory preparations were facilitated for this very important meeting of the Fiji Labour Party.
As has been established practice, we observe a minutes silence for our party faithful, who have departed since our last conference. In particular, I would like to remember Mr Krishna Nand Maharaj and Mr Chandar Datt – two long serving members and office bearers of the Ba Branch of the Fiji Labor Party. Let us all rise to remember and honour these and other departed loyal members of our party.
THE FIJI LABOUR PARTY’S PARTICIPATION IN THE INTERIM GOVERNMENT
Dante Alighieri once said: The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. The events leading up to December 5th 2006 presented a moral crisis for a party that had been through the coups of 1987 and 2000.
However, a stand had to be taken and the Fiji Labour Party, after necessary consultations, affirmed its position that it was going to become part of the interim administration at the request of HE the President Ratu Josefa Iloilovatu Uluivuda.
The reason for accepting the invitation to be part of the interim government was one that was made in the best interest of the nation, the Fiji Labour Party and at the behest of our rank and file members.
The objective of joining the interim administration was and is to help move the country forward, to actively become part of a process to unite the major races of this country, to contribute towards the economic growth of the nation so that people of all races enjoy a decent standard of living, to set standards of excellence in the civil service so that the nation is better served by its servants and to arrest the culture of apathy, indifference, racial division and racial intolerance so that Fiji may once again be the way the world should be.
May I also take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister for Finance for helping stabilize the nation’s finances and reconfigure our economy so as to eliminate waste, retain our precious foreign reserves, enhance our export base and instill greater efficiency and productivity measures and improve our returns on investment. I note that there is greater liquidity in the market, interest rates have almost halved and inflation has been kept in check. I also note that we are exceeding our revenue collection targets by almost 20% of previously forecast projections.
May I at this juncture call on the interim government to find ways to enhance our agricultural sector. John Webster, a leading American statesman, once said: Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.
Such sentiments are quite true and history is a good record of this. All great civilizations were founded on the basis of a strong agricultural sector and which subsequently helped these nations advance their economic base by diversifying into other areas of commerce and industry.
In Fiji we are very fortunate to have large tracts of land yet to be utilized. The weather is favourable and we have a population which is or can be trained to engage in large scale agriculture.
The recurrent demands of our brown sugar, of our root crops, of our fresh vegetables and herbs and spices holds us in very good stead to develop and expand the production of these very valuable export income earning products.
To optimally utilize the available land long term, we must ensure that there is fairness and by that I mean fair returns to the State or the landowners as well as to those who take the initiative and the risk to develop these lands.
As part of the development of these lands, one suggestion would be for the State to establish an Agricultural Productivity Commission to look at ways on how our agricultural sector can be better attuned to address the issue of rising food shortages.
At the same time such an entity can also address our much needed employment problems by creating jobs for our rural dwellers thus negating the need for urban migration.
This initiative to establish an Agricultural Productivity Commission has to be undertaken now and with great vigour and enthusiasm as this chance will not present itself to subsequent governments with as much latitude as currently enjoyed by the interim government.
3) Civil service
On the issue of the civil service, I must agree with the interim government in reducing the size of the civil service. In line with civil service reforms the objective must be to ensure that more effort and resources are directed at the training aspect of our civil service and that all civil servants are recruited only on the basis of merit.
As a result of past practice, our civil service today lacks the culture of prudence, it has become lazy and non responsive to the demands of the citizens of this nation and is in need of a shake up. Our civil service is bloated, declining in levels of competency, inefficient and riddled with nepotism.
We must set our target of reducing the civil service progressively so that it stands at 70% of its current levels in three years – and this I believe is an achievable target. Those that will be retrenched need to be retrained and provided with statutory redundancy payments to allow them to find alternative employment outside the civil service. Those that intend to establish their own businesses should similarly be assisted with small short term loans.
I also note from the news that certain civil servants have been found to be divulging classified information to the media. Such practices must not be condoned and there must be stronger deterrent measures in the Public Service Act with respect to adverse conduct of civil servants.
I must further emphasize the need to have strict and clearly defined powers with respect to the employment of civil servants – all civil servants must be on three yearly reviewable contracts with the right of the State to summarily terminate on grounds of indiscipline, theft, racial remarks and non performance. To this end an amendment of the Public Service Act is imperative to incorporate these measures.
The work of our Police force has often not received its due recognition for the work that it performs and it is often cited for its shortcomings. Such criticism is unfair and unhelpful. Our Police force has undergone a major transformation since December 2006 both in terms of leadership as well as policy initiatives. Similarly, the criminal elements in our society have also kept abreast with the new trends in their chosen occupation and have become more daring and not at all concerned with the consequences of their actions.
Instances of home invasions, armed robbery as well as white collar crime are on the rise. Police funds are limited but I believe that much more can be done with these existing resources.
For a start there has to be greater emphasis on community policing as well as greater Police presence in areas prone to criminal activity and this includes residential areas which have become the subject of persistent home invasions and other types of offences against the person and property.
Secondly, there has to greater receptiveness to requests by the public, as many complaints against the Police seem to relate to not arriving on time or not arriving at all at the scene of a crime often citing feeble excuses such as not having a Police vehicle or that there was no fuel in the Police vehicle. These excuses are simply unacceptable.
Thirdly greater accountability mechanisms have to be instilled to ensure that the public can rest assured that the Police will do its duty when a crime is being committed.
Complaints of poor service, insensitivity to complaints, allegations of corruption and nepotism as well as promotion on grounds other than merit and the often cited poor pay and conditions of work; necessitate the need for an inquiry into the Police force.
I cannot recall the last time such an inquiry was held but I believe that the time is opportune for one now with specific terms of reference relating to service delivery, professionalism, eradication of corrupt practices and nepotism within the Police force and to utilize the services of the military in combating crime.
Such an inquiry must also look at the existing remuneration of those on the lower grades of the Police force to ensure that their salary and allowances are also increased subject to these officers passing their requisite exams and being able to demonstrate the required competence and ability to effectively discharge their duties.
5) Local Government and Labour Reforms
Ladies and gentlemen I must commend the interim government on its efforts to reform local government as well as address labour related issues of minimum wage, safe conditions of work, compulsory superannuation for non organized workers and their being greater vigilance on work practices to ensure that workers are not exploited.
Conversely, complaints against the Department of Town and Country Planning are well documented in the media and the time taken to process development applications is horrendously long and to great detriment of investors and this nation as a whole.
Favoritism, victimizations and allegations of bribery all taint this important government ministry and I am sure that urgent remedial action will be taken by the Minister concerned.
I am personally aware of development applications in some instances being held by this Department for over 24 months whilst at the same time it approved a former parliamentarian’s development application in March this year within the same day of lodgment.
Why the inconsistency and does there have to be so much red tape and bureaucracy when it comes to development and investment approvals?
I believe there is no reason why requisite provisional development and investment approvals cannot be granted by government and statutory bodies such as the Department of Town and Country Planning, the Fiji Trades and Investment Board and the Fiji Development Bank, within 14 days of application. May I ask all of our three ministers to please look into streamlining the approval processes not only in the Department of Town Planning but in all government and statutory bodies.
On local government, I believe that we must ensure that the competing interests of reform as well as the need to retain democratically elected councils will be given due and equal consideration by the interim government.
Whilst deliberating this subject, the authorities should consider the following quote by Alexander Hamilton who said: Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate government. So let us try to find common ground in the interest of all parties in this instance.
NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR BUILDING A BETTER FIJI AND THE PEOPLES CHARTER
On the issue of helping build a better Fiji I am thankful to the government which has created a National Council for Building a Better Fiji.
The aim of this Council is to look at ways as to how the competing social, economic and political interests of the different races and groups in our society can be harmonized and consensus reached on major policy issues such as economic management, political reform and difficult social issues including poverty, crime and equal access to State resources.
The work of the National Council for Building a Better Fiji is progressing well and has been challenging as its members try to chart a path of Fiji that will help eradicate the coup culture that began with the 1987 coup de etat.
Since 1987, the Rabuka and the Qarase governments have acted deliberately to implement measures that sought to marginalize the races and create a system of oppression of the non indigenous races, in particular the Indian community. Such marginalization in my view was the adultery of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality. This marginalization, together with corruption, bad governance naked racism had become so prevalent in our society that it became a threat to the peaceful existence of our nation.
It was against the backdrop of such malfeasance, gross injustice to the second largest community in the country and the contempt shown by the Qarase administration for our cherished ideals of democracy, good governance and racial tolerance that the military had to intervene in December 2006.
For supporting such an intervention the Fiji Labour Party has been criticized by its political opponents but let me state today that I make no apologies for our Party’s participation in the interim government. The scenario if the military had not intervened on that fateful day is too frightful to even consider and I am sure that many of you here will agree with me on this.
The Peoples Charter will ensure that the military will maintain oversight on matters that may affect national security and disrupt the peaceful coexistence of our society by manipulative politicians. I must call on all of you to support the Peoples Charter. It is a document that I believe will end our coup culture and will ensure lasting peace, harmony, prosperity and tolerance. We owe such a future to our children and future generations.
After all I am a person who strongly detests the notion that our country’s history since May 14th 1987 is defined by the passage of that and each subsequent coup.
The proposed electoral reforms, designed at isolating race based voting are to be commended and may finally lead to elections where not race but policies, credibility and integrity will determine the election of our future leaders and lawmakers.
Having said this I am also in no hurry to see elections conducted till such time as the framework for such elections is complete and this includes a review and reform of the electoral process, amendments to the Electoral Act as well as other related matters. I note similar sentiments (on elections being delayed) by the interim prime minister in one of the dailies this morning.
For such reform we must have faith and though this may be difficult for our political adversaries, I am reminded of the words of the American civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King (Jr), who said: Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
Let us have faith in the proposed reforms by the interim government, after all given that our party leader and two of our members are ministers, I cannot envisage anything prejudicial to our Party in the said reforms and in fact believe that given that we are the only multiracial party in this country any reforms designed to promote racial harmony will be to our benefit rather than detriment.
The last twelve months have been difficult for the party. In the absence of the machinery for elections and parliament, I have found many of our party members have become rather complacent and disinterested in matters that concern them.
I am asked on a daily basis by numerous persons as to how they can become active members of the Fiji Labour Party. Our branches have to become more active, there has to be more frequent meetings and we must actively fundraise to ensure that the activities of the party can be sustained.
We must all work together to ensure that the Party structure is preserved and further enhanced by encouraging greater participation from those who wish to join us and to be part of our efforts to help create a just, fair and caring society.
There seems to be an overbearing expectation that our ministers in the interim government will address all the problems that beset this nation. Such an expectation is not helpful to the party.
Our three interim ministers have very important roles to play in government and are responsible for the portfolios of finance, sugar, public utilities, tourism, commerce, trade, local government, labour and industrial relations, urban development, housing and the environment.
To this end, they are tasked with helping this country recover and progress from the six disastrous years of government under Laisenia Qarase’s leadership as prime minister.
In their arduous task of helping move this country forward, may I wish them our very best and unequivocally state that the Fiji Labour Party stands behind you.
May I ask each one of you to commit not only yourselves, but to get your family, friends and colleagues to meetings of the Fiji Labour Party and to become part of this great family which is dedicated to helping build a better Fiji and I will personally be leading discussions on this subject during the plenary session later this morning.
A BETTER FIJI
I want to see an inclusive, tolerant and progressive Fiji where (again quoting the famous words of the late Dr King) who said: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
I also want the children of this country not to be judged by the color of their skin or their racial classification but rather the content of their character.
So let us all help build a united, multiracial and progressive society without a shard of the divisive notions of racism or ethnicity. Let us support the efforts of the National Council for Building a Better Fiji as well as those involved in the formulation of a Peoples Charter.
Ladies and gentleman as I conclude may I take the time to thank each one of you for being here this morning. There is a busy morning ahead of us and may I ask the Lord to help us all as we deliberate in the very important task of strengthening our Party structures, improving our service delivery to our supporters, improving the lines of communication between the Party and the interim government and most importantly in contributing earnestly and sincerely in helping build a better nation as I can see no higher calling than this.
May God bless you all and the Fiji Labour Party. Thank you for listening.