Guidelines a must for multi-party govt: Chaudhry

  • 14th June 2006
  • 2006
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The multi Party government will have to observe certain guidelines on good governance, said Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry.

Speaking on Friday in reply to the President’s address to Parliament, Chaudhry welcomed the Prime Minister’s invitation to Labour to join his Cabinet and his offer of significant Cabinet positions to the nine Labour nominees.

But he warned that this did not mean ‘business as usual’ for a government that in past five years had been characterised by bad governance, financial indiscipline, scams and wastage of public funds.

“Labour decided to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation after a long deliberation. We accepted, in the expectation that we can make a difference to the governance of the nation and help achieve the aspirations of our people.

There has to be a new direction in the governance of our nation. There must be strict adherence to the tenets of good governance,” he emphasised.

Chaudhry said Labour had a standard with regard to good governance and the Party will insist that these be adhered to at all times.

“Indeed, this has been made very clear to those of our members who have joined the multi-party Cabinet.

Labour is not going to be tainted with the scams, the corruption, the wastage of public funds and the incompetence that characterised the past government.

I would like to inform the nation that there must be certain ground rules that should be observed and adhered to in order to make the multi-party cabinet survive. We will attempt to establish these ground rules for good governance as soon as possible.”

Other issues highlighted by the Labour Leader include land, indigenous matters, and questions on the integrity of the general elections. He called for a commission of inquiry to look into concerns regarding electoral rigging and to determine whether the elections were free and fair.

The full text of Mr. Chaudhry address is as follows:

“It is obvious from the closeness of the election results that the people of Fiji have placed their trust in the two mainstream political parties, the FLP and the SDL.

The message in this is clear: we are required to pool our resources and skills, and work together jointly to tackle the major social and economic problems facing our nation.

The Hon. Prime Minister has obviously heeded the call of the nation in extending an invitation to the Fiji Labour Party to join his Cabinet. And this time around, he has offered us substantive Ministries, albeit some of them in dire need of critical surgery.

Sir, the multi-party Cabinet concept is a power sharing arrangement mandated by Section 99 of the Constitution, and designed to foster multi-racial goodwill through a consensual approach to decision making.

Before I go into this in any depth, there appears to be a misconception in some quarters that I must clear.

His Excellency in his address to the joint opening of the new Parliament, referred to the multi-party cabinet as a “fresh period in Fiji’s history” and observed that “for the first time, it brings together the elected leaders of our main communities in the government of our country”.

But permit me to say that the multi-party government is not a new development in Fiji’s history. As Prime Minister in 1999 I had, in accordance with constitutional requirements, established a multi-party cabinet ensuring that it was representative of all communities in Fiji regardless of whether the groups qualified to be in Cabinet or not.

I must say that the multi-party Cabinet under the People’s Coalition Government worked extremely successfully in 1999 and 2000 until we were unlawfully removed from office.

I have no doubt, therefore, that given the will and the intent, the present arrangement can also work very successfully. And for the future of our nation, it is imperative that we do make it a success.

Having said that, let me also state that this does not mean ‘business as usual’ as far as we are concerned. Labour decided to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation after a long deliberation. We accepted, in the expectation that we can make a difference to the governance of the nation and help achieve the aspirations of our people.

There has to be, Mr. Speaker, a new direction in the governance of our nation. There must be strict adherence to the tenets of good governance.

The Labour Party has set itself a standard with regard to good governance and we will insist that these be adhered to at all times, Indeed, this has been made very clear to those of our members who have joined the multi-party Cabinet.

Labour is not going to be tainted with the scams, the corruption, the wastage of public funds and the incompetence that characterised the past government.

I would like to inform the nation that there must be certain ground rules that should be observed and adhered to in order to make the multi-party cabinet survive. We will attempt to establish these ground rules for good governance as soon as possible.

We also want to make it very clear that Labour has not become a part of the SDL as some people have tried to portray. The Labour Party has its own identity and this will be fully maintained. Nine of our members have been nominated to participate in the Multi-Party Cabinet. The rest of us will function as opposition members in the House.

This is what happened in 1999/2000. Our backbenchers freely criticised government and opposed legislation as they wished. There is nothing wrong with it. We have had examples of this kind of democracy at work in Britain recently.

Twice in recent months, Prime Minister Tony Blair lost the vote on crucial legislation because his backbenchers voted against the proposed Bills, one of which was an anti-terrorist legislation with wide implications on human and individual rights.

The Labour Party will continue to be guided by its conscience and the national interest in considering legislation and other matters that come before the House.

Our members are in Cabinet to improve the style of governance – they should have a free hand in running their Ministries and should be guided by the FLP’s manifesto for the 2006 general elections.

Where there is conflict between the Labour and SDL policies, both parties are bound to negotiate a settlement in good faith, putting the national interest first.

After all, our manifesto has a long term vision for Fiji and well thought out strategies to deal with crucial problems plaguing our nation.

As I said earlier, there must be ground rules for good governance that must be adhered to. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has already got off to a bad start with the appointment of a bloated Cabinet of 36 Ministers and State Ministers.

This I see as his first attack on the principles of good governance. It surprises me, therefore, that NGOs such as Transparency International have remained mute on this issue.

We have a preposterous situation where Ministers and their deputies constitute more than half the House. Cabinet positions are not there to be dished out as jobs for the boys, or girls! Rules of good governance do not permit the buying of political loyalty at the expense of the taxpayers!

How can we in all conscience justify such extravagance at a time when joblessness is at a record high, with long queues of the poor lining up for Social Welfare assistance and poverty stricken children going to bed hungry?

Having a bloated Cabinet of more than half the House is an imposition on the taxpayers of our nation, and it is a decision that is totally irresponsible.

My plea to the Prime Minister is to reduce the size of government to a reasonable level. Indeed, his previous government had but 22 Ministers and 7 assistants – why the huge increase now?

Sir, the Labour Party is preparing a list of minimum programmes for good governance that it wants addressed within a given time frame. At the top of this list will be measures to stamp out corruption which has become endemic and is stifling growth.

  •  First, we are calling for a comprehensive Code of Conduct legislation to be enacted that will apply to all holders of high public office, as required by section 156 of the Constitution.
  •  Second, the Code of Conduct statute must be supported by tough anti-corrupt practices legislation under which must be appointed an independent Commission to investigate and prosecute people engaged in corrupt practices
  •  Third, we must remove all vestiges of racial discrimination from government’s affirmative action programmes. All such programmes must comply with the relevant provisions of the Constitution and be fair to the needy in each and every community

And may I point out that the enactment of a Freedom of Information legislation is equally important to facilitate accountability and transparency.

I have spoken at length on this because it is essential that we lay the basis for the multi-party arrangement as soon as possible. I now wish to focus on some of the other issues raised by His Excellency in his address.

Economy

Rebuilding our tattered economy should be at the forefront of our national agenda.

Fiji today stands at a critical crossroads. We are trapped in a cycle of economic stagnation with low growth, low investment and unprecedented levels of poverty and unemployment. The latest United Nations Human Development Index shows that Fiji has slipped further down in the index by at least 5 points – down from 87 to 92. This speaks for itself.

There are fundamental weaknesses in the economy that need to be rectified urgently if we are to surge ahead. Let me highlight some of these:

  •  Collapsing exports, particularly, sugar and textiles. We have given figures before to show that sugar production has declined from a high of $282m in 1999/2000 to $218m last year; garment exports fell from $333m in 1999 to a dismal $142m in 2005
  •  Add to this, low investment, high cost of public utilities, high unemployment, growing budget deficit, high level of public debt, rising inflation, critical level of balance of payments – you have a pretty sombre picture.

Unfortunately, I do not see any dynamic initiatives in government’s policy outline as enunciated by His Excellency that will give the economy the impetus to provide sustainable growth and employment.

A minimal annual growth rate of 2-3% is simply not sufficient to provide jobs and move the nation forward. Moreover, whatever little growth we are likely to experience this year will largely be on account of sugar, and of course, the exceptionally high rate of remittances that sustain our Foreign Reserves. But we must remember that remittances from our workers in foreign countries are likely to decline as the security situation in their host countries stabilises.

The bottom line here is that we need annual growth rates of no less than 6% to create jobs and opportunities for the 15,000 young people who enter the employment market each year.

The situation is critical – we have been warned that more jobs in the garment industry are likely to go. This of course will translate into greater hardship for our people and add to poverty.

No government can deliver to the people on the back of an ailing economy. Investment is needed both by the State and the private sector in those areas of our economy which have the potential for generating the desired levels of growth.

Economic growth must result in creating sustainable income opportunities for the lower income families.

A substantial proportion of our people live in the rural areas. We should aim to keep them there by providing them the means for earning regular incomes.

This means investing in the rural sector. In my view, that is where lies a huge potential to redress the incomes disparity between our rural and the urban communities which is largely responsible for the accelerating rate of rural-urban drift.

But investment will not materialise, particularly from the private sector unless investors feel that they can invest without risk to the safety of their assets. We must work hard to restore investor confidence through good governance- financial prudence, open government, political stability and respect for the rule of law.

Government must also place on hold all controversial legislation that will create instability and division within our society, and undermine investor confidence

It should be noted that the root cause of the downfall of our garment industry was the political mayhem of 2000 – the instability, the uncertain supply arrangements caused by the constant disruption to power supplies after the takeover at Monasavu, forced our market sources to turn to China and more stable environments to place their orders.

Special emphasis needs to be given to rural development and the development of depressed regions such as the North.

Government’s existing Look North policy lacks the drive and the vision to revitalise business and economic activity in this highly depressed region.

We have always underscored the need to prop-up agriculture if we want to provide jobs and improve incomes and lifestyles in the rural community. We have ample natural resources in the way of land, minerals, forest and marine products that can be sustainably developed to provide the jobs and incomes to sustain life for our rural people.

Land

That brings me to the issue of Land. I have already mentioned the need for government to set aside for the time being all controversial legislation that will create uncertainty and division among our people.

This includes its intention to replace ALTA with NLTA. This is a controversial issue that is not going to resolve our problem regarding land use. The priority must be to develop and not to estrange.

The nation has witnessed first hand the ill effects of the mass eviction of farmers from native agricultural leases since 1997. This experience has had a very negative impact on farmers and investors with regard to native land leases. Displaced farmers are simply not prepared to go back to farming; for them security of tenure is the most important consideration.

Government needs to tread more cautiously with regard to its land policies. Insisting on NLTA at a time when we need to revive agricultural activity will be extremely counter-productive.

This issue was debated at length in the last session of the House just before elections. Its outcome is known to all – let us not renew or revisit the matter when our focus should be to enhance land use for productive purposes.

The priority now must be on opening up available land for commercial agricultural activity on terms that will inspire confidence and provide long term security, both to the landowners and tenants alike.

ALTA is an entrenched legislation that was specially introduced to provide security to tenant farmers. It should be noted that ALTA received total backing from the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara who never in his 22 years in office as Prime Minister ever tried to replace it.

I have no doubt this was because Ratu Sir Kamisese realised the significance of the legislation in promoting agricultural activity, in particular in the development of the sugar industry.

It is my plea to government – leave ALTA in place. We are prepared to look at amendments to the legislation that will fairly address the legitimate grievances of the landowners.

Let’s get on with the task of making land available for agricultural and rural development on terms that will create confidence and security, and contribute to the national economy.

Crime

Another major setback to creating investor confidence in Fiji is the escalating crime rate and the spate of home invasions we have witnessed recently. It is no use for the Police to provide us with comparative statistics on where Fiji stands in relation to the rate of criminal activities in other countries. The point is that the citizens of Fiji must feel safe in their homes.

I am afraid I cannot say this with any confidence. Families are being attacked in their homes, brutalised and robbed. People are being mugged on the streets, businesses are being broken into with alarming regularity. Our Police seem to have no answer to these burglaries and acts of violence.

The problem is no longer resources or funds. I believe our Police Force needs to adopt a new approach and strategy to combating crime.

The alarming rise in home invasion and other violent crime is too serious a matter to be left to the Police alone. In my view, we need to appoint a committee of experts recruited from abroad to advise the government on measures that need to be taken to curb the rate of violent crime.

Women’s Issues

Talking of crime and violence, brings me to a point I wish to make regarding the Ministry of Women. I believe, Mr Speaker, the biggest violence against women in Fiji was perpetrated by the Prime Minister when he appointed a male as Minister for Women’s Affairs.

This is a gross insult to our women and a statement of no confidence in their ability to manage and promote their own interests. This decision should be reviewed immediately. I am, in fact, surprised at the rather muted criticism from women’s organisations to this affront.

I am even more amazed that the Minister concerned accepted the portfolio. He should have declined it in favour of a woman. Let me say that had Labour taken over government, Monica Raghwan would have been sitting in that chair and not a male Minister.

General Elections

Mr Speaker, I feel compelled to express my disgust at the manner in which the general elections was conducted, and the obvious vote buying and rigging that characterised the elections.

I have participated in eight general elections, and a number of by- elections – never before have I encountered the mess and the flaws that characterised this elections.

It raises serious questions about how much of the entire shambles was due to incompetence and disorganisation and how much was deliberately contrived to obtain a certain electoral outcome?

Some of these serious irregularities just cannot be ignored.

  •  I refer to the massive mess up in the registration process- names were missing or were wrongly spelt, constituencies were not listed correctly or not listed at all and large sections of settlements were not registered. Hundreds of people were placed in wrong constituencies or registered in the Communal but not the Open constituencies or vice versa.
  •  I refer to the several instances of non compliance with the Electoral Act by the Supervisor of Elections for which responsibility must also be accepted by the Electoral Commission
  •  I refer to the TV advertisements to mislead the Indian voter – TV ads in Hindi told the voter he/she could place a tick either above the line or below the line – when we all know that placing a tick below the line makes the vote invalid. Despite complaints, the ads were not corrected or removed. Both the Supervisor of Elections and the Electoral Commission must be held responsible for deliberately misleading the Indian voter through these ads
  •  I refer to unscheduled polling. To begin with a full schedule of polling stations and times were not gazetted in line with the requirements of the Act. It was Gazetted well after the elections were over, and back dated! The failure to Gazette the list caused confusion over polling dates for stations and led to the holding of unscheduled polling.

I refer in particular to unscheduled polling at the Rishikul Nadera Primary School on Thursday 11th May. The only party aware of this change to the polling schedule that day was the SDL. For the others polling at the school was to take place the following day, on Friday 12th May. This was also indicated in the newspaper listing of polling stations.

If a last minute change was made to the polling schedule, it was onerous on the Elections Office to ensure that all candidates and parties had been informed of the change.

It is very suspicious that the only party aware of polling that day was the SDL? Secondly, how were ballot boxes opened and examined without the presence of agents from other parties? All these make the episode highly questionable.

When complaints were lodged with the Elections Office and the Electoral Commission, no action was taken to rectify the situation. Polling at this station ought to have been declared null and void.

  •  Then we have the case of 15 extra ballot boxes introduced at the count for the Nausori/Naitasiri Open seat?
  • There have also been irregularities in terms of failure to reconcile ballot papers in the Central Division;

In crucial seats lost by 10 or 11 votes, such irregularities become very significant. The affected candidates are mounting legal challenges to the results of several seats in the Central Division.

In my view, we must act now to inquire into the acts of omission and/or commission by the Supervisor of Elections which may have rendered the elections not free and fair.

The defects are too numerous and too serious to let pass without proper scrutiny. After all, it concerns the election of a government to lead the country for the next five years.

It would be an irresponsible act not to investigate the serious flaws that characterised the 2006 general elections and I, therefore, urge the government to appoint a Commission of Inquiry with appropriate terms of reference to ascertain whether the elections were indeed, free and fair.

Indigenous Issues

Mr Speaker on indigenous issues, I wish to point out to government that bringing in the Qoliqoli Bill, the PRTU Bill and such will not address the fundamental problems confronting the Fijian people.

Priority must be given to addressing the real problems facing our indigenous community.

These have been highlighted before –

  •  increasing poverty
  •  declining living standards
  •  rising numbers of squatter settlements
  •  high unemployment and
  •  the increasing incidence of drug abuse
  •  high crime rate
  •  and lack of capital to develop their resources.

It is well known that:

  •  13,000 Fijian families line up each month for the State’s family assistance allowance
  •  Fijians make up the majority of the 90,000 people that exist in overcrowded squatter settlements along the Suva/ Nausori corridor
  •  there is an alarming increase in the death rate of Fijian babies when the infant mortality rate for other races show a marked decline
  •  Fijian youths constitute the majority of the prison population
  •  the educational achievements of the Fijian students are way below that of other races

These are the realities facing the indigenous community. I see nothing in government’s policy outline as enunciated in His Excellency’s address that will adequately deal with any of these problems.

We must now put aside the usual rhetoric and initiate policies that will make a real difference to the lives of our ordinary people.

Let me speak very briefly on another matter that is of concern to me, Sir. I notice there is a plan to review the remuneration and pensions benefits for Parliamentarians.

In all sincerity, Mr Speaker, this is not the time for the government to think of personal gains for MPs. The nation, as I have already pointed out is in serious trouble – the economy is flagging, government’s financial situation is critical, there is high joblessness and increasing social distress.

This is not the time for parliamentarians to be thinking of increasing their pays and personal benefits. I hope that the plan will be shelved until a more appropriate time.

National interest requires that we all make sacrifices until such time as the economy and government finances are able to sustain increases to parliamentary salaries and perks.

I hope good judgement and good conscience will prevail.

Finally, I wish to thank most sincerely the voters of the Ba Open constituency for re-electing me to be their representative. I will do my best in the next five years to serve them as diligently as I can.

I also wish to thank the people of Fiji at large for the trust and confidence they have reposed in the Fiji Labour Party by giving us increased representation in the House.

Indeed, only the Fiji Labour Party can claim this distinction as no other party was able to make a gain in the number of seats they held, either singly or in coalition with other parties.

We pledge to honour that trust and confidence and serve our people and the nation with commitment, honesty and dignity.