Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry has rejected outright propaganda that only a Fijian prime minister can effectively serve the interests of the indigenous Fijian community.
Fiji has had exclusively Fijian governments since the 1987 coups and yet the plight of the ordinary Fijian had declined markedly since then. These governments had taken office on the banner of indigenous rights yet they had little to show to improve the lot of the Fijian people at the grassroots level, Chaudhry said.
He was responding to an article in the Fiji Sun titled Chaudhry ready to lead on Wednesday 16 Feb, by reporter Maika Bolatiki which questioned whether the Fijian community were ready to accept a non-Fijian prime minister.
Bolatiki’s article followed a statement by Chaudhry at a rally in Ba two weeks ago that should Labour win the next general elections in 2006, the party leader would become prime minister.
“I don’t see why there is so much talk about who will become prime minister. This is nonsense. The party leader will become prime minister. That is political convention,” Chaudhry told the rally.
The Bolatiki article went on to articulate some of the propaganda that was used by defeated politicians and extremists groups to try and justify their racist overthrow of the Labour-led People’s Coalition Government headed by Chaudhry.
The matters raised in the article focus on sensitive national issues that Labour would like to clarify so that the Fijian people can realise how issues were distorted and manipulated to mislead them.
The allegations are are dealt with point by point:
- That the Chaudhry Government had removed the $1.5 million annual grant to the Provincial Councils:
This was a blatant lie. The truth is that the SVT Government had introduced the scheme for a period of five years. This 5-year term expired in 1999 when the provision naturally lapsed.
- Allegations of the Indianisation of top civil service positions:
This is another blatant. I did not touch appointments to top positions of the civil service. PSC statistics for the end of 1999 show that Fijians by far outnumbered Indians in the top four positions in the service: of a total of 169 approved establishments in US01 to US04 – 106 were Fijians and only 32 were held by Indians.
A racial breakdown of the 23 US01 positions show 17 held by Fijians and only four by Indians. So, where is the substance to the allegation that top positions were Indianised?
- The $28,000 grant to displaced farmers:
This was a humanitarian gesture by the State to ensure that displaced farming families, made landless, homeless and destitute overnight on expiry of their native leases, could start life anew with dignity and not fall into the humiliating and painful pangs of poverty. These farmers had contributed immensely to the economic well-being of the nation through their hard work and sacrifice and the State had a duty to provide for them at a time when they were facing severe hardship.
Indeed, the SVT government had put in place a couple of resettlement schemes but there were few takers because the sites were either in isolated, remote areas or had serious disadvantages such as being subject to severe flooding.
The People’s Coalition Government decided to offer the displaced families a cash grant, equivalent to what it would have cost the State to resettle and rehabilitate them, so that they could seek an alternative livelihood for themselves. This decision must be seen in the context of the severe social and economic dislocation that resulted from the non-renewal of these leases.
The grant was also paid to evicted Fijian farmers. In fact, 6 Fijian farmers had received it during 2000.
Unfortunately, the interim administration of Laisenia Qarase removed this grant. The devastating effects of this move are still being witnessed today in drastically reduced cane production, the reverting of good cane land to bush, the mushrooming of squatter settlements in the Suva/Nausori corridor and urban areas of the cane districts and the very high drop out rate of school children in the cane belt.
- That the Chaudhry Government refused financial assistance to incoming Fijian farmers:
This is another blatant lie. The Cabinet had approved the payment of a $10,000 grant to assist landowners who wished to farm their own land. This is the same scheme the SDL government later adopted to provide assistance to incoming landowners.
- That the Chaudhry Government insisted on retaining ALTA:
The truth here is that every independent report commissioned by the Rabuka Government, including that by Mr. Cyril Farrow, a former agricultural tribunal, had recommended that ALTA be retained, as it best served the interests of both landowners and tenant farmers. The Fiji Labour Party also firmly believes that ALTA should be retained.
However, the matter was under negotiation with the Native Land Trust Board and no firm decision had been taken either way. The People’s Coalition Government had made a detailed submission to the NLTB on this issue on 3 September 1999, and a subcommittee comprising representatives of Government and NLTB had been appointed to look into the merits of both ALTA and NLTA.
- Land Use Commission:
This was another issue that was deliberately distorted by opposition SVT politicians and extremists to arouse anti-government feelings. Despite this, it is not true that there was overwhelming Fijian opposition to the proposal.
It should be pointed out that the Government proposals on Land Use Commission had been placed before the Great Council of Chiefs for its approval. This and the issue of ALTA was hijacked by Opposition politicians and other extremists to arouse Fijian sentiments against the People’s Coalition Government when they should have given Government the chance to work out a settlement to this vexed but very crucial land problem that would have been acceptable to all parties.
A group of 13 high chiefs were sent by the People’s Coalition Government to Malaysia in February 2000 to study land use programmes initiated by the Malaysian Government. On return, the Chiefs headed by Ratu Timoci Vesikula, gave a very favourable report. They were keen to see native land developed for commercial agriculture through State assistance. They knew full well that the NLTB did not have sufficient financial resources to engage in land development.
There was absolutely no intention on the part of the Government to take land away from the indigenous people. After all, land ownership rights of the Fijian people are firmly entrenched under the Constitution. These are adequate safeguards to ensure that Fijian rights are not eroded by any government in office.
Our genuine intention was to help Fijian landowners better utilise their land through sustainable projects to enhance their incomes and improve their standard of living. The Land Use Commission proposal was subsequently presented to a meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs on 28 April 2000 by the Hon. Poseci Bune, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests at the time.
The chiefs accepted the proposal in principle. But before any further beneficial work could be done, the Government was overthrown in the May 19 coup. Consequently, vast areas of Fijian land continue to lie idle and unutilised, their potential untapped.
Had our vision been realised through the Land Use Commission, this would have meant the construction of roads and bridges providing access to vast areas of the interior, opening up the lands to commercial development either for agriculture or eco-tourism, and linking them up with markets in urban centres. All this would have enhanced the income of landowners and improved the quality of life in rural areas with the provision of piped water, electricity and other modern day amenities.
- The mahogany issue:
There was no attempt by my Government to control the harvesting of mahogany. Fijian landowners lacked the expertise and the finance to harvest and process the valuable mahogany resource. The State was obligated to ensure a joint venture arrangement that would optimise returns to the landowners as well as to the nation. In doing so, we were continuing a process begun by the previous SVT Government.
The point here is that the decision of the People’s Coalition Government to engage the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) as joint venture partner to harvest and process the mahogany had the endorsement of the Reserve Bank of Fiji, the Ministry of Finance and Public Enterprise, and Price WaterhouseCoopers as the consultants hired by the SVT Government. All these organisations had flatly rejected the Timber Resource Management (TRM) proposal being pushed by George Speight as its lobbyist.
There is no denying that George Speight’s involvement in the 2000 coup was as a result of the lucrative mega-million dollar mahogany venture having slipped from his hands. He had been touring the countryside with NLTB’s then general manager Maika Qarikau to agitate landowners against the Government’s decision on mahogany so as to derail the whole process.
He along with a few other groups who entertained dreams of getting rich from the mahogany venture tried to whip up anti-government propaganda through distortion and disinformation.
But look at what has happened to the mahogany dream? Landowners are crying out for action from government. Private individuals with political connections to the SDL are profiting from the confusion surrounding the whole issue and landowners have missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime to make megabucks from the resource.
- The question of who should be Prime Minister:
I do not subscribe to the propaganda that only a Fijian Prime Minister can best serve the interests of the indigenous people. Indeed, history tends to prove otherwise! Since 1987, with the exception of one year (1999-2000) we have had exclusively Fijian governments in office. What have they got to show in terms of improving the lot of the ordinary Fijian? The plight of the indigenous people has deteriorated markedly under these Fijian governments.
The Fiji Labour Party believes it is time now for the Fijian people to wake up to the truth. The interests of the ordinary Fijian cannot forever be sacrificed to the whims, the selfishness and the greed of a few who use the banner of indigenous rights to push their own agenda
Fiji as a nation must wake up to the reality that it cannot prosper and progress under racially exclusive policies. The catastrophe wreaked by the three coups since 1987 and the state of our nation today stand as grim reminders of this racial bigotry.
The coups have retarded national development and progress by at least 20 years. Evidence of social distress is more marked in Fiji today than it has ever been in its pre-coup history. Insensitive government policies have intensified the suffering and hardship of a majority of our people.
The hard reality is that at least 50% of the population have been caught in the poverty trap. This is reflected in mushrooming squatter settlements, high incidence of child mortality and malnutrition, high rates of unemployment, hundreds of our young prepared to risk their lives queuing up for security jobs overseas, high rates of school dropouts due to severe financial hardship and rising levels of violent crime and child prostitution.
If Fiji is to rise above this mire of social distress and economic stagnation, it must embrace the more enlightened policies of democracy and genuine multiracialism. It is a myth that the interests of the indigenous community can only be promoted through racially exclusive policies. Fiji can only hold promise for the next generation if it moves together as one people, one nation, using its combined talents and skills and resources for the benefit of all.