There have been several media reports recently on the Fiji Labour Party refusing to resume Talanoa discussions with Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase and his team. This paper provides a background to why the talks were called off and FLP’s current stand on the issue.
FLP had justifiable reasons for calling off the Talanoa talks last August. The talks had been called to discuss (initially) the pressing issues of land leases, the multi-party cabinet case, and changes to the Constitution sought by the SDL.
The Prime Minister came to the talks with a closed mind.
He was not prepared to discuss the multi-party cabinet issue because he said it was before the courts
On the land issue, he was determined to push through NLTA and scrap ALTA.
To make changes to the land legislation (ALTA) and to the Constitution, he needs the support of the Fiji Labour Party because these are entrenched legislation requiring a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
It became very obvious at an early stage that the Prime Minister was determined to use the Labour Party to serve his agenda but was not prepared to concede any ground on issues which were of concern to the FLP.
One of the most pressing of these was the FLP’s growing concern at government’s racially discriminatory policies and practices as contained in the Social Justice Act, in breach of constitutional provisions. And also the arrogant manner in which important legislations were being bulldozed through parliament without consultation, or time for them to be examined, studied and debated.
This situation was aggravated at about that time by a number of racial slurs hurled at the Indian community and its leadership by government ministers and backbenchers without any move by the PM to publicly distance himself from these insults or to condemn them. Indeed, he made the situation worse when instead of admonishing the attackers, he defended one of his Ministers who had villified the entire Indian community likening them to “weeds occupying space in Fiji”.
A joint statement by the Prime Minister and myself calling on MPs to exercise restraint in such matters has been largely ignored by SDL MPs and officials who continue to berate the Indian community in the media, more particularly the Fijian language media which they also extensively use to incite racial hatred against the Indians.
Such provocation will not be tolerated by the Fiji Labour Party, as indeed it should not be by any self-respecting party or community. I value my self-respect as a leader of my people and the self-respect of my community. Labour, therefore, decided there was no point in continuing dialogue in this deteriorating climate. Not only have we to answer to our constituents, the majority of whom are Indians, we have to uphold the dignity and respect of our community.
The situation remains much the same today. Government Ministers and SDL party officials continue to hurl abuse at the Indian community without any public condemnation from the Prime Minister.
The SDL Government has put through policies and practices that blatantly discriminate against the Indian people and other minority communities.
In fact, the Prime Minister has continued to display total insensitivity, to the point of being arrogant, in regard to issues concerning the Indian people and minority communities.
At the last sitting of parliament in February, the Prime Minister himself launched a totally unwarranted, scathing attack on me and the National Farmers Union in a disgusting manner. He abused the privilege of the House by standing to deliver a ministerial statement but instead spat venom at me and the National Farmers Union for having reported the racist policies and practices of his government to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.3
The Prime Minister accused me and the NFU, quite without reason, of having uttered lies and half truths in the report to the UN Committee.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) has issued its final observations on Fiji which are highly damning of government’s policies and practices against minority communities, Indians in particular. Instead of saying what steps his government would take to rectify policies in breach of ICERD and to implement the recommendations of the Committee, he has chosen to fire abuses and insults at the NFU and its leadership for submissions it made to the UN Committee.
The truth is that the UN Committee found the Qarase government guilty of practising racism and has directed that prompt action be taken to remove all aspects of racial discrimination from government policies and statutes. The Committee specifically found 22 areas in which remedial measures need to be taken.
There could not have been a more damning indictment of the Qarase government as a racist administration, promoting and practising institutionalised discrimination.
Indeed, the UN Committee found that the discriminatory practices and policies of the
Qarase Government breach the Declaration adopted at a UN International Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia …held in Durban, South Africa in September 2001.
The Prime Minister says he is now anxious to talk to me to resolve national problems such as land, the sugar industry and changes to the Constitution.
We have already held talks on land and the Constitution in the Talanoa session held last year.
- On land, we have given a clear indication that we will not agree to ALTA being scrapped and substituted by NLTA as the SDL government wants. We have very good reasons for taking up this position and these have been clearly explained in our written submissions dated 2 September 1999 to the Native Lands Trust Board.
We are, however, prepared to consider certain changes to ALTA to accommodate the legitimate concerns of the landowners. These have also been well covered in our submissions to the NLTB.
- On changes to the constitution, the FLP has agreed to ‘tidying-up’ amendments which are non-controversial and which we ourselves had proposed in a Constitution (Amendment) Bill after the 1999 general elections.
It is to be noted that these changes do not in any way affect the rights and privileges of any individual or community but deal with errors/omissions detected by the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Constitution after the passage of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill in 1997.
The Rabuka administration published a Bill to deal with these errors/omissions but was unable to put it through the House because the 1999 general elections had overtaken the event.
- On the sugar industry, the Qarase government’s initial stance was to force the FSC-initiated restructure proposals, supported by industry officials ( FSC, SCOF and SCGC’s chief executive) down the throats of the farmers and workers even though it would have resulted in severe economic and social dislocation for them.
The FLP opposed the restructure as proposed because of the devastating effects it would have on the growers and mill workers. We demanded a closer and better form of consultations with the representative organisations of growers and workers in order to work towards a consensus.
The consultants appointed to advise on the issue support our position and have advised the Qarase government to lay-off and not force the issue. They have recommended a consensual approach.
As a result, the so-called restructure has now been deferred to allow for detailed discussions with all stakeholders.
We hope the Prime Minister has learnt something from this experience on how to handle contentious issues.
- Multi Party Cabinet– Another very important and relevant factor to be considered here is why is Mr. Qarase so anxious to solicit FLP’s co-operation and agreement in resolving contentious national issues when he has flatly refused to grant us our constitutional entitlement to be part of a multi-party government?
The multi-party cabinet provisions of the Constitution are specifically intended to ensure that government would be representative of all communities by requiring power to be shared between the political parties that have 10% or more of the seats in the House of Representatives.
But to keep FLP out of government, Mr. Qarase makes the excuse that a multi-party cabinet will not work even though it is a constitutional requirement. He is prepared to defy the Constitution to keep us out of government but is quick to seek our support to help him govern.
Mr. Qarase can’t have his cake and eat it too. He must now be prepared to bite the bullet, and give us our constitutional right. It is the only road open to him.