FLP paper looks at challenges facing political parties in the lead up to the 2014 general elections, the current depressed state of the economy and deteriorating social conditions. It outlines the Party’s major policy guidelines to address these issues (Mini Manifesto 2014).
The right to vote and to elect a government of one’s choice is one of the most fundamental tenets of democracy. It is enshrined in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads:
“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives… The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Article 21, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
Similar rights are enshrined in Article 25 of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The people of Fiji have been denied this fundamental and universal right to elect their own government for close on 8 years. Instead, we were subjected to authoritarian rule with many of our basic human, civil and political rights violated and suppressed by draconian and repressive decrees.
Now the regime has announced it will hold elections in 2014 under a recently released constitution. Public expectations and pre-occupation with the forthcoming elections are, therefore, quite understandable.
However, we must, as a nation, pause and ask ourselves whether the current political processes put in place by the regime will result in truly free, fair and credible or genuine elections.
What then, are some important ingredients necessary to ensure free, fair and credible elections?
- First, political parties and candidates must be able to register, and participate in the election process without unreasonable requirements
- Second, each party and candidate must get balanced access to the media
- Three, no vote buying or abuse of public funds for vote buying as is being done now by the Bainimarama regime
- Four, an independent and autonomous electoral process.
Under the current process, none of these criteria has been met –
1. The Political Parties Decree imposes onerous conditions designed to make it extremely difficult for parties to register and operate, and to cripple them financially;
2. The media is not free and, intimidated by the threat of harsh penalties, prefers not to broadcast or print any opposition to the regime’s policies and actions – with the result that political parties are virtually denied a voice to criticize the regime
3. Regime is blatantly using public funds to buy votes; and
4. There is no independent machinery to oversee the electoral process.
Under these circumstances, free, fair and credible elections are impossible.
In the absence of a Constitutional Offices Commission, the Prime Minister appoints members of the Electoral Commission and the Supervisor of Elections. Until these appointments are made, the Permanent Secretary for Elections will oversee the electoral process. Where, we ask, is the independent machinery to ensure that the process is free, fair and credible?
The Fiji Labour Party and the UFDF have repeatedly called for a caretaker government to be appointed to oversee the process that will restore genuine democracy via credible general elections. That is only fair in the current environment where there is no machinery to demand accountability and transparency from the powers that be, no checks on how they can manipulate the system to their advantage.
How can then one trust them to hold free, fair and credible elections?
In terms of challenges facing the nation, the most critical is the regime’s constitution that is fundamentally flawed in a number of important respects. Designed primarily to legitimize the current dictatorship, the regime’s constitution has been drawn up to ensure they continue in office.
This morning you received a comprehensive address from the CCF on this subject and I have no wish to go into the matter in depth. But we need to note that under the regime’s constitution:
The Judiciary remains compromised and seriously circumscribed – the constitution violates the important principle of separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary by giving excessive powers to the AG and the PM on appointments of Judges, the DPP, Solicitor General and senior court officials
– The Constitutional Offices Commission is chaired by the Prime Minister. Where is the independence? All high executive positions will have to be sanctioned by the Prime Minister.
– The Bill of Rights has serious limitations placed on the funadamental rights of the people. For instance, workers and trade union rights are provided for but are qualified with the words “the law may limit this in the interest of national security”. Who is to define national security?
The current regime has already removed the basic right to collective bargaining and the right to organize and assembly from several key categories of workers under the Essential Industries Decree. Public Service workers have been stripped of all their rights to collective bargaining – their terms and conditions of work can be changed at any time to their disadvantage. Collective agreements in the public service have little relevance or meaning if the State is empowered to amend or revoke its provisions unilaterally.
Political rights are similarly restricted by the imposition of a qualifying clause that “the law may limit this in the interest of national security”.
One grants that there are times, particularly in a national emergency situation, when a number of human rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights may have to be curtailed in the national interest.
However, in past constitutions, the criteria used was that these rights could only be limited to the extent acceptable in a democratic society. In this case, the regime has given the State an open hand to restrict our fundamental rights as it pleases.
Non-negotiables. There was much ado in Decrees 57 and 58 about the inclusion of non-negotiables in the new constitution. Yet, the regime’s own constitution undermines a number of the values and principles contained in the non-negotiables such as the independence of the judiciary, provisions on social justice etc.
1.Credibility of Elections – Elections as prescribed for in the regime’s constitution raise a number of questions in terms of logistics as well as the principle of free and fair polls.
Secrecy surrounding voter rolls
Why are voter rolls not being released for public scrutiny? The Attorney General is misleading the people when he says they are available. What he means is that if one goes to the Registrar of Political Parties, he has the code to access the rolls on his computer. He then allows you to scrutinize the rolls.
This is not on. The practice has been for the provisional rolls to be published and released for public scrutiny. There is then an objection period after which the final rolls are published.
Unless such transparency is allowed, the rolls can have no credibility. What is to stop the regime from putting in names of non-existing people or those who don’t qualify to vote?
The public must have free access to the rolls if the elections are to have any credibility.
The concept of a single national constituency – why are the single member constituencies being abolished? There has been no public discussions on what may be the best system to adopt that will suit Fiji’s particular needs. The regime has, undoubtedly, imposed a system that will best suit its own agenda.
A single national constituency provides better scope for vote rigging. It also raises numerous hurdles in terms of sheer logistics that will have to be employed.</>
For instance, they are talking about one day polling with 3000 polling stations. Assuming that each polling station requires at least 10 officials to man it, we are looking at a gigantic manpower of 30,000 officials to man the polling stations alone. Where are they to come from?
One day polling will disenfranchise thousands of voters who are unable to make it to the polling station on the nominated day because of logistical constraints – it must be noted that 60% of the population reside in the rural areas and outer islands with likely transportation problems.
Then they are talking about counting the votes at each polling station. This in effect violates the principle of secret ballot because in a small village of say 100 voters, it will be very clear which way they have voted. There is definitely a degree of intimidation involved in this.
In the past, votes were counted at three national centres. And ballots from a certain area were mixed up before the counting began in order to safeguard the secrecy of the ballot.
A single national constituency of 50 candidates has other drawbacks. Let’s say there are four political parties – we end up with a list of a minimum of 200 names that go on a single ballot paper.
This creates the mindboggling situation of every voter going through a ballot paper with 200 or more names on it in order to select one. Knowing the lack of sophistication of our voters both in the rural and urban areas, this is ridiculous.
It is quite obvious that the architects of our electoral arrangements have no real experience in conducting elections or the logistics that are involved in the process. And are, of course, too arrogant to consult.
3. State institutions – the State apparatus at all levels has been highly militarized and politicised. Professional civil servants have been replaced by army officers as Permanent Secretaries, heads of departments, board members and directors. Cultural nepotism is quite pervasive. As is corruption in high places.
There is a total disregard for accountability and transparency and proper procedures that govern the running of the civil service. Government accounts and financial reports have not been published since 2008. Likewise, Auditor General’s reports are no longer published for public scrutiny. Salaries of Cabinet Ministers have been kept secret and until recently was paid not by the Treasury as is customary but through a private Suva accounting firm. One must ask why the secrecy?
State institutions have developed a mindset that is para-military, operating through intimidatory tactics. They are no longer service-oriented or user-friendly, so to speak.
One only has to look at the operations of LTA and FIRCA for confirmation of such attitudes. The business community is badly harassed and hounded. Over-regulation by the Commerce Commission has created a stifling business environment.
4. Economy – In the past six years or so, the economy has suffered a major setback. Exports have declined considerably with sugar production down 50% compared to 2006 levels, fisheries exports have slumped by 40% and gold by 39% in the past two years.
Growth is now measured in terms of consumption and service activities, fuelled by fiscal measures which are unsustainable over the long term.
The regime’s much vaunted income tax relief has been offset by a series of hidden taxes which have pushed up the cost of utilities and doing business in Fiji.
The State’s financial position is critical and heavily reliant on overseas loans for capital works. The mounting public debt position, reportedly at $5 billion, is unsustainable in the long term, as more borrowing is underway .
5. Social conditions – Current poverty levels of 45% (official statistics) is totally unacceptable for a country rich in natural resources. It reflects the nation’s declining economic conditions, high unemployment levels, low wage rates, the increasingly depressed rural sector with a decline in agricultural activities, particularly cane cultivation, and the escalating cost of living.
The 20% devaluation of the Fiji dollar against the currencies of our major trading partners, has seen an astronomical increase in the price of imports in the past few years, particularly essential food items, putting them out of the reach of the ordinary poor.
With butter now selling at $9 for 500grms, liquid milk close to $4 per litre and powdered milk at $8 plus for a 500 grm pack, cheese at about $12 for a 12-sliced pack, it is little wonder the rate of malnutrition amongst our children is so high.
Despite the growing social distress, the regime announced at the beginning of the year it will withdraw Social Welfare benefits from the majority of its recipients. Last year, it had removed some 400 recipients from its Social Welfare benefits, mainly widows and single parents.
The regime’s decision last year to slice FNPF pension rates by 50% across the board has left over 90% of its current pensioners facing acute financial hardship.
What we have seen is a continuing increase in military expenditure at the expense of health, education and social services.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are the challenges our nation faces ahead of the scheduled general elections. It is against such a backdrop of challenges, that political parties will have to formulate policies and draw up their party manifestos.
Rebuilding and rehabilitating the nation will be a massive task. It will mean restoring not only the rule of law and political stability, but revitalizing the economy, stabilizing State finances and dealing with the growing impoverishment of our society.
The Fiji Labour Party manifesto is being formulated keeping these priorities in mind.
Fiji Labour Party Manifesto
Before I talk about the FLP manifesto, I must point out that at present our focus is primarily on getting the fundamentals right for the nation. We have on our hands a seriously flawed constitution, and talk of general elections when in fact, there is no legislation in place for the conduct of the elections and no independent institution to oversee the process to ensure it is free, fair and credible.
It is essential to get these fundamentals right before we embark on the next step.
Having said that, yes, we have given some thought to our policy platform for the next elections and we have drawn up and circulated a list of policy priorities dubbed as our mini manifesto. A more substantial document is not likely to be produced until we are more certain of what we are heading towards.
As a background, let me inform you that the FLP’s founding principles are people-focused, social-democratic in nature with emphasis on human rights and freedoms, social justice, equity and equal opportunities. Our party came into being in 1985 in answer to the then government’s neglect of our ordinary citizens – the urban worker, the rural farming community and small businessmen.
Since then FLP has built up a credible reputation for defending and promoting the rights of workers, farmers, the small businessmen and the poor and disadvantaged in our society. All our manifestos have reflected this.
At the same time, we realize that to deliver on our social policies we have to provide a favourable climate for sustainable economic growth. This means promoting private investment, business activities and agricultural development that will create employment, enhance the quality of life of our people and foster national prosperity.
For all this it is essential to have political stability and the rule of law which in turn will engender investor confidence. We must also have in place the necessary infrastructure to facilitate investment and growth.
So our Party policies are basically three-pronged –
1. Economic growth and infrastructure development
2. Social justice and the provision of proper State services
3. Environmental protection to ensure sustainable growth
In addition, for this election we will put in place measures to reverse and redress some of the more repugnant policies and actions of the regime.
Inter-twined among all this will be special policies to promote gender-equity, youth schemes to provide adequate jobs for our growing young population and policies to preserve and promote our diverse cultural traditions.
FLP’s mini manifesto
Reversing policies of the regime:
- Re-instate the Great Council of Chiefs disbanded by the regime in March 2012. FLP recognizes that the GCC has been an integral part of the indigenous community for the past 150 years and has played a key role in preserving and protecting indigenous welfare and interests.
- Municipal Councils and Regional Development Boards – Major reforms and initiatives will be undertaken in the municipal councils and regional development bodies to streamline the out-dated municipal authorities and create regional Boards to plan and oversee integrated development in the different regions of the country.
- Sugar Industry Institutions – disbanded by the regime in 2010 will be reinstated to provide to provide growers a voice in the industry and to ensure accountability and transparency in the running of the industry.
- Indirect Taxes – FLP will review all hidden indirect taxes, particularly for services where a 15% VAT is already applicable.
To address the problem of escalating poverty and provide relief to our struggling poor, the FLP will:
- gradually increase the current contribution rate of 8% so that workers can retire in dignity on a livable income. FLP believes the current rate of 8% is inadequate to ensure this. Indeed, statistics show that 60% of pensioners worldwide, do not receive adequate stipend to live in dignity.
- concurrently introduce measures in full consultation with employer/employee representatives to lift wage rates to acceptable levels.
- Reverse cuts in Social Welfare payouts – to ensure that all disabled and elderly persons living in genuine hardship receive State assistance. We will review the $30 food voucher to reflect inflationary trends.
- Old Age Pension for those over 65 – Since 1987, FLP has been advocating an old age pension for seniors who have no other source of income but have not been in office long enough to introduce this. Retirement Age – In 2009 the regime reduced the official civil service retirement age from 60 to 55. FLP will reinstate the retirement age to 60 years.
- Reduce FEA tariff rates – FLP will carry out a comprehensive review of FEA tariff structures both domestic and industrial/commercial with a view to reducing the current high charges and provide relief to consumers
- Relief from VAT – FLP strongly opposed the increase in VAT to 15%. We will extend the list of basic food and consumer items that are zero-rated under VAT in order to provide adequate relief to low income earners and the poor
- Solar energy – will be encouraged through tax incentives to reduce our reliance on costly and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.
- Media – FLP will review the Media Industry Development Decree to remove censorship and the harsh penalties. But to encourage accountability and responsibility, a Media Tribunal will be set up. Licensing restrictions will be removed and the local/expatriate ownership laws will be reviewed in the best interests of the country
- National Volunteer Service Scheme – to gainfully engage unemployed young people in community service and vocational training to prepare them for the job market.
- Housing – Housing shortage is a major emerging social problem. FLP will see that the State subsidises low income houses to bring them within the reach of the low income worker.
(i) FLP’s focus will be on the provision of quality education and better equipped schools to meet modern-day requirements
(ii) affordability and high costs are major issues in the delivery of education today. FLP will address these with a view to providing some relief to parents
(iii) rationalizing tertiary education with emphasis on greater vocational training with a view to employment orientation
(iv) removing discriminatory practices in the issuing of scholarships and school resources so that all needy children have equal opportunity to get education
- Health Care – FLP has an integrated plan to improve public health care and invest in our hospitals and clinics. This will include:
(i) introduction of a Medicare Scheme
(ii) public/private ownership contracts to manage major hospitals
(iii) addressing chronic shortage of skilled medical personnel and life-giving drugs.
- Rural Development – has been a cornerstone of FLP’s policy on national development. We will invest in, encourage and promote commercial agriculture as a means of providing jobs to enhance incomes and improve the quality of life of the rural community.
- Sugar Industry – FLP will retain focus on sugar production and co-generation activities. To ensure value-added, ethanol production will be looked at as a bi-product to be used in the beverage industry.
- Infrastructure – Labour will explore partnerships with the private sector to upgrade existing roads and bridges, build new roads to open up the interior and improve traffic congestion in our cities and towns.
- Public Utilities (Water, Electricity) – Labour will address current grievances and problems. We will look at the problem of monopolies and bring in competition to ensure better and cheaper delivery of services
- Environment – FLP will encourage protective and sustainable development to preserve our eco-system and minimize damage to the environment
- Harnessing our Water Resources – FLP will ensure maintenance of our rivers, creeks and shorelines to minimize the impact of pollution from industries, use of fertilisers and weedicides and to address general neglect.