Opposition Leader responds to President’s address

  • 12th August 2005
  • 2005
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May I thank His Excellency the President for his address to Parliament.

I am concerned, however, that this significant event in the parliamentary calendar is reduced to becoming just an annual ritual when it should be an opportunity for the government in office to provide an accurate picture of the state of the nation, highlighting its achievements in addressing national issues and stating what further policy measures it intends to put in place over the year.

Unfortunately, Sir, the SDL/CAMV government’s policy statements have become drab and boring. They no longer provide an honest situational analysis on the state of the nation or an in-depth appraisal of what the main problems are and how the major issues of concern are being tackled. The President’s address clearly gives the impression that the government is merely going through the formalities without any real commitment to the task.

The address carries many sweeping generalizations on the economy, the social situation, the provision of State services and infrastructure that are merely attempts to hoodwink and mislead the nation, and hide the truth. It announced no innovative schemes to address major problems such as the high rate of joblessness, ever-escalating food prices, rising levels of poverty and other social inequities.

Governing a nation is serious business: it demands commitment and competence, not just rhetoric. I am sorry to say that the ills of the nation have multiplied and worsened under the stewardship of the current SDL coalition government. Yet, this government lacks the honesty to be forthright and admit that it is lost; it has no idea how to deal with the magnitude of problems assailing our nation.

And Mr. Speaker the problems are serious. Indeed, we have a situation similar to that which was experienced under the SVT government. The economy is in serious trouble, social distress has deepened in the past four years, corruption is rampant and government finances are in a deplorable state.

The government has been dishing out cooked-up figures to provide a glowing picture of economic performance, talking about 4-5% growth rates. In this exercise to hoodwink the nation, the Reserve Bank was equally guilty. They were caught in this game by the independent assessment of organisations such as the Asian Development Bank.

Now, the government has revised its figures downwards, to more realistic levels. It has admitted that growth for this year, 2005, is likely to be a mere 1.4% instead of an earlier projection of 4.2% and for next year, even less, at a paltry 0.7%, instead of the forecast 2.9%. Such a dismal rate of growth will not make any noticeable difference to people’s lives. Indeed, it will further aggravate their hardship.

Yet, government claims its economic fundamentals remain sound. This is not true. Whatever little growth we are experiencing are consumption-based, not based on national productivity. This is hardly something to brag about. Nor is it broad based enough to provide relief to the majority of our people. I have been sounding a warning on this for some years now, in every Budget response.

One has to just look at the export figures to realize that there has been a serious downturn. Our exports are falling: we exported less in 2004 than in 1999 – the figures are $1.2 billion for 1999 and $1.1 billion for 2004. Isw this not an indictment of government’s so-called export strategies which the Hon Minister for Commerce and Business Development was so proudly articulating on the floor of this House yesterday?

In fact, all our key industries are in trouble: sugar, garments, fisheries and gold. Tourism is doing well but it is a fickle industry, highly dependent on peace and stability, and external factors; and, leakage from the industry is substantially high at about 60-65% .

The garment industry

Our garment exports fell from a peak of $333 million in 1999/2000 to $253 million in 2003, and is still falling. The number of jobs in the industry have also been drastically reduced from a high of 18,000 in 1999 to less than 9000 currently, according to industry sourced figures.

These are very worrying developments. No other industry can absorb this workforce – largely women from marginalised sections of society with little skills and poor education. They are now largely unemployed, swelling the ranks of those living in poverty.

Given the fact that it is labour-intensive and has the potential to provide employment for the largely unskilled sectors of society, I am surprised that government has not been more aggressive in its approach to save this industry from extinction. It is absolutely urgent that we protect it from further decline. Not only that, government must initiate practical measures to restore it to previous levels.

The figures I have quoted show that garment exports experienced a boom in 1999/2000. The decline set in with the 2000 coup when, as a result of the internal political chaos, we failed to meet orders from buyers who began to look for more reliable markets elsewhere. Many Australian buyers, for instance, have turned to China.

We must realize that Australia’s free trade agreements with ASEAN nations is posing a major threat to Fiji’s exports to that country.

We have already noted the disastrous effect the withdrawal of US quotas from January this year has had on the industry and its employees. More than 5000 workers have been made jobless. If nothing is done now to reverse the prevailing situation, we will have to brace ourselves for much bigger job losses as more factories close down or relocate overseas.

Indeed, many of our foreign owned garment factories supplying the Australian, New Zealand and US markets have already relocated to low cost production destinations like China.

The industry’s main grievance is with SPARTECA which is highly restrictive in terms of its local content requirement or Rules of Origin (ROO). It is a major deterrent to cutting down costs and increasing efficiency as any attempts to reduce local costs would entail failure to meet the ROO requirements.

Local manufacturers want the rules of origin requirements reduced to 25% from the current level of 50%.

One of the major setbacks is that, to meet ROO requirements, our manufacturers are forced to source their fabrics from Australia.

But Australia offers very basic and a limited choice of fabrics and accessories, thus limiting our potential to service niche markets in Australia. A case in point is the exclusion of wool and wool/based products under Sparteca. This severely handicaps local companies that utilize wool as raw material.

Local manufacturers are confident that if the rules of origin requirements were reduced to 25% and with the inclusion of wool and wool blends, they would be able to compete more effectively on the Australian market.

I must express here my extreme disappointment with the inward looking attitude adopted by the current Australian Government on the issue of SPARTECA. Our manufacturers have been seeking a fair resolution of this grievance for years now. Australia has refused to listen to our plea that rules of origin be revised. Yet, in its free trade agreements with ASEAN countries, it is offering much better terms.

Reduced Australian tariffs on TCF imports from 50% in the 1980s to 17.5% also places our manufacturers under severe disadvantage because of the high rules of origin requirements.

A question I am constrained to ask is: what is Australia doing to help its less developed neighbours in the South Pacific? Fiji is the only PIC that has a substantial TCF industry. Yet, our manufacturers have been knocking on its doors for years now seeking concessions on the Rules of Origin, with no success.

I believe Australia as the big brother in the South Pacific has a moral obligation to assist less developed countries in the region. For 2005, Australia allocated $30.5 million in ODA to Fiji. This is peanuts. Besides, we all know that much of this aid money goes back to Australia through consultants and other technical people utilized under the aid scheme.

On the other hand, Australia has a huge trade surplus with Fiji of $400 million. It is our major trading partner. In 2004, Australian exports to Fiji were valued at $750 million. This is no mean figure. Our exports to Australia stood at $353 million – giving us a trade imbalance of $397 million.

I believe Australia has a responsibility to reduce this imbalance, and it can well do so by giving us more favourable treatment on entry criteria for our goods.

Yet, instead of assisting to overcome some of this massive trade imbalance, Australia is in fact undermining us. It filed a complaint to the WTO against the EU subsidy we have been receiving on sugar under its Sugar Protocol. While it begrudged us EU subsidy on our sugar exports, it is reported to have pumped in $700 million to assist its own TCF. It has also provided hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalise and subsidise its sugar industry. Yet, Australia talks about a level playing field.

Is this not double standards? Indeed, I am forced to the conclusion that the Australian Government through its actions, is proliferating poverty in Fiji. What else can we believe when it does everything possible to strangle our industries and threaten our jobs?

I hope an amicable solution can be worked out between Fiji and Australia that will save thousands of jobs and incomes in the TCF and sugar sectors.

Sugar and Land issues

The sugar industry, Sir, faces a similar plight. It is threatened by external factors that have a direct bearing to trade liberalization and the WTO Rules. Having said that, I must concede that our sugar industry is equally threatened by internal factors: namely, government policy on land.

Unless the land issue is resolved amicably, taking into account the interests of both parties, the landowners as well as the tenant community, no amount of upgrading and restructuring will save the sugar industry. Land remains the key to its survival, and indeed, I might add to agricultural development and prosperity in Fiji.

In the President’s address the government disclosed what it says is its 50-year proposal on land leases. It has used the lure of this so-called 50-year leases to paint a picture that the Labour Party is unreasonable in not accepting NLTA to replace ALTA in exchange for 50-year leases. The truth, however, is something else – let me elaborate:

In its proposal to the Select Committee on Land, government made the following offer on the duration of leases:

50-year leases to be reviewed between the 35th and 40th year of tenancy; extension not less than 20 years.
20 year leases; reviewed between the 15th and 17th year of tenancy.

It should be noted that the President’s address made no mention of the second proposal for a 20-year lease. Why not? Why was it deliberately withheld? Why are there two types of leases? What game, one may well ask, is government playing?

The game is fairly obvious. It wants two categories of agricultural leases. One for 50-years which is for show, on paper only, to attract support for its position to scrap ALTA.

The second, for 20-year leases, is really what the NLTB will issue after ALTA is scrapped and all native agricultural leases are transferred to NLTA.

Will there ever in reality be 50 year leases? The Opposition is not fooled by this hoax, particularly when both the SVT and SDL governments have said that landowners do not want to tie down their land for 30 years under ALTA.

The question to ask then is: if landowners are not prepared to tie down their land on 30 year leases, why would they agree to 50 year leases now?

No, in reality there will be no 50 year lease as I have said.

I notice the Prime Minister, in his paid advertisement, has once again accused me of showing “disrespect and insensitivity to indigenous Fijian feelings”. This is a red herring that he throws in every time he is cornered. He hides behind this bogey of ‘insensitivity’.

Sensitivity and feelings, Mr. Speaker, are not confined to just one group or community – we all have sensitivities and feelings. So let us see the problems and solutions from a holistic perspective: let’s take into account the feelings, the fears and the sensitivities of every one.

The point is that his government has, quite unethically, used the President’s address to deliberately misinform the people in order to gain political mileage for itself. I have questioned that and corrected the impression created by the President’s address. Where, I ask, is the disrespect to the Fijian people in that? When is the other side going to get away from this habit of always drawing on the race card when they are cornered? If they don’t have an answer to give the nation, why hide behind this bogey of insensitivity to the feelings of the indigenous people?

My own position is very clear. As a representative of the tenant community, I have a duty to analyse and question matters of concern to them.

The tenant community is entitled to long term security of tenure. They will not accept 20 year leases nor will I advise them to do so.

The past experience has been very traumatic for the tenant community. They will not be subjected to the same indignity again or be caught in the same trap.

Government talks about the needs of the landowners. Yet, when you see the extent of cane land that has now reverted to bush, you wonder whether there is a genuine need or whether government is just playing politics!

The landowners were obviously given wrong advice. At public hearings of the Ad Hoc Select Committee on Land, it became very clear that most of the landowners who appeared before it were keen to continue to lease their land. The message came out very clearly, particularly in the sugar belt, that landowners do not like their land lying idle.

And that they are unhappy at the way the NLTB has administered their land resources.

My advice to government, therefore, is to let ALTA stay. It has served us well since its enactment in 1966. This was also the recommendation of the Farrow Report which was commissioned by the Rabuka Government. The best way out of this impasse on land is to accept the independent Farrow Report and use it as a basis for further negotiations.

Government cannot just superimpose NLTA on the farmers and demand that they accept it. ALTA was specifically drawn up by the Colonial government to regulate relations between the tenants and landlords in the agricultural sector. NLTA was never meant for this purpose.

I admit ALTA may need a few amendments to meet the mutual concerns of landowners and tenant farmers. As far as the tenants are concerned, we need to provide for a longer period of notice to be given if leases are to be terminated. I suggest a five year notice which means that at the end of the 25th year a farmer should be told in writing that his lease will not be renewed. If he is not told anything, then the lease is assumed to be extended.

There must also be provision for compensation to be paid to exiting tenants for improvements to the land. This compensation must be paid before he leaves the land and must be determined by independent valuers.

In addition, the State must take the responsibility to provide land for displaced tenant family to relocate their home. After all, the State is required by the Constitution to make land available for housing.

Most of the land under lease belongs to the indigenous community. They have the right to decide whether they want to lease it or hold it in reserve. But it should be remembered that land is a very valuable resource.

Land laying idle is of little benefit to anyone. Sometime back the Prime Minister provided statistics in this House in response to our question. He revealed that since the policy on reservation began, less than 5% of the land reserved have been put to productive use.

One other issue. In his paid advertisement, the Prime Minister said, and I quote, “In fact, Mr. Chaudhry has already made it known that there will be no solution, until after the election..”

This is an unmitigated lie. I have never said this and I challenge the Prime Minister to provide proof of when and where I said it. He has a habit of making these fabricated statements in order to misinform the nation.

While I am speaking on the Prime Minister’s ad, I will taken this opportunity to respond to other issues he has raised.

Mahogany

Let me begin with mahogany. The Prime Minister makes a forecast that within five years mahogany will bring in $60 million. Forgive me, Sir, if I see this as empty rhetoric. He should be telling us what he has done in these five years to realize income to the landowners from mahogany. And not give us projections that are mere pies in the sky.

Let’s look at what the SDL government has achieved in these five years.

Under the guise of a so-called trial scheme, senior officials of the SDL Party are minting money from mahogany with paltry returns to the landowners. It’s the same old story: the elite are getting rich while the landowners are being ripped off.

They are logging the forests but there little or is no replanting taking place. The real money is in downstream processing – but what is government doing about this? Nothing. Just making sure that their own high fliers are filling their pockets.

Here again, Sir, I need to take issue with the Prime Minister for making dishonest statements to the media. In a statement to FIJILIVE on 8 August, he is reported to have said, and I quote from the report:

“Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase alleged that the People’s Coalition Government sold out the interest of the Fijian landowners by making an underhand deal with overseas-based companies.
The PM said the People’s coalition was going to deal with TRM– a US based company, a deal he labelled as suspect.” Unquote.

This is an unmitigated lie.

The entire nation knows that it was the People’s Coalition Government that stopped the deal with TRM because we felt that it was designed to rip off the landowners as well as the State. TRM had even taken us to court on this issue. George Speight’s coup was all about the fact that my government had dropped TRM as a joint venture partner in favour of the Commonwealth Development Corporation.

How can the Prime Minister then in all honesty allege that we were involved in a ‘suspicious’ deal with TRM. It’s a load of lies.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, this is the kind of lies that were being fed to the indigenous community by unscrupulous politicians and opportunists in 1999 and 2000. There is not an iota of truth in this allegation.

There was a surfeit of such lies and disinformation perpetrated against us by unscrupulous politicians and opportunists who unashamedly used the race card to play on the emotions of innocent people.

I am sorry to say that Hon Qarase was one of them. He was making speeches in the Senate which were being given lengthy coverage in the papers, he was putting out full page ads indulging in lies and disinformation about the policies and activities of the People’s Coalition Government and exploiting the race card to the full.

Let me tell the Prime Minister and other racists who line up the government benches, that my government in just one short year in office had done more to improve the quality of life of the ordinary Fijian people, then his government has done in four long years or the SVT in its seven years in office prior to 1999.

Had we remained in office, the mahogany venture would have really kicked off with the CDC as joint venture partner and the landowners would have been reaping the benefits of millions of dollars that would have accrued to them from downstream processing of their timber resource.

As it is, they are being ripped off while senior officials of the SDL are logging the plantations and filling their own pockets.

Let’s move on to social services and infrastructure. The Prime Minister is once again engaging in an exercise of disinformation by giving us a barrage of figures on his government’s budget allocations.

What he is doing is making a superficial comparison with budget allocations made six years ago. This is meaningless. The point is that the Labour-led government substantially increased budgetary allocations for Health, Education, Social Welfare etc compared to the SVT Government.

In any case, the man on the street is not impressed with government’s chest-thumping on economic figures. He wants to know why the cost of food he has to put on the table for his family keeps going up every day.

He wants to know why, in a country that is self-sufficient in poultry, he is forced to pay $12 for a chicken big enough to feed the entire family – $12, Sir, for a 2kg chicken is preposterous. How often do you think an ordinary family can afford to buy chicken to eat? It is a luxury when you consider that for the average worker $12 is tantamount to a full day’s wage!

Lamb chops are selling at an astronomical $6 a kg! and I bet you, Sir, this is hardly the superior cut of meat. Chicken and lamb are important sources of protein and iron. Yet a vast number of our families can no longer afford these essentials.

Many families are supplementing these nutrients by canned fish instead. Even canned fish keeps escalating in price. The cheaper brands are now selling for $1.60 a 425g can. That is hardly affordable for many of our struggling families.

Flour and rice are staples that everyone needs. Yet they now cost more than $1 a kg. Milk powder cannot be obtained for anything below $4 for a 500g package.

Is it any wonder that malnutrition among our children is running so high? A few years back, statistics showed that one in every child below the age of five was malnourished. I have absolutely no doubt that this situation has worsened considerably in recent years.

Mr. Speaker much of this high cost of food is attributable to the SDL government’s re-imposition of VAT on basic food items; and it’s increase to 12%.

On a $12 chicken, exactly $1.50 goes into government coffers through VAT.

How insensitive can any government get faced with the hardship that we can see around us? VAT hits directly at the stomachs of our poor and I am sure this government will see the repercussions of such insensitivity come the next elections.

Despite these taxes that have hit the pockets of the poor, government’s borrowings have escalated in four years. The national debt has ballooned, indeed doubled, in four years from $1.2 billion in 1999/2000 to a massive $2.2 billion at the end of 2004. The taxpayer has a right to ask where all this money has gone but government has little to show for it. I have no doubt, Sir, they have been gobbled up in all those scams and corrupt practices that the Auditor General’s report has been highlighting annually these past four years.

I am afraid if government continues in this fashion, it will lead this nation to bankruptcy.

Let me again give some comparative figures to show the extent of mismanagement and extravagance of this government.

In 1999, our gross deficit was $200 million or 5.3% of the GDP. Today it is virtually double that at $382 million equivalent to 9 % of the GDP.

Net deficit in 1999, Sir, was just $9.8 million at 0.3% of the GDP. Today, and listen carefully, it is a massive $256 million, standing at 6% of the GDP.

Now, the Prime Minister should tell us if this is not gross mismanagement of the economy and national finances. He has nothing to show for this borrowing. Our health and education facilities are in a deplorable state, our infrastructure in a serious state of disrepair, the poor have no relief from the ever-rising cost of living and the abyss of poverty they are being sucked into everyday, very few new jobs have been created and the accelerated rate of rural/urban migration shows that rural areas continue to be depressed and neglected.

Rather than admit to the failure of his government to deliver, the Prime Minister lacks the honesty to give credit where it is due. He claims the phenomenal 9.6% growth recorded by the Labour government in 1999/2000 is a result of SVT policies.

Then how does he explain that under the SVT, the economy went into deep recession for two years before 1999, registering negative performance and that for its preceding five-year span in power, the SVT could never accomplish growth above 2%.

In 1998, the Bank of Hawaii reported and I quote:

“The Fijian economy is at its weakest point since the mid-1980s… in 1997 the real per capita GDP was down 3.9% (the largest since Independence) … Fiji is in its worst economic downturn in more than a decade.” Unquote.

This, Sir, is the appalling state of the economy my government inherited from the SVT in mid-1999. We turned it around in less than a year. People should learn to give credit where it is due.

Under the Labour-led Government, all sectors of the economy showed dynamic growth. In addition, the people benefited from this broad-based growth. The annual rate of Inflation in 1999/2000 stood at 0.2%. Compare that with the current 6% and the 10% under the SVT Government pre-election.

As for the sugar industry, yes, the sugar receipts for 1999 showed the benefits of a $19 million cane rehabilitation programme that was implemented following the 1997/98 drought. But this programme was initiated by the SVT government only after it was forced to do so by a cane harvest boycott by farmers led by the National Farmers Union. I doubt if, under the circumstances, the SVT can claim credit for the results.

In the final analysis, Sir, there is not much these governments can take credit for that are positive and have taken the nation forward.

We now appear to have another crisis looming on our hands just as we emerge from the devastating nurses’ strike. I am referring to the threat by the Catholic Church to close down its schools if government continues to ignore the graduates of Corpus Christi.

The Catholic Church has a long history of service to the people of Fiji particularly in the field of education , going back to the 19 th century. It today runs 62 schools providing education to 20,000 students.

It would be a national disaster if it is forced through this government’s insensitivity to close its institutions. The Church has a legitimate grievance.

And I call on government to sort this issue out amicably before we have another disaster on our hands.

‘Terrorist Amnesty’ Bill

I do not intend to say much on the amnesty Bill as it has already been widely discussed publicly. Here in the House, Opposition Whip the Hon Krishna Datt, has dealt with the subject quite ably.

Suffice it to say that it fools no one as to the real intentions of this government. Contrary to its claims, the Bill introduces yet another divisive factor in our society. The truth is that the policies and actions of the SDL/CAMV government are not healing the rifts, they are merely driving a deeper wedge between our people.

As a nation, we are more divided today than we have ever been before. And I blame the ostrich-like policies of the government for this. They have obstinately buried their heads in the sand and refuse to see the harm they are doing or the deep cleavage they are creating among our people.

Divisions pervade across our society:

ethnic tensions and communal divisions have been aggravated by discriminatory government policies
class differences have accentuated in recent years among the growing poor and the affluent elite of society
the workers are feeling alienated under insensitive government policies; a case in point is the recent nurses’ strike
people in depressed rural areas feel neglected and deprived of the attractions and benefits available in urban centers

As I have said before, Sir, the governance of a nation is serious business. We cannot ignore the tenets of good governance and pursue policies that pander to narrow parochial interests or push the agenda of a favoured few. Adherence to ethics, integrity, the rule of law and an overall vision for the good of all are pre-requisites for a good government.

Much evil has been perpetrated in this country under the guise of indigenous interests . This has got to stop. No culture in the world promotes violence, killing or injustice. And those who claim licence for their wrong doing by taking shelter behind racism and indigenous rights, are insulting their own culture and traditions.

Let’s do away with this farce. The ordinary Fijian has suffered as much as anyone through the coups. All these so-called affirmative action programmes are passing him by – those who have benefited are a select few.

The inspiring news is that our people of all races, are waking up to this realisation. It is becoming harder to fool them, as we saw in 2000, and with the current controversy over the Amnesty Bill.

It gives hope that Fiji has a future. And it gives us, Sir, despite all the frustrations, the strength and determination to continue to pursue our vision for a just and fair society for all our people.