Opposition parties must unite to reclaim democracy, says Chaudhry

  • 5th November 2016
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Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry says opposition parties need to form a united front to oppose the dictatorial FF government in the 2018 general elections.    table

“This is what the people want . They want a change in government and this can only be achieved if  we combine into a united force to provide a credible alternative government. We can only do this if we join forces, not if we remain fragmented,” Mr Chaudhry said.

“Every where I go – I get just one message from the people – that the opposition parties must get together and remove the current government. People are not happy with the way the FF is running the country,” he said.

Mr Chaudhry said opposition parties had agreed in principle to the concept of a united front. “We have to realise the realities on the ground. We are facing a completely changed  situation with a government that is hiding behind a veneer of democracy to entrench its dictatorial policies.

“It is no longer a question of individuals or any one political party. The national interest must be above party politics,” the Labour Leader said.

Mr Chaudhry was speaking at the Annual Delegates Conference of the Fiji Labour Party at the Trans International Hotel in Nadi today. The meeting was attended by some 60 Party delegates from around the country.  He said he was convinced through his visits to various parts of the country that people were fed up of a government:

  • that was becoming increasingly dictatorial;
  • had entrenched itself in power through an imposed undemocratic constitution;
  • showed absolutely no respect for accountability and transparency in the handling of public funds
  • was insensitive to the needs of the common people eg. the victims of Cyclone Winston who 8 months later were still living in tents and crying out for food assistance for their starving children
  • was enriching itself at the expense of the poor ie. the first act of the elected government in 2014 was to grant itself hefty pay increases; just weeks ago it again awarded itself huge increases in travel allowances – in the case of the Prime Minister 350% of the UNDP rate plus another $600 top up – while denying workers a $4 an hour national minimum wage and slashing FNPF pensions by 50%.

delegatesThe full text of Mr Chaudhry’s address to the Party convention  hereunder: 

Our theme for the 2016 Annual Delegates Conference  is Unite to reclaim Democracy. It reflects the challenges, the obstacles and the dilemma we face as a nation going into the next general elections in 2018. I am not in any doubt that we are not a democracy. I have spoken about it many times before and repeat it today.

We need not go beyond the imposed 2013 Constitution to establish that Fiji is not a democratic State. Merely holding elections under an imposed Constitution and a convoluted electoral arrangement does not give us democracy.

The imposed constitution, is the most serious problem confronting us today. It lacks ownership of the people and was specially crafted to entrench the authoritarian rule of the past 8 years.

A working group of the United Nations Human Rights Council which examined Fiji in 2014  recommended that a Commission be appointed to undertake a comprehensive review of the Constitution so as to make it “reflective of the will and aspirations of the citizens of Fiji, thereby, providing a more stable political structure”.

It said Fiji’s legislative and constitutional framework be amended to maintain the separation of powers and that the State cease any executive or political interference with the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession.

When we talk of the state of democracy in Fiji we must remember that a number of draconian decrees promulgated by the regime continue in force ,  the Bill of Rights provisions of the imposed 2013 Constitution, notwithstanding.

Indeed, the UNHRC working group came out strongly in its recommendations that these decrees be scrapped or amended to ensure that the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people are not unduly restricted. Decrees specifically mentioned are the: Media Decree, Public Order Amendment Decree and the Political Parties Decree.

Commenting on the Media decree it said: “ …There is a need to change the climate of fear and self-censorship to ensure no one was arbitrarily arrested and detained for exercising their rights.”

Following this, the Media decree was amended to some extent but the  intimidatory aspect of the decree continues through the heavy penalties that the Editor and the Publisher face for any breach.

The Essential National Industries Decree was also repealed following  intervention of the International Labour Organisation.

However, the workers’ right to collective bargaining remains restrained. The State has been successfully circumventing this right by claiming that the workers are on individual contracts.

Professor Yash Ghai in his critique of the 2013 constitution, writes off the Bill of Rights as just “a list of political aspirations”:

It does not constrain the power of the State, it does not constrain parliament or the executive from infringing any rights and freedoms whenever doing so is politically convenient. So long as a written law permits or authorizes the infringement, there is no recourse,.” he said.

Our second concern is the status of our Parliament which has been reduced to a sham. Parliamentary processes have been abused or manipulated to restrict the role of the Opposition almost to the point of rendering them ineffective.

The Speaker who has come in for strong criticism over her obvious bias towards the government, does not meet the impartiality and independence requirements under S77 of the Constitution.

No one with close connections to a political party, or worse still, who contested the elections to become a member of parliament, should be considered for the position. The incumbent Speaker cannot be seen to meet these requirements as she contested the elections successfully as president of the Fiji First Party but resigned immediately afterwards to take up  appointment as Speaker: the grand plan being for Fiji First to assume complete control of parliament.

The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee is an integral part of good governance. It provides the necessary checks and balances in the government’s handling of public funds by demanding accountability from the State.

This committee has been rendered totally ineffective with the removal of an Opposition member as committee chairman. He was replaced by a government nominee after the Standing Orders of Parliament were amended to facilitate the change.

The Auditor General’s reports for the years 2010-2014 made shocking revelations of financial scandals including the impropriety surrounding Cabinet salaries from 2010-2013 and the payment of PM’s credit card accounts by his office without proper acquittals. It also questioned the allocation and use of $100m from the Prime Minister’s office which had not been satisfactorily explained. .

Now all these issues raised by the Auditor General’s office are likely to be brushed under the carpet.

This is worrying because of the already endemic culture of corruption, cronyism and cultural nepotism that now exists in high official circles particularly between top ranking politicians and elements in the private sector.

The controversy over Shirley Park and the Churchill Park rezoning issue in Lautoka stands as glaring examples of this. A similar questionable development has emerged in Suva related to the construction of a mall in Flagstaff in the open space fronting on to the Marist Brothers High School. Objections regarding the destruction of green space, the resulting traffic congestion in the area and the lack of adequate parking facilities were conveniently ignored when the go-ahead for the development was given some weeks back.

One can count several other cases – the Waila City project, the now abandoned $500 million up market retail and accommodation complex that was announced for the Raiwaqa tiri land, the China Railway development in Bay View Heights which took place on land set aside for civic projects and on which construction was allowed to take place without proper certification from the Suva city Council.

As for cultural nepotism, this is a very much talked about issue around the kava bowl. But when an Opposition MP dared to raise it in Parliament, he was suspended from the House for the reminder of its term.

There are several questionable deals surrounding the awarding of government contracts over the past 10 years. When questions are raised, the authorities refuse to respond.

There is an absolute absence of Accountability and Transparency in such matters.  The constitution provides for a number of measures to enhance good governance by ensuring accountability and transparency: such as a Code of Conduct for  those in high office, Freedom of Information legislation and the setting up of an Accountability and Transparency Commission.

Two years after the elections, the nation is still waiting for the enactment of these measures. The Bills introduced in parliament went before the Parliamentary Standing Committees for scrutiny. But they have been so cunningly crafted, they deny the very purpose for which they are to be enacted.

For instance, under the Information Bill – (note that it is not called Freedom of Information as is the norm – quite deliberately, of course!) –   access to information is severely restricted and confined strictly  to that which directly affects the person seeking the information. No other information can be accessed by a citizen, including information on public expenditure.

This negates the very purpose of the legislation to promote transparency and good governance in State matters. It in fact has the opposite effect of suppressing or withholding information, not making it accessible.

Likewise, the Code of Conduct Bill makes it possible for the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and the President to continue to hold directorships and shares in private family companies and businesses. This is contrary to convention and in fact, leaves the door open to corruption and abuse of office.

A new Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Bill was specifically introduced to impose long imprisonment terms and heavy fines on persons found guilty of defaming the Speaker or Members of Parliament.  The operative term is “defaming”. Does it also include criticism of the Speaker or Parliament? In my submissions to the Standing Committee I had queried this and called for this provision to be scrapped altogether as it was nothing short of sheer intimidation to stop any criticism of the Speaker or government MPs.

Clearly, we have here the emergence of a very clear pattern of dictatorship. It is a fraud on our people – an attempt to deceive them through Bills masquerading as good governance measures.  This culture of deceit is becoming a pervasive feature of most FF policies.   

A further alarming development, another sign of dictatorial rule in fact, is the manner in which parliamentary processes are being abused to gag the Opposition and to suspend their members on the flimsiest of excuses. Three Opposition MPs have so far been suspended for the remaining term of this Parliament: Former SODELPA President Ratu Naiqama and Opposition Whip Ratu Isoa Tikoca as well as NFP President Tupou Draunidalo.

These are very serious violations of our democratic rights and have to be vigorously opposed and resisted because they signal a move towards a one-party state.

Let me now turn to other issues of governance:

We all know that the FF government has failed to deliver on its key election promises to the people. There is a lot of rhetoric and fancy speeches but in actual fact there is little evidence of sensitivity and compassion towards the suffering of the ordinary folks. One glaring example is in the government’s handling of the rehabilitation process following devastation wreaked by Cyclone Winston.

Damage to infrastructure, the economy and people’s homes and property was immense estimated officially at $3 billion – 40,000 homes were damaged or destroyed affecting close to 350,000 people. It was a national calamity of immense proportions and should have required a bipartisan approach to addressing it. But this did not happen.

As a consequence, nine months after Winston, hundreds of families are still living in tents as damaged homes have not been repaired or rebuilt, children are still attending classes in tents and there are media accounts of extreme want in villages and settlements: graphic reports of school children eating dry roti and water for lunch, parents going hungry in villages so their children could have something to eat .

It is obvious that government has failed miserably to deal effectively with the crisis.  Its $120m Help for Homes Scheme has turned out to be a major scam.  While big hardware companies have made millions of dollars from the swipe cards issued to victims, most of those affected are still waiting to receive their building supplies.

Second, is the government’s utter silence over moneys raised by the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund.  Millions of dollars worth of aid, both in cash and kind, flowed in but there is an absolute lack of accountability regarding these donations.  Repeated calls for disclosure have been ignored. Meanwhile, people in villages are going hungry for lack of food rations and cash. With another cyclone season upon us, people still living in tents are understandably worried about the consequences.

Winston simply aggravated Fiji’s already critical housing problem for the poor.  FF Government’s policy on housing is another dismal failure. The lots developed at Tacirua, for instance, funded by the $70 million soft loan from China, selling for between $40,000 and $120,000 are way beyond the means of the ordinary workers earning between $100-$200 per week.

These lots are being purchased by the upper middle income group while the poor continue to squat in shacks and hovels in unhygienic conditions. A noticeable increase in squatter settlements around the country in the past several years, is indicative of government’s  failure to address the issue with any degree of success.

It is estimated that close to 70% of households in the urban centres do not own homes – they either rent or live in squatter settlements.

Growing Social Distress

There are signs of increasing social distress, compounded of course, by Cyclone Winston. But Government policies have also added to the suffering of the people. In Budget 2016, VAT was reduced to 9% but the cost of  staple food items, previously zero rated, rose sharply by 9% since they are now subject to VAT. Once again it is the most vulnerable groups that have been hardest hit.

Cost of living is now very high. The reduction in VAT is deceptive considering that a number of other hidden taxes have been brought in to compensate for the loss of VAT revenue.  The 6% environment tax and the hike in Service Turnover Tax, for instance, apply to a whole range of goods and services and have pushed up the cost of living.

The widening disparity between the rich and poor in our society, should be of concern. Rural poverty stood at 45% last year but must be much higher today following destruction wreaked by Winston. The so-called reforms to the FNPF pensions fund has doomed more of  our workers and retirees to the poverty net.

A recent disclosure by the Fund revealed that some 80% of members are going to have less than $10,000 in their retirement fund by the time they retire. These people will not be able to survive on their measly pension of $70 per month and are doomed to become destitutes on retirement.

Rural Sector

The Bainimarama government has grossly neglected the rural sector in the past 10 years, both in terms of infrastructure development as well as investment in agriculture. As mentioned earlier, agricultural output has fallen from a high of 25% of GDP in the ‘80s and ‘90s to a mere 8%  currently.

The sugar industry is a classic example. In 10 years, mismanagement and gross interference by the government, has forced a 50% decline in both cane production and sugar make. Growers have been completely marginalised and have lost confidence in the future of the industry. A classic case of incompetence and insensitivity to the plight of the growers is the arbitrary closure of Penang Mill following damage caused by Winston. Growers in the Ra District are extremely concerned about their future and if the mill remains closed for long, as is envisaged, its impact on the region’s economy will be catastrophic.

A depressed rural economy means more people migrate to urban areas in search of jobs and a better quality of life, putting pressure on housing and other urban amenities. Just the other day, the Fiji Times reported how Koro Island following devastation to its economy by Cyclone Winston, is being abandoned as people move to the mainland for jobs to sustain themselves. Just another evidence of the failure of this government to rehabilitate the rural economy after Winston.

Unemployment remains high and the government has failed to come up with any real initiatives to create jobs for young people. The crime rate, home invasions in particular, is a serious issue although there appears to be an orchestrated effort to hide this from the people.

Economy

The government keeps gloating about its 4% or so economic growth figures – but the question to ask is: just how sustainable is this in the medium and long term?

It is well known that the Fiji economy is heavily driven by consumption based growth and a reliance on tourism. There is no solid growth based on productivity.  What we are not told is that:

  • Our exports have fallen sharply in the past 10 years – sugar by 50%, fisheries 49%, gold 43% and lumber 25%
  •  The value of our exports have fallen to one-half of what we import
  •  Our national debt has ballooned to $5 billion and that the much talked about growth is riding on the back of borrowed money

I ask : of what good is growth that does not lead to a better quality of life for our people?  Or growth that does not create more jobs and better wages for our workers?

And as I have already mentioned, we are faced with growing social distress as a result of escalating cost of living against low wages, rising unemployment, falling value of the Fiji dollar etc.

Health Services

 The shocking state of our health care system is another major concern.

In 10 years, the Bainimarama administration has neglected health facilities to a level where we are constantly receiving tragic reports of people dying through improper care and lack of accurate diagnosis.

Our hospitals and clinics suffer from chronic shortages of commonly used drugs and medicines, basic medical supplies and equipment. Government talks about free medicines but this becomes mere rhetoric against the fact that even important life-saving drugs are not available at government pharmacies.

Our Health Minister admits the shortage of drugs but calls on people to be patient. Be patient indeed – when one is dying?

This is the kind of insensitivity and condescending response we get from those elected to cater to the welfare of the people. Is it little wonder the ordinary folks see through the constant rhetoric and election promises of the regime?

If they have money to award themselves massive increases in allowances, why can’t they find the money to buy basic drugs and medical supplies for the poor?  After all, it is largely those on low incomes who use government hospitals and clinics. Our Ministers are taken care of by State funded medical insurance which gives them free treatment at private hospitals here or abroad.

 Ministerial Pay and Perks

That brings me to the other point that is creating resentment among large sectors of society. It is the blatant manner in which our MPs are enriching themselves. When one talks of a $4 an hour national minimum wage – the immediate outcry is that the economy cannot sustain such a wage rate.

Yet, the economy does not appear to be a factor when Ministers and MPs award themselves huge increases! Indeed, the pre-occupation of this government in feathering its own nest was made very clear from the day it took office.

Its first act after the 2014 elections, was to take massive increases in the  renumeration of the Prime Minister, Ministers and Members of Parliament.

Just two months ago, they again announced huge increases in their travel allowances.  Prime Minister Bainimarama now receives 350% of the UNDP daily allowance topped up by another $600. Considering that the Prime Minister is out junketing almost 6 months of the year, he must be making a tidy fortune just through his travel allowances. Other Minister get 250% of the UNDP rate plus an additional $500.

The increases are downright immoral and akin to stealing when viewed against the suffering and hardship of our ordinary folk in villages and settlements hit by Cyclone Winston. When 40% of the people are in want – how can their rulers justify such exorbitant increases for themselves?

It brings home to us the difference between a government sensitive and caring to the needs of the people and one that is merely there to further its own interests often at the expense of the people.

Little wonder people are clamouring for a change. No matter where I have gone in the past few months, no matter what part of Fiji I have visited – there is just one message I get from the people I meet –  for us to unite and fight the next elections as a strong, united force. Be it the farmers, the workers, the professionals, the academics they all want the opposition parties to get together under a single banner to fight the FF.

My visits have convinced me that there is growing opposition to the manner in which the Fiji First is governing the nation.

The workers are unhappy because their rights to collective bargaining are being circumvented. Almost 70% of them are being paid well below poverty line wages.

Farmers are unhappy because of the neglect and a lack of investment in the rural sector. Agricultural production has been steadily declining. Its contribution to GDP has fallen from around 20% in the 1980s and 1990s to just 8%. Very little is being done to assist and promote commercial agriculture.

The housewife is unhappy because of the escalating costs of food and other household items. Working on a tight budget, she is unable to provide for her family to her satisfaction.

The elderly and the sick are unhappy because of the shocking state of our hospitals and health care services. The unavailability of so-called free medicine, a shortage of doctors resulting in long waiting time at clinics, the lack of basic hospital supplies and equipment and the unkempt, unhygienic state of our hospital wards etc.

The small businessman complains of too many restrictive regulations and the numerous taxes that are eating into his profits and hampering free enterprise.  Certain big businesses are thriving because they are major contributors to the FF coffers and, in return, are able to extract concessions to their advantage.

So we know that things are quite alarming in our little State of Fiji. The people are suffering. The extension of authoritarian rule of the past 10 years under the guise of democracy and the absence of the rule of law, is a matter of serious concern.

Authoritarian rule is what the FF is all about. This is why it refuses to hold Municipal and Provincial Council elections, and the Sugar Cane Growers Council elections.

The only avenue for change is through the general elections and that is due in 2018 – not far away. We need to start preparing for it now – to get our party structures reactivated and begin work at the grassroots level.

At the same time, we need to take a serious look at the electoral regulations and the restrictions and excesses of the 2014 election which allowed the regime to manipulate things their way.

The ground rules for 2018 have to be changed if we are to have really free and fair elections. No one can convince me that the 2014 elections were free and fair. How could it be when the process was highly manipulated and was not independent of the regime:

  1.  Secretary general of the Fiji First party was Minister for Elections and exercised rigid control over the whole process
  2.  Supervisor of Elections was hand picked by the regime and lacked the minimum qualifications required for the job; some months back government advertised the positions of all permanent secretaries yet the Supervisor of Elections post was not re-advertised. Why?
  3.  The Electoral Commission lacked autonomy – there was too much interference from the Minister; it is now seeking full autonomy and control over its own budget
  4.  Electoral legislation was being changed until the last minute to ensure that it favoured the regime’s agenda.

We must seek full compliance with the recommendations made by the Multinational Observer Group as well as the Electoral Commission. 

The Commission in its 2014 annual report came out strongly in favour of allowing party symbols and names of individuals to feature on ballot papers. It also wants changes to the eligibility requirement for candidates.  It stated quite openly that several provisions of the electoral legislation dictate against the requirement for free and fair elections.

Unless these amendments are made to the electoral rules, I am afraid we will once again witness the same degree of manipulation and rigging that characterised the 2014 elections.

There is another critical issue. And that is whether we are going to go into the 2018 elections as fragmented as we are today or are we going to embrace a united force of all those who are opposed to the excesses of the current government.

I believe there is an urgent need for all of us who believe in justice, peace, freedom and democracy to join hands to bring in a new government. We cannot let the rights and freedoms of our people, gained over many long years of struggle, to be eroded by self-serving, power hungry individuals.

The age-old adage that united we stand, divided we fall should provide a moral lesson to us. A united opposition standing firmly on its mission to regain democracy, is vital if we are to successfully oppose these undemocratic  forces.

We cannot let our nation’s future and its sovereignty to be compromised through mismanagement of our resources and our ballooning external debt  by these self-serving people.

We have a responsibility to our children to protect and preserve our country from scavangers. We stand answerable to our children.

The struggle has to go on until we succeed. I believe that no one party or person is above the national interest. And if to promote the well-being of our nation, we need to make sacrifices and changes, so be it.

Fiji must always come first.