So, in typical fashion my good friend Dr. Wadan Narsey has availed himself of another opportunity to take a swipe at the Fiji Labour Party and me personally.
It is regrettable that he chose to do so while paying tribute to Sir Paul Reeves. Readers of Wadan Narsey’s ‘tribute’ would have noted that almost two-thirds of it was devoted to NFP/SVT/FLP politics with blatant bias and outright inaccuracies deliberately designed to malign the Fiji Labour Party and its leader while extolling the former leaders of the NFP and SVT.
This article is intended not to revisit the past but to correct the distortions and outright misrepresentation of facts by Dr. Narsey regarding the position of FLP on the 1997 Constitution. However, it is unfortunate that some NFP-aligned academics are unable to stomach their Party’s demise in 1999 and its failure to resurrect itself in the 2001 and 2006 general elections.
The first of the corrections is that at no time did the FLP put a racist tag on the 1997 Constitution, as claimed by Dr. Narsey.
What FLP opposed was the complete reversal by SVT/NFP of the Reeves Commission’s recommendations on the electoral system. It proposed that these be adopted if Fiji was to rid itself of racial politics. The electoral system recommended by the Reeves Commission was completely nullified, and indeed reversed, by the SVT/NFP leaders in so far as communal and open seats were concerned.
In recommending the new electoral system, Sir Paul and his colleagues on the Commission had laid emphasis on the fact that Fiji must move away from communal politics through an electoral system which promoted the emergence of multi-ethnic governments. They recommended 45 Open and only 25 Communal seats in a 70 member House, with the latter being gradually phased out over a period of time and replaced by Open seats.
Not only did the SVT/NFP leadership completely reverse these recommendations, they also entrenched the communal seats by requiring a 75% majority vote to change the system. As we all know this was never going to happen!
The second is the false allegation by Dr. Narsey that Labour …“having won the majority of seats in the 1999 elections, chose to exclude the Fijian SVT from Cabinet”.
The truth is that the SVT was invited to join the Cabinet by way of a written invitation sent by me as Prime Minister to its Leader. In reply, the SVT stated that it wanted 4 Cabinet portfolios, including the position of Deputy PM for Mr. Rabuka.
According to the power-sharing formula under Section 99 of the Constitution, SVT having won only 8 of 71 seats, was entitled to just two ministerial portfolios.
Aside from wanting 4 ministries, they also demanded that
• FLP’s nominees to the Senate should include 3 SVT members
• James Ah Koy and Sam Speight of SVT be excluded from ministerial appointments.
• All ambassadors, high commissioners and members appointed by the SVT to continue in office
• all members of Boards of statutory bodies appointed by the SVT to continue in office
As can be seen, the SVT demands were extremely unreasonable and could not, therefore, be entertained.
But the important fact is that the People’s Coalition Government led by the FLP, had 12 indigenous ministers and only 6 Indo-Fijians in a Cabinet of 18.
Dr. Narsey infers that the SVT had the majority support of the indigenous community in 1999 and, therefore, it was a political blunder to exclude them from Cabinet.
The truth is that in the 1999 general elections, SVT won only 5 out of 23 Fijian communal seats while the other 18 were won by FLP’s Coalition partners. So, how could SVT be perceived to have had majority support of the indigenous people?
If SVT and NFP had Fiji’s interest at heart and the desire to build a multi-racial Fiji, they would not have opted out of the recommendations of the Reeves Commission to embrace and entrench an overwhelmingly communal electoral system.
Let me refer to yet another distortion in Dr Narsey’s ‘tribute’. He states: “While there were some important modifications by the 1998 Parliament (of which I was then a member) they in no way altered the real substance of the Reeves Report contributions to the 1997 Constitution”.
This is absolute nonsense. The whole purpose of the review was to replace a racist (1990) constitution with a multiracial charter. By completely reversing its core proposals (on the electoral arrangements) the Rabuka/Reddy team defeated the whole purpose of the exercise to create a harmonious multiracial society.
These changes cannot be passed off as minor. They were so substantial they changed completely the very thrust of the Report. The electoral system recommended by the Reeves Commission was at the very core of its ethos: to move Fiji away from race based communal politics to one that fostered multi racialism.
This is why the FLP had so vigorously opposed the agreement both in the Joint Parliamentary Select Committee, and later, in Parliament.
Reversing this fundamental recommendation in the Report, must be viewed as a severe rebuke to Sir Paul himself because he had gone to great lengths to explain the electoral system they had recommended.
Another sad fact of the 1997 Constitution making process was the rejection by the SVT/NFP of the Reeves recommendation to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 years.
Both had endorsed it in their submission to the Commission but, quite surprisingly, failed to give it their support in the Select Committee stages because they feared the younger voters were more likely to vote for Labour.
There were many other very worthy recommendations in the Reeves Report which were either ignored or side-lined by the SVT/NFP team. Principal among them were:
• an elected rather than a nominated Senate
• the President and Vice President to be elected by an electoral college of both Houses of Parliament, not by members of the GCC
• changes to the membership of the GCC
It is a pity that these significant recommendations which may well have changed the body politic of Fiji, were buried by those then in control.