Response to the President’s address in Parliament by Labour Parliamentary Leader Mahendra P. Chaudhry

  • 6th August 2004
  • 2004
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Mr. Speaker, I thank His Excellency the President for his address to the joint sitting of Parliament.

Sir, in my opinion there is little point in dealing with the day to day mundane, economic issues and problems of development, unless we resolve, within the law, the one fundamental issue facing the nation: I refer Sir to the question regarding the constitutionality and legality of the current government.

We need to get this pressing issue resolved before we can address our other ills. Because without it, we will not get the investor confidence we are looking for, we will not have the respect for law and order that we need to create a safe investment climate nor will we create that trust and credibility we need from our own people.

I therefore wish to focus my response today on the continuing delay in resolving the multi-party Cabinet case and the issue of power sharing.

I am aware Mr Speaker that both the Prime Minister and I are being blamed for this delay but I would like to assure the nation that the delay cannot, in all honesty, be attributed to me or to the Fiji Labour Party.

This saga, Sir, has been going on since 10 September 2001, after the last general elections. It is understandable therefore that the nation should be fast losing patience with the issue. There have been deliberate inordinate delays in resolving the impasse for which the Fiji Labour Party carries no liability.

For the sake of those who blame indiscriminately, allow me, Sir, to provide a brief history of events as they have unfolded to date in order to explain what really happened. So that you, Sir, and the nation may understand where the blame really should lie.

It was on 10 September 2001, following the general elections of August/September that year, that the Prime Minister first wrote to me inviting the Fiji Labour Party to join his Cabinet.

This was a correct move, in line with the constitutional provisions of Section 99 of the Constitution that requires the Prime Minister to invite all parties with 10% or more representation in the House of Representatives to participate in his government. The Fiji Labour Party, as the second largest Party in the House, had secured 27 seats – one seat, the Nadi Open, was under dispute but we eventually won it back, giving us a total of 28 seats in the House – just three short of the Prime Minister’s SDL party, which had taken 31 seats.

I wrote back to the Prime Minister the same day accepting his invitation and suggesting that we meet to discuss the formation of the Cabinet.

Unfortunately, Sir, I did not get any response from him. The next day, I wrote again urging him to convene consultation talks between the two parties on the formation of a multi-party cabinet.

The Prime Minister did not reply until the next day, 12 September, the day the President was to swear in the new cabinet. He wrote, rejecting the acceptance on the ground that a number of FLP policies were diametrically opposed to those of his SDL Party.

A ground subsequently thoroughly discredited and rejected by the Supreme Court.

I wrote back the same day expressing my disappointment, and at the same time questioning the legality of his decision.

I had also written to His Excellency the President that morning, informing him of what had transpired and cautioning him against swearing in an unlawful cabinet.

I quote from that letter, Sir:

“Your Excellency has a duty to see that constitutional requirements in the appointment of the new government are fully met. We urge you not to assist in the process of establishing an undemocratic and unlawful government.”

The President, unfortunately, ignored my advice and went ahead to swear in members of the illegally constituted Cabinet .

Sir, as a result, the Fiji Labour Party, cheated of its right to join in a multi-party cabinet, sought redress through the courts of law.

We had to engage in a lengthy and costly legal battle to prove our point that the Prime Minister was wrong all along in excluding the FLP..

The case was first filed in the High Court but because of the urgency of the matter, the presiding judge, with the consent of the two parties, fast-tracked it straight to the Fiji Court of Appeal in order to save time.

The Appeals Court delivered judgment on 15 February 2002, ruling in favour of the Fiji Labour Party. The judges found that the Prime Minister had acted in breach of the Constitution and that the Labour Party was, in fact, entitled to proportional representation in Cabinet

On 24 April, Justice Gates in the Lautoka High Court delivered his orders based on the Court of Appeal ruling. He ordered that:

” …as and from 10 September 2001, the Prime Minister was and is required and obliged by the Constitution to consult the Leader of the FLP pursuant to Section 99 (9) of the Constitution and thereafter:

(1) to advise the President to appoint as Ministers; and
(2) to appoint to the Cabinet

such number of Parliamentary members of the FLP as is in proportion to their numbers in the House of Representatives.”

Despite this clear and unequivocal judicial pronouncement, the Prime Minister decided to take the matter on appeal to the Supreme Court.

The stage was set for a long, unexplained delay. The Supreme Court, Sir, was not constituted to hear the matter until 18 June 2003, some 15 months after the Appeals Court ruling.

Its decision, when it came on 18 July, was another landmark ruling in Fiji’s constitutional history. The Supreme Court, Sir, upheld the power sharing principle embodied in the 1997 Constitution declaring that power sharing among Fiji’s different communities was “central to the Constitution”.

It found that the requirements of Section 99 on the concept of power sharing, was mandatory and not just an obligation as contended by the Prime Minister. The court pronounced that Section 99 must be “implemented without further delay”.

The Supreme Court called on the PM to negotiate in good faith with the Labour Party, to consult with the Labour leader in selecting persons from the FLP for appointment to the Cabinet.

Despite this unequivocal ruling, the Prime Minister hedged, resisting and criticizing the judgement. Finally, he went through the motions of consultation for a multi-party cabinet.

Instead of negotiating in good faith as he was required to do, the Prime Minister decided to circumvent the entire process and proceeded to appoint 14 hand-picked Labour MPs to join his Cabinet.

In doing so, he acted unilaterally, without consultation with me as Leader of the Labour Party. He also deliberately left out certain senior Labour MPs including myself, the Party Leader from the Cabinet positions.

If this was not bad enough, Sir, the Prime Minister added insult to injury, by allocating to Labour token Cabinet portfolios that were either minor parts or were petty departments of existing ministries.

We were not offered a single substantive ministry in the conventional sense nor were we given adequate budget and staffing allocations to run these so-called ministries. The entire matter would have been laughable, had it not been such a critical constitutional issue.

The Prime Minister was playing a game of tokenism. Instead of honouring the power-sharing provisions of the Constitution as he was required to do, he mocked it by giving us token ministries.

This is not how power-sharing in the political arena works, Sir especially not with a Party like Labour with such a substantial backing from the nation. Furthermore, not only had the Prime Minister ignored the basic tenets of genuine power sharing, he had also flouted the principles of good governance by proposing a highly bloated cabinet of 36 Ministers as well as six assistant ministers.

Acceptance of this would mean that Fiji’s cabinet would constitute a ridiculous 51% of the entire House of Representatives. A ludicrous state of affairs, putting a totally unacceptable burden on the tax payers.

Labour questioned its allocation of 14 portfolios, claiming it was entitled to 17 and the matter referred back to the Supreme Court for further clarification by both parties through a reference by His Excellency the President.

In the meantime, we also filed another action in the High Court seeking a declaration that the invitation by the PM was not done in good faith and the portfolios offered to the FLP were insignificant and did not comply with the concept of power sharing as required by the Constitution.

The Supreme Court gave its clarification last month. But even though the latest ruling has again vindicated the FLP stand, the Prime Minister persists with his unreasonableness by maintaining the unjustifiably large size of the cabinet and with the allocation of petty portfolios to Labour.

As I said, Sir, this flouts all the principles of good governance.

Mr Speaker, the government can effectively be run by a Cabinet of no more than 18. To have 33 now would mean 15 more ministers than is necessary.

Sir, the current government has shown a lack of respect for the spirit and intent of the power sharing provisions of the 1997 Constitution. Its contemptuous treatment of this important constitutional provision does not bode well for the future of this multiracial nation.

The Supreme Court judgment of July 2003 has made a clear pronouncement that power-sharing was pivotal to the Constitution.

It was not put there to serve the agenda of politicians but to serve the national agenda. Politicians are required to make the concept work for the greater good of the nation no matter what their personal feelings on the issue might be.

It must not be forgotten, Sir, that during negotiations on the 1997 Constitution this power sharing provision was agreed in return for the minority communities conceding the clause in the Compact to the Constitution which gives paramountcy to indigenous interests.

I refer Sir to the clauses (i) and (j) in Section 6 of the Constitution which provide that whenever there is a conflict of interest between different communities, the paramountcy of the interests of the indigenous community will prevail over those of other communities.

Now, Mr. Speaker this is a very significant concession on the part of the non-indigenous communities in Fiji and it was given only after we were given assurances that all ethnic groups will be included in the governance of our nation under a power sharing arrangement, within an agreed threshold.

You will recall, Sir, that after the 1987 coups deliberate provisions were made in the 1990 constitution, to relegate the Indian community permanently to the position of opposition.

The recognition that other communities gave to the paramountcy of indigenous interests, is not a small concession by any means.

The Labour Party’s position is that the multiparty cabinet issue must be resolved within the spirit and the intent of the Constitution. It must be a genuine power sharing arrangement and not one of tokenism.

This is why it becomes particularly appalling to hear speakers from the other side of the House incessantly making denigrating remarks about the Indian community in particular.

I refer specifically to the speech made yesterday by the Madame Minister for Women’s Affairs, Asenaca Caucau. She is notorious for the racial overtone of her utterings in this Hon House and yesterday’s rambling was no exception.

It amazes me how ignorant some of our parliamentarians are of the history of their own country. Madame Minister should know that Indians did not come to Fiji of their own accord. They were brought here, often by deceit and against their wishes, by the British colonial authorities, to slave in the plantations here, sugar cane in particular.

The suffering and indignities the Indian indentured labourers suffered under the system is well known to most.

From these humble beginnings, our forefathers worked extremely hard to make a future for themselves and their progeny in the land of their adoption and in doing so, we made very valuable contribution to the development of this nation.

The Indian community as well as other minority communities have earned a right to be considered rightful citizens of Fiji, no whit inferior to anyone else and I would humbly request that this right of theirs be recognized.

The Madam Minister refers to native lands being seized for a pittance in the early days and the displacement of the people of Suvavou. These are developments that cannot be blamed on the Indian community. They took place under the British colonial government or even earlier.

As for Monasavu and the claim that the people there were short changed. This is again something that Indians are not responsible for. It was the Alliance Government that negotiated the deal and it is her own government that is refusing to pay compensation being demanded by the landowning mataqalis.

Her quarrel is therefore with her own government and she can’t be blaming anyone else for this. Perhaps, it should be brought home to Madam Minister that the hydro electricity scheme at Monasavu was a national development project which has brought great benefits to the nation as a whole.

Next, I refer to her accusation that Indians refused to protect Fiji during the Second World War. It is true there was a section of the Indian leadership who objected to Indians joining the army because of discrimination in the levels of pay and so on. Despite this, many Indians did join the army but unfortunately, they were not taken for active service on the battle front. This was another form of discrimination.

I have no doubt that had these Indians been allowed to go to the war front, they would have served as valiantly as anyone else. After all, we have the very distinguished record of war service provided by Indians from the subcontinent.

The Indian contingent was one of the largest foreign contingents and won the highest number of Victoria Crosses of any foreign contingent. So, Sir, claims that Indians did not serve in the war, or boycotted the war effort wholesale are not true.

Sir, in my view no useful purpose can be served by maligning the Indian community, or any other ethnic group for that matter in this manner.

It makes one wonder how genuine the government is in its calls for national unity and reconciliation when its own ministers are constantly harping on themes that are racially divisive and acrimonious.

The Prime Minister’s own negative attitude towards multiracialism as reflected in his dealings on the multi-party cabinet issue, appears to show that there is no real commitment to the principle of multiracialism.

To me, and indeed to the Labour Party, there seems to be little purpose in beating the drum of national reconciliation and unity when a large section of our community comprising members of all ethnic groups, not just Indians, is deliberately and willfully excluded from attaining its constitutional right to be in government.

Sir, the power sharing provisions of the Constitution are workable and the People’s Coalition Government proved it to be such.

Secondly, we showed that a trim cabinet of 18 can effectively and successfully govern the country. Our record of achievement and economic development in just one short year in office remains a record that all governments should try to emulate.

It was a mark of our commitment to multiracialism and more so our sensitivity to the feelings of the indigenous community, that in a Cabinet of 18, 12 of my Ministers were indigenous Fijians.

How can then anyone, in all honesty, accuse us of not showing sensitivity to, and respect for, indigenous traditions and feelings. If anything, my government had done more to improve the lot of the common Fijian people than any other government since the 1987 coups!

Secondly, we have never opposed any affirmative action programmes for the indigenous people. What we’re saying is that such State assistance must be made available to the needy and deprived of other communities as well.

Independent reports have shown that poverty in Fiji has no racial barriers: there are just as many poor Indians as there are poor Fijians … if anything according to the UNDP report of 1997, poor Indian households are in a slight majority over that of other races.

Sir, the Labour Party has always advocated a Fiji that is peaceful and prosperous, a just and fair society where all will be happy and contented, where no one feels victimized on account of his or her ethnicity.

This brings me to a statement made by the Honourable Minister for Trade and Commerce. In his response to the current debate he claimed that the unemployment rate has fallen from 9.2% in 2000 to 7.3% in 2003.

Now Sir, I would be very interested to know where the Hon Minister got his statistics from. Because I refer to the quarterly report of the Reserve Bank for the March 2004 quarter which says that no statistics are available on the status of labour and employment between 2001 and 2003.

So what is the Hon Minister basing his claims on? Or is this another of government’s attempts to hoodwink the nation just as it claims economic growth of 4-5% for this year when we all know that our major export earning sectors are in a state of serious decline.

I refer to the sugar industry, garment, fisheries, timber, copra – to name a few. We used to be self sufficient in rice – now we import much of the rice we consume.

We were self-sufficient in milk and butter. Now we are importing our dairy products and the Rewa Dairy Co-operative is in a mess.

Today’s Fiji Times has a Page 3 report on the increase in squatter settlements. Government’s own survey is claiming a 73% increase in squatter settlements between 1996 and 2003. We know that more than 84,000 people are now squatting and that the biggest increase has been because of displaced farmers who have had no where to go and are now squatting.

If this is not an indicator of escalating levels of poverty, I would like to know what is? The Hon Minister speaks proudly of big construction projects that are going up and sees this as a sign of increasing prosperity.

While this is good what we must realize is that a very small segment of the already well to do will benefit from these projects.

The poor in areas like Namosi, Serua, Naitasiri, Tailevu, Vanua Levu – how will they benefit from such projects? Why are people moving in such large numbers from Vanua Levu and other rural areas of Viti Levu to settle in the Suva/Nasinu areas?

Mr Speaker, one of the root causes of mushrooming squatter settlements is the rural -urban drift. This has been accentuated by the plight of displaced farmers whose native leases were not renewed. It has also been aggravated by depressed economic conditions in rural areas generally.

People are moving to cities and towns to look for jobs and a better life and squatter settlements are springing up overnight because of this movement. We have an example pretty close to us just at Vatuwaqa, opposite the cemetery. The settlement there sprung up just overnight.

I am afraid, Sir, I see nothing in His Excellency’s policy statement which addresses the problem of depressed rural areas or which attempts to revive agricultural production and agro-based industries to create employment and improve standards of living in rural areas.

All these factors, including government’s racially exclusive policies continue to sap the confidence of our people. Many have given up hope. Just look at the continuing emigration rate of about 500-600 people each month – its enough indicator of a lack of trust and confidence in Fiji’s future.

This brings me back to the issue of multi-party cabinet and power sharing. Government’s attitude on this is not going to create the trust and confidence necessary for multiracial harmony.

This is why, Sir, the Labour Party, is fighting for the true intent and spirit of the Constitution regarding Section 99 to be respected and implemented.

It is only through a situation where all ethnic communities are given the right to participate in national decision making through this noble concept of power sharing, can Fiji begin to move towards the sort of future we want for our nation – one where all our people, of all communities, live together in mutual tolerance and understanding, enjoying equal opportunities and sharing our talents and skills to build a modern and prosperous nation.

I would like the government side to ponder on this at some length.

Before I sit down, Sir, I would like to join my colleagues in expressing my deepest condolences to yourself and the family of the late Tui Nayau Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara at the sudden passing away of the Marama Bale, Na Roko Tui Dreketi Adi Lady Lalabalavu Mara.

The family has been struck by two tragedies in the short span of three months and our sympathies go out to all the close family members.

The people of Lau and Rewa in particular have lost an exemplary and illustrious high chief. Together the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Adi Lady Lala dominated Fiji’s political life and development for well over a quarter of a century. I am saddened to say that their passing away truly signifies the end of an era for our little nation.

We can only hope that in the years to come, our people will continue to derive inspiration from their life of devotion and service to the nation.

May their souls rest in peace.