SDL government must go: Chaudhry

The SDL government has failed the people and must be removed from office, Opposition Leader Mahendra Chaudhry said at a Saturday meeting of General Electors.

Speaking as chief guest at the annual meeting of the United People’s Party, Chaudhry said the 2006 elections were very crucial for the country after the SDL had brought it to the brink of bankruptcy and disaster.

It will decide whether as a nation we vote for a caring and just government committed to the rule of law, social justice and good governance or we return to a government that is corrupt, incompetent, insensitive to the plight of our ordinary people and bent on pursuing a narrow political agenda to the detriment of the nation as a whole.

He highlighted that social distress had accentuated as the suffering of the ordinary people had worsened with poverty escalating and squatter settlements mushrooming under five years of SDL rule.

After 5 years of SDL rule, we are trapped in a cycle of economic stagnation with limited growth, low investor confidence and unprecedented levels of poverty and unemployment.

His speech, posted in full below, highlighted the government’s failure to inspire investor confidence and move the economy forward.

Chaudhry also warned that the 2006 general elections would not be free and fair unless irregularities in the voter registration rolls were rectified accurately. The FLP says the Elections Office has not complied with requirements of the Electoral Act in terms of allowing enough time for objections to the rolls being lodged, attended to by the Elections Office and for voters to appeal to the Electoral Commission, if not happy:

“Let me say how pleased I am to be here in your midst today in an atmosphere imbued with historical significance.

For although my presence at your annual meeting this morning gives expression to our coalition arrangement to fight the elections together, we are also witnessing a historic occasion – the fact that for the first time in Fiji’s political history, the General Elector community is joining forces with a mainstream Opposition Party.

It is a momentous move and one that augurs well for the multiracial future of our country. There are certain historical realities that we can do nothing about.

If you look back in history, you will realise that, by and large, our two communal groups have stood at the opposite sides of the political spectrum, with a few individual exceptions.

I hail this as a sign of the growing maturity of our nation – the fact that in our common love for our nation, we can discard past prejudices and cut across the race card to join forces in fighting for issues that concern all our people.

And let me be frank with you – as a nation today we stand at the cross-roads. It reminds me of the well-known Shakespearan quote:

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“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life,
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures!

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that time has now come when, as a people, we need to “take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”. As a people we need to do some soul searching, and be decisive about where we are headed!

I believe the 2006 elections are crucial to the future well being of our beloved Fiji. When you cast our votes at the ballot booth come the 6th of May, you will be putting our future on the line.

It will decide whether as a nation we vote for a caring and just government committed to the rule of law, social justice and good governance or we return to a government that is corrupt, incompetent, insensitive to the plight of our ordinary people and bent on pursuing a narrow political agenda to the detriment of the nation as a whole.

After 5 years of SDL rule, we are trapped in a cycle of economic stagnation with limited growth, low investor confidence and unprecedented levels of poverty and unemployment.

In the past 5 years we have seen an arrogant defiance and disrespect for the Constitution and the Rule of Law, and for the commonly accepted tenets of good governance that is actually frightening.

All right thinking citizens should be anxious about the current plight of our nation. Certainly, your leaders, the Hon. Beddoes and the executives of the United People’s Party and we in the Fiji Labour Party, are very worried about the direction in which our nation is sliding.

This is what has brought us together … the need to rescue our nation from the destructive path on which we are currently headed.

When 50% of our people live in poverty or at risk of poverty, struggling to find one decent meal a day, when 100,000 people live in undignified hovels without piped water, electricity or sanitary facilities, when our young boys and girls are forced into prostitution to survive, it becomes a cause of serious alarm.

It is time to take action. We must ask ourselves where we are headed as a nation? These are not cooked up statistics. They are the hard realities of life under the SDL government.

The growing impoverishment and the increasing hardship of our ordinary people keep hitting us in the face – whether we are walking in the streets of Suva, driving along the Suva/Nausori corridor or passing along the neglected rural areas of Serua, Tailevu or Ra, not to mention Vanua Levu where the situation is even more hopeless.

Pick up a newspaper on any one day and you are guaranteed to find some evidence of the growing ills of our society staring at you – if it is not an angry mother wailing because the dead body of her baby has mysteriously disappeared from a hospital mortuary, then it is school children crying because they are forced to walk 4 km to school everyday in the heat, slush and rain. Road conditions in rural areas are so bad, buses refuse to service them.

These are growing signs of an unhealthy, deteriorating state of our country – there is a general, all pervasive air of negligence, apathy, inefficiency, filth, decay and decadence.

Is this the kind of country we want to live in? Neglect of our infrastructure and social services affect us all whether we are rich or poor. Water disruptions and power outages do not discriminate against the haves and the have nots – they cause inconvenience and frustration to all citizens living in the affected areas.

Frequent disruptions to water supplies, low pressure, fears of contaminated drinking water – these should not be problems assailing a modern, progressive State yet they have become chronic problems, even in the city of Suva.

The state of our infrastructure and utilities, the sinking economy, the alarming state of government finances, an unstable political climate, increasing corruption, the appalling condition of our hospitals and health care services, rising crime rate – these are factors that not only affect the lives of our ordinary citizens, they also have an enormous impact on the business community and investor confidence.

Foreign investment levels remain highly subdued at about 3% of the GDP. A recent Asian Development Bank report pointed out that it takes at least 90 days for an investor to set up a business in Fiji compared to 2 days in places like New Zealand. There are even cases where investors, frustrated by delays that have dragged into a year or more, have simply left.

A large part of investor confidence derives from any government’s competence and ability in handling State finances. It is a fact that the current SDL government has driven the nation to a point of bankruptcy with its financial indiscipline and over-borrowing.

Fiji’s economy has been steadily declining over the past few years under a government that has no sound strategies for economic growth and job creation, and whose policies and actions are actively undermining investor confidence.

Statistics are being deliberately doctored to present the false picture of a growing economy when in fact, there has been a sharp decline in the past few years. Government was forced to revise growth for 2005 to 1.7% from an earlier optimistic forecast of 4.2%.

But it seems these lies are afoot again … I notice a week ago at the Close Up programme on TV SDL’s campaign director Jale Baba claimed that the economy was growing at 5-6% this year.

As we head into the campaign proper, there will no doubt be a deluge of these preposterous claims! The truth is that the economy has been sliding fast in the past few years. Let me just cite a few stats to show what is actually happening.

Key exports have fallen sharply since 2000 creating serious balance of payment problems. Sugar revenue fell from $282 million in 2000 under the People’s Coalition Government to $224 million in 2004. Garments exports were at their peak in 1999/2000 valued at $333 million.

Since then it has seen a sharp decline with exports dropping steeply to a low of $226 million in 2004 – and is projected to decline further to just over a $100 million dollars this year.

It is clear from the figures cited, that the blame for the crises in the sugar and garment sectors, fall squarely on those who instigated the terrorist activities that led to the coup of May 2000 and the mayhem that followed. They inflicted intense suffering and hardship on our people, of all races, and undid all the good work done by the Labour-led government in moving the economy forward.

Since 2000 the once labour-intensive garment sector has lost 10,000 jobs as factories closed or relocated elsewhere. We all know that those made jobless are mostly women who come from marginalised sections of society… jobs losses that adversely affected the ability of these families to survive.

The only bright spot on the horizon today is the tourism industry But, as you know, this growth is a result of the industry’s own momentum. The concern here is that its benefits are largely confined to the western parts of Viti Levu – Nadi, the Nadi Bay area and the Coral Coast.

Much remains to be done to encourage the development of tourism and eco-tourism in other parts of Fiji and to encourage more local entrepreneurship.

The SDL government has made much of its Blueprint or affirmative action programmes for the indigenous community. If it had been successful in just this, that is the advancement of the living standards of the Fijian community, it would today stand vindicated in the eyes of the nation.

Even in this area, it’s most vital policy sector, the SDL government has failed. It has failed the Fijian people. It’s so-called Blueprint has merely been used to enrich a few of the elite in the Fijian society – those closely aligned to the SDL and, I dare say, some of their associate hardware merchants.

The sad truth is that the plight of the ordinary Fijian has deteriorated markedly under the stewardship of the SDL government. Again, let me cite a few statistics to underscore what is happening on the ground:

  •  The number of Fijian families living as squatters have more than trebled in the past 20 years – but, and note this, it has doubled since 2001: in 2001 4657 Fijian families lived as squatters. This number jumped to 6309 in mid-2003 when the last official survey was undertakenIndicating an increase of 1652 in 18 months – using this as the basis one can clearly say that in the past three years, the situation has exploded by at least another 3300 – today at least 10,000 Fijian families are squatting.

Most of the Fijian squatters are in the Central Division living in the Suva/Nausori/Navua corridor.

  •  Social Welfare figures for Feb 2006 show that 13,000 Fijians are on the State’s Family Assistance scheme. This compares with 9000 Indians and 470 Others
  •  Of a total prison population of 1279, the majority, 984, are Fijians
  •  The Infant mortality rate for Fijian babies is very high. In 2004, they accounted for 70% of all deaths. While for other races the infant mortality rate had actually declined, for Fijian infants it had increased from 58% to 70%. This is an indication of declining living standards and increasing poverty.
  •  Let’s look at Education – despite tens of millions of dollars being pumped into special assistance for Fijian education, the Fijian student is still lagging far behind other races in achievement. 2004 figures for the 6th Form Examination, the Fiji School Leaving Exam show that Fijian students fared well below the national average.

Grade performance per subject in Form 7 exams show that less than 5% of Fijian students hit the top grade in any subject – this again, compares quite unfavourably with other races.

One may well ask what is happening? Where is the money put aside for Fijian education going to if it is not assisting in improving educational performance?

  •  Let me give you one other statistic to show the disparity in wealth among the Fijian community and the gradual impoverishment of the majority of Fijians: The 1997 Poverty Report on household incomes show that the bottom 10% of Fijian households receive an average income of $38 a week compared to $537 a week at the top 10% of Fijian households.

I must add here that this kind of yawning incomes gap is not confined to the Fijian community, the disparity is even worse among the Indian community but it does show that the ordinary Fijian has not benefited from all the hoop-la about indigenous rights and interests since 1987.

This is very sad, and in fact, totally unconscionable, when one considers that these people who get an income of $38 a week, are in fact owners of the very rich natural resources of our country.

Once again, they need to ask: Where are the benefits going?

– Why is it that the Pine Industry continues to run at millions of dollars of loss each year?

– Why is it that the fishing industry is in dire crisis – tuna resources have been over-fished! There is a limit placed on the number of licences that should be issued – but this number has been grossly exceeded! Corruption?

– Why is the Vatukoula gold mine making 300 workers redundant at a time when the world price for gold is at an all time high?

The mahogany resource held a rich promise to the landowners. But again, what has happened? It has turned into a classic tale of failed expectations, landowner exploitation and corruption.

In five years, the SDL government has failed to come up with a comprehensive strategy for the harvesting and down stream processing of this super rich resource. Its trial schemes appear to be benefiting only a select group of SDL officials and close supporters.

I am sorry to say this, but the tragic truth is that the SDL Government and its leadership have betrayed the trust placed in it by the Fijian community. They have enriched themselves, and their financiers, under the guise of affirmative action programmes.

The nation has to wake up to what is happening. We have a government that has failed dismally on all fronts and all areas of policy – does it deserve another chance?

A government that has become an imposition on its people, has to go. We must exercise our votes intelligently and dispassionately. We cannot allow old bogeys and prejudices to once again place our future in jeopardy.

One more thing. The SDL has a record of buying its way into office. In 2001 there was the $30 million Agricultural scam. In the past couple of years there have been other scams involving vote buying – the fishing boat scheme for instance! There was also considerable vote rigging in the 2001 general elections, particularly in the Central Division.

This time around we have been on our guard against malpractices including electoral fraud and vote rigging. Our vigilance has produced thousands of irregularities in voter registration, particularly in marginal Open seats which raise fears of some underhand activity.

Although the Supervisor of Elections has given assurances that the rolls are going to be fixed, doubts remain – quite justifiably, particularly, when we are not given enough time for the process to be properly checked, objections raised and the situation rectified.

The elections are being rushed. We have a right to ask why? The Labour Party has deep concerns about the state of affairs regarding the rolls. We believe the Electoral Act is not being complied with in respect to provisions regarding the checking and correcting of voter rolls.

The time span stipulated by the Act for lodging objections, getting the Elections Office to settle these and for appeals to be made to the Electoral Commission, have all been abridged.

There should be a six week span between the time the first rolls are released and the final roll is published. This is not happening. .

In this mad rush to get through the process, we will be disenfranchising thousands of voters.

The Supervisor of Elections cannot even give a date as to when the main rolls will be published.

We cannot allow the process to be interfered with, and manipulated to suit the Prime Minister’s need to rush elections. It would be setting a dangerous precedent.

We have given notice to the Electoral Commission and the Supervisor of Elections that unless the legal requirements are properly addressed and complied with, FLP will take the matter to court.

The diplomatic community has been kept informed of developments in this front. Unless the situation is rectified, I am afraid the 2006 general elections are not going to be free and fair.

I believe we are getting international observers for the elections. They need to be here now to find out what is really happening. Not after the rigging process has been set in concrete!

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen – we can mount the best campaign in the world but it will be useless unless we can ensure the electoral process is not rigged and the elections are free and fair.

This is the first, and most important, hurdle that has to be overcome. All else is fruitless, otherwise.

It should be remembered that we are dealing here with a government that has not been known for its integrity, or adherence to the rule of law.

This is a sad development in Fiji politics because electoral fraud, except for a few isolated cases of voter impersonation, was never a feature of our elections.

It makes it all the more imperative for us to vote out of office people who will stoop to any levels to cling to power.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I said at the beginning, our future is in our hands. In this voyage of life, are we going to be “bound in shallows and miseries”? Or are we going to take the “current when it serves” and make sure that we reach our goals, and meet the just aspirations of our people?

I will leave you with that thought this morning. Thank you for your attention. Let us all work hard to accomplish our mission!