Spotlight on Fiji’s compromised Parliament

  • 19th February 2021
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Speaker Ratu Epeli Nailatikau shocked the nation by declaring in Parliament that the deportation of  USP’s Vice Chancellor Prof Pal Ahluwalia last week, and the brutal manner in which it was executed, was not a matter of national concern. 

The deportation caused considerable consternation throughout the region and in Fiji. There has been an outpouring of public condemnation and revulsion, reflected in comments in the social media and letters and statements  in the mainstream media.

It may also have far reaching consequences for the future of the university as a regional institute, with moves now being considered to relocate its HQ away from Suva.

Yet, the Speaker said that he did not consider the matter qualified as urgent enough, or of enough public importance, to warrant special attention. He rejected moves by the Opposition to have the issue raised in Parliament through an adjournment motion and oral questions to be put to government.

The Opposition showed its disgust by walking out in response to the ruling. Given the facts, there can be only one explanation for the Speaker’s ruling – to bail out the government.

The ruling has brought considerable disrepute to Fiji’s parliament. It has made a mockery of the democratic values that parliaments stand for and the right of the people to hold the government accountable for its actions.

Ratu Epeli is a person of eminent standing as a high chief and a former Speaker of Parliament between 2001 and 2006. He had earned a reputation for being fair, principled and stern in his rulings, even if the decisions had to go against the government of the day. But it’s so different today.

A compromised parliament

Regrettably, the manner of operations of Parliament since the 2014 elections is of considerable concern. Well established parliamentary conventions and processes have been removed through successive amendments to Standing Orders to restrict and curtail procedures and debate. Sittings have been drastically cut back and the Opposition gagged – rendering it virtually ineffective in fulfilling its role to hold the government accountable.

The Speaker’s role as an independent arbiter has been compromised by changes which now allow him to sit as a member of the Business Committee of the House, deciding on which questions and motions to allow.

Government is now abusing Standing Order 51 with the Speaker’s concurrence to rush through, virtually, all Bills. This is an abuse of process which should not, in the normal circumstances, be allowed by the Speaker.

Case in point, are the two Bills relating to the judiciary, currently before the House.

Bill No. 1 of 2021 which aims to establish a special court to deal with cases of corruption and Bill No 2 of 2021 which intends to scrap the use of assessors in criminal proceedings.

None of the Bills are of such urgency that Standing Order 51 needs to be invoked to push them through. In fact, they are of considerable public interest and ought to be subjected to wide consultation as pointed out by the Fiji Law Society.

FLS has called on the government to stay the Bills to allow for wider public discussion. Personally, I see no necessity for the two Bills.

Bill No.1 – special courts for corruption cases

There is no need to meddle with the Judiciary to create a specialized court for dealing with corruption cases as proposed in the Bill.

I see absolutely no merit in the Attorney General’s comments that the appointment of a special court will give a certain level of certainty to the prosecutors and the offenders and will reinforce the rule of law. Just what does he mean by “a level of certainty”?

Is he suggesting that the High Courts are unable to provide the level of certainty that he is talking about?

The Bill is seen by many as interference with well established judicial processes and possibly an attempt to undermine the authority of the judiciary. This must not be permitted.

It is public knowledge that corruption has become endemic in our society and I believe that the FF government, particularly the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, must take full responsibility for this sick state of affairs.

There are institutions and constitutional provisions in place to fight corruption but these are either not being properly run or have been deliberately kept out of existence.

Take for instance FICAC. Why has a Commissioner not been appointed to take charge of FICAC which has been operating without a substantive head since its inception in 2007. The government has not explained to this day why an appointment has not been made to this position in the last 14 years.

What is really pressing, is the need to amend the FICAC Act by deleting a provision in s5.5) which permits the Commissioner to seek the assistance and input of the Attorney General. This provision compromises the independence of the Commission and must be removed.

Does it make sense to create a special court to deal with corruption related cases without first putting in place institutions that are mandated in the Constitution to curb corruption? Is the government not just paying lip service to curtailing corruption?

The mere fact that it has taken no action in the past 7 years to enact Code of Conduct and Freedom of Information legislations as mandated by the imposed 2013 Constitution, speaks for itself. Frankly, I think they are quite content with the status quo.

Bill No.2 – removal of the system of assessors

Similarly, the removal of the assessors system from our courts is again uncalled for interference with judicial processes which have been in place for decades. The AG should know that assessors are chosen from among the lay people who are educated enough to appreciate what their role is all about.

The system does not require them to have an understanding of “sophisticated matters” as the AG puts it. It is the judge’s role to explain such issues to the assessors based on which they must make their findings of guilt or innocence.

In the final analysis, the Judge’s decision prevails as he has the powers to overrule the assessors. There should be no difficulty in finding the right persons to serve as assessors as lamely claimed by the Attorney General.  There are hundreds of law graduates around looking for non-existent jobs. Why not give them something to do?

Law Reform Commission  

Reform of laws, particularly in the criminal jurisdiction, must be undertaken with great caution and must remain a function of the Law Reform Commission, rather than the Attorney General. The Commission is so empowered under s5 of the Law Reform Commission Act.

However, this very important institution has been defunct for sometime now because the appointments of its former members were not renewed or new ones not appointed.

Under the Act, the Chair of the Commission is appointed by the President following consultation with the Attorney General and the Leader of the Opposition. Three (3) other members are appointed by the Attorney General.

Only the Attorney General can answer why this important Commission remains defunct.

Given such noxious developments, one may well ask: why have a parliament?