The Legacy of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara

  • 27th August 2003
  • 2003
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Address by
Mahendra P. Chaudhry,
Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara Memorial Lectures,
Waterfront Hotel, Lautoka
27 August 2003

Good evening,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen.

I consider it a great honour to be invited to speak on the life and achievements of a man whom I hold in great esteem, and who has featured so large in my own career in the past 30-odd years. As I turned the different milestones of my working life, he was always there – sometimes as a distant somewhat enigmatic leader, other times in closer proximity as an adversary, a political protagonist, and in the past few years as I faced the most challenging role of my public career, he was there as a mentor – a person I could turn to for advice and guidance in the days of my prime ministership.

It is my regret that the greater part of our dramatic interaction, often of great national importance, saw us facing each other across the table, often as adversaries rather than in tandem because I have since realised that we share a common vision for the well-being of our people and nation.

Tonight as I explore the life-canvas of this remarkable man, I intend to confine myself to that which I am most familiar with – his public life and career. I will not go into, nor am I qualified to speak on, his ancestry, his upbringing, or, of Ratu Mara in his chiefly role. That I shall leave for others but I believe Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi covered these aspects fairly adequately when he spoke at the first of the Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara memorial lecturers at USP in Suva, some months ago.

Let me begin then with some general observations on the achievements of a man appropriately dubbed as the father of the nation. In a public career spanning some four decades he has left a formidable legacy of nation-building difficult for any successor to emulate.

He has shaped and moulded the socio-economic fabric of our nation. Indeed, it can be easily conceded that the most significant economic and infrastructural developments took place under the prime ministership of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

It is tragic that in the past 15 years, Fiji has stagnated as a nation. Battered by three military coups instigated by racist and reactionary forces, we are today a nation fragmented by racial bigotry and misguided nationalism.

I believe as we struggle to regain our equilibrium as a nation, we need to look back into our past because there are important lessons to be gleaned from the stewardship of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

The years of stability, nationhood and growth achieved under Ratu Mara were neither accidental nor just an evolutionary phase in the growth of our nation.

I believe they were the direct result of the political ethos of the man: his belief in the principle of multiracialism, his respect for the rule of law and for the norms of good governance. Above all, the underlying strength of his successful tenure in power was, undoubtedly, his political creed based on the now famous concept of the three-legged stool.

The partnership analogy in this concept is fitting. For the stool to be stable, all three legs have to be equal and strong. A weakening of any one would cause imbalance and the stool would totter.

Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi had referred to the delicate balance Ratu Mara had managed to maintain between the understandable aspirations of his own indigenous people and the legitimate expectations of Fiji’s other communities. I have no doubt that his success in doing so stemmed from his sincere commitment to the concept of multiracialism as a strong feature in forging national growth.

There could be no greater manifestation of this concept of the 3-legged stool than the 1970 Constitution which gave equal political status to the two major ethnic groups while acknowledging the importance of the minority communities.

The paramountcy of indigenous interest was ensured through veto powers vested in the Council of Chiefs nominees in the Senate on all matters relating to the entrenched interests of the Fijian and Rotuman people.

Under this national charter, Ratu Mara was able to achieve substantial national growth. His policies of racial integration, understanding and tolerance earned him the respect and confidence of all communities.

Important steps were taken towards nation building with the adoption of policies which encouraged racially integrated schools, a programme of localisation based on the 50/50 formula, the acknowledgement of Fiji’s multi-religious society through the declaration of public holidays for the observance of a special day for all major faiths.

Legislative measures such as the Public Order Act, enacted to safeguard the interests of all ethnic communities, served to reinforce belief in his government’s commitment to multiracialism.

Unfortunately, Ratu Mara’s policies did not go unchallenged … as witnessed by the rise at times of Sakeasi Butadroka and his ultra nationalist party with their slogan of repatriation of the Indians. But while Butadroka was tolerated under the norms of democracy, Ratu Mara ensured he did not seriously impair racial harmony or exceed the bounds of racial animosity. He showed no hesitation in invoking the Public Order Act to charge Butadroka and throw him in jail to stop his abusive racial utterances.

It is against this backdrop of national unity and stability, that Fiji made great strides in social and economic development in the first two decades following independence.

Fiji was registering average growth rates of 6% in the 70s while the investment level peaked at 30% in 1981 compared to the current 10% of which the public sector accounts for almost 7%.

The Mara era saw major development in infrastructure: the cutting and sealing of the Suva-Nadi highway, the construction of the Lautoka Hospital with state of the art facilities to cater for the people of the West, the construction of the Monasavu hydro electricity dam to stabilise the cost of electricity, the Vaturu Dam to provide adequate supplies of clean water to the residents of Nadi and Lautoka, the national stadium in Suva. Numerous other projects took shape which paved the way for greater agricultural and industrial growth.

The most phenomenal of this was the expansion of tourism in the Nadi Bay area and along the Coral Coast following the sealing of the Suva-Nadi Highway.

The Hyatt Regency (now the Warwick), the Fijian Resort, the Hideaway, the Paradise Point, the Naviti Resort, the much-expanded Mocambo, the Tanoa Hotel and the Sheraton-all these big, four-five star resorts took shape in the late 70s and early 80s.

It is no co-incidence that hardly any major resorts have been constructed following 1987 with the exception of the Outrigger Reef Resort and some development in the Denarau in the past few years. Fiji has not been able to provide the same degree of political stability, law and order and investor confidence that prevailed in the Mara era.

Similar growth took place in the development of resources. Sugar, an important commodity even in the Colonial era, took on a new dimension under the Mara government – the credit for much of which must go to him as Prime Minister.

The way for stability and expansion of the sugar industry had been paved by the Denning Award which for the first time in decades met growers’ demands for an equitable share of sugar proceeds and the removal of other iniquities in the system.

To Ratu Mara goes the credit for bringing price stability to the industry under the Sugar Protocol agreement of the Lome Convention with the entry of Britain into the European Market. Not only did the agreement give Fiji a guaranteed price, this price was at least two and a half to three times higher than the world market price for sugar.

It boosted the price of cane from around $7 a tonne to $23 a tonne at the time. The resultant boom in the sugar industry led to notable expansion in cane cultivation and sugar production.

Sugar production doubled under his stewardship, from around 250,000 tonnes at the time of independence to more than 502,000 in 1986. The Mara Government’s development plan was to achieve a target of 725,000 tonnes in sugar production.

Ratu Mara takes more direct credit for the stability in the industry brought about by the provision of greater security of tenure with the provision of 30 year agricultural leases under ALTA in 1976. He saw the birth of its predecessor the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Ordinance in 1966 as the Minister for Natural Resources. He was the only Fijian member of the Legislative Council who argued in favour of ALTO at the time when all others denounced it as taking away the rights of the Native Land Trust Board and native landowners.

To Ratu Mara also goes the credit of successfully negotiating the nationalisation of the sugar industry from the South Pacific Sugar Mills Ltd and the restructure of the industry that followed in 1985.

At the same time, he took steps to ensure greater participation of Fijian landowners in both agricultural and national development. The Seaqaqa scheme set up in Vanua Levu to encourage Fijians to take up cane farming was his baby. The fact that the scheme failed to realise its noble aspirations can hardly be attributed to Ratu Mara.

Much more successful was his dream to create green gold for native owners through the Pine scheme. Extensive pine plantations were developed under the Mara government which is today not only reaping rich dividends for native owners but also makes a healthy contribution to employment and to the nation’s foreign earnings through sales of logs, veneer and pine chips.

Also successful was his government’s move to set up a fish cannery in Levuka which apart from national significance, provided much needed employment to people in Levuka, the old capital.

Developments in agriculture, were perhaps among the most notable achievements of his government. Self sufficiency in food was a key feature of his development plans To this end, the Mara era saw the Sigatoka Valley project get underway, a major expansion in poultry production and the setting up of the rice irrigation schemes in Lakena, Dreketi and Navua. By mid-80s Fiji was 70% self-sufficient in rice.

The establishment of the Boystown to deal with the problem of youths and juvenile delinquency has to be one of his more important achievements on the domestic front.

Before I move on, I would like to mention Ratu Mara’s contribution in the maintenance of an exemplary, ethnically balanced civil service. Fiji was proud of the civil service in his days … it carried a degree of professionalism and high standards which is deplorably lacking today.

He drove his permanent secretaries hard, and likewise his cabinet. He was uncompromising when it came to standards and commitment to duty. Promotions, particularly to senior positions, were based on merit. He was all-inspiring in the manner in which he conducted himself, in his personal demeanour and in his dealings with others.

One must not forget that he was hand-picked and groomed by the colonial administrators to lead. He was recalled from medical studies in Otago, New Zealand and sent to Oxford for studies in economics and public administration.

Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara was a towering personality who cut an impressive figure both on the international arena as well as in the Pacific region. He had a successful foreign policy which saw him play a significant role in the formulation of the Lome Convention and in particular, the various benefits that accrued to the ACP nations under its Stabex scheme and the Sugar Protocol.

Under Ratu Mara’s leadership Fiji also made a name for itself in the Law of the Sea conference and he had the good fortune to see one of his leading diplomats, Satya Nandan, appointed to head the United Nations Law of the Sea division.

But perhaps his most enduring contribution is the recognition Fiji achieved by joining the United Nations peace keeping duties in the Middle East. To send Fiji soldiers to UNIFIL was a Mara initiative in order to expose our young people to disciplined services and to boost employment opportunities for the young.

His greatest contribution is, of course, in regional politics where he was a giant among leaders. Regional co-operation was at its height under Mara and he is known to have said that he found regional politics the most rewarding.

He played a key role in the development of regional institutions such as the South Pacific Forum, now the Pacific Islands Forum, and the Pacific Islands Development Programme based in Hawaii. His insistence on trade rather than aid to struggling economies, led to the formation of the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement (SPARTECA) under which Pacific Island nations were able to develop and expand their trading benefits with Australia and New Zealand under preferential tariff arrangements.

My own first contact with Ratu Sir Kamisese was through the civil service. As Prime Minister he was in charge of the civil service while I had just been elected general secretary of the Fiji Public Service Association – a post I held for 29 years, 22 of which were under his administration as the elected PM and later as head of the post coup interim administration from 1988 to 1992.

Our clashes, nationally important ones, have become somewhat legendary as is wont to happen when two strong personalities differ. I led the first civil service strike in Fiji’s history in 1973 as the newly elected general secretary of the FPSA.

The second major strike was in 1984 when FPSA members of CAAF, the Civil Aviation Authority of Fiji, walked off their jobs over the controversial dismissal of a fire officer. This eventuated in a week-long strike which shut down the airport, crippling Fiji’s tourist trade.

The strike in both these instances arose as a result of government’s refusal to submit to arbitration. In the end, both were resolved, in the Union’s favour, through arbitration.

Prime Minister Mara’s interaction with trade unionists in the early post independence period was very cordial. He was receptive to ideas that would promote equity and social justice and regarded the Fiji Trades Union Congress as a social partner in development.

Such cordial relations naturally led to Mara embracing tripartism in 1976, largely through the persuasion of the FTUC.

Co-operation under the Tripartite Forum ushered in a period of industrial peace and economic progress which lasted until 1984 when relations soured with the unilateral imposition of a wage freeze.

Before I touch on that, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the gains made during this period of tripartite co-operation. Ratu Mara takes credit for agreeing, again at the behest of the FTUC, to set up the EDB (Economic Development Board forerunner to the present Fiji Trades and Investment Bureau). This was an idea the unions had borrowed from Singapore.

The unions also promoted the incorporation of ATS as an extension of the concept of tripartism and its successful application in the commercial world.

I remember at the time Berenado Vunibobo who was Permanent Secretary for Civil Aviation strongly opposed the scheme. Ratu Mara, however, overruled his objections and went ahead with the project. This was the mettle of the man -if he was convinced an idea was good he would go ahead with it despite the views of his civil servants.

As chair of the Tripartite Forum, Ratu Mara was respected by the unions for his leanings towards fairness and social equity.

Unfortunately, the era of cooperation was short lived. The 1982 general elections marked a watershed as the cordiality between Mara’s government and the Union’s began to wane. Ratu Mara, increasingly under the influence of newly elected Alliance MPs such as Peter Stinson, Ahmed Ali, Mosese Qionibaravi began to distance himself from the unions and embraced a capitalist path.

It saw the introduction of hostile, anti worker policies culminating in the Wage Freeze of 1984, the birth of the Fiji Labour Party the following year in response to the freeze and the demise of the Alliance Party following the 1987 general elections.

Later in life, of course, Ratu Mara revised his thinking and returned to his earlier benevolent attitude towards policies which ensured social and economic justice. I found this a strong conviction in him as he guided me in the 12 months of my prime ministership. We used to have weekly one-hour meetings every Wednesday and I kept him fully informed on the State of the Nation – he in turn would render me valuable advice.

It is a great tragedy that this strong advocate of multiracialism should have his very commitment to multiracialism questioned towards the end of his political career. Ratu Mara was accused of having complicity in the coup of 14 May 1987.

Apart from claims by coup strongman Sitiveni Rabuka, no hard evidence has so far surfaced to indict him. Maybe one day the truth will surface and we will be able to put this sordid matter to rest once and for all.

In his book The Pacific Way Ratu Mara justifies his participation in Sitiveni Rabuka’s post-coup regime by saying that “at that stage my heart ruled my head”. This was despite what he described as “sound advice” at the time from Brian Tallboys of New Zealand, that he should have nothing to do with the instigators of the 1987 coup.

To the Media at the time, Ratu Mara explained his involvement in the now famous quote: “How could I stand by and watch my house on fire?” With the passage of time, one may consider his reasons, although not acceptable by me, understandable.

The unceremonious manner in which he was ousted as President following the May 2000 terrorist takeover of Parliament, is also tragic. He was removed because he stuck by his presidential oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. He told me afterwards, that he was pressured by the security forces at the height of the May 2000 terrorist takeover of Parliament to abrogate the 1997 Constitution.

Ratu Mara refused to do so saying he had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.

“If the Constitution goes, I go,” he told those who were pressuring him in that now infamous, orchestrated incident on the naval patrol ship on the night of 29 May 2000. Sadly, his refusal to comply sealed his fate.

He was removed from the presidency and army commander Frank Bainimarama assumed executive control of the country, abrogating the 1997 Constitution.

The tragedy is that this man who did so much for his country, is today largely forgotten by the ruling elite because they do not like his philosophy of multiracialism.

They have chosen instead the path of extremism as a result of which Fiji is today sinking under the weight of misguided nationalism which has fanned the fires of racial prejudice and religious bigotry.

Three years after the conflagration of May 2000 we are still seeking a way to take our nation forward, to lift it out of the quagmire of racial prejudice into which it has sunk.

Once again, I venture to suggest that our redemption lies in seeking answers from the life (philosophy) of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Let’s take a leaf out of his book.

In 1982, just prior to the national elections, Ratu Mara had reached the conviction that a better way forward for Fiji was through a government of national unity. He believed that Fiji had reached a stage in its development where it needed a national flavour in the government of the day.

In his memoirs, he said he had first mooted this idea at the preparatory talks on the 1970 Constitution. He now felt that the time was ripe to propose it again. Fiji was heading for another general elections which could prove to be acrimonious to race relations in the country.

Furthermore, he believed that while there was equal ethnic representation in Parliament, this was not reflected at Cabinet level. Representation at cabinet level, he said “was pivotal for both policy making and public presentation”. The reality in Fiji, however, was that the Alliance had small Indian representation and the NFP little Fijian representation.

Says Mara in his memoirs: “Fiji was too small to squander its limited pool of talent. Worse still, this division created an atmosphere of frustration that could fester and poison relations”.

He was of the view that a government of national unity “would commit members to support and promote cabinet policy, which then hopefully, would be seen in national rather than racial terms”.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is exactly the reason I myself proposed a government of national unity to Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

We have a situation today where the two majority parties are racially polarised as far as parliamentary representation is concerned. A government of national unity would ensure adequate representation of all ethnic communities in national decision making in exactly the kind of scenario visualised by Ratu Mara in 1982.

I am now venturing into the realm of hypothesy, but I would be bold enough to state that had the then Leader of Opposition, Jai Ram Reddy, heeded Mara’s call for a government of national unity, 1987 would not have taken place.

Prime Minister Qarase has a splendid opportunity today to respect the intent and spirit of the 1997 Constitution, and to take Fiji forward in the only way possible. I invite him to bite the bullet, to walk in the path of this great statesman from Lau, his own high chief, and to accept the challenge presented by a government of national unity.

If he does that he would go down in history as a man who put national interests above personal considerations.

Fiji today needs visionary leadership. As leaders we have a duty to explore the best possible way of taking our nation forward through policies that are just and equitable to all ethnic communities and that take advantage of the diversity of talents available to us.

We must move away from politics of race. This was the vision that had prompted Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara in 1982 to propose the formation of a government of national unity.

It is this vision which is reflected in Section 99 of the Constitution based on the realisation that the communal nature of our electoral system precluded the fair representation of all ethnic communities in Cabinet.

In 1999, I as Prime Minister had ensured that out of 18 members of my Cabinet, 12 were indigenous Fijians – much to the chagrin of some of my Indian colleagues. I felt the gesture was necessary to win the confidence of the entire nation in my government and to show that we were not guided by communal considerations.

Unfortunately, the Qarase government shows no such considerations. They have, in fact, embraced the opposite end of the political spectrum based on policies of exclusivism. The years between 1987 and 1999 showed that racially exclusive policies were a major deterrent to national growth and nation building.

Prime Minister Qarase is wrong in his thinking that through minimum compliance with the law, and token representation of the FLP in his Cabinet, he can achieve national reconciliation and national growth. To do that he needs to genuinely recognise the intent and spirit of Section 99 of the Constitution in its provision for power sharing.

Unless, he does that I do not see him building the trust and confidence of all ethnic communities that is necessary to take this nation forward.

I re-iterate, a Government of National Unity is the only way forward for Fiji at this critical juncture of its history.