Yet another year has ended. It is a convention, as we stand on the threshold of a new year, to take stock of the past in order to prepare for the year ahead.
Four years have lapsed since the regime change of 6 December 2006. Much was said then about why the military takeover was necessary: to rescue Fiji from the grips of an elected government that had grossly mismanaged the economy and State finances to near-bankruptcy; was actively pushing a policy to fragment the nation along racial lines; and was closely aligned to the terrorist and fundamentalist elements in our multicultural society, not to mention the high levels of corruption and high crime rates that prevailed.
But after four years of military rule, where do we stand as a nation? Better or worse off? To gauge this, its best to view the regime’s performance in the past four years against the Mandate it received from His Excellency the President Ratu Josefa Iloilo in January 2007 when he appointed the interim administration:
• Steady our economy through sustained growth and correct the economic mismanagement of the past 6 years:
Our economic data tells the story: Fiji’s economy has contracted three years in a row: -0.9% in 2007, -0.1% in 2008 and -3% in 2009. Key exports have fallen sharply forcing Foreign Reserves to be artificially boosted in April 2009 by the 20% devaluation of the dollar. Moreover, Reserves are further boosted by withholding the repatriation of profits of foreign companies (mainly banks) as pointed out by the Asian Development Bank in its December 2010 report on the Fiji economy (Pacific Economic Monitor).
State finances – Government’s debt level now stands at 57% of the GDP and rise to a staggering 73% if the State’s contingent liabilities to statutory bodies and corporations are included. In 2010 alone (this year) the State borrowed a staggering $740 million of which $242 million was raised overseas.
Government’s irresponsible borrowings are placing an intolerable burden on the taxpayer. The provision for debt repayments in the 2011 Budget stands at $519 million. This means that the taxpayer is forking out an alarming $1.42 million per day to repay the State’s massive debts. It leaves little in the kitty for capital development projects.
One of the saddest tragedies on the economic horizon has been virtual demise of the sugar industry in the past two years under the policies and decisions of the current regime.
In two years sugar production fell to its lowest ever record of 168,000 tonnes in 2009 and an estimated 120-125,000 tonnes in 2010. Many thousands of tonnes of cane delivered to the mills have gone to waste because of milling problems and inefficiencies. In 2009 alone the industry lost close to $100m, of which loss to cane farmers stood at $70m. There is no redress to the cane farmer from such huge losses.
• Lift up the living standards of the growing poor and underprivileged of our country
Poverty levels have risen to 45% of the population according to the Household and Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES 2008/2009) – official figure released by the Poverty Eradication Unit of the Office of the Prime Minister at a workshop in Suva in April this year.
Almost as many are struggling to keep their heads above poverty; the hike in VAT from 12.5% to 15% (20% increase) from January together with increases in Customs Duty on a wide range of food and consumer items will impact negatively on the standard of living of our poor and low income families.
Government’s decision to charge increased fees for a range of medical services at its hospitals from January will place an additional burden on ordinary families.
• Eradicate systemic corruption …. And set new standards of governmental and institutional transparency
Transparency International in a survey about budget transparency in October this year gave Fiji zero out of 100 possible points, saying it is virtually impossible for Fiji citizens to hold the government accountable for its management of the public’s money.
Ministerial pays have been removed from the ambit of the Treasury; Proper procedures are not being followed for the outsourcing of public works and procurement of goods and services. Despite the setting up of FICAC, corruption remains high
• Improve our relations with our neighbours and the international community
We remain suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum; we are in a state of virtual hostility with the governments of Australia and New Zealand, having expelled their Heads of Mission; the European Union has suspended its development assistance funds.
• Take our country to democratic elections after an advanced electoral office and systems are in place and the political and economic conditions are conducive to the holding of such elections
With the imposition of the Public Emergency Regulations in April 2009, elections have been deferred to at least 2014. The Supervisor of Elections Office is hardly functional and all political dialogue has been put on hold until at least 2012. In other words, there is no move, apart from constant rhetoric about 2014, to move Fiji to democratic elections.
• Immediately as practicable introduce a Code of Conduct and Freedom of Information
There is no Code of Conduct. Freedom of Information remains even more of a dream considering the rigorous censorship imposed on the media and restrictions on any criticism of the regime as well as the curtailment of other human and civil rights under the Public Emergency Regulations.
• To continue to uphold the Constitution
Fiji’s Constitution was overthrown on 10 April 2009. Since then we have been governed under the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) and related Decrees which have severely curtailed our rights and freedoms, and compromised the independence and integrity of the judiciary and the legal system. No challenge is permitted to the violation/denial of the citizens’ rights to basic freedoms and/or the arbitrary actions of the regime. The PER continues in force indefinitely.
This, fellow citizens, is the state of our nation today. There has been much rhetoric about “reforms” but little to show for it. In fact, our economy, financial status, infrastructure, standard of living have all slid notably in the past four years.
As we stand on the threshold of another year, there is no indication of a ray of hope that things will get any better. Indeed, all pointers indicate that 2011 may be an even more difficult year.
We can only advice courage, fortitude and extreme prudence in the face of increasing difficulties. Unless we take urgent steps to return speedily to democracy and constitutional rule, we will continue to have more of the same. That is the sad lesson we have learnt over the last 23 years since the first coup in 1987.
Not withstanding the foregoing, our best wishes for the New Year to one and all.