Why the Opposition could not support the land bills

  • 7th December 2005
  • 2005
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The Opposition had very good reasons for not supporting the Bills to amend the ALTA and NLTA legislations in Parliament on Thursday 1 December 2005, aimed at transferring all native agricultural leases from the ambit of ALTA to NLTA.

In a full-page paid advertisement in the Fiji Times on Tuesday 6 December, Opposition Leader Mahendra Chaudhry said ALTA was an entrenched legislation. NLTA did not provide similar security to the tenant community.

ALTA or its precursor ALTO was initiated by the British Colonial administration in 1966 to foster economic growth and agricultural development by making agricultural leases available to tenants on terms that were fair and non-exploitative. It should be noted that land in Fiji is a restricted resource – less than 5% is available on the market as freehold.

ALTA therefore was legislation specifically designed to regulate relations between the landlords and tenants of all agricultural land – be it native, State or freehold. NLTA on the other hand is a legislation dating back to 1940, designed specifically for the protection of landowners.

ALTA means security:

The fact that ALTA is an entrenched legislation underscores its significance to the economic well-being of the nation and the security of the tenant community. To change any of its provisions requires the votes of two-thirds of the Members of Parliament.

NLTA provides no such security: it is not an entrenched legislation – it can be altered by a simple majority in the House of Representatives.

Clause 14E of the proposed amendments to NLTA clearly states that:
The conditions and covenants of contract of tenancy shall be prescribed by regulations.This clause makes it absolutely clear that conditions of tenancy will be set by regulations made by the Minister responsible. It is to be noted that regulations do not require the enactment of Parliament.

This is a dangerous proposal. It takes the responsibility away from the ambit of Parliament and vests it in the Minister.

The Opposition has a duty to protect the rights and security of the landless farming community.

PM distorts the facts:

In his national broadcast, paid for by taxpayers, the Prime Minister has misled the nation on a number of issues both on land and the Constitution.

Just on land, he said that while ALTA provides no right of renewal of leases, the proposed amendments to NLTA provide for such right of renewal. This is clearly not the case – there is absolutely no such provision in the NLTA amendment Bill presented by the government.

The Bill merely states that any renewal of leases shall be determined by the NLTB in accordance with the procedures prescribed by the regulations.

So where is this so-called right of renewal that the Prime Minister talks about?

50 year leases:

The second misrepresentation is the so-called 50 year leases. The 50 year leases being offered under NLTA cannot be taken seriously, considering that the proposals range from a minimum of 20 years to a maximum of 50 years. There is no guarantee in the legislation that leases will be given for a 50 year period.

Indeed, history shows that in actual practice leases have only been granted for their minimum tenure, as was witnessed under ALTA. ALTA regulated leases for a minimum tenure of 30 years but placed no ceiling on the maximum tenure that can be granted. Yet, leases under ALTA were confined to the minimum 30 year period.

The Opposition is therefore justified in asking: what guarantee is there that under NLTA the maximum 50 years leases will be granted?

It should be remembered that the reason NLTB wanted ALTA replaced is because landowners did not want to part with their land for 30 years – why then would they suddenly agree to give it for 50 years?

The offer of so-called 50-year leases is qualified by a provision in the NLTA amendment Bill which states, inter alia, that … if the Board (NLTB) is satisfied that the land is likely to be required by the Fijian owners for their use, the Board may then grant a contract of tenancy for a minimum period of 20 years.

The Opposition has an obligation to ensure farmers are protected against such pitfalls. If ALTA is in effect a 30 year tenure, as the PM claims, than NLTA is worse, it is just a 20 year tenure! Accepting NLTA will be tantamount to jumping from the frying pen into the fire for the tenant community.

PM’s crocodile tears

The Prime Minister’s sudden sympathy and concern for the suffering of thousands of tenant farmers and their families displaced since 1997 is hypocritical. It has taken him five long years to take note of the catastrophe and hardship in the cane belt caused by the non-renewal of expiring leases. Indeed, one of his most insensitive acts as interim prime minister in 2000 was to scrap the $28,000 rehabilitation grant initiated by the Labour-led Government to keep displaced farmers out of the poverty trap. In any case, his so-called concern comes rather late!

Opposition’s stand on the rule of law:

It is important to explain our decision to withdraw participation from discussions on Land, Sugar and a review of the Constitution. The Prime Minister claims the move is unwarranted as there is no connection between these national issues and the Amnesty Bill. He is wrong.

The government jeopardised the talks by its unilateral imposition of the Amnesty Bill. This Bill undermines the rule of law, the police, the judiciary and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Opposition believes the rule of law is paramount. Unless there is law and order, property rights cannot be guaranteed.

This was clearly demonstrated in the 2000 mayhem when scores of tenant farmers were brutally displaced when their land, houses, crops and livestock were seized by the terrorists.

In a lawless society, nothing is sacrosanct: land can be taken away forcibly, the Constitution and laws of the land can be changed by decree.

The Amnesty Bill therefore had to be fought as a matter of priority, using whatever weapon was available to the Opposition. Besides, we cannot cooperate with a government that does not respect the rule of law and the Constitution.

The Prime Minister has only himself to blame for the current state of national politics. He is now paying the price for his own folly. He accuses the Opposition of not wanting to cooperate on national issues.

He should ask himself who shut the door on governance through consultation and consensus? He denied us our constitutional right to participate in decision making in a multi-party cabinet.

Despite this denial of our rights, we continued the consultation process through the Talanoa session. He sabotaged these talks with the imposition of the widely-condemned Amnesty Bill. In so doing, he forfeited our support.

The GCC and the NLTB

The Prime Minister must stop his abhorrent habit of playing on the emotions of the Fijian people every time he faces a setback.

The Opposition’s decision not to support the Land Bills is not meant as any disrespect to the chiefs or to Fijian institutions. We cannot support a Bill that undermines the interests of those we represent – it’s as simple as that.

Bringing the Land Bills to the House was a political gimmick when the Prime Minister knew fully well that the Opposition would not support the amendments.

As the Leader of the United People’s Party Hon. Millis Beddoes made clear, the Prime Minister is himself guilty of gross disrespect to the Chiefs by trying to bulldoze the two Bills through the House knowing full well that it lacked the required two-thirds majority. It was his duty to negotiate with the Opposition to get support for the Bills.

Indeed, it is reprehensible that he should use the high institution of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga to push his own political agenda for the 2006 general elections. The GCC should be above such political manipulations.

Besides, if government was so serious about enacting the Land Bill, it should have made sure that all its members were in the House to vote for the Bill. Four government members were absent when the vote was taken!

The door is still open

Our suggestion to the Prime Minister is that if he genuinely wants a resolution to the land problem, then he must return to the Talanoa process. I have suggested that the independent Cyril Farrow report form the basis for further discussions.

The problem is that the Prime Minister has shown a singular obsession for NLTA and is not prepared to consider any other options. In doing so, he is taking up the refrain for NLTA from the late Maika Qarikau, former manager of the Native Lands Trust Board.

This man had virtually single-handedly destroyed the trust and confidence that governed relationships between landowners and tenants by pursuing a narrow political agenda. He misled the nation, and the landowners, by claiming that landowners wanted the land back for their own use and therefore 80% of expiring leases would not be renewed. We now know this was not true.

The independent Cyril Farrow report and Government’s own ALTA Task Force report had recommended that ALTA be retained with the necessary amendments to address the concerns of landowners.

The uncertainty, suffering and distrust created by the actions of Qarikau and the terrorist acts of 2000, will not be restored overnight. Certainly, NLTA does not carry the requisite guarantees to restore the shattered confidence of the tenant community.

If the Prime Minister is genuinely concerned about promoting multiracial goodwill and the economic interests of the nation, then he must act in the best interests of all parties and not just pursue a narrow political agenda.

The challenge is clearly in his court. He must show the statesmanship and the moral courage to do that which is right for the nation.