Changing definitions of poverty or perception of poverty by the poor themselves does not change their reality of deprivation. Low income as the traditional basis of identifying poverty remains the more tangible criterion. However, Vijay Naidu (2005) rightly points out that “poverty is not-just a matter of income”. He asserts, “it means social exclusion, disempowerment, the loss of self-esteem and the lack of capacity to access education health, information and to effectively participate in wider society.”
Low consumption is only one dimension of poverty. Other dimensions – that of malnutrition, illiteracy, low life expectancy, insecurity, powerlessness and low-self esteem are also linked to poverty.
International agencies (UNDP (1996), ADB (2003)) and local surveys conducted by individuals, Non Government Organizations such as Save the Children Fiji (2005) Government Ministries, such as the Ministry of Women, Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation and the Ministry of Multi-Ethnic Affairs provide a general picture in their departmental reports. A study of poverty in Indo-Fijian and minority communities in Fiji (2003) by USP academics, and commissioned by the Ministry of Multi-Ethnic Affairs, make some clear recommendations.
The report noted, “poverty is not confined to one or two communities”. It is in all the communities. The report says, “Poverty is now starting to corrode the social and cultural fabric, indeed the very soul of our nation.” (Poverty in Indo-Fijian and Minority Communities of Fiji, 2002). There is no clear and hard data on life expectancy, malnutrition, illiteracy, income and assets distribution and a host of other factors, which might configurative poverty in Fiji more clearly.
One has to depend partly on surveys and partly on ones own experience based on visual evidence. Overcrowding at Rural Health Centres and Hospitals, increase in incidence of nutrition relates diseases, early deaths, rural urban migration trends, increase in squatter settlement, increase in number of rural people seeking public assistance for funds for children’s educations and for medical treatment in City Hospitals and abroad are some trends that people experience and which reinforces the existence of abject poverty.
A holistic approach to poverty indicators would put poverty level at between 45 to 50%. Father Kevin Barr who has done a number of surveys on poverty sees a clear trend in the increase in poverty since 1987. Together with other reports it is clear also that poverty is not confined to any particular ethnic group. There is probably greater inequality amongst the Indians and that poor Fijians are not always getting the help they need.
The Government’s response according to Father Barr has been anecdotal. Grossly summarized the Government attitude to those seeking family assistance is that they are cheats and the squatters are pretentious.
On poverty the Government suffers from a denial syndrome, preparing to question and the data and debunk the research techniques rather than dealing with the problems.
There has been one further alarming revelation! A survey was conducted in 2002 by the Bureau of Statistics on housing and food poverty. This report has never been released. The Government, reportedly has stopped its release.
Mr. Speaker Sir, no amount of denial and questioning the techniques of survey and hiding information form the people will take away poverty. I am told the social welfare Ministry is conducting a new survey, perhaps using indicators which are hoped to demonstrate lower percentages.
I do not have the time to deal at any great length on rural and outer island poverty. Vanua Levu, Mr. Speaker Sir, is fast becoming a centre of poverty in the same way that Makogai had been for those suffering with leprosy.
The northern division noted an unprecedented 870 squatters in 2003. Out of the 114 confirmed cases of Typhoid as per July 2005, 76 cases were from the Northern Division. The disease spreads through contaminated food and drinking water. These conditions prevail in poor homes.
So Mr. Speaker Sir, as more data emerges from rural areas we may be facing more astonishing revelations, and if we were to adopt data on other deprivations recommended in more advanced , we will be looking at a sorry state of affairs.
Reconciliation and Unity
Mr Speaker Sir, the Amnesty Bill has come under severe public scrutiny. The Government is doing its best to drum up support. The critics of the Bill, however, are independent minded people who have spoken out either as individuals or in groups of people. They come from all racial groups, NGOs, the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission, and from the Opposition parties.
In the face of this kind and magnitude of criticism, the real motive of SDL Government cannot be about unity. Indeed if anything, the Fiji community is perhaps further divided then they were at the events of 2000.
The Real Motive
What then is the real motive? Mr Speaker Sir, the Amnesty Bill is essentially designed as an election ploy. Faced with a near nill economic growth scenario, with more squatters, destitutes, landless, and houseless people, increasing school dropouts, with rising unemployment at all levels, the government had to think of someway by which it could galvanise its voter support. It has assumed that it can depend on indegenious support on this Bill and appease international community by throwing in some provision on reconciliation and unity. This is a cheap strategy belying on the trust, honesty, and integrity that the Fijian people place on their leadership for good governance.
Mr Speaker Sir, the government could not be seriously concerned about whether the Bill goes through a safe passage in both the Houses, or ultimately ends up in court and gets rejected as unconstitutional.
The Prime Minister is counting on a win – win situation for himself whichever way the decision on the Amnesty Bill goes. If it is rejected, he is hoping to be able to retain his support amongst the extremist activists in the CAMV and in the SDL, by merely arguing that he tried. If the Bill goes through, he still retains their support.
Mr Speaker Sir, the point I am making is that important considerations of forgiveness, reconciliation and unity is used in this case as a cheap political ploy disregarding constitutional provision that exist to give pardon, and also by seriously undermining the power and position of the President, the independence of the judiciary and the DPP’s Office. Mr Speaker Sir, what a fraud on the nation and the Fijian people in particular Mr Speaker Sir, when the report on the Bill finally gets to the House we will expand on the arguments for rejecting the Bill as presently constituted.
Now Mr Speaker Sir, let me dwell on some aspects of reconciliation and unity.
If the Prime Minister is serious about reconciliation and unity, he would have been well advised to put on the agenda for discussion and negotiation those structure in our laws which mitigate against unity amongst the various communities. We need to adopt structures which would enable working and living together and being wooed together for developmental programmes in the constituencies.
Mr Speaker Sir,the Amnesty and Reconciliation Bill apparently takes its inspiration from the South African model. Without propounding on the philosophical roots of reconciliation and unity, let me just point out some of the guiding principles of the South African model. In the book Nelson Mandela In His Own Words F VAN ZYL SLABBERT introducing the section on “Negotiating Reconciliation says (P 99).
“The process of negotiation and the process of reconciliation became flipsides of the same coin. It is important to stress here that the reconciliation I am talking about is not quite the same as that of TRC. There was a powerful redemtive personal element to the TRC. I am talking here about a political, social and economic reconciliation. Given the past that I have alluded to, how did the South Africans, across the spectrum, reconcile themselves politically, with the liberal democratic state; socially, with the ideals of an open society, and economically, with a market driven economy?”
On page 100 he further points out that “the ultimate triumph of reconciliation is the way the negotiation process resulted in finally creating a situation in South Africa where certain key values were (and still are) held in creative tension in relation to one another. Liberal democracy and economic growth, law and order, and respect for human rights, fiscal discipline and delivery of services, modernity and traditionalism. The very fact, that they are held in tension is testimony to the absence of Dogma and a willingness to compromise. And without compromise, there can be no reconciliation. Mandela epitomises the willingness to compromise without sacrificing principle”.
In both the quotation Mr Speaker Sir, the emphasis in the South African experience is based on the fact that there can be no reconciliation on basic values of justice and freedom. Even Mandela was not going to reconcile “at any cost.” Mandela took the sting out of his demand for majority rule by “his emphasis on constitutional government and the rule of law.”
Mr Speaker Sir, long term reconciliation can only come about, if we are to rely on the South African experience if the Fiji people, can reconcile with values of liberal democracy and economic growth, law and order and respect for human rights, discipline in money matters, in the delivery of services, in the tension between modern demands and traditional living.
When we have reconciled with these values, reconciliation intra – racial, and between races will be a non issue.
I see nothing in the Proposed Bill nor in the work of the reconciliation Ministry on these fundamentals. I see no evidence of reconciliation in coming to terms with living in the globalized world of this century.
Mr Speaker Sir, let me now make reference to a much more tangible matter – that of electoral reform, which can also assist in forming the corner stone for national unity.
Allow me a little background information. Divide and rule has been the old strategy of colonial rule. The Prime Minister himself, in a recent speech based on some research, pointed out how areas in Suva mere designated for settlement by different racial groups.
In the broad scheme of things, the Fijians were to be insulated from contact with Western values, they were to be kept under microscope for study in their natural state. In short, they were a protected species. The Solomon Islander and the Indians were introduced to work for the colonial planters. The British Crown ruled the Australians exploited over resources while the New Zealanders were to educate. Every one was to live happily ever after.
But the world picture was changing. The Empire was breaking down. The UN Committee of 24 was putting pressure on Colonial powers to free their colonies. New constitutional arrangements were being made in preparation for transfer of power. At Independence, Fiji inherited a communal system of voting with a smattering of cross-voting seats which allowed people to vote across the race divide. The 1990 constitution was several steps backward and reinforced communal boundaries and communal voting.
While the 1997 constitution took several strides forward, it continued with provisions for communal boundaries provision and communal seats. For the Fijian, the communal votes using provisional boundaries has caused greater inequality in the value of each vote cast.
Now, Mr. Speaker Sir, members elected form communal and or provincial boundaries, tend to direct debate and allocation of resources on a communal basis, thus giving the impression of racism and further separating the political divide.
If the Government was serious about national unity, it would put on the national agenda, electoral reform designed to develop a more equitable, just and fair system. A system with mixed electoral boundaries with approximately of equal numbers – with threw up candidates who have support amongst all communities.
Such a system will throw up genuine multiracial parties and candidates and parties who share the concern of the constituents irrespective of their racial make-up. The whole focus will be inclined towards issues rather than on sectional politics. Hopefully, these and its flow on will form the corner stoned of peace, harmony and long lasting unity.
Mr. Speaker Sir, I challenge the SDL to take a more creative long term view of unity and start a nation wide debate on electoral reform while it puts the issue on the Agenda for negotiation with other political parties.
Mr. Speaker Sir, as an aside let me also remind the Prime Minister, that a number of other electoral changes are to be made if we want a corruption free and smooth electoral operations next year. I have highlighted some of the issues in response to the Presidential address last year and in a more recent debate on request for supplementary budget for the elections office.
Mr. Speaker Sir, there is one other matter which can lay the foundations for national unity. This has to come from a well thought out language policy, one which will not undermine our capacity to be part of the International community while we develop language skills to communicate with each other. Mr. Speaker Sir, English Language must remain the link and official language while everyone should be required to learn verbal skills in Fijian and Hindi. The old practice of dual language requirement for entry into Civil Service should be reintroduced.
Mr. Speaker Sir, there is one other important perception that makes this Government unacceptable in the minds of most people as a champion of reconciliation and unity.
This Government is seen as a Government for the rich generally and for rich Fijians in particular. Amongst Indo Fijians it is a commonly known through their experiences of discrimination in all walks of life and at education at tertiary levels and in Civil Service intake as a one sided, divisive and discriminating Government. They have grave doubts on the integrity of such a Government of Champion a cause for national unity.
Mr. Speaker Sir, let me point out in two areas only on the blatant disregard of data in carrying out its affirmative action programme. A programme which makes the Government appear deliberately discriminative.
Civil Service Employment
In the employment in Civil Service, figures do not justify an affirmative actions programme in favour of the Fijian people. In 2001 there were 11211 Indigenous Fijian compared with 6,301 Indians, 383 Others and 147 expatriates. The Fijians were 62.19%, Indians 34.9%, others 2.1% and expatriates 0.89. In 2003 the Fijian number increased to 114156 i.e. 62.7%, Indians were 6252 i.e 34.4%. Others were 388 i.e. 2.1% and expatriates were 150 i.e 0.8%.
Such a large disparity – 62.7% vs 34.4% cannot justify increased intake for Fijians under Affirmative Actions policy. If there is to be an affirmative action in this area, it should be for Indians. They comprise 43.75% of the total populations. They have a genuine gripe for being unfairly treated.
Government plans is to follow a 70:30 quota in awarding all government scholarships in favour of Fijians for teacher training undergraduate and post graduate programs. Fijians already dominate in these fields. It defies logic why an affirmative action programme should be carried out here. In 2003 there were 1332 indigenous Fijian nurses compared with 248 Indians. This constitutes 82% of all nurses. Yet 50% the seats are reserved for Fijians and some are selected with much lower marks than Indian students. There were in 2003, 111 dental officers compared to 61 Indians, 138 medical officers compared with 68 Indians. 70% of scholarships in teacher training institutions are reserved for Fijians while Fijian already have a larger percentage of teachers.
The fact is Mr. Speaker Sir, in view of stark and naked discrimination in the name of affirmative action the discrimination is not lost on the people. Amongst the Indo Fijians populations and amongst the increasing number of right thinking Fijians the SDL Government faces a crisis confidence.
Those who object to the Bill, Mr. Speaker Sir, do so, not only because they think it is a fraud but also because they do not trust the messenger of reconciliation and unity. Not just the message, the messenger has to be right as well.
Mr. Speaker Sir, I have tried to draw up a picture of the future, and examined poverty as an example to demonstrate how widespread it is and point the denial syndrome that the Government has adopted as a way of dealing with it. I have pointed out at some fundamental flows in our reconciliations plans, using the South African experience and indicated areas of policy in which Government could adopt a more creative and innovative direction to bring about long term unity, peace and harmony!
Mr. Speaker Sir, I once again thank the President for his gracious speech and wish long and healthy life.