FLP Leader denounces Fiji’s quasi-democracy

  • 1st August 2015
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In his address to Labour’s Annual Delegates Convention in Lautoka, Leader Mahendra Chaudhry denounced the quasi-democratic rule in Fiji and said the party must be strong enough to fight this.  cake

  • Mr Chaudhry’s full address at the Convention today which also
    commemorated FLP’s 30th anniversary:

We cut a cake this morning to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Fiji Labour Party.

And what a tumultuous, action-packed 30 years it has been!

There is no doubt that the advent of the Fiji Labour Party had a profound impact on Fiji’s political landscape. Indeed, it changed the course of the nation’s history!

Arising out of the struggle of the workers, with our trade union roots deeply embedded in the principles of democratic socialism, we were seen as radicals. Our emphasis on class struggle rather than ethnic divisions, challenged the political status quo, posing a threat to established parties as well as vested interest groups closely aligned to them.

We espoused principles of social and economic (socio-economic) justice with emphasis on the empowerment of workers and women, we demanded fair wages and decent working conditions, a national health scheme and social welfare benefits for the elderly.

We declared a war on corruption and emphasised the need for a clean, open, caring government and a vibrant, sustainable economy the benefits of which would be shared by all.

Such people-centred policies with its focus on the welfare of workers and the ordinary people, were not only a challenge to political parties, it pitched us headlong against certain big business interests who were maximising profits at the expense of their workers.

The result as you know was the execution of Fiji’s first coup d’etat on 14 May 1987 which deposed the Labour-led coalition government, after just one month in office. The key players in this treasonous act were failed politicians, certain big business interests, a rat bag of opportunists, ethnic and religious bigots and of course, elements in the Army. They hid their true intents behind the banner of indigenous rights.

Not surprisingly, the 2000 coup had the same anti-democratic forces aligned against us. Some new players, like opportunist George Speight, had entered the scene but the basic composition was still the same – an oligarchy of failed politicians, business interests, racists and opportunists.

So you see how a Labour Government with its platform of social and democratic reforms, its broad all-embracing vision for the nation, posed a threat to vested interest groups. We have spent the best part of the 30 years of our existence in a struggle to preserve and restore these fundamental principles which formed the foundation pillars of the FLP.

It has not been an easy ride. We have worked tirelessly, after every coup, for the restoration of democracy and constitutional rule. Over the years, we have taken a courageous stand on protecting the rights and freedoms of our people.

We have fearlessly exposed corruption in high office, we have fought valiantly for the rights and interests of our cane farmers, we have spoken out against the exploitation of our workers, and when in office, we provided a caring and compassionate governance for all our people.

Regrettably, the struggle is still not over. Believe me, these same forces that toppled the Labour-led governments of 1987 and 2000, were at work in September 2014 to ensure that the Fiji Labour Party did not make it to Parliament. Bainimarama had announced two years before the election that Chaudhry will not be in parliament. The players may have changed somewhat but the scenario remains the same.

Our outspoken and uncompromising stand on good governance and social justice continue to threaten the illicit interests and agenda of greedy elements in our society. Fiji will not be at peace so long as these people are around and are able to have their way.

This is the crux of my message to you today. Let there be no delusion that Fiji returned to democracy after the 2014 general elections, simply because we have a parliament of sorts in place.

Indeed, the very values and principles for which we were created, that we have spent the last 30 years upholding and fighting for, the sacrifices we have made, the persecution we have suffered – are all under threat from authoritarian forces that shackle our nation today.

Yes, we are a nation in shackles. We are not free. We are a frightened and intimidated society. Let there be no delusions about that.

The 2014 election was carefully orchestrated, the entire election machinery starting with the imposed 2013 Constitution, the Voter Registration and Political Parties Decree and later the Electoral Decree were all manipulated to ensure that the status quo, in place since 2009, continued after the elections.

If you remember I warned at the launch of Labour Party’s 2014 election manifesto in Suva on 2nd August last year that nothing would change after the elections. “Those who have taken away your rights are not going to hand them back to you on a platter. We will have to fight to win them back,” I had said.

How prophetic those words turned out to be!

Those governing us today are even more dangerous because they are hiding behind the veneer of democracy. There is an element of sheer hypocrisy in what they say up front. They stand up and utter thundering platitudes about democracy, about transparency and accountability – yet there is no accountability in their own dealings with the nation’s funds or its resources.

The so-called democratic processes and institutions we have today under the Fiji First government, are in fact just a veneer, show pieces to fool the people and the international community that we have democracy at work.

Let me illustrate.

1. We have a deeply flawed Constitution that was imposed on our people in 2013 – specially crafted to entrench the authoritarian rule of the past 8 years. It came under strong criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Committee UNHRC) which examined Fiji in 2014.

The Committee recommended that a Constitution Review Commission be appointed to undertake a comprehensive review of the Constitution so as to make it “reflective of the will and aspirations of citizens of Fiji, thereby, providing a more stable political structure”.

It suggested that the legislative and constitutional framework be amended to maintain the separation of powers and cease any executive or political interference with the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession. The Media Industry Development Decree 2010 featured prominently among the decrees recommended to be scrapped or amended.

Commenting on the Media decree UNHRC said that there was a need to end the intimidation and harassment of people who express criticism of the State.
To quote: ”…There is a need to change the climate of fear and self-censorship to ensure no one was arbitrarily arrested and detained for exercising their rights.”
The other decrees recommended to be amended in order to ensure that the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people are not unduly restricted, are the: Public Order Amendment Decree and the Political Parties Decree.
Overall, it was suggested that Fiji consider amending laws that restrict freedom of peaceful assembly.

Professor Yash Ghai in his critique of the 2013 constitution, writes off the Bill of Rights as just “a list of political aspirations”.
“It does not constrain the power of the State, it does not constrain parliament or the executive from infringing any rights and freedoms whenever doing so is politically convenient. So long as a written law permits or authorizes the infringement, there is no recourse,.” he said.

2. Our second concern should be Parliament. It has been reduced to a sham. We have witnessed how the parliamentary processes have been manipulated to restrict the role of the Opposition almost to the point of rendering them ineffective.

The Speaker who presides over parliament was, immediately prior to her appointment, President of the Fiji First Party and a successful FF candidate in the 2014 elections. She resigned her parliamentary seat at the behest of the Prime Minister to become the Speaker. No doubt there was an FF plan here to take full control of the proceedings of the House. Indeed, the Parliament itself!

S77 of the Constitution requires that the Speaker not be a member of Parliament. Additionally, it demands that the Speaker be absolutely independent and impartial.

This implies that no one with close connections to a political party or worse still, who contested the elections to become a member of parliament, should be considered for the position. The incumbent Speaker cannot be seen to fulfill these requirements.

3. None of the repressive decrees promulgated by the regime has been rescinded. The draconian Political Parties Decree is still in force. The decrees that stripped workers and trade unions of their rights, are still in force. It is the subject of current discussions with the International Labour Organisation. Unless satisfactorily resolved by November 2015, Fiji could face a Commission of Inquiry which could have grave consequences for the nation.

4. Erosion of Indigenous rights The arbitrary and high handed manner in which the regime abolished the Great Council of Chiefs without any consultation with the indigenous community, has created much resentment among them. And to add insult to injury, the FF government has banned the use of the vernacular in Parliament.

5. The Judiciary. The authority and powers of the Judiciary remain circumscribed under the current Constitution and the decrees promulgated by the Bainimarama regime. These decrees continue in force overriding the Constitution.

6. Accountability and Transparency remain a matter of serious concern. The Public Accounts Committee is currently dealing with Auditor General’s reports of the last 8-9 years. We are getting shocking revelations of financial scandals including the mystery surrounding Cabinet salaries from 2010-2013 and the payment of PM’s credit card accounts by his office without proper acquittals and supporting documents.

Good governance measures provided for in the 2013 Constitution have not been acted upon. I refer to the provision for Code of Conduct and Freedom of Information legislation and the setting up of an Accountability and Transparency Commission.

Obviously these measures are not being acted upon so as to cover up high levels of official corruption and its links with the private sector.

Disclosures from the Auditor General’s reports 2009-2014, the debacle over the Shirley and Churchill Park rezoning issue, the Rewa Dairy restructuring contract, the unlawful issuance of development leases to two Chinese companies in Suva are just some indications of how bad the situation is. These measures requiring good governance being written into the constitution are just for show – not meant to be implemented.

7. The Media. As already mentioned the Media Decree came in for strong criticism from the UNHRC. In response, the FF government moved an amendment to the Decree removing the hefty fines and jail terms against individual journalists. These were merely cosmetic changes.

The heavy penalties remain in place for the Editor and the Publisher holding them responsible for breaches of the Decree.

This is most unsatisfactory because it does not, in effect, remove elements of intimidation and censorship. The Editors and Publishers will simply refuse to publish anything that could incur the wrath of the authorities. So where is freedom of the media?

8. The Flag Change –This is yet another example of authoritarian rule and an imposition on the people of Fiji. The Prime Minister announced without recourse to Parliament that the flag was out-dated and needed to be changed and he was calling for designs from the people. Opposition parties immediately called for a national referendum on the issue because the flag was immensely popular with the people.

The PM refused this. Meanwhile, strong public opposition to the proposed flag change came from all quarters expressed through letters in the newspapers, talk back shows on radios and the social media. Designs submitted failed to meet public approval.

As a face saving gesture, he deferred the deadline for approval of designs from 30th June to December end. He also said that new designs could still be submitted.

But he continues to refuse fresh calls for a national referendum on the flag issue and has indicated that the flag will be changed, irrespective of the wishes of the people.

The Economy. We all need to be concerned about our nation’s economic sustainability in the medium and long term. We are bombarded at every opportunity by the Finance Minister and the Reserve Bank Governor with growth figures exceeding 4% of GDP.

We are told that Tourism is driving this growth and that sugar is no longer a significant component of the economy.

What we are not told is that in the past 7 years our key exports have fallen sharply – sugar 50%, fisheries 49%, gold 43% and lumber 25%.

We are not told that the value of our exports have fallen to one-half of what we import.

We are not told that our national debt has ballooned to $4 billion and that the much talked about growth is riding on back of borrowed money.

I do not wish to engage in an analysis of the Fijian economy, for this is neither the time nor the place for it, but I do wish to emphasise that social conditions in the country are worsening.

Unemployment, poverty, escalating cost of living, lack of proper housing for lower income families, Crime, violence against women and children – sexual violence in particular – have all assumed worrying proportions.

The point I am making is: Of what use are these figures on economic growth, foreign reserves etc when measured against the social decline and deprivation in our society?

We have heard of shortages of drugs and medicines in our hospitals costing human lives.

We have read about the people in the South of Taveuni crying out for drinking water for weeks now when the constitution guarantees them the right to “adequate food of acceptable quality and to clean and safe water in adequate quantities”.

I ask of what use are these paper guarantees and economic growth figures when they can’t provide for the basic needs of our people?

9. The Sugar Industry – The State it seems has already written off the sugar industry as of no real significance to the economy anymore. I refer to a recent statement by the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank at an economic forum in Suva.

The fact is that sugar remains a significant earner of foreign exchange. However, the industry is at a highly critical stage having been completely mishandled by the regime in the past 7 years or so.

Growers were marginalised from an industry in which they have a 70% stake after the Bainimarama regime dismantled key industry institutions – the Sugar Commission, the Sugar Marketing Ltd and the Sugar Cane Growers Council. It has been placed under the total control of a bankrupt FSC and the Sugar Ministry.

My concern is that if the industry collapses, it will have extremely grave consequences for not only farming families but the rural economy as a whole.

The dislocation and socio-economic catastrophe experienced in 2001/2002 with the non-renewal of expired native leases, will pale into insignificance in comparison.

Colleagues, I have drawn attention to just a few of the serious challenges confronting our nation.

The extension of authoritarian rule of the past 7 years under the guise of democracy and the absence of the rule of law, should be a major cause of concern to all of us. Authoritarian rule is what the FF is all about. This is why it refuses to hold Municipal and Provincial Council elections, and the Sugar Cane Growers Council elections.

Let me sound a warning: There can be no real progress for our nation on such flawed foundations.

I know that questions have been asked about the future of the Fiji Labour Party following the 2014 general elections.

For the reasons I have given, the Fiji Labour Party must remain active and vigilant. We must be strong and build on our grassroots support so that we can effectively fight the forces currently shackling the nation.

I believe that there is an urgent need for all of us who believe in justice, peace, freedom and democracy to join hands to defeat these reactionary elements.

We cannot let the rights and freedoms of our people, gained over many long years of struggle, to be eroded by self-serving, power hungry individuals.

We cannot let our nation’s future and its sovereignty to be compromised through mismanagement of our resources and our ballooning external debt situation by these same self-serving people.

We have a responsibility to our children to protect and preserve our country from scavangers. We stand answerable to our children.

The struggle has to go on until we succeed.