Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry’s address at the launch of FLP’s 2014 election Campaign

  • 23rd June 2014
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 My message to you in this election is simple: Fiji today stands at a  critical crossroads – our future as a nation is at stake. The choice you make  as a voter  will decide  the future of our beloved nation. This election is not about providing water, electricity and good roads.                       
 The 2014 election is about the very ethos of our nation:
 It is about FREEDOM, LIBERTY, HUMAN RIGHTS AND
CULTURAL  and TRADITIONAL RIGHTS.”

The Fiji Labour Party has weathered many storms over the 29 years of its existence. We have withstood, as they say in Hindi, Agni Pariksha, our test of fire, and emerged stronger and more resolute to face the challenges of our nation.

Just 18 months ago when the oppressive Political Parties Decree was promulgated, none of us existing political parties believed we would make it to registration because of the highly stringent requirements placed on us to register.

Yet, here we stand before you having overcome yet another hurdle. The reason for our continuing resilience is no doubt, the support and strength we have received from all of you,  through all our trials and tribulations.

Labour’s strength has always been the people – the ordinary, grassroots people of Fiji – the workers, the farmers, the small businessman and the poor and disadvantaged in society. Indeed, Labour is the VOICE OF THE PEOPLE.

Today, as we launch our campaign for elections 2014, I am absolutely confident that you will continue to throw your weight behind Labour as we prepare for the next crucial battle in the development of our nation.

My message to you in this electoral battle is simple: Fiji today stands at a critical crossroads – our future as a nation is at stake.

The choice you make as a voter will decide the future of our beloved nation. You have to understand that this is no ordinary election. This election is not about providing water, electricity and good roads. The 2014 election is about the very ethos of our nation: it is about FREEDOM, LIBERTY, HUMAN RIGHTS AND CULTURAL and TRADITIONAL RIGHTS.

While I appreciate that your basic concern is to be able to put food on the table for your families, you must also understand that there are other things that rise above material needs, which are very important for the spirit of a nation. And this is what we have lost as a nation in the past 8 years of repressive, authoritarian rule.

FLP’s slogan song for the elections It is time to be Free should have deep meaning for a nation that has been oppressed and subjugated to rule by draconian decrees since April 2009, at the least.

This was when the 1997 Constitution was purportedly abrogated and we were subjected to Emergency Rule, imposed under the Public Emergency Regulations.

In one short step, the man who had led the 2006 Army takeover of the elected government, broke his promise to the nation, made at the time of the takeover, to respect and protect the 1997 Constitution.

With the Constitution removed, we lost all guarantees to our basic rights and freedoms. The PER imposed severe censorship on the media, as it restricted freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

General elections promised for 2009 were deferred for another five years to 2014. All political activities were banned, the judiciary was dismissed and those who spoke out were subjected to gross human rights violations.

Decrees were promulgated restricting trade union and workers’ rights. The first to be targeted was the National Farmers Union representing cane farmers. This was followed by severe restrictions on unions in the public sector which lost their right to collective bargaining, among other constraints placed on them. Many of these rights had been secured only after years of struggle by trade unions and human rights activists.

Finally, private sector unions in key sectors of the economy were crippled. Harassment of trade unionists continued and several were either assaulted or arrested and detained on trumped up charges which were later withdrawn.

Political Parties decree prohibits trade union officials from standing for elections or holding office in a political party. This is in flagrant breach of their constitutional rights as well as rights enshrined in the UN’s Political and Civil Rights Convention.

The regime kept chipping away at our rights through oppressive decrees. The community most targeted was the iTaukei. They were made to suffer numerous assaults on their cultural identity and traditional institutions. As you know, the highest indigenous institution, the Great Council of Chiefs, was dismantled and chiefs virtually lost their status in the political framework of the nation.

One of the most important institutions in a democratic society is the Judiciary which safeguards the human rights and freedoms of the people. Under the Bainimarama regime, the authority and independence of the judiciary has been severely compromised. None of the regime’s decrees, no matter how draconian, can be legally challenged as the Courts no longer have the jurisdiction to deal with any of these cases. There have been several credible reports from judges and magistrates forced to leave because of interference from the Attorney General in the affairs of the judiciary.

For the past 6 years, the regime has ruled the nation through fear and intimidation and the imposition of harsh decrees which denied us the right to legal redress for our grievances.

This unelected regime has consistently trampled on the will of the people and made arbitrary decisions on important national issues without any consultation with the accepted representatives of society. Indeed, the Prime Minister and the Attorney General have acted as gods – unilaterally deciding what was good for the nation and what was not.

The most classic example of their contempt for the will of the people was the arrogant manner in which they dismantled the Great Council of Chiefs, and months later unceremoniously trashed the Ghai draft constitution. The Ghai draft had been prepared after widespread consultations with the people of Fiji and reflected our views.

The regime then imposed on the people its own constitution which had no legitimate input from society and was clearly crafted to entrench its own hold on power.

The 2013 constitution is undemocratic and consolidates power in the hands of a few people, namely the Prime Minister and his Attorney General.

The oppressive decrees promulgated since 2009 continue in force, militating against fundamental rights supposedly guaranteed under the Bill of Rights of the regime’s constitution.

It removes the entrenched protection provided to land matters in the 1997, and previous Fiji constitutions. This was done unilaterally without any consultation with interested parties. Both ALTA and the Native Lands Trust Act are no longer entrenched legislation.

Above all, the 2013 constitution condones and, in fact, encourages further coups and political instability by granting unconditional amnesty to all those involved in coups since 1987.

It requires 75% of votes from Members of Parliament and 75% support in a national referendum to amend any of the provisions of the regime’s constitution.

Having consolidated its power through a tailor-made constitution, the regime announced it was ready to hold elections in September 2014.

Their game plan is obvious: to gain legitimacy through the ballot box. The electoral process has been carefully manipulated in favour of the regime’s political party.  Key Opposition leaders, seen as threats, have been disabled from standing for elections through trumped up charges.

Having thus secured their positions, Bainimarama and Khaiyum are seeking your support for the Fiji First Party.

The choice before you as a voter, therefore, is this:

  • a vote for the Fiji First Party is a vote for continued dictatorship and absolutism. It is a vote for business as usual under the regime’s repressive decrees which severely restrict our fundamental rights and freedoms, for, as I have already told you, the decrees continue in force.
  • A vote against Fiji First is a vote for freedom, human rights, justice and democracy – essential rights that  were  won after long hard battles fought over the years. It is a vote for customs and traditions we have respected over decades and that determine our identity as a community and nation. 

Mr Bainimarama has gone around telling the people that the regime had done a lot of good for Fiji and should be elected into office.

Bainimarama’s dismal 8-year record

What good I ask you? Let us look at the regime’s record over the past 6-7 years:

  • a litany of broken promises which includes the commitment to a clean-up campaign to wipe out corruption. Instead, the Bainimarama regime is the most corrupt Fiji has had the misfortune to be governed under. His administration has not made public government finances and accounts or the Auditor General’s reports since 2008.

Public contracts are being handed out without tenders being called and proper procedures being followed.  There is absolutely
no transparency or accountability in its handling of public moneys.

The Prime Minister’s salary and that of his Cabinet has been kept secret since 2010, at least. Until early this year, they were paid
not through the Treasury which handles all public service pays, but by a private accounting firm with close connections to the AG’s
aunt.

  • Our economy is deeply troubled with key export sectors such as sugar, gold and fisheries down by 35-50%. We are living on borrowed funds which is driving the economy through government’s expansionary policies. Growth is largely consumption based and unsustainable in the long term.

As a result of the stagnant economy, the rate of unemployment remains high. Since January this year more than a thousand workers
have been made redundant as companies restructure to brave the economic slump. The regime’s decision to reduce the retiring age from
60 to 55 has added to the rate of unemployment while youth unemployment is believe to be high at 20%.

  • The regime’s policies have resulted in mounting social distress. Devaluation of the Fiji dollar by 20% and the hike in VAT to 15% put the prices of food, clothing and other basic household goods basically out of the reach of the poor.

At least half our population are now living in poverty or close to it with Poverty officially stated at 40%.  The imposition of an
arbitrary 50% slash in FNPF pension rates, has created enormous financial difficulties for our elderly pensioners, leaving the majority
of them  unable to retire in dignity.

  •  Rural poverty is high. The depressed rural sector is forcing people to migrate to urban areas in search of jobs and an improved quality of life. This is reflected in the mushrooming of squatter settlements.
  • The regime has failed to address Fiji’s problem of housing for the poor. It is estimated that some 20% of our people live as squatters in squalid conditions often without proper amenities such as piped water, electricity or proper sanitation.

The much vaunted $70m loan from the Exim Bank of China to provide affordable housing for the poor is a farce. If the development
at  Tacirua East is any example, the lots are way too costly, definitely beyond the means of low income workers.

Is this the kind of achievement the PM brags of when he talks about doing good for the people of Fiji? It is hardly a record be proud of, Mr Prime Minister!

After setting such a dismal record over the past six years, the regime had to resort to handouts to woo voters as it approached the elections.

Apart from handouts of hundreds of sewing machines in rural areas, sports equipment, brush cutters, chain saws and the like, the regime announced the so-called free education scheme.

The scheme is discriminatory and has serious flaws. Labour  will be exposing these in the months ahead.

But even if one were to accept such handouts, as voters you should understand that while the regime has given with one hand, it has taken much more away from you.

There have been tax reductions, I grant. But this has been offset by a whole series of additional charges and hidden taxes such as the 1% surcharge on telecommunications usage – both landlines, and mobile phones which have added to your cost of living.

The hike in VAT to 15% on all goods and services is in itself reprehensible. Since last year, VAT is now charged on all insurance premiums including Third Party Polices.

All government fees and charges have gone up  – some by at least 30% in the past couple of years. Among the most unpopular is the Road Levy charged on motorists. This was imposed as a levy to upgrade roads. But there is no accountability for where the funds are going while most of our  roads remain in an appalling condition, particularly those in the rural sector.

LTA charges, fines and harassment of motorists is another story and we will be dealing with LTA in our 2014 manifesto.

So, friends and fellow citizens, we get back to the age-old dictum: He giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.

That is the Bainimarama regime for you.

 Labour’s record in government

On the other hand, the Fiji Labour Party comes to you with an established record of high achievement and policies that have always put the people first.

As I said at the beginning: Labour is the Voice of the People. We have steadfastly stood by you in the past 29 years, voicing your concerns, your aspirations and your needs.

In 1999 we put before you a manifesto that received high commendation from President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Based on that manifesto, he gave me his blessings to run the country as the Prime Minister of Fiji.

Unfortunately, we were not given the opportunity to remain in office for our full term to carry out our promises to the people. However, in the short span of 12 months we made tremendous progress as a nation, and we fulfilled a number of key promises  we had made to the people

Allow me to list some of these:

  • We removed VAT from basic food items, reduced Customs Duty on other essential items and placed 17 other household goods under Price Control to provide relief to the poor; the removal of VAT from these staple food items has now become standard policy for all governments
  • Brought down interest rate on Housing Authority loans to 6% for workers in the low income group
  • Reduced water rates by 10% and brought changes to the billing system to make actual bills cheaper
  • reduced electricity charges by 16%
  • international telephone charges were reduced 10%
  • reduced premium on Third Party Policies by almost 50%
  •  initiated a $1m Student loan scheme for needy children unable to afford tertiary education
  • increased State assistance to the poor needing overseas medical treatment from a nominal allocation of $2000 to $200,000.
  • increased Social Welfare assistance from $3m to $11m.

Apart from these we increased a number personal tax concessions such as child allowance, spouse allowance etc.

We made remarkable achievements on the economic front – posting a record growth rate of 9.6% for 1999.

Through sound management of State finances, we reduced government debt levels and posted a surplus. Government revenue during our term in office was the highest ever and government expenditure the lowest ever. Comparative data shows every sector of the economy performed much better under the Labour-led Government of 1999/2000.

That’s for some of our achievements when in office:

Labour’s 2014 Manifesto promises:

Now let me enunciate a few of the policies we intend to initiate if elected back into office. Our full manifesto will be released next month but in August last year we had released a mini manifesto outlining some of our key policies:

  • Topping the list is our promise to re-instate the Great Council of Chiefs and restore its status as the apex institution of the indigenous Fijian community
  • We will review and repeal all decrees passed by the regime, in particular those that impinge on the fundamental rights of our people, particularly the workers and trade union rights
  • We will restore Municipal Council elections so that municipal and provincial taxpayers can exercise the right to make decisions on developmental policies and expect accountability from their elected representatives.
  • We will restore the FNPF pension cuts. We will also gradually increase the rate of contributions to the Fund to enable workers to retire on a reasonable stipend. Labour believes the current rate of 8% is inadequate to enable this.
  • Labour will restore the retirement age to 60 since we believe that at 55 workers still have a lot to contribute in terms of knowledge, experience and skills
  • an Old Age Pension scheme has been the cornerstone of Labour’s policy on social justice and equity since its inception. Labour will intoduce an old age pension for those over 65 who have no other source of income. We will ensure that it is reasonable and not a $1 a day given by the regime – which is an insult to our senior people.
  • We intend to review and reduce the excessively high electricity charges in view of the high profit margins being posted by FEA since its tariff restructure in 2010. In 2010 FEA imposed a 34% hike in tariff and substantially lowered the lifeline threshold from 250kWh to 130kWh thus pushing some 100,000 poor and low income households into its high-end domestic user bracket. Labour will review this.
  • We will remove the Road User Levy and review the series of hidden taxes imposed by the regime particularly where they are already subject to a 15% VAT.
  • Labour appreciates the role of responsible media in a democratic society. We stand for a free and accountable media.  We will remove the repressive Media decrees and harsh penalties that militate against the Media operating on a free and fair basis.

These are some initiatives we intend to put in place if elected. Additionally, Labour sees Poverty, Unemployment and the escalating cost of living as critical social problems facing the nation.

These are inter-related issues and we have designed an integrated package to address these problems on a holistic basis.

But as we have said before, strong economic growth is essential to provide the stimulus needed to create job opportunities in order to address these social issues.

The business confidence required  to ensure this growth will only come with the restoration of constitutional democracy, good governance and a respect for the rule of law and people’s rights.

This brings me back to the importance of the 2014 general elections. As a voter you have a responsibility to use your vote  wisely in the best interests of Fiji and its people.

We entrust our future in your hands. And I know you will do what is right for Fiji.

Thank You