Sir Paul Reeves's Address at 2009 PIPSA Meeting (Vinaka, Steve)


Not all Pacific leaders made it to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Trinidad.
Commodore Bainimarama was barred and Nauru's President was not there because Nauru had not paid its membership fees. But the Prime Minister of Vanuatu must take the prize for the strangest reason for being absent.

Edward Natapei was en route to the Caribbean meeting when the Speaker of the Parliament Maxime Carlot Korman under the provision of the Members of Parliament (Vacation of Seats) Act declared the Prime Minister's seat vacant. His mistake was that he had missed three consecutive meetings of the Parliament without seeking the Speaker's permission.

Did the Speaker have revenge in mind because the same Act was used against Korman in 1988.
It would not have helped that on 18 November Natapei sacked his coalition partners including Korman's Vanuatu Republican Party and replaced them with opposition party members to avert a planned no confidence motion.

So can the budget be passed with a caretaker government? Is Natapei embarrassed by an expensive by election in the multi member constituency of Port Vila? Certainly business interests and the public don't want a return to the political instability of the 1990's. But at the very least you have to say that Vanuatu's constitution is working and politicians need to understand that there are rules that even they have to keep to.

That brings me to Fiji where they haven't got a constitution even though CB said recently that parts of the 1997 constitution on the rule of law, the judiciary, human rights and democratic principles would be reauthorised by presidential decree. We await the outcome of that.

In the meantime the International Monetary Fund has spent two weeks in Fiji and delegation leader Ray Brooks has said that Fiji's economic growth has been sluggish with unemployment rising to 8.5% in 2008 and the economy expected to shrink by 2.5% in 2009. A modest turnaround is expected in 2010 when the economy is expected to grow by 2%.

The IMF has also said the Fiji government must lessen its dependence on the Fiji National Provident Fund. “The FNPF is the main source of funding of the government's deficit. If that deficit were lower, it would put less pressure on FNPF to fund the government. Reduce the deficit and there would be no need to borrow as much from FNPF.”

CB presented the budget on 30 November and painted an optimistic picture. He announced that the Cabinet has approved a 10 point economic plan. They will seek to increase GDP two fold; eliminate the deficit on the balance of payments current account; reduce poverty to less than 5% of the population; increase visitor arrivals to 6 million; eliminate exchange controls; grow the communication services sector; achieve self sufficiency in rice, meat and liquid milk; convert 90% of electricity generation from fossil to renewable sources; convert up to 80% of all arable land into productive use, reduce unemployment to less than 3% CB's comment was that while these targets appear to be ambitious they are achievable. The prediction is that the deficit in 2010 will be $220m down from $332m in 2009 and the growth forecast for 2010 is 1.9% as against -2.5% for 2009.

But there seems to be a serious disconnect between these optimistic plans and what is actually happening. Tourism margins are down, the garment industry is gutted and could disappear, the Fiji Sugar Corporation is predicting layoffs and farmers are getting heavily reduced returns from inferior crops. The real unemployment levels are rising rapidly. The poor get poorer and the devaluation of the currency has led to a rapid rise in inflation and consumer costs. And Father Kevin Barr reminded a conference on 26 November that only 48.7% of the total primary role makes it to secondary school

Keith Leonard, the regional director of the Asian Development Bank has said that “Any re engagement between Fiji and the ADB before Fiji returns to democratic rule may only be possible if Fiji was faced with an economic disaster.” When asked what would constitute a major economic downturn Leonard said “I cant give you an answer to that offhand. But we look at the balance of payments, fiscal deficit, growth forecast, some of the drivers of the economy here – what's happening to tourism, mineral water exports, gold, remittances, taking into account a whole range of things.” One can assume that the ADB is keeping a close watch on ther economy.

In his budget speech CB said 'As I stated in my 1 July Strategy Framework the primary focus of my government shall be on the economy for the next three years.' He emphasised the same point to me when we spoke in early September. However it is not possible to separate the economy from the political realities of Fiji. Investment and growth require political stability. In fact there are signs that companies such as Qantas are seeking to divest.

Karl Popper said ' Totalitarian regimes lay claim to ultimate truth and impose their views by the imposition of force...but nobody has access to the ultimate truth. A perfect society is unattainable. We must content ourselves with an imperfect society that is, however, capable of infinite improvement. That is an open society.'

The goal for Fiji is a constitutional democracy, an open society that fits their circumstances. CB and I would agree on that. Getting there is the issue.

I apologise for making an opening speech that focuses primarily on one country. But what is important for Fiji is important for the region we all belong to. I have pleasure in declaring this conference open.


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