Is the PM Pre-empting the Constitution Process?
WEEKEND READING • Allen Lockington column • Stifling Opposition by Mosmi Bhim (and others) • "The King is Dead! Long Live the King!"
Opinion by Croz Walsh
I find three announcements made by the Prime Minister on Tuesday very disturbing.
With the Constitution Process about to proceed, he has pre-empted discussion by announcing the abolition of the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC), the probable way of selecting future Presidents, and a change in provincial administration that will see the PM the chairman of all Provincial Councils whereas previously the chairpersons were elected by each of the 14 provincial councils. It is (or should be) the prerogative of the Constitution Assembly to decide on these matters, not the PM.
At a time when Fijians (and the more observant in the international community) were beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel — but when there is still a long way to go — nothing should be done to raise doubts about the PM's future intentions. And these three announcement do just that.
Chaudhry and Qarase
Already, the PM is being provoked by Chaudhry and Qarase. They will push the boundaries as far as they can in the hope that he will lose his cool, reimpose constraints on free speech, and so lose him some of his popularity. There will be many more critical comments in the media, some helpful and some designed to derail the Constitution Process and win back support for deposed politicians.
Bainimarama does not need to address these or any other comments. Qarase, and probably Chaudhry, are on the way out, having lost much of their credibility. All the PM has to do is sit back, agree to differ and let them lose even more support while his tolerance of their opinions wins him more support. Besides, there are others who can take them on. Bainimarama belittles himself by taking them on himself.
Many others in the months to come will express opinions with which he may disagree. He should welcome the positive comments and ignore most of the negative. This is what a democracy is all about. And besides, it is the Assembly that will make the ultimate decisions —and Government is represented in the Assembly.
Around the time Government lifted the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) some decrees (the Essential Industries and Crimes Decrees) were enforced that included provisions for limiting freedom of speech and assembly. The Media Decree had been passed earlier. Many, most, parts of these decrees were of no concern but some provisions within the decrees left many people feeling was that one regulation had been lifted to be replaced by others.
Professor Yash Ghai
The newly appointed chairperson of the Constitution Commission (that will hear submissions prior to the convening of the Constitution Assembly) has called for these provisions to be lifted. I wholeheartedly support his call.
There have, however, been two welcome signs of change. The media is now publishing opinions openly critical of Government, and yesterday's reversal of the police ban on an SDL meeting shows that officialdom can change its mind.
Dialogue cannot be open and inclusive if media freedom is curtailed and people do not feel free to meet and talk about the new Constitution. For these reasons Government would do well to follow Prof Ghai's advice, or at least assure everyone that the restrictive provisions are there to contain extreme situations — not discussion on the Constitution.
Great Council of Chiefs
Why the PM should be especially concerned about the GCC at this time is not clear but his action opened the door for criticism from the powerful, and covertly hostile, Tui Cakau Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu that, according to my sources, found some support from ordinary iTaukei and Indo-Fijians in the streets of Suva. While the GCC is a goverment body, staffed and paid for by the state, the abolition of a century-old institution should not have even been considered without wide public consultations. And the best time for this would have been during the Constitution consultations.
If anything needed to be said about the GCC, the PM should only have signalled the need for its reform by the Constitution Commission and Assembly. Even Ratu Naiqama would have had to agree that it was formed to advise Government on iTaukei affairs. It was never intended to be an arm of government, as it had almost become since 1987.
Most people would agree that the role ofthe GCC should be limited to iTaukei custom and land. It should not, as it has in the past, endorse any single political party, and it should have no power to appoint the President. Most Fijians, and many chiefs, would supported this view.
The abolition of the GCC is akin to "throwing the baby out with the bath water." What was wrong could have been put right. A reformed chiefly body had, and still has, much to contribute to modern Fiji.*
I fear Senate is another institution that could go the same way as the GCC. It needs major reform, particularly in its membership, but it has much potential as a cautionary, advisory and more representative adjunct to Parliament. One hopes there is not another "pre-emptive strike" from the PM before its demise or future is discussed as part of the Constitution process.
Electing the President
The PM's reference to the likely election of the President arose indirectly as a result of a media question, because of the GCC's role in his appointment. The PM should have deflected the question and said that was a matter for the Commission and Assembly.
It is also not known why at this time the PM should assume chairmanship of the provincial councils, that already have considerable government membership. His act denies vanua the right to elect their own chairpersons. And the explanation that this will result in Provincial Councils working "with the government in the development of Fiji" seems hardly implausible. It is true that past chairpersons, in Rewa, Cakaudrove and Lau, used meetings to attack or obstruct government policies but their threat had already been dealt with. Merely removing people as chairpersons will not stop them acting against Government, if they are so inclined. Indeed, it could have the opposite effect in making more provincial council members oppose government.
If the PM were to say anything new on the Provincial Councils it might have been to indicate that the Commission and Assembly would be considering the role, structures and membership of all local government, including provincial councils that at present administer and assist itaukei villages but not the Indo-Fijian settlements that are geographically located in the same areas.
It is too soon to know how Fiji is reacting to these recent moves by the PM but the next few weeks could be critical. It can only be hoped the PM's recent un-strategic and un-necessary moves do not result in a major setback to the Constitution Process plans. This is where his, and all Fijian, attention should be focused. Anything else is to take one's eye off the ball.
* These thoughts from Jale O. Baba on the GCC in Facebook's Fiji Economic Forum
In challenging Fijian institutions such as the Bose Levu Vakaturaga, the Commander has provided opportunities for reflection and soul searching in the process of national tansformation. Every state organ must be evaluated for its potential role in the modern state.
For example, what real difference does the GCC which sits as the apex of iTaukei Affairs Board) make in the lives of ordinary Fijians? Does it serve any purpose in view of the fact that the Government has responsibility for infrastructure and economic development?
The GCC is an instrument of the state; its roles and rules, membership, funding, I believe, are all determined by the state. As such it is incumbent on the state to review and determine its efficacy.