Fear and Lack of Knowledge Driving Grassroots iTaukei Submissions
The opponents of the Bainimarama government (many of whom also oppose the Constitution review process) say people are reluctant to speak to the Constitution Commission because they fear reprisals from Government, and low numbers lend some credit to this claim. To date, however, most submissions are by individuals. The more influential submissions by organizations are still to come. If, however, the relatively low turnout is at least in part due to fear of reprisals, it is surprising that Indo-Fijians, with far less to fear (because most of them support what the Government is doing) have not made submissions in any number.
It is also surprising that most submissions, 95% as of last Friday, have been made by iTaukei. Fear has not prevented them from making submissions critical of Government policies. But the critics are right. Fear does lurk in the wings of the Commission consultations. Its shadow is the motivating force behind many of the submissions: fear and lack of knowledge, which are sometimes the same thing. I shall argue that this sort of fear is more serious than fear of the government reprisals.
I doubt many of those making submissions had any knowledge of the 1997 Constitution, though many wanted it retained. I doubt many knew the meaning of a "secular state" or the "non-negotiable principles" to which they were opposed. Many also showed a poor level of understanding about what a constitution can, and cannot, do.
What constiutions cannot do
Constitutions cannot, as some requested, force children to attend school, establish minimum wages or have proposed wage increases paid before an election, as some wanted. They cannot ensure provisions for proper housing, sanitation and basic health amenities except as a statement of general principle. Governments enact such provisions.
It is also unlikely a constitution will be able to protect mineral resources from overseas investors, limit
population by restricting immigration, or have public servants relocate every five years, as some people wanted. Even less likely, a constitution cannot forbid politicians from having more than one wife!
I will not comment of the media report that one submission opposed Fiji continuing as a "circular" state, and another wished to have the pillars of the People's "Chatter" included in the Constitution other than to advise the writers they words they sought were secular and charter.
Several people wanted to retain the 1997 Constitution. One wanted the Constitution but wished to exclude gay marriages (which is not part of the Constitution). Another wanted the Constitution and the free school buses for the poor provided by the Bainimarama government, which hinted at a torn loyalty, half still going to the SDL.
Looking for deeper reasons behind submissions
Another wanted the President to be a Fijian, appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs, and the Vice-President to be the military commander. Still others wanted the GCC back because they said there was no other way to "safeguard" their land and iTaukei rights. They did not know their rights were protected by the 1997 Constitution, and not the chiefs, and the new constitution on this issue will almost certainly retain these rights. Others wanted their rights safeguarded but did not mention the GCC.
One person wanted to prevent past politicians standing in the 2014 elections, Another thought only new people should stand for elections. Another wanted all candidates to be graduates. And another to limit the number of cabinet ministers to 14, half of them women. The Commission is unlikely to endorse any of these ideas but they will be aware that there are deeper, unstated reasons behind the requests. I don't know what will happen to the submissions that are not strictly relevant to constitution-making but I hope they will noted and referred to Government for its consideration.
The Commissioners must persist in searching for underlying reasons for at least two important reasons:
First, because the lack of basic knowledge displayed in many of the submissions makes iTaukei prey to misinformation. Secondly —and I am sure the Commissioners already know this— preying on the fears of ordinary iTaukei is the norm for reactionary forces in Fiji, and a major cause of disharmony prior to 2006. A combination of fear and ignorance is not conducive to harmony in any society.
iTaukei need reassurance
Somehow, the Commission, the media, religious organization and civil society need to allay these fears, and reassure iTaukei that Fiji as a secular state (which it is already) does not threaten their Chistianity; that there never was a threat to iTaukei land; that chiefs can be respected without the umbrella of the GCC; that the Constitution Assembly will be dominated by iTaukei; that it is no longer necessary to insist on an iTaukei President and other means of iTaukei control for the simple reason that iTaukei now comprise nearly two-thirds of the population, and are likely to dominate parliament, whatever way it is constructed.
It is fear that is driving many of these submissions. And the fear is no less real to poor, grassroots iTaukei because is misplaced, unnecessary, and plays into the hands of those who are more concerned about their own priviledged wellbeing than that of their fellow citizens, iTaukei and otherwise.
Elections without fear
Much is made of the importance of elections in a democracy. If the Fiji elections in 2014 are to result in the selection of candidates based on their character and policies, and not on their race and how people are told to vote, much more civics education is needed. The same may also be true of other ethnic groups but so far there have been too few submissions to judge.
Submissions to the Constitution Commission are expected to end on October 10, less than two months away. If I were to make a submission, I would ask the Commissioners to recommend, as an urgent priority, the immediate introduction of a massive nation-wide civics education programme, such as that run by the Citizen's Constitution Forum, right up until the elections. And even this may not be long enough to remove entrenched fears, particularly when they are continually prodded into life by the twin cancers of religious intolerance and extreme iTaukei nationalism.
This is a useful Wikipedia link to the 1997 Constitution.