Let's Keep Our Eyes on the End Goal
|Proverbial camel, head in tent|
Opinion by Crosbie Walsh
Perhaps the debate should not be personalised for to do so may hide the issues in contention, but for the past week it's been Ali as cheerleader for three women's NGO's and Voqere as cheerleader for Government, with Constitution Commission Chairman Yash Ghai being alternately cited and chided by both sides. With the Olympics just ended, I don't know whether they are being inspired by the kick boxers, badminton, tag cyclists, shot putters or the drug testers behind the scene. Whatever. It makes sad reading.
Unsurprisingly, both cheerleaders are talking past themselves by using different words that mean much the same thing. What, for example, is the difference between Government's non-negotiable principles that hinge on all Fiji citizens being treated equally and fairly, which Shamima says is an unacceptable precondition, and her insistence of a constitution that protects human rights and is democratic? Are they not her non-negotiable principles? Ultimately, whatever the preconditions, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
Possibly disturbing consequences
There are two very disturbing possible consequences of these bitter, personal public exchanges. First, Government's reactions, whatever it says, will be construed as interference. This will be hyped up by the Opposition, and it will deter people from coming forward with their submissions to the Commission.
The PM said, "Everyone in this country is free to make their submissions, including political parties and NGOs. We can’t and won’t stop people from having their say."
And that is where he should have stopped.
Instead, he continued, with: "However its disappointing though to see that some influential groups continue to promote their own self serving agendas without considering the needs of all Fijians and the needs of the nation. My question to the NGOs in the country is this; are you working for the betterment of all Fijians or working to satisfy your donor countries?"
It does not matter whether his accusation is right or wrong. In the spirit of dialogue, it should not have
been made. Why? Because it would not result in any changed opinions, and there is little point speaking like this unless opinions are changed. People would continue to believe what they previously believed. But the retort would have deepened the hostility of his opponents, and added to the discomfort of the Commissioners. With respect, Prime Minister, you would have achieved more had you waved an olive branch, or said nothing at all.
Restrict media coverage?
Part of the problem here is that Shamima went public (to Radio NZ International) with her statement, but then said Bainimarama should not comment publicly on the Commission submissions. In turn, Bainimarama's comments were a reply to her's and a response to what he sees as the "negative" submissions of SDL supporters which are duly reported, sometimes not very well, in the local and overseas media.
The Commission hearings are public which, in most circumstances, they should be but it may be better for the moment if they are not reported by the media if the reports lead to more confrontation. An alternative —to re-kick start the submissions and undo the damage done by the Ali-Bainimarama exchanges— would be to restrict media coverage. There are several ways to do this. Appointing one or two reporter-journalists (or even the Ministry of Information) to write stories that would require Commission approval before release is one way. Normal reporting and exchanges could resume once submissions are completed. Alternatively, there could be a ban on all media reporting. In camera hearings are not unusual in delicate circumstances. When the Commission has completed its work media comment and exchanges could continue until when the Constitution Assembly meets next year. I do not like either idea but they are preferable to the second possible consequence.
If Yash Ghai packs his bags
The second, and by far more serious possible consequence, is that Yash Ghai may pack up his bags and go home, and the whole dialogue process collapse.
Bainimarama should know this is precisely what his more dangerous opponents (but not, I think, Shamima) want. If the dialogue process collapses, Government's aim of a peaceful transition to elections in 2014, and a permanent solution to the coup culture, will end with it. As will the hopes of ordinary citizens, potential investors and overseas governments for a politically stable Fiji. The importance of winning or losing an argument against the likes of Shamima Ali is of no consequence compared with this dire prediction.
Telling Yash Ghai that there are no restrictions on people making submissions to the commission, refusing to heed his requests about decrees seen by some to hinder dialogue, telling him not to talk to people like Shamima outside the formal process, and telling him to "get on with the job"insults the dignity of the Commissioners and undermines the independence of the Commission.
Yash Ghai and the other Commissioners —who not long ago were accused of being Bainimarama sympathisers and appointees of the Attorney-General— need to have their concerns taken seriously. Objectively, there may be no restrictions as Bainimarama honestly thinks, but many people think there are, and the battle for their minds, and the work of Commission, rests as much on perception as on fact. Yash Ghai is acting well within his brief in again bringing these concerns to the attention of the Prime Minister.
Finally, a related story. Readers who are golfers will know that in a US PGA event last month Australian golfer Adam Scott made four bogeys in his last four holes to squander a four-shot advantage and lose to Ernie Els by one shot. Bainimarama is in a similar position. If he loses the plot now, he will be squandering his four-shot advantage.
The impatience evident in his recent comments, with which I conclude, is something he cannot afford if he wishes Yash Ghai, not only to get on with the job —but finish it.
The PM as reported by Fiji Village
“I’ve said that the commissioners need to get on with the job. They have a mandate from the people of Fiji. They should listen to the views of Fijians, collate the submissions and draft the constitution based on the submissions along the relevant decree and hand the draft constitution to His Excellency the President. They should get on with the job. The comments by the Chair are unfortunately misplaced. He has been told that time and again and the people of Fiji have heard about this. None of the laws currently in place stop any Fijian or hinder any Fijian from making any submission to the commission on any topic.”
Commodore Bainimarama also said it is clear that some people are trying to take over the process.
“What is happening is like a proverbial camel. They come in with their head into the tent and then their whole body comes in and they kick the owner of the tent out. That’s what him and the people they are listening to are trying to do. They are trying to get us back, bring back the old statements that they have been going on with for the last couple of months. The statement by the Chair also demonstrates the lack of fundamental
understanding of our history, the influences at play that have for so long protected the elite of this country.
On the contrary, the current laws provide for the safeguard of these unheard voices who have been marginalized to come forward and contribute.”
Commodore Bainimarama said Professor Ghai should know that the commission should be truly independent in its work.
“Comments that he is coming up with, I’ve heard that from people like Mick Beddoes, Shamima Ali and the trade unionists. I’d like to remind the Chair and the commission that at the swearing-in ceremony, the Chief Justice reminded the commissioners that they hold a quasi judicial position. This means amongst other things the commissioners should not be giving a running commentary on the proceedings. They should be completely independent. They should not give preferential treatment to certain segments or individuals in society who they meet privately and they should adhere to the laws in Fiji including the decrees that created the commission.”
The Prime Minister said he knows there have been a number of private meetings with certain individuals.
“They have been meeting privately with this group of politicians, NGOs and trade unionists who are pressuring him to come up with this statement and he should get away from that. I’ve told him a few times that he should get away from these private meetings. If they have anything to give to him in submissions, give it in the constitutional commission setting, not in private settings. That is the problem that we have here. He is pressured by these NGOs and politicians. These are the same group of people that want to have a hand in the composition of the Constituent Assembly so that they can pressure him into doing this and to changing what they want done and in the Constituent Assembly, have it cemented before they move into elections.”
Commodore Bainimarama stressed that he will not let these people having private meetings influence what is supposed to be done.