Personalities and "Progress"
By Crosbie Walsh
The elements or major constructs in the bigger picture are government, its various opponents, and more distantly, foreign governments, agencies and advocates most of whom are tied into one or another of the local opponents. Some NGOs and trade unions are cases in point.
The issue at the centre of the current big picture stems from the conflicting disappointments with the Ghai draft constitution and, inevitably, with the subsequent passing of the Political Parties Decree.
The Ghai Draft and the Political Parties Decree
To some, some features of the Political Parties Decree are draconian. It imposes difficult or impossible requirements on existing political parties (but not, significantly, on any new parties that may emerge later). First, there is the requirement of 5000 members and $5005 dollars, recruited in the numbers stated from each of the country's four administrative districts. This will be no problem at all for the SDL party and not much harder for the FLP, but smaller parties will have problems. Secondly, is the requirement that the party must apply for registration within 28 days. And finally, the requirement that no "public officer" may join a political party or stand in the election without first resigning from his or her public office. I have expressed the view that I see no problem with civil servants being limited in this way but there should be no restrictions on trade unionists and others who in most democracies may wear two hats: one as a unionist, the other as a party member. Graham Davis suggests a way out for the old parties: fold up and re-register under a different name later along with the new parties. But this may be no solution if Government is seeking to exclude the old politician and its more voracious critics, which I believe is its primary purpose.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Political Parties Decree is intended to thwart the formation of the announced Workers Party, undermine the trade union movement, and the Fiji Labour Party. There is, after all, no employers' party on the horizon, the SDL is not threatened, and there is no requirement that chiefs cannot join a political party, yet they should also be considered public officers in this new, extended meaning of the term.
People not Organizations Targeted
But this judgement requires qualification. I don't think it is the Workers' Party, the trade unions movement or FLP per se that are being targeted, although the Bainimarama government is far more right wing than left. Rather it is the people who lead them that Government seeks to marginalise. From what has been said many times, I can't see Government making any accommodation with the likes of Felix Anthony, Daniel Urai, Attar Singh and Mahendra Chaudhry.
Fiji is a small society and an important consequence of "smallness" is that personal relationships are that much more important in the political arena than in bigger societies. What may have started as differences in opinion or policy so often end up as a conflict of personalities.
Bainimarama sees these trade unionists and Chaudhry as putting their self-interests ahead of the nation, and their efforts to win support from the international trade union movement as acts of betrayal tantamount to treason. Government claims unionists were responsible for pushing Air Pacific close to the edge of bankruptcy. I think this unlikely but it matters not whether these claims are fair and accurate. It is what they believe.
Opposition as bad or worse
The opposition argument is similarly founded. It is not willing —or even able— to look at any of the government's measures that many would say were long overdue or much needed or commendable.
All it can see are two men, Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, whom they loath. Hence, the venom, accusations and vitriolic personal attacks in the anti-blogs and in a more guarded fashion in the mainstream Fiji and overseas media. This, I think, is one important reason why Government passed the Public Emergency Regulations and the Media Decree. It could not trust the opposition to do anything other than criticise negatively.
For those who may say: Of course. It is the job of an opposition to criticize, one must consider its extent and purpose. Government has been submitted to a barrage of criticism on every conceivable issue: mining in Bua and Namosi, Chinese investment, its loans (that will "cripple our grandchildren"), the sugar industry, its handling of the the two floods in 2012, the FNPF, the proposed casino, the PM and A-G's salaries, e-voter registration, and unfounded accusations against the judiciary. Even the
frequent visits of the PM and ministers to remote rural areas (rarely if even visited by previous politicians), and its free or subsidised bus fares for school children and the elderly are labelled vote buying.
The list is endless and the purpose obvious. These are not the criticisms of a reasonable opposition hoping to influence Government policy. They do not propose informed alternatives. Their aim is to distract, delay and cause doubt. Their only purpose is to undermine government and hope that in the "fallout" that follows they will somehow be able to return to the good old days.
Both the FLP and Fiji Trade Union Congress submissions to the Constitution Commission wanted all the things Government did not want. They did not want a new constitution. They wanted to retain the 1997 Constitution with only minor modifications, Senate and the Great Council of Chiefs. Both wanted Government out of all arrangements leading into the 2014 elections. Both opposed the granting of amnesty. And both expressed reservations about the Constituent Assembly.
Looked at in this way they did not want any dialogue on a new constitution until much later when, having gleaned some knowledge of the Ghai Commission's recommendations, they were suddenly transformed into its keenest advocates.
Opposition don't want process to succeed
Personalities are also a major reason why the old political parties were wary of the constitution dialogue process. They do not trust Bainimarama or Khaiyum. They did not want the process to succeed because they knew that ultimately amnesty would have to be granted; Bainimarama and Khaiyum would still be around, and they would also have to agree to compromises that could undermine their future prospects in parliament.
Similarly, this is why Government tried to stop the draft decree being made made public until it could be discussed in the Assembly under normal rules of debate. The opposition's past record led Government to believe they would inflame the situation, stir up strong feelings on particular issues and create altogether the wrong atmosphere prior to the first meeting to the Constituent Assembly.
Events lend some credence to this suspicion. With the easing of media restrictions we might have expected somewhat more tolerant or balanced public statements by those opposed to Government but this was not to be. The criticisms, personal accusations and unrealistic demands have not abated.
The "personal factor" can, of course, be overstated. There are differences in philosophy and policy, and Government and the old political parties definitely have different visions for Fiji, but even these are often used by both Government and its opponents to attack each other on a personal basis.
Sometimes one wonders whether Fiji's motto should be Argumentum ad Hominem and not Rerevaka na Kalou ka Doka na Tui Fear God and honour the Queen. Something else that may need changing?
Antipathy not new
This antipathy is not new. It preceded the 2006 coup. It could be seen in the personal attacks on Mahendra Chaudhry in 1999; in the refusal by Qarase to include Chaudhry in his Cabinet in 2001 even though this was required by law; in Chaudhry's refusal to form a parliamentary opposition and the subsequent farce of a one-man party, Beddoes, as leader of the opposition.. It is seen also in the peripatetic behaviour of Tupeni Baba who parted from Chaudhry to form the New Labour Party and who has now moved into the SDL, abandoning his former pleas for multiculturalism. And in Chaudhry's departure as Bainimarama's Minister of Finance in 2007.
More recently, it is seen in the refusal of the "opposition" to participate in the People's Charter; their refusal to even consider the Roadmap; their initial refusal to participate in the constitution dialogue process and ongoing demands for a return to the 1997 Constitution and that Bainimarama immediately step down.
Imagine what a heyday they would have had had the draft constitution been released for public scrutiny. Think what they have done with the leaked version. There is no spirit of reconciliation or accommodation here.
Opposition don't really want the Constituent Assembly
Think what the political parties have said about the Constituent Assembly. They refuse to accept a chairperson nominated by Government and have prevaricated about participation. This can only be aimed at undermining the credibility of the Assembly's decisions. They don't really want the Constituent Assembly. They want the Ghai Commission recommendations on the transfer of power. Which may seem reasonable except that the recommendations virtually excluded the de facto Government, and
obviously would be unacceptable to them.
Only if different people (on both sides) were involved, would there have been an outside chance the transition recommendations would have been accepted.
Opposition let lose in a china shop
Let us assume the political parties change their mind on participation in the Assembly as they did with the Constitution Commission. What sort of discussion may we anticipate within the Assembly as it attempts to achieve consensus or workable compromises that would result in acceptance of the draft constitution?
Government will obviously refuse to hand over to an interim Cabinet and it will not agree to the National People's Assembly overseeing Parliament. How will the political opposition react to this? What will the fiery, wily Chaudhry do when he cannot win the Assembly over? I think he will choose his moment to walk out —or be sent out by the Chairperson for disorderly behaviour— and have yet another opportunity to discredit the Assembly which is, let's face it, the only process that will return Fiji to parliamentary rule. And how many of the old politicians will follow the Chaudhry example?
Did Government anticipate the Opposition actions?
My guess is that it is with this sort of drama in mind that Government decided to amend the draft before it got to the Assembly, and to hobble the old political parties before they could generate any traction.
The reaction of Government to the formation of a "united front" of the old political parties and some trade unions last week lends weight to the contention that it sees its old antagonists personalising issues and engaging in petty politics. Note in particular item 5 in the official media release below (my underlining).
Government does not wish to engage with these people. It holds them responsible for the state of politics prior to 2006 and their opposition to what it has been endeavouring to do for the past six years. And to this extent the central issue is not about democracy but about some of the people who have claimed the word.
Neither, of course, does the opposition wish to engage with Government. They hold it, but particularly the "illiterate dictator" Bainimarama and the "self-serving" heinous Muslim Sayed-Khaiyum, responsible for the curtailment of civil liberties, their loss of power and the loss of freedom that they equate with a loss of democracy. There seems no way these two groups will agree.
And yet, there is perhaps still one small possibility of reconciliation. A traditional apology (matanigasau) by Bainimarama to the President for the arguably less creditable feature of his administration, followed or preceded by public apologies and matanigasau by his main opponents. But can you see this happening?
MEDIA RELEASE : RESPONSE TO UNITED FRONT FOR A DEMOCRATIC FIJI
1. The issues raised by the so-called United Front for a Democratic Fiji ("UFDF") have already been answered by Government.
2. The latest release by this so-called UFDF goes precisely against the address by His Excellency the President, that is to disengage from petty politics and to focus on contributing positively in the formulation and adoption of a new Constitution for the betterment of all Fijians.
3. In terms of Government transparency and accountability, these questions have already been addressed and as stated, further laws are also being developed to ensure even greater standards of accountability and transparency for all. Amongst these laws include the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) Decree 2013 ("Decree"). Suffice to say, previous governments which have consisted of or were supported by the members of the so-called UFDF, have failed to do so.
4. In their rush to personalise matters and engage in petty politics, the release by the so-called UFDF contains a number of factual inaccuracies and anomalies - one of which is that the salaries of all cabinet ministers are in fact paid and processed by the Ministry of Finance and not by any private entity.
5. The Bainimarama Government does not and will not engage in political bickering, which of course these political parties are used to and which have they have been practising for years. The Bainimarama Government is focussed on development and introducing systems, processes and laws that will ensure transparency, accountability, prosperity for all Fijians and true democracy. Accordingly, Government will no longer respond to this already discredited UFDF.
6. The release by UFDF also demonstrates how they relish and thrive in such political bickering without having a principled approach. It is quite apparent that in their desperation to not comply with the Decree, they are now clutching at straws.