Why the Constituent Assembly Was Scrapped
An Opinion piece by Crosbie Walsh
On Thursday evening the PM announced the scrapping of the Constituent Assembly that was to meet to discuss and adopt the draft constitution. I published the announcement, having laboriously transcribed it from its unpublishable pdf format, within a few hours of its release but was then accused by one reader of not commenting.
"So Croz, No comment on the latest debacle in the constitution sham? How much longer can people like you deceitfully pretend this illegal junta is taking Fiji forward?"
Well, anonymous "Another Giant Step Backwards", I rarely comment immediately on any major event. I prefer to wait awhile until the dust settles and visibility improves. I commend this practice to some other blogs that invariably go off half-cock before fully reading and reflecting on news from Fiji with which they disagree. .
I would, however, agree with other readers that the PM's explanation was not very convincing. Keeping promises on the deadlines for the adoption of the new constitution and date of elections seems far less important than keeping the promise on proper consultation.
And the delays caused by Government's rejection of the Ghai draft constitution and the non-cooperation of the old political parties were delays caused, at least in part, by Government. The former resulted in only a small delay. There was ample time for the Assembly to meet. And, given their ongoing obstructions at every stage of the constitution dialogue process, the latter should have been anticipated.
I must, however, commend Government for being unusually clever and only the teeniest bit devious. By scrapping the Assembly, they have well and truly sidelined the old political parties and their supporters who, without doubt, would have tried to disrupt its proceedings, and left their opponents with no stage upon which to act. And, even more cleverly, they have set themselves up as the true advocates of people-power by appearing to pass power to the people, as the PM explains:
"Instead of presenting the draft to the Constituent Assembly ... we will be presenting it directly to you. My fellow Fijians, you will be the new Constituent Assembly."
It is true that earlier, he said the new draft would do directly to the Assembly, cutting out the public debate intended by the Ghai Commission; while now he's cut out the Assembly and is going directly to the public.
But, on the face of it, there are many avenues by which the people will be able to make their opinions known. Today they will be able to read the draft constitution amended by Government in the Fiji Sun or on the Government website. They can email their views to Government or send text messages to the PM on phone 02, or share views on the Ministry of Information's Facebook page. And next week there will be community forums and talkback programmes in the three languages, English, Fijian and Hindi, on Fiji Broadcasting, in which the PM and other Government spokespeople will "answer your questions and listen to you."
All this sounds too good to be true, but it should be noted that Government will control communication, and it is unlikely to be evenly two-way. Depending on your standpoint, this is either a finely designed charade or a genuine effort to include the people in decision-making, or something in between. I'll opt for the inbetween. Government genuinely wants the people to be fully informed about their draft constitution. They will listen, explain and answer questions, but they will not accept any major changes to the draft.
Thinking back, draft constitutions have been the crux of the matter since late last year, and constitutional issues have been a major Government concern from much earlier. Had the Ghai Commission produced a draft that incorporated most of Government's requirements, Government would have allowed the Constituent Assembly to go ahead. Instead, the Commission produced a draft that had the potential of undermining all that Government has done, or attempted to do, since it seized power in December 2006. This was not the intention of the Commissioners but I have little doubt this would have been the result had Government not nullified their efforts and produced a draft of their own. What else would anyone reasonably expect Government to do?
Why was the Constituent Assembly scrapped? Because Government did not want the unacceptable elements of the Ghai Constitution resurrected; because it thought discussion in and outside the Assembly would be disruptive; and because it could not be sure the Assembly, dominated by Fiji's urban middle class, would accept its draft constitution.
My anonymous reader "Another Giant Step Backwards" tells us, through his pseudonym, what he thinks of the scrapping of the Constituent Assembly. I think he's wrong. Government had little choice. It was one of those catch 22 situations in which it was damned if it did and damned if it didn't. To have acted otherwise would have risked all it has done since December 2006, and risked handed Fiji back to the old political order.
I have spent most of today, Friday, studying the Ghai and Government drafts. I now need time-out to reflect before writing an article or two on my findings.