News and Comments Monday 20 May 2013
by Crosbie Walsh
The saddest feature in the ongoing standoff between the Bainimarama government and its trade union and civil society opponents such as the Citizens' Constitutional Forum is that both groups almost certainly have far more in common with each other than they do with some elements in the Opposition line up.
I say almost certainly because I find it hard to believe the unions or the CCF support the covert racism of the so-called Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), the renamed SDL tyrannosaurus or the obvious self-interest of chameleons like Dr Tupeni Baba, and Mahendra Chaudhry of the partly crippled FLP. These players had their opportunity to point Fiji towards a fairer, more racially equal and more democratic society, and they failed miserably. Witness the events from 2000 onwards.
It seems more probable that the unions and the CCF have joined the other opponents on the basis that their enemy's enemy is their friend. They are not "for" these old political remnants, struggling to remain relevant as events continue to lie outside their control. They are against some rulings by the Bainimarama government. In particular, legislation that restricts trade union activity, restrictions on free speech, the right to participate fully in the evolving political situation, and the political influence of the military.
But I think they largely agree with many of government's social and economic policies: its work to improve physical infrastructure, long neglected by previous governments; its efforts to improve government services; its development work in rural areas; its efforts to make Fiji less dependent on food imports; its legislation on women and children; its assistance to the poor and poorly housed; and its insistence that every citizen is Fijian with equal citizenship rights.
To say the unions and the CCF have "joined" the other opponents is, however, not quite correct. A better word might be "pushed". Government started well with the People's Charter, a genuinely inclusive forum and think tank, but from the Appeals Court ruling in 2009 that found the military takeover in December 2006 illegal, the relationship between government and the vocal elements of civil society have mainly gone downhill. In 2009 Government had either to abdicate, which would almost certainly have returned power to the Qarase government it had overthrown in 2000, or it had to abrogate the 1997 Constitution to continue as government.
Since then, government has had a "go it alone" policy. The insistence on legal process, even if this came at the price of social justice, by vocal civil society and the authoritarian actions of Government made government-CCF relations increasingly difficult. And I need not go into the destructive influence of policies by foreign governments and international organizations.
It is so easy to say that had the Bainimarama Government been less paranoiac about attempts to remove or undermine it (some with good cause), and had it made more moves to include more people from civil society, including the unions, attitudes would not have hardened to the point where any reconciliation now seems next to impossible. Yet this is precisely what the Bainimarama Government and Fiji need.
The more truly democratic elements within the Opposition need to detach themselves from the Opposition in order to make Government feel less threatened and more heedful of requests for more democracy in the lead up to the 2014 elections.
CCF media release
The CCF media release earlier this month called for Government to move towards a "sustainable constitutional democracy."
As always, it makes some reasonable points: the recent submission papers to be made public, and the appointment of an "Independent Reference Group ... to look into the submissions ... and provide assistance in finalizing the document to ensure transparency in the process and that the legal drafters are held accountable to the people of Fiji". It also "believes that both the State and civil society must engage more constructively in dialogue and through the open forums and debates that will likely emerge over the next 14 months addressing issues of serious contentions." Government may not agree with the details of these recommendations although it would probably accept the broad principles. But...
As always, the CCF asks for the impossible: "CCF also calls on the Bainimarama government to adhere to universal best practices and set up an interim administration by April 2014, six months before the planned elections in September to provide the final phases of the ever changing democratization process some legitimacy." There is no way Government will accept this request. A major reason for its not accepting the Ghai Draft Constitution was its provision for an interim administration leading up to the 2014 elections. Does the CCF really think the Ro Teimumus, Qarares, Babas and Chaudhrys would be acting transparently in the interests of the people of Fiji during during this period?
And as always, the CCF request will not be heeded. Government may overlook its many inferences that Government is not to be trusted; it may also overlook the fact that the CCF makes no call on the Ro Teimumus, Qarares, Babas and Chaudhrys to act transparently and abandon their insistence on race-bound legislation and elections; but it will not hand over power before the elections. And no realist can reasonably insist that it should. If CCF wishes to be listened to by Government, it needs to rethink its intentions and tactics.
The trade union 'Discover Fji' campaign
The trade union release in the same week was far more demanding than the CCF's and played totally into government hands. Their promotion of a new campaign and website explicitly designed to turn prospective tourists away from Fiji will probably do little to dissuade tourists but it puts them on a direct collision course with Government.
And their cause is not helped by their statistics. Sixty percent of Fijian wage earners do not live below the poverty line; the cost of living is not "skyrocketing"; groups of three or more can meet without a permit; there is protection of minimum wages and conditions in the public sector; and the Courts did not rule in Government's favour with the so-called "trumped up charges in the courts"?
The unionists have a legitimate gripe with government on some issues but if they really want to be heeded in Fiji they need to speak to government, not overseas unions and prospective overseas tourists. Specifically, they should repeat their call for the repeal of Essential Industries Decree and other such legislation that adversely affects organized labour. They should give some credit for the minimum wages recently announced and other government actions aimed to help the Fiji economy and livelihoods. They should not align themselves with the old, tarnished political parties. And they should offer to work with government in areas of mutual interest, and support government moves towards the 2014 election.
Meanwhile, they will not be thanked by workers in the tourism industry whose livelihoods could be threatened by their campaign.
SUGAR PAYOUT WELCOME BUT ... Sugarcane farmers have received F$80 a tonne this year compared with F$50 little more than two years ago. Radio Australia reports that local farmers see this as a sign their industry has a bright future. Fiji Sugar Cane Growers Council CEO Sundesh Chetty calls it a "milestone achievement [and evidence of ] the tremendous support of the government and the stakeholders working together," Government has helped by pouring millions of dollars into the the mills and access roads, and in subsidising fertilisers. And the growers have responded by delivering "fresh and quality" cane to the mills.
This is good news, of course, but major reforms are still needed in the industry. Questions on the viability of small, largely unmechanised farms, transport, fair and secure leases to both parties, better use of byproducts, and the suitability of some land under cane and alternative or complementary crops cannot forever be left in the "too hard" bin.
BIG ENOUGH FOR BOTH. ABC's Campbell Cooney and Jenny Hayward-Jones of the Lowy Institute discuss Australian and China's aid and business in the Pacific and agree both have something to learn from the other.
MELANESIAN SPEARHEAD GROUP GETTING STRONGER. Thanks largely to the initiative of Fiji and the poorly played hands of Australian and NZ in suspending Fiji from the Pacific Forum, the MSG, unencumbered by the two countries that some see as neo-colonialists, is emerging as a serious player in Pacific trade and diplomacy. Listen to USP's Prof Biman Prasad talking to Radio Australia's Richard Ewan