Friday, February 27, 2009

(o+B) Why Elections Cannot be Held By December

Felicity Heffernan,
Supervisor of Elections

The Pacific Islands Forum insists the Interim Government announce an election date by May 1st and hold an election no later than December, or face further sanctions and possible suspension from Forum membership. This would be a most undesirable outcome for Fiji and the Forum. Qarase and others opposing the Interim Government insist these deadlines can be met. Bainimarama and Chaudhry say they can not. Who is right? Well, they "sort of" both might be. It all depends on what is meant by an election.

The 2006 election took only ten months from the time of registration to the elections. But this was a most imperfect election. Electorate boundaries, based on a ten-year old census, were left unchanged (so no allowance was made for extensive internal migration, especially to Greater Suva where the key Open electorates were located). An elected government was in place, aid money was available, and all political parties co-operated with a fully staffed Elections Office. To assist voter registration and update electoral rolls, the Office conducted a nation-wide door-knocking campaign, which incidentally made it the most expensive Fiji election, in cost per voter, ever.

Despite these arrangements, many of those eligible to vote were not registered (overall registration increased only 2.3% from the 2001 election, far less than population increase); in the 25 Open electorates 13% of those registered did not vote, and the votes of a further 9% were declared invalid. (Non-voters ranged from 5 to 27% across electorates, and invalid votes from 6 to 13%.) The preparation period was clearly rushed, the census used was far too old, and insufficient attention was given to voter education, especially on the complicated Alternative Voting system. One wonders what the results might have been is a less rushed election. As it was, Qarase's SDL party won one critical Open electorate by 5 votes!

Inevitably, those losing the election made charges of irregularities, but at least some seem valid (See link to FHRC Report on 2006 elections in Background Material). Another rushed election, in 2001, was even worse. Some 33% of registered voters either did not vote or had their vote declared invalid! So, it is possible to hold this sort of election before December.

Commonwealth Observer Group Recommendations Ignored. Following the 2006 elections, international observers submitted recommendations for changes to the existing system. The Commonwealth Observer Group report read in part:

In putting these (recommendations) forward we are conscious of those made by our colleagues who were members of the 2001 Commonwealth Observer Group. So far as we are aware, only one – the proposal that the number of polling stations should be increased – has been adopted so far.

These reports, costing $5million, were ignored by the Qarase Government.

Preparations for Elections. Charges have been made that the Interim Government has done little to nothing to prepare for an election but this in only true if the following events are ignored: the FHRC investigation into the 2006 elections; conducting the 2007 Census; the appointment of a Boundaries Commission, an Electoral Commission and a Supervisor of Elections; a scoping mission to Samoa to assess electronic voter registration; the setting up of the Elections Office, and the work around the People's Charter and the President's Political Dialogue Forum. Further progress cannot occur until a decision is made on whether to use the existing electoral system, or a new one. This will be discussed at the PPDF starting on 13th March. But even with the old system and updated current rolls, December is much too early.

The Office of the Supervisor of Elections, headed by New Zealand lawyer Felicity Heffernan, issued a White Paper on 18 September last year. The paper, Planning Concepts Or Technical Road Map of Factual Operations/ Risks, noted "constraints" on her office that made it difficult to meet international standards, and offered three scenarios on the time needed to prepare for elections.

The constraints included the current state of the electoral rolls; media interference; the mistaken belief that her office is not neutral; the absence of effective means of communication with the public; inability to undertake voter education until the system of elections is known; delays in State and donor funding; not having an external relations manager ("so the international and national media do not ruin the work of the Elections Office on a daily basis for transparency and neutrality as is currently happening"); not having the equipment to operate; the political matrix – e.g., boycotting by certain influential actors; inability to rehire core staff; and factors outside the EO's control, e.g., political delays, parties pull out, and deadlocks etc. all of which impacted on the EO ability to delivery operational functions.

Minimum Time to Elections: Three Scenarios. The Elections Office's "technical roadmap" on the minimum time needed before elections can be held is based on three scenarios:

A. The present alternative voting system and updating of current electoral rolls. Time needed: 11 to 14 months.
B. A reformed electoral system and updating of current electoral rolls. Time needed: 9.5 to 12.5 months.
C. A reformed electoral system and electronic registration. Time needed: 10.5 to 13.5 months.

The clock can only start ticking towards one of these times when well-known political issues are resolved (hopefully at the PPDF meeting) and the Elections Office is fully geared to go. There is no way elections of any sort can be held by December -- but May may not be too early to announce an election date.

Meanwhile, the Elections Office says it will -

"continue to plan and prepare for elections in its capacity as a neutral and independent entity in delivering a credible and sustainable electoral system for Fiji within an achievable operational timeframe."

Finally, I'm left wondering why the widely distributed White Paper was ignored by those to whom it was sent. Recipients included all High Commissions and Embassies, including Australia and New Zealand, the European Parliament, the European Union, the European Community, the Commonwealth, the United Nations, the Ministerial Contact Group, Transparency International, the Citizens Constitutional Forum and various other parties. And why Australia, New Zealand and other PI Forum members then imposed a December deadline they knew Fiji could not meet?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wellington Lawyer on Fiji Situation

Richard Fowler, the President of the Wellington District Law Society, was in Fiji recently. Of his several observations, as reported by Kiwiblog, here are four :

"I have no problems with holding a referendum on a new constitution first, and then elections."[I'm not sure what he means by this. A referendum to change the Constitution and then hold elections based on the changes? Or a referendum binding on an incoming government elected under the present Constitution? Whichever, it's an interesting legal opinion]

On the NZ media's persistent insistence on a "pervasive military presence" in Fiji: "In the whole of the week I was in Suva I never caught sight of one soldier, and further the interim government during that week lost a very public Court challenge to the legitimacy of some of its actions and did not reach for extra-legal remedy."

But-- he thinks "the Commodore should have stood for election on the grounds of changing it, not done a coup." [Unfortunately, not really an option given Fiji's election system.]"

And "The problem is the Commodore is unable or unwilling to give any sort of timetable, to which he will be accountable. The longer it goes on, the more you suspect he will never give up power. The challenge for the Commodore is to turn rhetoric into reality and actually take steps towards elections. If he does so, then he will no doubt find sanctions start to get lifted. But if he doesn’t produce a timetable, then people will assume it is all about retaining power, not about changing the constitution."[A very reasonable comment but there has been progress and the PPDForum starting on 13 March is a further step towards elections.]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Preferred PM, and Bainimarama's Performance : You've Got to Laugh

Most serious social scientists have doubts about the accuracy of public opinion polls. Their questions, questioning and sampling procedures and analysis are often faulty. In Fiji the ethnicity of the interviewer also influences replies. This may be the case with a Times-Tebutt poll put to 11256 (surely 1,256) Viti Levu people in December --- but the results are interesting nonetheless.

Preferred Prime Minister: Qarase 52% Fijians; Bainimarama 37% Indo-Fijians. Qarase 34% Females; Bainimarama 27%, Males 28% each. General Voters were 23% for Qarase and 20% for Bainimarama.
None of these figures added up to 100% because 18 other people were also mentioned as preferred PM (how much they polled was not disclosed) and 20% "did not know"(further reducing its value). But with Sevens rugby icon Waisale Serevi fourth behind former PM Mahendra Chaudhry (8%) one must suspect a sample bias towards humorous pollsters.

Possibly more reliable were the results on Bainimarama'a performance: Overall - Approved 48%, Disapproved 22%. Fijians - Approved 35%, Disapproved 34%. Indo-Fijians - Approved 64%, Disapproved 9%.

Mike Beddoes must have been asked to comment. He said Qarase is the "choice of the people" and Bainimarama's support is mainly from Indo-Fijians, adding, apparently quite seriously: "I am humbled and honoured to have my name up there with a legend like Serevi and all the other good citizens named in this poll." He polled 1%.

Others mentioned as preferred PM were Mahendra Chaudhry, Sitiveni Rabuka, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Bernadette Rounds Ganilau, Poseci Bune, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau (or was it Ratu Epeli Ganilau?), Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Wadan Narsey, Krishna Dutt, Vijay Singh (the golfer?), Kaliopate Tavola, Petero Mataca (the RC Archbishop), Ro Teimumu Kepa, Nazhat Shameem, Mere Samisoni.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Solomon Community Wants to Return "Home"

24 February 2009

FijiLive reported it so calmly. "A group of 28 families of Solomon Island descent want the Fiji Government to [help them or] pay their passage to the land of their forefathers if they are forcibly evicted from the land that has been their home for over a century".

Thus spoke community spokesman Josefa Selo expressing his disappointment with the Housing Authority that had issued a 30-day extension to an eviction order that will allow a housing project at Namara, Tacirua near Suva --- and see 28 families with nowhere to live. Selo said the community paid rent lease to the Fijian mataqali owning the land and was assured verbally when the lease expired that the land now belonged to the community. Informal renting by mataqali is a common, almost traditional, arrangement in many parts of urban Fiji.

There was no public outcry. No ethnic Fijian hung his head in shame. Nothing was said by those who usually condemning the Interim Government for its alleged abuses of human rights. No church bells rang in torment. The Human Rights Commission, and the Government, are yet to comment. And even General Voters leader Mike Beddoes said nothing. Why? Because the plight of the Kai Solomoni people has been going on for so long it is accepted as "normal".

This is not simply a story of 28 families but of a whole community numbering thousands that has been systematically ignored and excluded, first by the British and then by the Fijian establishment. The first indentured labourers in Fiji were not Indians as many suppose but "blackbirded" (kidnapped) young men from what are now the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, brought to Fiji in the mid-1860s to work on European cotton and copra plantations. Many died, overworked, ill-treated, and with no immunity to European diseases. Those who survived married Fijian women and today, five or more generations later and almost "pure" Fijians genetically -- and totally "pure" culturally and linguistically-- their descendants are mostly poor, marginalised people living in "informal" settlements, treated as outsiders by "pure" ethnic Fijians.

In pre-contact Fiji descent was mainly traced through the father's line but in parts of Vanua Levu and the west and centre of Viti Levu descent was traced through both parents. Today, with flexible custom frozen into rigid law, to be a Fijian one's name must be in the vola ni kawa bula, the registry kept by the Native Lands Commision. And only those with Fijian fathers -- or mothers who do not know who their child's father is! --- are registered. The children of other Fijian mothers are not considered Fijian.

So who are the Kai Solomoni and what is their rightful place in Fiji? They have no knowledge whatsoever of the islands of their paternal line and they are not accepted by their mother's line. A few have "succeeded" in mainstream Fiji but most form a distinct, poverty-striken community in a Fiji that aspires to be modern, just, democratic, non-sexist and, for many -- Christian. Why is no aspirant taking up their cause?

[Winston Halapua's Living on the Fringe: Melanesians of Fiji is a useful book for those unfamilar with the Kai Solomoni situation]

Samoan PM's Comments Inflammatory and Unhelpful

In what FijiLive called "an extraordinary verbal attack on a neighbour", Samoa's PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi claimed the Fiji military is planning to stay in power for another decade; PM Bainimarama is "stealing public money", and that Fiji has no need for the military. He called on Fijians (sic!) to "Wake up now. Stand up and reclaim your government. It is your God-given right." He called Bainimarama's appointment of Police Chief Esala Teleni, the appointment of one "madman" by another, an action "reminiscent of Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler." He also accused Bainimarama of lying to the Pacific Islands Forum that Samoa, or any other country, coerced smaller Pacific states into supporting a harder line against Fiji.

Tuilaepa is an economist, born in 1945, who was elected by other matai (chiefs) to parliament in 1980. He was instrumental in the major financial reforms of the early 1990s and for closer economic ties with China.

He has been criticized in Samoa for introduced legislation aimed at eroding customary forms of land tenure, allegedly in breach of the Constitution; forcing the resignation of the attorney general, reportedly over a case involving election fraud; and for legislation, protested against by 15,000 people, which switched Samoan road use from left to right-hand drive. This episode had many saying he was "out of touch or arrogant or ... simply tired." [Or all three?] Source: Wikipedia.
Postscript. Last week the media and the Interim Govenment's opponents squeezed all they could out of the "Teleni Affair." This week it promises to be the "Tuilaepa Affair" with the SDL and two anti-Government NGOs leading the charge. Be against the Interim Government by all means, but say what -- realistically -- you think should be done in the present situation. Perhaps like holding the IG to its commitment to an early meeting of the President's Political Dialogue Forum? Fortunately more helpful views are to be found in Chaudhry's comments, and in those of the Tongan PM Dr Feleti Sevele.
Surely there are more important things to attend to this week in Fiji than what the Samoan PM thinks of Bainimarama! Or vice versa!

Last Week in Fiji: Third Week of February

To see the Noticeboard (a new item), scroll down to the very last posting.

Last Week. See Postings that follow ---Teleni---Elections---Sahu Khan---Chaudhry and FLP------Registered political parties---Fiji and Fiji Hindi for teachers---Wages---Baledrokadroka's claim---Qarase's Aussie "holiday"--- McGhie in NZ Listener

Media Man of the Week Teleni. The media, some NGOs and local and overseas blog sites, mostly anti-Interim Government, had a most enjoyable week, from Tuesday on, gorging themselves on the reputation of Police Chief Teleni. The most balanced blog summary is provided by John Liebhardt. See also "Picky Eater's" thoughtful comments to my post on the subject.
I have four comments to add: (1) I am not convinced Teleni's comments were racist. (2) I am uncomfortable when religion is so intensively expressed, and see no place for it in the police force -- but that is Fiji. (3) I do not like intimidatory sergeant-major-type commands -- but that is the way of the military. (4) Had a NZ army or police officer complained to the media, as the "unnamed" Fiji officer did, he would have been severely reprimanded. Like it or not, the tradition is that complaints are made upwards, within the service, not to the media.
To allow more flexibility and better indexing, I have de-coupled last week's postings from Last Week in Fiji. In future LWIF will comprise a list of topics covered during the week, and one or two short postings. I have also decided to abandon Tuesday and Thursday Updates. They were too time-consuming.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Electoral Commission chairperson Mohammed Kamal-Ud-Dean Sahu Khan died of a heart attack early on Saturday morning. Sahu Khan’s appointment as Electoral Commission chairman was announced in May 2007 together with three new commissioners. He was the only remaining member from the previous Electoral Commission.

(o) Elections Impossible this Year

Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry says there is no way the general elections can be held this year.He said given the time needed to prepare and addressing issues in the electoral reform, elections were impossible. Chaudhry said this had been made known to the international community.

He said it was therefore vital to proceed quickly to the President’s Political Dialogue Forum (PPDF) which would consider issues revolving around holding elections and the return of an elected parliament. He said the UN and Commonwealth had talked with political parties, a mediator for the PPDF had been named. This showed Fiji was working progressively towards democracy. Asked if the FLP would support changes in the Constitution, Chaudhry said this was where the PPDF was necessary as all parties concerned needed to reach an amicable agreement on what changes, if any, were to be made to the Constitution.

With regards to fears of suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, Chaudhry said all parties, locally and abroad, needed to hold more dialogue and be more understanding of each other's position. He said suspension could be avoided with more understanding on both sides. This was why it was important that the PPDF convened as soon as possible. Condensed from FijiLive. [Later in the week I shall post extracts from the Office of the Supervisor of Elections' White Paper that show it is indeed technically impossible to hold an election by December.]

(o) Chaudhry, the FLP, Sugar, the Economy, and the Interim Government.

Rumours circulating during the week, heightened by a meeting with Bainimarama, had Mahendra Chaudhry returning to the Interim Government as Minister of Finance and Sugar, possibly accompanied by other FLP members. This prospect, however, may be judged premature if discussion at the FLP national committee meeting at Nadi are any indication.

The meeting was critical of Government's "commercial" decision to dissolve the Sugar Commission, Sugar Marketing Ltd and the Sugar Research Institute, transferring their responsibilities to the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC). Chaudhry thought FSC dominance could marginalise the growers to whom 70% of sugar proceeds belonged, stating that the Sugar Cane Growers Council (SCGC) should play the lead role in marketing sugar. He called on Government to hasten the completion of the sugar industry reform and restructure programme, and to invest heavily in the natural resources sector to boost exports and create much needed employment.

The Party also cautioned Government against letting "vested interests" dictate its economic policies, following comments by Reserve Bank governor Savenaca Narube about rapidly declining foreign reserve levels, falling exports, tight liquidity and escalating interest rates.

Chaudhry compared this situation (brought on, in part, by the RBF's relaxed monetary controls and the consequent outflow of local funds), with "six months ago when foreign reserves stood at $910 million, liquidity was flush, interest rates low, investment levels rising, exports upped 33% compared to 2006 and debt level brought down to 45% of GDP from a high of 53% under the Laisenia Qarase-led government."

Astute politician that he is, Chaudhry may decide to keep his distance from the Interim Government until he is clearer on which way the political cookie will crumble after next month's President's Political Dialogue Forum. But then, being Chaudhry, he may not. Condensed, with added comments, from the Fiji Times.

(B) At last count 16 Political Parties are now registered

.... with the Supervisor of Elections and there's probably more to come. The sheer number will add to electoral confusion, although some only have local appeal. The Green Party of Fiji (Bernadette Rounds-Ganilau) is new to the scene. Others are more familiar, and the re-emergence of some (notably, the extremist Nationalist Vanua Tako Lavo Party (NVTLP) and Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (CAMV)) is quite frightening.

Other registered political parties include United People's Party (UPP), Justice & Freedom Party (JFP), Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa Ni Taukei (SVT), National Federation Party (NFP), Fiji Labour Party (FLP), Social Liberal Multicultural Party (SLM), National Alliance Party of Fiji (NAPF), Soqosoqo Duavata Ni Lewenivanua (SDL), Party of National Unity (PANU), National Democratic Party (NNDP), , Fiji People's Party (FPP), and General Voter's Party (GVP), Coalition of Independent Nationals Party (COIN) and Party of the Truth (POTT).

[For a detailed account of the Fiji parliamentary system, individual political parties, 1999, 2001 and 2006 election results, and local government, see section 16 mainly written by development historian Prof. Robbie Robertson in Walsh 2006: Fiji: an Encyclopaedic Atlas. Copies may be purchased from USP or from me for NZ$25 plus postage. The blog will provide background information on each party in the months to come. ]

(G) Fostering Understanding Between Fiji's Two Main Ethnic Groups.

Last week all workers in Education (including teachers and officers at headquarters, and all section heads) started the same one-half hour a week language learning programme in Conversational Fijian and/or Conversational Hindi already been implemented for Class 5 students. The programme, aimed at bridging the ethnic divide that has so long plagued Fiji, comprises two components: a) Conversational Fijian or Hindi, starting at beginners’ level then progressing to intermediate, then onto an advanced level; b) Basic Culture studies, i.e. Fijian culture or Hindi culture. This component will be situational learning, either by visiting/assisting a family or through projects to enhance cultural understanding. [What is so amazing is that it took from Independence in 1970 to 2009 to implement such a programme. The earlier pre-1970 period is discounted: the British had nothing to gain from inter-ethnic understanding. Modern Fiji most definitely has!]

(-) Fiji Trade Union Congress president Daniel Urai

... in an advertisement stated that the intgegrity of the Wages Council had been compromised by the interim PM's deferment of the minimum wages order to July. He said not a single employer had presented audited accounts to the Wages Council, as requested by Wages Council chairman Fr Kevin Barr.

(-) More on Baledrokadroka's Claim

... of the Military's Political Involvement in the 2006 Coup. In an interview with Fijilive, former Land Force Commander Lt Col. Baledrokadroka revealed that "a lot of politicians were going up to the camp prior to the December 5, 2006 coup and were colluding with the army". FLP Leader and deposed PM Mahendra Chaudhry said Baledrokadroka should produce proof and name them. [See last week's post, noting this correction: Allegations that Baledrokadroka conspired against Cdre Bainimarama were dropped. He was suspended in January 2006 and resigned in May 2007.]

(-) Qarase's "Grandchildren"

I don't suppose you can blame him, but Qarase was allowed to leave Fiji pending a court case to visit his family and grandchildren. He now admits he is on a fundrasing tour to defray SDL legal costs, and SDL leaders Samisoni Tikoinasau and Peceli Kinivuwai will soon join him. Some 30 Brisbane Fijians attended a fundraising dinner last Saturday. The low turn out? "Many people did not want to get involved as they did not want to be seen at the event." The ABC reported Qarase as saying the interim government was ruling through fear, and that his life remains under threat from the military-led government. “I was warned by an anonymous callers that I would be killed or thrown into jail.”[This was months ago and the claim was investigated by police] Qarase also said he wanted the other 12 Forum countries to apply a travel ban similar to the "very effective" ban imposed by Australia and New Zealand. Of the Interim Government he said “Their message is ‘Agree with the regime, do what we say or else.’” Qarase's lawyer says he would only break the court order if he did not visit his family. What else he did is up to him. [Y-e-s, but wasn't he just a little deceitful in his bail extention request.] Condensed from Fiji Daily Post.
Update. Sunday's FijiLive has Qarase in Sydney at another fundraising dinner. He told Fijilive that although he is on a private visit to Australia (sic!), his party supporters there have insisted on inviting him to dinner so he could inform them of the situation on the ground back home.

(o) Former NZ Diplomat and ...

... chairperson of the NZ chapter of Transparency International Gerald McGhie had a short article "Fiji's Gordian Knot" (although it covered Pacific-wide issues) in this week's NZ Listener. The issues raised were poor governance ("weak governance has made a number of Pacific power brokers very rich. Strong institutions would disrupt the flow of easy money."); corruption ("the most serious threat to future stability and development"), and New Zealand's need to understand the Pacific ("sometimes a strident tone has crept into NZ's Pacific statements ... [we need] a NZ voice that reflects an understanding of Pacific realities rather than the agenda of other countries... Our task is to take a lead. This will require intelligent diplomacy"). On the Fiji situation: "Unless there is a radical shift in the voting process, further elections will .. fail to make any headway." [A question for the NZ Listener: Doesn't the commissioned painting of the Fijian soldier in full battledress that accompanied the article run counter to McGhie's message to New Zealand? Or was it commissioned to fit any article on Fiji?]
Technorati Profile

Friday, February 20, 2009

* Thursday Update

(o+) Anything to Discredit the Interim Government: Overreaction Heaped on Overreaction ... and How to Discredit Yourself

On Tuesday the Fiji Sun ran an article on a claim by "an unnamed policeman" that the (Police Christian crusade against crime) was being imposed on Indo-Fijian police officers, and that "officers who had converted to the New Methodist Church, which had been conducting most of the crusades, have been getting promotions."

By Wednesday, all the press, the national TV, and two anti-Interim Government NGOs (the Fiji Womens Crisis Centre and the Movement for Democracy in Fiji) had rolled up their sleeves and were swinging wildly at Police Commissioner Commodore Esala Teleni (photograph) who, admittedly, didn't help his case by having privately (sic!) lambasted Indo-Fijian officers for disloyalty in speaking to the media, and for their negative comments about the crusade. He is said to have warned the officers to support him or leave the force. The media and NGOs called him a racist and some called for his resignation.

But it now transpires no senior Indo-Fijian officer spoke to the media and none has been coerced to support the crusade. They do, however, claim to know who was "the real voice behind the article". One officer said "We believe it is the different denominations of the Christian faith within the police who are unhappy with the crusade, or at least which denomination is heading it. At times", he said, "I have gone to the crusades on my own accord, and have never been told to convert as some media have reported". He said they had "nothing against the police chief for speaking to us the way he did because he has strong beliefs about his faith ... As for the crusade, we support it, it brings discipline into the force and we have never been forced to attend any of the crusades.” (Fiji Live)

Too late. Such was the "crisis" created by the media that Interim Defence Minister Ratu Epeli Ganilau and PM Bainimarama took precious time out to speak with Teleni, and later the media. Both supported Teleni.

By Thursday Shaista Shameen (FHRC), Mahendra Chaudhry (FLP), Mike Beddoes and Akuila Yabaki (CCF) thought the need for further comment when, other than insistence on personal and religious freedom, they may have been better to have said nothing.

There is no question that Teleni's outburst did him no credit (and no question that personal and religious freedoms must be protected) but the media must also accept responsibility. They started the fire, fanned and whipped up the flames over what would appear to be a relatively minor incident -- and much of what they reported would seem to be incorrect.

To play a responsible role in a Fiji where its opponents use every opportunity to discredit the Interim Government, the media must at least check its sources -- the original sources, not those of an "unnamed" someone printed by another newspaper -- and do what it can to douse unnecessary heat. Cool heads, not merry arsonists, are needed in the months ahead.

P.S. Friday. And it's not over yet. Overreaction builds on overreaction. FijiLive reports that the military is conducting a "headhunt" to identify the officers who spoke to the press. "Interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama has also confirmed advising Teleni, his former military second-in-command, to carry out the head hunt and rout them out of the Force."

(-) Pramod Rae, Gen.Sec. of the once important National Federation Party, has once again supported Laisenia Qarase. This time on his statement that all Forum countries should join Australia and New Zealand in imposing a travel ban on members, supporters and relatives of the military and Interim Government. [Other than as a token gesture of solidarity, bans by other Forum countries could weaken the Forum's influence, and backfire on Forum countries dependent on the Nadi air hub for their travel, should Fiji choose to retaliate. This blog agrees with the growing number of people who believe the travel bans have been counter-productive. At the very least they should be applied more selectively. Punishing children for the "sins"of their fathers is not the way to go.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

* Tuesday Update

Wages Council chair Fr Kevin Barr has been assured by the Interim PM that the wage regulations order will come into effect on July 1st. (see earlier posting Bainimarama's About-Face.) Fr Barr said employers have been complaining about the wage increases for the past 10 years. "The business community is jumping up and down with the garment industry threatening job losses but none of them have presented audited accounts to the council." The PM permanent secretary, Parmesh Chand, said people should be mindful that no other government had introduced such a programme that looked at the wage increase comprehensively. A FTUC advertisement called on the PM not to defer the award and also called on employers to think about the suffering of the poor. (Condensed from Fiji Times)

The NZ Media7 programme on Fiji is now available on the Pacific Media Centre YouTube site so it can be seen in Fiji if you want to point your colleagues to it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fiji Last Week III: Second Week of February 2009

[Flashback: New Zealand and Fiji lost out in the Wellington Rugby Sevens last weekend. John Key and Voqere Bainimarama declined to comment. But these are not the times for political humour.The kerfuffle over the Elections Office's possibly humourous but unwise video skit on democracy in Fiji, major headlines last weekend, with Elections Supervisor Felicity Heffernan's job reportedly at stake, appears, thankfully, to have blown over.]

* Check Out Three Major Posts during the Week
Bainimarama's about-face on wages and bus fares
Qarase's abuse of office charges
Facts and opinions on the 1997 Constitution

A Letter from a Friend. "The UN/Comsec team of four officials are here this week to talk to the regime and other worthies about the President's forum and the process of political engagement. This is probably the best opportunity we have for a dialogue. The regime 's attitude will be critical because the political parties are waiting on it to take matters forward. The Commander has said he wishes to consult the political parties and the chiefs further on the draft agenda put forward by the two independent interlocutors (Messrs Nair and Halapua). It seems to me that this will take yet more time. The lack of urgency on the part of the regime is a matter for concern, because it raises questions of their motives and their commitment.

"Our economic situation cannot have been improved by the floods. I think that losses probably are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Add to that the global financial crisis and our own circumstances, and you have a sense of our plight. But if it causes us to grow more in our backyards then it might have had some benefit. I do not mean to sound negative but cannot quite bring myself either to agree with Aiyaz Saiyed Khaiyum there is no crisis (told to the media in Port Moresby). It all depends on which side one takes."

The visiting UN/Commonwealth joint technical team, that will facilitate the President's Political Dialogue Forum, met all interested parties during the week, and left on Saturday. The Attorney-General expects the Forum will be held in the first or second week of March, and Interim PM Voqere Bainimarama hopes more sections of civil society, including churches, will join those already involved.

(-)Two worrying events occurred the week that bring no credit on the Interim Government: the reversal of the minimum wage rates and bus fares decisions (see separate posting) and the dismissal of municipal mayors (see below).

(-) Citizens' Constitutional Forum chairperson Rev. Akuila Yabaki says municipal reform did not require the dismissal of municipal mayors. Calling the decision "undemocratic", he asked Government for a firm timetable to return to democratically elected councils.

(-) The Military Involvement: One View.... Former military second-in-command Lt Col. Jone Baledrokadroka, dismissed before the 2006 coup for "subordination" or opposition to the pending coup, depending on your viewpoint, said in a FijiLive interview on Thursday that the "military (could) be part of our political landscape for some time."

The "military exit strategy is based on the implementation of the Charter”, he said, but "what happens when the Charter is not implemented or not implemented fully according to their wishes? Government militarization at all levels, from ministerial down to the permanent secretaries and even in all departments, adds to this fear. Perversely, a statement from Bainimarama adds weight to this claim.' He told visiting Vice President PRC Xi Jinping that the military will only stay in power until all its objectives are achieved.

.... And (+) Another. “The military", said Bainimarama, "essentially assumed control of the Government with clear objectives to eliminate corruption, racial discrimination policies and practices, and to bring about necessary reforms in the area of public service, governance as well as the electoral system in an effort to build a better and more progressive Fiji ... (it) did not intervene for the purpose of remaining in control and power beyond a reasonable time than what would be required to achieve the above objectives.” FijiLive 12 February 2009.

(B) Methodist Church to Decide on Annual Fundraising. The church's annual choir competitions, fundraising and two-week round of meetings has been a major event for the past 40 years. This year's meeting will be hosted by Roko Tui Dreketi Ro Teimumu Kepa in Rewa in August but whether it will include fundraising (at least on the scale of former years) will be decided by divisional heads in March. Fundraising, in which from village to province, participants seek to outbid each other, has, on the one hand, been criticized as imposing an excessive burden on poorer Fijians, and, on the other hand, as evidence of the unity of lotu (church), vanua (land) and matanitu (state) in Fijian thinking.

[I was once called all sorts of names -- a fly-by-night expert, ignorant, insensitive, offensive, communist, atheist -- by church minister and senator Tomasi Kanailagi (Fiji Daily Post 27 July 2002) for supporting MP Mike Beddoes who'd said church fundraising greatly added to the burdens of the poor.]

(B) Traditional Fishing Grounds. Fiji Police are monitoring Navala and Nanoko villages in the interior of Ba following a dispute over traditional fishing grounds. A Police spokesman said a bure had been torched and a man hospitalised following a fight involving knives, spears and stones. Land, inland waters and sea ownership boundaries are disputed in many parts of Fiji. One of the reasons Bainimarama gave for the 2006 Coup was to stop the SDL Government's Qoliqoli Bill (on Fijian mataqali [clan] foreshore and coastal rights), saying it would turn Fijian against Fijian in many parts of the country News item: Fijilive 12 February 2009.

(G) Raising the Flag. Interim Education Minister Filipe Bole has instructed schools to conduct a weekly flag-raising ceremony and sing the national anthem to instill patriotism. This is one of the recommendations of the People's Charter.

Media Council Review. A media review team comprising Australian Press Council executive secretary Jack Herman, senior lawyer Barrie Sweetman and community activist Suliana Siwatibau will address problems of funding the council (presently largely funded by the media owners), complaints procedures, the media code of ethics, and improving media standards. While funding is the most immediate problem, Council chairman Daryl Tarte also hopes the review will help improve the sorely-tested relationship between the interim government and the media industry.Condensed from Comment on this item

NZAID offers $2 million. Sugar Cane Growers Council (SCGC) CEO Surendra Sharma confirmed to Fijilive (13 February 2009) that NZAID is preparing a $2 million relief package to assist the sugar industry. Australia has declined help (it is also a sugar producer) and the EU has not yet responded.The SCGC hopes the interim Government will also help more. “Sugar needs a lot of assistance and the sooner the key decision makers acknowledge this fact, the better,” Sharma said. The sugar industry needs $60 million to salvage a potentially bankrupt industry. [Good on you, NZAID]

NZ Waitangi Day and Fiji. The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 established relations between the British Crown and Maori, something similar to Fiji's Deed of Cession. The Treaty, celebrated on Febuary 6, is the topic for Thakur Ranjit Singh's weekly column in the Fiji Times. For the full column, see

This is his conclusion:
"The message coming out of Waitangi Day celebrations is that visionary selfless leaders with an abundance of goodwill and humility can overcome insurmountable racial and ethnic problems besetting a country, and all gets achieved by the Pacific way of talking and dialogue that we call talanoa.It is time for a change in political leadership in Fiji.

'I note Biman Prasad in his opinion article just days ago called for Chaudhry and Qarase to change their visions and agenda and join in dialogues of the President's forum. I disagree. You do not teach old dogs new tricks. They do not need to change; we need to change them, out with the old, in with the new. We can overcome our problems by rejecting divisive leaders and their narrow visions. Throw those out who have failed Fiji and get leaders of the new generation to make a difference."

(B+-) Issues Raised in Old Debate on People's Charter Still Valid. In April last year a public debate was held on the pros and cons of the People's Charter. Things have moved on but the issues they raised still need to be addressed if Fiji is to "move forward". Text and video may be accessed on Affirmative speakers were Joseva Serulangilagi, then Chair of the Tailevu Provincial Council; Lorine Tevi, President of the NGO FCOSS, and Pundit Kamlesh Arya, Nat. Pres. of Arya Pratinidhi Sabha. Negative speakers were Dr Waden Narsey, Prof. of Economics at USP; Richard Naidu, a prominent Suva lawyer, and Tupou Draunidalo, a former V-Pres. of the Fiji Law Society.

Friday, February 13, 2009

(-B) Bainimarama's About-Face: Delays Application of Minimum Wage Order and Reverses Cut in Bus Fares

Crosbie Walsh

"Nobody ever claimed the market economy would produce social justice." Joseph Stiglitz, American economist and Nobel Prize winner.

The Interim PM has overruled two recently announced Government decisions that would have helped the poor. His move has raised questions about his commitment to social justice and his army-style of leadership.

Responding to an employers' argument that this is not a good time to increase wages because of the floods and world economic crisis (and the intended-to-scare threat that 3,000 jobs could be at stake) he has delayed the increases until July. The bus fare reduction was reversed because of an earlier removal of subsidies to bus companies.

The move has been criticized by Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, chairman of the Wages Council, Fr Kevin Barr, and most significantly by the writer of the otherwise totally pro-government blog IG (see, and comes on the eve of an announcement on Bainimarama's back leave payment, reported to be in excess of $180,000, accumulated over several years. USP's Anand Chand, however, "expected" the reversal and thinks the deferment could extend beyond July because, to compete internationally, Fiji has to keep minimum wages low, even below the poverty level. [This may be but many manufacturers did not help their case by refusing to disclose earnings to the Wages Council.]

Whatever the economic realities, Bainimarama's wage decision raises many questions about his credibility on other matters: What happened to his championship of social justice and help for the poor? Why has he succumbed so easily to business interests? Will it be the "right time" in July? This was an Order on minimum wages, not all wages. How do decisions like this differ from those of the Qarase Government? Why has he ignored his own advisers and made clowns of his ministers? How many supporters will leave his cause? Can he be trusted? Is this another example of a broken "promise"? Is he really a dictator? [My advice to the Interim PM? You need to reverse gear quickly and make a sharp U-turn to avoid running over many ordinary citizens.]

Comment on FEF Statements.Speaking to the Fiji Employers' Federation (FEF) on wage rates, Max Underhill of Maxumise (Fiji) Ltd was correct in saying not all employers paid unjust wage but he was wrong in thinking unemployment, and not low wages, was the greater cause of poverty. “I want to see less sweeping statements," he said, "and lots more facts behind what’s actually happening. Who knows, there may be some problems that we really need to address.” May be (sic!) -- with minimum wages well below the poverty line? Wages Council chairman Fr Kevin Barr said low wages were the major cause, and this is backed up by all available information on urban poverty.

Textile manufacturer Kalpesh Solanki, also speaking at the FEF meeting, thought the official unemployment rate of about 4% is too low. Real unemployment is notoriously difficult to establish in less developed countries, even with the most sophisticated research. He thought/guessed unemployment is closer to 30-40% (which presumably includes the semi-subsistence and rural areas).

I doubt it, but even if employers knew the "real" unemployment rate, how would this lift minimum wages? With an even greater "reserve army" of unemployed, all looking for jobs, unscrupulous employers could offer even lower wages!

Underhill and Solanki's shift of the discussion from low wages to unemployment levels seems to be a disingenuous way to shift responsibility and beg the question. Their attention should shift back to their fellow employers who do pay unjust wages (remembering that the Order is about minimum wages), to researching profits, and the extent to which FEF members' average incomes exceed those of their lowest paid workers. My "thought/guess" is 20-30 times, and then some. Afterall, competitiveness would also be increased by salary cuts!
(B) The Corruption Charges against Former PM Laisenia Qarase

Former PM Laisenia Qarase has been granted a bail variation to allow him to visit family members in Australia but must return to Fiji before his March court hearing. Qarase is charged by FICAC (Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption -- directly accountable to the President so that no one is above the law) with two counts of abuse of office with regards to family share holdings in extinct mataqali funds and shares in Fijian Holdings Limited.

Comment. While there can be little doubt that there is a political factor in charging Qarase (how could there not be in the circumstances?), on the face of it there does seem to be a strong case against him.

The main charge is that between 1992-95 when he was a director of Fiji Holdings Ltd (established by the Rabuka government to ensure greater equity participation by provincial councils and Fijian institutions), a member of the Fijian Affairs Board (which had shares in FHL), Managing Director of the Fiji Development Bank, and the financial advisor to the Great Council of Chiefs), he bought 200,000 Class A shares in FHL for his family company Q-Ten Investments, and that in his capacity as director approved the allocation of these shares without declaring his interests to FHL, FAB or the GCC. Other charges related to similar non-disclosures regarding his purchase of shares in two other companies.

Three other related matters, not mentioned directly in the charges, are:
(1) How was it that the FHL, established to assist provincial councils and Fijian instutions, evolved into one where Fijian individuals and private Fijian-owned companies -- that is, the Fijian elite -- became major shareholders?
(2) How did most class A shares (with voting rights and a 10% plus dividend) come to be mostly owned by private interests, while provincial councils and Fijian institutions owned most of class B shares (with no voting rights and less than half the dividend of class A shares)?
(3) Did the Fiji Development Bank, of which Qarase was then Managing Director, lend the money for these purchases, and if so, on what terms, and were provincial councils advised of and offered the same terms?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Election-Constitution Dilemma

(-o) Brij Lal on Why Only Parliament Can Amend the Constitution

Condensed from Fiji Sun article 2.2.08 . My emphasis.

Co-author of the Reeves Commission report which led to the 1997 Constitution, Professor Brij Lal, says only parliament can amend the Constitution. Anything else will have no legal validity. He says there are no shortcuts. The best course of action for the Commodore would be to put his proposed electoral changes before the President’s Forum for discussion by all stakeholders. Any consensus reached there could then be inserted into the constitution by a recalled parliament.

We know that the High Court has legitimised the appointment of the interim administration by the President through reserve powers derived by convention under common law (and that this ruling is being challenged in the Court of Appeal by ousted PM Laisenia Qarase) but the key question today is: How can the constitution be amended without a parliament? There is a constitutional crisis.

The current government says it wants to restore democratic rule but this can only be done by returning the nation to the polls. It is committed to elections but wants to amend the constitution so that the new electoral system is used.

Already the new electoral system has been supported by all the political parties. It is a fact the matter will be discussed at the President’s Political Dialogue Forum.

Former CEO of the PM's Office, Joji Kotobalavu offers a solution that may be acceptable to all parties:

"Once political consensus is reached on this new system of national elections, the President can invoke his emergency powers under the Constitution to reconvene the dissolved Parliament solely for the purpose of suspending the current electoral and multi-party provisions of the 1997 Constitution and to adopt the new system for the next elections.

The reconvened Parliament could also formalise other political agreements such as the ratification of the President’ promulgation on immunity, and the formation of a government of national unity after the elections, to bring about national unity and reconciliation, and, in conjunction with that, to undertake a comprehensive independent review of Fiji’ Constitution in all aspects.

This, said Prof Lal, is the only constitutional way to amend the constitution when parliament had already been dissolved, but if the Government's chief legal adviser, the Attorney General, thinks there is another way, he must tell the public.

Read the Constitution at this site

(+oB)... But What a Constitution! Fact and Opinion
Crosbie Walsh

The Constitution Review Commission whose recommendations, after wide consultation and with some changes, became the 1997 Constitution Amendment Act, was "commissioned" by the Great Council of Chiefs in the aftermath of the 1987 Coup and the even more racially lopsided 1990 Constitution. The commissioners were New Zealander Sir Paul Reeves, ANU academic and former Fiji resident Prof. Brij Lal, and the late Tomasi Vakatora. Their recommendations were considered by the then PM Sitiveni Rabuka and the Leader of the Opposition, Jai Ram Reddy, unanimously endorsed by the Great Council of Chiefs, debated by a joint parliamentary committee, and finally put to the House for approval.

The preamble of the Constitution states (my emphasis): "In the interpretation of a provision of this Constitution ... regard must be had to the context in which this Constitution was drafted and to the intention that constitutional interpretation takes into account social and cultural developments, especially (a) developments in the understanding of the context of particular human rights; and (b) developments in the promotion of particular human rights."

Last Monday I sat down to re-read the 1997 Constitutional Amendment Act partly to see how the "context" had shaped the law but mainly to see whether Brij Lal or Voqere Bainimarama was correct. Could a fair and free election be held without breaching the Constitution, or could it not? Perhaps there was some legal loophole or ambiguity to support Bainimarama's position. Several hours later I was in no doubt. Elections along the lines proposed by the Interim Government can only be decreed by Parliament. Any other way is in breach of the Constitution. Brij Lal is correct.

So, where does this take us? One view, which supports the Interim Government position, is that the electoral system, and much else in the Constitution, could well breach basic human rights. Most people in Fiji accept the need to protect indigenous Fijian (and Rotuman and Banaban) "first nation" rights pertaining to land and custom, and even, within limits, to the retention of a parallel system of government, as spelt out in the Fijian Affairs Act, Fijian Development Fund Act, Native Lands Act, Native Lands Trust Act and other Acts, but their implementation should be transparent, and not used -- as they have so often been -- as a means to protect and embed the power and privilege of sections of the Fijian elite under the guise of protecting the interests of ordinary Fijians.

The constitution's political provisions are another matter altogether. They affect citizens of all communities; Fijians no more than others. Major changes are needed at all levels of administration: provincial, municipal and national. When we say all citizens are equal under the law we should mean with respect to all constitutional provisions other than those excepted .

But almost all provisions in the Constitution dealing with the executive, legislative and even some judicial functions of government, from the appointment of the President and Vice President, to representation in the House of Representatives and Senate, the drawing of election boundaries, the alternative vote system and elections; the many powers of the Great Council of Chiefs, the appointment of senior judges, and the provisions for amending the constitution, to a greater or lesser extent, under the circumstances prevailing in Fiji for the past several years, entrench Fijian paramountcy, potentially to the detriment of other communities. And this paramountcy is by no means shared equally from the top to the bottom of Fijian society. A constitution which guarantees that all are not equal under the law makes other references to human rights sound rather hollow.

By "under the circumstances prevailing in Fiji for the past several years" I mean the pervasive and universally dominant influence of extreme Fijian nationalism, reinforced by religious extremism, in almost all spheres of public life. In the SDL Government where supporters of the Speight coup were made cabinet ministers, and a Minister referred to IndoFijians as "weeds" to be rooted out and sent to India. In Senate where religious extremists like Tomasi Kanailagi held sway. In the leadership of the Methodist church. In a Great Council of Chiefs led by equally rabid nationalists. In the absence of an effective parliamentary opposition, thanks to the failure of the "multi-party Cabinet" clause in the Constitution, in large part brought about by Qarase's refusal to allow Chaudhry in his cabinet, despite an Appeals Court and Supreme Court ruling. In ethnic Fijians heading almost all government ministries and departments. In the absence of transparency and high levels of favourism and corruption. In the general ignorance of political realities and apathy by the public. In the Indo-Fijian population's fear of retaliation. And, last but not least, by a not very vocal fourth estate. In other "circumstances" most Constitutional provisions could have produced a fair and just society; in the particular circumstances of the 1990s and early 2000s, they could not. Democracy, which the SDL called a "foreign flower" not suited to Fiji, never stood a chance.

Check reinforces check, building impregnable barriers against change to the Constitution. The President and Vice-President are appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) following consultation with the Prime Minister. The PM and Cabinet are appointed by the President, acting on his own judgment, from the party with the confidence of the House. The President appoints as Leader of the Opposition the MP who, in his opinion, would be acceptable to the majority of MPs in the opposition party or parties. [The ousted Leader of the Opposition's party had two seats!]

The upper house or Senate consists of 32 unelected members. All are appointed by the President on the advice of others: 14 on advice from the GCC; 9 on advice from the PM, 8 on advice from the Leader of the Opposition, and one on the advice of the Council of Rotuma.

The powerful Great Council of Chiefs consists of 55 unelected members: three each are nominated by the 14 provinces (irrespective of population size); 3 by the Council of Rotuma, and 6 by the Minister of Fijian Affairs in consultation with the President. The President, Vice President, PM and 1987 coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka are members.

The Chief Justice is appointed by the President on the advice of the PM. The CJ presides over the Supreme Court that deals, among other things, with "any matters arising under the Constitution or involving its interpretation." The Election Boundaries Commission and the Electoral Commission are appointed by the President after consulting the PM and Leader of the Opposition. The chairperson in both cases is a judge.

Parliamentary representation derives from fixed communal seats (17 rural Fijian; 19 Indo-Fijian, one Rotuman and three General voters) based on provinces (which serve few other purposes, except for Fijians) and six urban Fijian and 25 Open seats. The boundaries, the number and type of seats, and the system of voting is inflexible and grossly unfair, especially to urban Fijians and Indo-Fijians. One wonders whether such an unequal and unfair electoral system breaches UN declarations on human rights.

Despite these provisions, a multi-ethnic government led by Mahendra Chaudhry's FLP won the 1999 election. Speight and Qarase sought, and many in today's opposition seek, to prevent this ever happening again.

To change this system within the Constitution requires a specially announced bill to be read three times in the House of Representatives and to have the support of at least two-thirds of the members in the House and the Senate at its second and third readings. Sixty days must separate the last two readings.

This may seem not unreasonable. It should not be too easy to change a constitution, though election system details should not need to be enshrined in the Constitution. One might have thought principles alone would have sufficed, with details left to subsequent legislation. But the story does not stop there.

The Bill, even with this support, can be vetoed by "certain members". It still needs the support of 15 of the 23 Fijian MPs, 13 of the 19 Indo-Fijians, and 2 of the 3 General Voter MPs. Given that rural Fijians and General Voters are over-represented, it seems unlikely that their MPs would vote for a fairer system that could see them out of job.

Which takes us back to the "context" within which the Constitution was drafted and accepted. The dominant Fijian leaders refused to accept the possibility of a non-Fijian president or vice-president; they wanted to further entrench Fijian land and sea ownership; special assistance for Fijians to compete in business; and special mention of Christianity. The Constitution's preamble defers to "the enduring influence of Christianity in these islands and its contribution, along with that of other faiths, to the spiritual life of Fiji".

[The Methodist Church submission to the Reeves Commission wanted much more: Fiji to be declared a Christian state; a ban on Sunday work; Christian teaching to be taught and safeguarded in government; no other ethnic group to be allowed permanent residency in Fiji, and provision, also within the Constitution, for the safeguarding of Fijian "values, religion, culture, their land and sea." (* Tuwere, 46: 1997). Most, but thankfully not all, Methodist Church leaders were core supporters of the 1987 and 1990 coups. As the religious element in extreme Fijian nationalism that provided the "foot soldiers" for these coups, they must bear much responsibility for the bigotry, intolerance and inhumanity which has allowed Fiji's "coup culture" to fester and flourish. Their thoughts have no place in a democratic constitution.]

Non-Fijians (mostly non-Christians) had little choice. Under the 1990 they had limited rights; under the new constitution they would in some respects be second-class citizens, but their rights appeared more protected. This is the "context" of the 1997 Constitution. Its prime cause and effect was not to advance democracy -- or establish parliamentary (sic!) paramountcy -- but to draw the fangs from Fijian ethnic and religious extremism, ensure Fijian paramountcy, give non-Fijians an acceptable recognized place in the country, and create the political stability necessary for economic and social advancement.

In a healthy democracy (which the Constitution claims Fiji to be) one particular human right is that one person's vote should be worth no more or less than any other person's.

The role of an unelected, "aristocratic-bureaucratic" body like the GCC would appear to have no proper place in the running of the state. Its role should be restricted to Fijian affairs, as indeed was long ago intended. It has no mandate from or over others, and should, in my opinion, play no part in national politics.

Provinces (today's approximations of pre-contact Fijian political units, the yasana) are the geographic strongholds of the chiefs and the units used for the Fijian administration. They are vastly unequal in population size and have no meaning for non-Fijians. They are an unsatisfactory and undemocratic way to determine parliamentary seat allocations.

Bainimarama is right in wanting a truer democracy but I don't see how he can do it without breaking the Constitution. The only legal way out would seem to be along the lines suggested above by Joji Kotobalavu: persuade his opponents to change the voting system (and later conduct a further constitutional review) after the elections. There could then be an election in December followed by the agreed-to changes; and a new election, based on the new system, soon afterwards.

For this ever to happen, much is being asked of the President's Dialogue Forum, and the international community. The EU, Commonwealth, Forum and particularly Australia and New Zealand will need to lean far more heavily on Bainimarama's opponents than they have on Bainimarama. How each party acts will tell us much about the true value they attach to democracy.

* Ilaitia Tuwere "The Church State Relation in Fiji", pp25-52 in Brij Lal and Tomasi Vakatora (eds), Fiji in Transition, Vol. I.1997.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Last Week in Fiji II: Fact and Opinion

[Flashback: This weekend Fiji (and Serevi) are in Wellington for the Rugby 7's. Remember Trevor Mallard's embarrassing comment that he hoped the Fiji team wouldn't get very far in the competition (because of the 2006 coup)? And then Fiji went on to thrash NZ in the finals. A double embarrassment.]

Does anyone know why the Fiji Human Rights Commission website cannot be contacted?

  • Floods First, Forum Later
  • Help Sugar Now -- or Else
  • Singh and Beddoes Speak Out
  • People's Charter
  • Samoan and Ni-Vanuatu Commentary
  • Litigation: Qarase and the Interim Government
  • Wages Up, Fares Down - Helping the Poor
  • Minimum Wages
  • Mischievous or Just Bad Reporting - Fiji Daily News
  • The Good News: 3000 New Jobs?
  • And from NZTV 7 Robie, Dreaver and Khan

(G) Attention Floods First, Forum Later
Interim PM Voqere (Frank) Bainimarama has called for sacrifice in the face of suspended EU loans and further sanctions following Fiji's possible suspension from the PI Forum later this year. “Every now and then we need to make sacrifices for the betterment of our future generations,”he said. "“Maybe we lose some now, but in the long run, we are more independent, confident and our children will have a lasting multi racial, cultural and tolerant society they can develop in.” He said discussion on the Forum resolution will take place after the flood victims are taken care of but, according to FijiLive, he was adamant about changing the country’s race-based voting system.

The Floods
The final cost of the Floods is not yet know but costs so far include an estimated $30m for the Sugar industry and at least $8m for Nadi rehabilitation. Meanwhile, according to Fiji Village, over 17,000 people received rations in January, and more than 147,000 people still need them, all in the west and north of Viti Levu, approximately 18,000 in Nadroga, 8,500 in Navosa, 70,000 in Nadi, 13,000 in Lautoka and Yasawa, 9,600 in Ba, 10,000 in Tavua, 5,000 in Nadarivatu and 12,800 in Ra. Overseas donors include PNG $1 milion, India $185,000, N Z about $600,000. The Government is distributing water purification tablets to affected areas.
This is the worst environmental crisis Fiji has endured in recent years. One might have hoped NZ would have put politics aside and been considerably more generous.

(o) Help Sugar Now or Else, Aid Donors Told
FijiLive 6 February 2009
Fiji's main sugarcane farmers' organisation has warned aid donors to front up now with badly needed assistance or face the consequences of salvaging a potentially bankrupt industry.Sugar Cane Growers Council CEO Surendra Sharma said aid donors should take heed as they will all be implicated if the industry fails."Aid donors will all have to spend a lot more to try to salvage the industry as well as deal with the wider implications when poverty levels spin out of control," Sharma said. The SCGC has written to the EU and the NZ and Australian governments for assistance, so far to no avail. NZ is playing a major role in tying up EU aid. Hitting cane farmers and workers will not "restore democracy".

(-) Movement for Democracy in Fiji chairperson Attar Singh appealed to the Interim Government to "return to democracy" so that the EU's $350 million aid to the ailing sugar industry will be paid.

(-) Former General Voters MP, Mick Beddoes, asked how the interim government will amend the Constitution without breaking the law. This followed Interim Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum's statement that the constitution will be amended to allow electoral reforms, the end of racial voting and the introduction of the a one man one vote system. (Fiji Sun).

(G) People's Charter Paper is Out
The Fiji Daily Post reports (5 February 2009) that the 42-page People's Charter for Change, Peace and Progress has now been accepted by the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilovatu Uluivuda, and is being widely distributed. Translations into Fijian and Hindustani will be available soon The Interim Government's Information Department said the Charter process was a national level initiative which was inclusive and participatory, representing Fiji’s own way of addressing its deep-rooted, complex and fundamental problems.

Integral to this process has been the firm commitment of all stakeholders as well as the interim Government towards the restoration and sustenance of true parliamentary democratic governance, stability and peace in Fiji,” the statement said.

The Ministry of National Planning has been tasked to integrate the Charter into the Corporate Plans of various ministries.“The general public is therefore encouraged to make an effort to read the Charter and contribute to the interim Government's endeavour to rebuild Fiji into a non-racial, culturally vibrant and united, well-governed, truly democratic nation that seeks progress and prosperity through merit-based equality of opportunity and peace,” the statement said.

(-) Samoan leader, Tuilaepa Malilelegaoi says unless the armed force in Fiji is removed there will be no peace in the country. Major Neumi Leweni replied that Fiji was a sovereign county and asked that it be left alone to attend to its problems. [Unfortunately, it could well be that it will be left alone.]

(o) Vanuatu Finance Minister, Sela Molisa, chairperson of the Monitoring Group for the People's Charter, speaking of the Forum's ultimatum to Fiji, said "I don't believe that it is the best option for the countries of the Pacific.

(+) Abuse of Office?
The case brought by the Interim Government against Former PM Laisenia Qarase, adjourned until 5th March, has been transferred to the High Court in Suva.

(-) In a counter move, Qarase's SDL party is challenging a ruling by Justice John Bryce which allowed the People's Charter process to continue, over-ruling an earlier injunction by Justice Jitoko that would have stopped the use of civil servants and government funds in promoting the Charter. [Tit-for-tat litigation is about the last thing Fiji needs at the moment.]

(+) Help for the Poor
Whatever its faults, the Interim Government is showing concern for the poor. This week it has increased minimum wages by 20% (see below), ordered a reduction of bus fares by 10%, and taxi flagfall prices by 50c, following the recent drop in fuel prices.

Minimum Wage Increases
Fiji Employers Federation chief executive Ken Roberts said federation representatives at the council's board argued against the wage increase that will give low paid workers increases of between 20 and 50 cents an hour. He said employment creation in the country will be hindered and those business affected by the flood would suffer further. National Wage Council Chairman, Fr Kevin Barr, had earlier said some employers had refused to raise wages despite generating huge profits through increased productivity, and added that when asked many employers refused to show their financial records to the Council. (Fiji Times).

The wage regulation order was gazetted in November last year and came into effect February 1st. Minimum hourly wage rates: Garment industry $1.36 ($61 weekly, assuming a 45 hour week. The urban poverty line in 1991 was $101!); most unskilled workers $1.65 to $2.08; Hotel and Catering workers from $1.84; Mining and Quarrying from $2.57.

In 2003 the bottom 30% of urban households had 10% of urban incomes, while the top 20% had 47%,, and the top 10% had 30%.(See Walsh 2006:357-359)

(-/o) Mischievous or Just Bad Reporting
(-) Fiji Daily News: "Democracy Still Elusive in Fiji".

Whoever wrote this article should get their facts right and not infer Prof Brij Lal said things that he did not.

FDN: "The military-man has ... suggested he’d like to keep the top job for another 10 years."
The Facts: Bainimarama actually said “I want to reform electoral laws and change the constitution to remove discrimination against Fiji’s large ethnic-Indian minority. The reforms will come before elections - even if the process takes five to ten years.”

FDN: "...he has replaced many key government figures with military officials"
The Facts: Yes, this is worrying -- but it is at least partly because of the difficulty in filling these position due to Australian and NZ travel bans.

FDN: (He has) "repeatedly broken promises to hold an election to return the country to democracy."
The Facts: Not repeatedly. Two "promises" were made, the first in April 2007 by Chaudhry, Nailatikau and Sayed-Khaiyum to the EU; the second in October 2007 by Bainimarama to the PI Forum in Tonga, and then only made after Tonga said they'd support a later date if this became necessary. Being pressured to say something is not a promise. Opponents say the promise was broken because of the date change (March 2009) but that was only one part of the promise. The other part promised "free and fair elections." [The "six million dollar" question is how this can be achieved. All parties -- the Interim Government, its opposition, the Forum and international community -- need to lift their eyes from dates and focus hard on possible answers to the far bigger question.]

DN:"The reason for the delay, he claims, is the need to reform the current communal voting system that assigns votes along ethnic lines, giving indigenous Fijians an advantage over the Fiji Indian minority."
The Facts: Yes, but not for the reason stated. The majority Fijian population has long had that advantage. What the Interim Government wants is a system that gives all votes an equal value. [Note: The present system makes (rural) Fijian, General and Rotuman Communal votes far more valuable than those of urban Fijians and Indo-Fijians. A case can be made to allow over-representation of Rotumans and General voters.]

Municipal Councils Dismissed
The Local Government Association will legally challenge the Interim Government's decision dismissing all councils to facilitate municipal reform. Their case will be heard on 13th March.

And the Good News? 3,000 New Jobs for Nasinu?
FijiLive reports that Cayman-based ICT call centre business, Mindpearl Ltd., could create 3,000 fulltime jobs over two and a half years, starting this September, following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Fiji Islands Trade and Investment Bureau. Mindpearl provides full contact centre facilities and services to a consortium of 11 airlines, flying globally to over 400 destinations across all time zones. Wages are likely to be between $12,000 to $15,000. Fiji was chosen because of its "neutral" English accent and Southern Cross Cable access. Mindpearl, to be located in the TaxFree Zone at Nasinu in Greater Suva, will enjoy a 13-year-tax holiday.

And from NZ TV7: (o+) Robie, Dreaver and Khan: Fiji Needs Help by its Powerful Neighbours
New Zealand's TV7 (unfortunately only accessible on the internet or with Freeview) offers programmes that rarely pander to the "lowest-common-denominator" audience typical of most progammes on other TV channels. There seems to be an intent to inform and educate, the kind of TV we were promised when we first had TV in the 1960s. Thursday's 9:10pm slot was a disccussion on Fiji between three people with Fiji experience: journalist and educator David Robie of AUT, TV1's Pacific reporter Barbara Dreaver, and Radio Tarana owner Robert Khan (

I hope, but doubt, that someone in the PM's office or Foreign Affairs was tuned in. The main message: Fiji needs help, not confrontation, from its more powerful neighbours. Things are very wrong that need to be fixed if Fiji is to have a genuine democracy.

You can listen to what they said on

Postscript 17.2.09. The NZ Media7 programme on Fiji is now available on the Pacific Media Centre YouTube site so it can be seen in Fiji

The second item, on Waitangi, is also pertinent. My thanks to David Robie's Cafe Pacific for the link. See also my posting "Fiji Needs Lasting Solutions and Compassionate Neighbours" by Auckland-based journalist Thakur Ranjit Singh. Fiji Times 5 February 2009.
(G) Bainimarama Appeals to Media for Fair Coverage on People's Charter

Abridged from Pacific Media Centre posting. Comment on this item For full Government release, see

Iterim PM Voqere Bainimarama has appealed to the media to report the facts on the People's Charter and State of the Nation and Economy (SNE) Report fairly so people could form informed opinions and make decisions based on good and reliable information. The media, he said, had a duty and important role to play in raising awareness about the People’s Charter and the details of the proposed changes.

He noted that their previous active opposition on the work of National Council for Building a Better Fiji appeared to be based on the idea that the Charter was being imposed by a government that had no mandate But reaffirmed that the Charter process had been inclusive and participatory and represented Fiji's own way of addressing its deep rooted, complex and fundamental problems.

Bainimarama reaffirmed that the interim government was firmly committed to true parliamentary democratic governance, stability and peace in Fiji. He pointed out that changes introduced through the People’s Charter would be comprehensive and not a process happening at an objective abstract level in the systems of government, the laws, economy and so on as people assume.He further stated that the People’s Charter was about change of the individual person at the very fundamental level.

Bainimarama highlighted that this was no means an easy challenge adding Fiji as a nation could not change for the better unless people at the personalevel changed their views, attitude, motives and actions and how they worked and acted in various situations. He said the People’s Charter was about promoting shared value of equality and dignity for all citizens, respect for different beliefs, good governance, social justice, economic growth, public service, good governance, social justice, economic growth, rewarding people on merit and consensus building on issues that cause conflicts and so on.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

(+) Opinion: Fiji Needs Lasting Solutions and Compassionate Neighbours
Thakur Ranjit Singh, Waitakere City, New Zealand
This article was published in the Fiji Times, 5 February 2009.

If there are any lessons to be learnt from the previous coups, hurriedly-prepared elections and token changes to rules do not usher in real democracy.

As New Zealand Air Force Boeing 757 descended on Port Moresby on the night of 26 January, 2009, carrying New Zealand Prime Minister John Key to attend Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting, we had hoped his first trip to the Pacific since coming to power would make a difference.

However the outcome of the PIF meeting was a big disappointment. We had expected and hoped for some change with a new bloke in control. But it appears that despite his right arm in plaster, John Key was still using the other arm to cling on to Helen Clark’s petticoat when it comes to determining his stance about Fiji. He still appeared to be doing that in Port Moresby as he met the Pacific leaders and gave an undiplomatic and paternalistic grilling to Aiyaz Khaiyum, Fiji’s Interim Attorney General, who represented Bainimarama. Key even went to the extent of suggesting he (Khaiyum) should be tried for his crimes.

For those of you who are unaware, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key suffered multiple arm fractures after a fall at Auckland’s Greenlane ASB Showgrounds to mark Chinese New Year on 17 January, 2009, just over 2 weeks before PIF meeting. He attributed his tripping and falling down the small flight of stairs to “…..momentary lapse in concentration, I was looking out instead of looking down."

While we are sorry to see this happen, at least some thought that there was a brighter side to this unfortunate incident - with one arm already pre-occupied, he would be less tempted to snatch at Labour’s petticoat. There are indications that National Party was still copying and pasting the non-compromising foreign policy of Labour Party and its former leader Helen Clark who is reported to be National’s de facto advisor on Fiji matters.

So much has already been written as to why election alone would not solve Fiji’s problems. New Zealand and Kevin Rudd’s obsession with elections is merely an escape valve to show to the world that these big Anglo Saxon brothers still rule the Pacific. The only problem is that these two countries are bereft of any brotherly love. They have always gained from Fiji both in terms of trade imbalance and the well-trained English speaking professionals, businessmen and qualified blue collar workers who do the jobs that need to dirty the hands. The biggest beneficiaries of the coups and instability in the Pacific have been these two big brothers who saved millions, if not billions in not having to train migrants who were already trained by Fiji government, its taxpayers, its work ethics and its stable family environment. I am one of them.

Fiji has had elections since its independence in 1970, but these elections were a mere shadow of democracy. John Key and Rudd need to understand that even in the past Fiji elections, real democracy had never been achieved. It had merely been a sham of democracy; in many instances autocratic leaders used their traditional powers and influence to manipulate democracy and masquerade as democratic leaders.

In my past writings, I have already enumerated the fundamental problems with Fiji, but today, the biggest problem on election issue is an unfair electoral system and arrangement that hits at the heart of democracy.

There is a need to remove the race-based politics and election and have an electoral system and process that gives same weight and importance to every vote. The current system in flawed in this respect where some provinces with only 6000 people have a seat while others with three times more people still have one seat. Fewer rural population have greater number of seats while urbanites miss out.

United Nations and internationally recognized principles of democracy dictate that each person's vote is to be of equal importance; hence Fiji’s electoral system is in breach of these. In addition, some twenty percent of voters in 2006 either did not vote because of a rigged and ineffective system with many names not on the roll or had their votes declared invalid because the system is too complicated for many to understand.

Is John Key aware of this major flaw in Fiji’s electoral system? Are other Forum leaders aware of this? Would they tolerate this in their countries?

The adage that age brings maturity was aptly displayed by the host of PIF meeting, Sir Michael Somare. Despite their economic richness and advancement, Key and Rudd were rendered mere dwarfs by the sensitivity, reason, humility, compassion and generosity flowing from this eminent person.

It is hoped Australia and New Zealand bureaucrats in the Beehive (Parliamentary Office) in Wellington can teach this lesson to their leaders that I have been echoing for years now and Sir Michael summed it very aptly: “If there are any lessons to be learnt from the previous coups, hurriedly- prepared elections and token changes to rules do not usher in real democracy.”
In true Pacific way, PNG gave NZ and Australia a lesson in diplomacy, neighbourly love and maturity in pleading that the Forum owed it to the people of Fiji not to commit the same mistakes of the past. He suggested that a roadmap be drawn up with realistic timelines to return Fiji to a durable democracy. Sir Michael promised financial and logistic support, and volunteered to provide all the assistance that Fiji required to carry it towards path to a long-lasting democracy, based on equality and justice. Perhaps the developed-country (read Australia and NZ) leadership in PIF countries need to learn from the supposedly backward Pacific countries which have a heart for their neighbours in trouble. It has become obvious that the two strong and rich Pacific neighbours do not understand and appreciate the true meaning of the Pacific Way.
Sir Michael’s pronouncement should echo for a long time and reverberate in future Forum Meetings: “… Forum leadership is not about imposing our will, but about listening and extending a helping hand in ways that bring about long term solutions.”
New Zealand can continue to ignore the advice of migrants like me and others, but they need to heed the advice of their own former diplomat who suggested that a team of experts should be sent to Suva to establish the broad outlines of new constitutional requirements. He cautioned that tone and style would be important and New Zealand need to stop acting ethnocentrically.

His advice to his own government was to reflect on the observation: There's only one thing worse than a coup, and that's a failed coup.

On that fateful day when John Key stumbled and fell in Auckland, he blamed it on momentary lapse in concentration as he was looking out instead of looking down.

John Key needs to learn from his experience. He once again stumbled and fell in Port Moresby and further fractured the relations that NZ Labour Party had failed to mend. He needs to learn from the elder Sir Michael Somare, and he needs to free his non-plastered hand from previous government’s policy and develop his own foreign policy on Fiji with advice from seasoned leaders with a heart, like Sir Michael.

My advice to John Key is to start looking down and closely at Fiji before looking out at far away countries, to avoid future falls, like his stumble in Auckland followed by the one in Port Moresby.

He may end up being the fall guy of NZ Labour Government’s failed and non-compromising foreign policy on Fiji.

He may, hence end up copping the blame for a failed coup and the resulting dictatorship in Fiji!


(About the Author: Thakur Ranjit Singh is an Auckland-based political commentator.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

New Feature
Last Week in Fiji I : Fact and Opinion

  • Aftermath Forum Decision
  • Aftermath Fiji Times Publisher Expulsion
  • Employers concerned about new minimum wages
  • Commonwealth Urges Local Government Elections
  • The Sunday Ban - Revived
  • Announcement on President's Political Dialogue Forum (PPDF)

Meanwhile, estimates on the cost of flood damage increased; more flooding is forecast for Navua; Waisale Serevi was sacked as coach of the Fiji Sevens (and his supporters threatened to burn down Rugby House ... and Fiji slipped off the radar in New Zealand.

Aftermath Forum Decision
The Interim Government continues to say it will not be pressured; its opposition demands immediate compliance; and some in Fiji and overseas are asking for tougher measures. So, as expected, there's little new to report, onlyto repeat: pressure must be applied, inside and out of Fiji, on all parties, not just on the Interim Government.

Fiji Times Publisher Expulsion
The Pacific Concerns Resource Centre's (PCRC) Peter Emberson is the latest voice condemning the expulsion of Fiji Times publisher Australian Rex Gardner. In a separate post, I called the expulsion unwise but it does bear repeating that the FT defendants admitted guilt and the judge, generously, did not pass sentence on Gardner only because of its visa and work permit implications. Emberson called the expulsion "appalling" but the accusation can only apply to the severity of the judgements, not the judgments themselves.The FT abused its privileged position, and broke the law, not for the first time.

Employers concerned about new minimum wages
Surpise! Surprise!

The Sunday Ban - Revived
Village chief Isei Vosadrau of Cawaro, Udu Point, has banned Sunday travel because villagers are leaving church early to catch boats. Methodist President Awe Tugawe said that while "work" was not allowed on the Sabbath, this did not apply to visiting the sick, travel and helping the poor. Rev Akuila Yabaki, Citizen's Constitutional Forum (CCF), said the right to freedom of travel had been violated and he was appalled at a ban which forced people to attend church. The incident brings to mind the infamous Sunday Bans of the early 1990s when the Rabuka government included Fijian nationalist and religious extremists, not unlike the situation with the Qarase government. It serves as a further warning of the dangers of linking church to state.

Our human prejudices overwhelm the universality of our religious teachings. We use it to denigrate and demean each other. The way of the cross is love, forbearance, forgiveness, compassions and gentleness ... It is a quantum leap to apply these tactics to advocating a Christian State or to demonise other faiths.
Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Fiji Times, April 2006

Commonwealth Urges Local Government Elections
The Commonwealth Local Government Forum has urged the Interim Government to hold municipal elections no later than October. This followed the Government's dismissal last week of all municipal council preceding a "clean up campaign." An earlier review report had recommended councillors stay in office until a new election, and that mayors be elected by voters, not councillors. It was hoped this provision would meet Government's concern at the amount of party politics in municipal affairs. ( For more information on Fiji local government, see Walsh: An Encyclopaedic Atlas, pp384-387, and and

President's Political Dialogue Forum (PPDF)
The Forum, proposed by the President last year, will be facilitated by the Commonwealth and UN, with Forum representatives invited. The Forum is likely to be held soon, following a meeting of all political parties to discuss its terms of reference and an agenda. Electoral reform and the adoption of a new political system will be high on the agenda. The announcment would be good news except that PM Bainimarama has reservations inviting parties strongly critical of the People's Charter and electoral reform, and former PM Qarase and his SDL party insist there should be no pre-conditions. Bainimarama, he said, should come to the meeting with an "open mind." (One might add, and so should Qarase). The PPDF offers a way forward, especially if the international community offers its support, but for the present the signs do not look too promising.