I really can't believe it. As the country struggles to achieve some degree of common purpose before 2014 and a non-racially based election (a non-negotiable element according the military-backed government), Mick Beddoes is calling for the retention of race-based seats in Parliament because it's "too early" to abandon racial voting.*
Individual and Institutional Racism
He says, "It will take two or three elections before prejudices and mistrust between different ethnic groups completely die out in the country." Which dream world does he live in? Racial prejudice completely gone, of its own volition, within 15 years? I'd predict two of three GENERATIONS for most OVERT prejudices to die out, and even then some people will still be prejudiced.
But what is just as amazing is that Mick does not understand this is not about individual prejudices, however long they may take to go. It's about institutional racism, which is an altogether different thing. It's about the allocation of jobs, housing, scholarship and, yes, parliamentary seats, on the basis of race. And institutional racism must go before individual prejudices can be expected to diminish.
Reflections of Diversity
Further, he says a "voting system must be retained which reflects the nation’s diversity." But he does say why this has to be by the allocation of racial seats in parliament. Diversity (and a degree of integration) would be just as easily achieved by multi-racial parties standing candidates of different ethnicities. And this is likely to happen because if a multi-racial party hopes to win a seat in, say, a predominately Indo-Fijian electorate, it will most likely stand an Indo-Fijian candidate. And so on for the other ethnic groups. In Suva, where Other Race General voters are important, parties could well have Other Race candidates. And if the candidate does not win, so what? Policies committed to multi-racialism, not personalities and race, is what should matter in 2014.
However, the suggestion of multiple MPs in larger electorates would make it more likely parties would stand candidates from all races.
Mick seems to assume that only by having race-based parties will the interests of each race by secure.He treats Other Races as one. But if this were so, one must ask what his presence in parliament did to protect the interests of the Other Races before the 2006 Coup. I'm sure he did a good job but I cannot think of a single piece of legislation that was passed to protect or advance Other Races. Indeed, the desperate plight of most Kai Solomoni remained unchanged despite them having a party with which, according to Mick, they can identify.
Mick's "Simple Solution"
Mick persists with what he calls "a simple solution" about how to ensure parliamentary representation for ethnic minorities. He gives this example: “So let’s say it’s four percent minorities and we end up with three seats, so we divide Fiji into three but every citizen in Fiji votes for that minority. So the minority representation remains in parliament, same things with Indians, same with Fijians so you have that mix in parliament and the people look up and say, ah, I am represented. But it also requires aspiring candidates to appeal across the board to all the population.”
What he seems to be saying is the ethnicity of who votes does not really matter so long the people elected represent all races. So, for the Other Races, some 210,000 ITaukei, 180,000 Indo-Fijians and 11,000 Other Races vote for three Other Race MPs? They may be elected of the people but I can't see how the grossly outnumbered Other Races would think the MPs had been elected by their people.
What Mick is really talking about is a guarantee that the new electoral system will retain the essential features of the old system, at least as far as Other Races are concerned. This would mean having more MPs than they should be entitled to on a per capita basis. In 2006 when General Voters comprised under 4% of the population they had nearly 7% of the communal seats.
When 14,000 Votes Count Equally to 98,000 Votes
Let's put this in perspective. With three electorates totalling under 14,000 registered voters, the General Voters had three seats. Compare this with Fijian Urban voters where it took an average of 32,000 voters to return one MP. Put another way, three General Voters electorates with 14,000 voters had three MPs, the same as 98,000 Urban Fijians in three electorates. There were similar discrepancies in other electorates. Ba West Fijian Communal and the Nadi Indian Communal electorates, for example, also had more registered voters than the three General Voters electorates combined but they each only returned only one MP. This is the reality of the fair and democratic electoral system Mick wishes to retain or slightly modify.
The Farce of the Parliamentary Opposition
Another consequence of the race-based electoral system saw the two member UPP become the parliamentary opposition, and Mick the Leader of the Opposition. Representing barely 5,000 people in the two electorates they had won, the UPP held two of parliament's 71 seats that represented close to 480,000 voters, while an independent represented the other General Voter electorate.
Who are the General Voters/Other Races?
Finally, it is important to look at the concept and reality of General Voters. Put bluntly, it is difficult to see the General Voters/Other Races as an ethnic group or even as a group of ethnicities with some common demographic, economic, social or cultural characteristics.
The last official figures I have are for the 1996 census, but at that date, Other Races included some 3,000 Europeans, 5,000 Chinese and part-Chinese, 11,600 Part-Europeans, and 10,000 Other Pacific Islanders.
It does not stop there because within each of these groups, there are further divisions. Most of the Europeans are non-citizen expatriates many of whom will leave Fiji. Many Part-Europeans are part-ITauakei, the KaiLoma. Some of their families have traditional links with ITaukei families, and they are a "fully accepted" part of Fiji. Others, by choice or no choice, are less securely accepted. Among the Chinese there are the long established, the new arrivals, and the Part-Chinese who identify closely with ITaukei. The Other Pacific Islanders who are citizens are made up of Kai Solomoni and Kai Vanuatu, descendants of indentured labourers who have married into ITaukei families, Banabans and Tuvaluans with land in Fiji, and Samoans, Tongans and others. Even they do not share basic similarities.
Since 1996, the numbers of General Voters have declined, as their more advantaged members emigrated. Between the 2001 and 2006 election, the number of registered voters in the three General Voter electorates fell by over 20% to 13,817, and in the 2006 election 20% of registered voters did not bother to vote.
The Role of the Other Races Unchanged With or Without Seats in Parliament
Historically, Other Races have filled important roles in colonial Fiji, and today some continue to have an influence far in excess of their numbers. I don't see this changing, whether or not they have assured separate parliamentary representation.
This does not mean that the individual races should not have some special place in the administration of government. They could, for example, have standing or advisory committees or, if Senate is retained and revised, each could have their own senator. And there's nothing to prevent them establishing their own voluntary associations with open channels to Government. But it does mean no special legislative presence in parliament based on race. (If you have any ideas, see Question 26 Protecting Ethnic Minorities in Fiji Political and Constitutional Forum www.fijipcforum,blogspot.com
A Special Fiji, Not a Special Place
What Mick and those who think like him should want is not a special place in Parliament based on ethnicity, but a special Fiji where all races are treated with dignity and equally before the law, and where individuals receive special assistance, not on the basis of their race, but because of their individual needs.
This will come whether Mike's UPP have three or no seats in Parliament if people turn their attention to the principles of the People's Charter and work together to achieve the best possible outcomes from the Constitutional and Electoral reform dialogues. It is less likely to come without the co-operation of people like Mick Beddoes.
* Mick Beddoes's statement based on a rent Radio New Zealand International interview.