Political Round Up, February Week 3

By Crosbie Walsh

The untimely death of Methodist Church President Tuikilakila Waqairatu briefly brought the country together at his funeral on Thursday with mourners from all shades of the political spectrum.

The Rev. Waqairatu sought to heal the rift in the church caused by its near  takeover by extreme ethnic Fijian nationalists. Elected only in 2012, it is too soon yet to know how successful he was in returning the church to its Christian purpose. Death only too vividly reminds us of our common humanity and temporary residence, but it is a lesson we soon forget.

Political news during the week concerned the ongoing argument between unions and government over union participation in party politics; statements surrounding the two-day visit of the Pacific Forum Ministerial Group; a policy statement and hints at a campaign strategy by SODELPA; and the PM's politically directed comments at the launch of a new boat and the new Fiji Home Finance Bank

Union officials as election candidates

The Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions General Secretary Attar Singh ("who is not part of any political party at the moment   ... though he had spoken at NFP meetings")  told visiting Pacific Islands Forum Ministers that the present constitution was unfair in denying unionists the right to participate in party politics and stand for elections.

This follows FTUC general secretary Felix Anthony’s recent claims that the government was attempting to shut up the entire trade union movement itself. Trade unionists like
Felix Anthony claim while they are being targeted the government is able to get away with things. “This Prime Minister is already calling for people to vote for him now.  Why isn’t the media quizzing him? Is there two sets of laws,  one for trade unionists and the other for the Prime Minister and his colleagues? What are we about in this country? He talks about a level playing field. Where is the level playing field?”

He does have a point. Government's response was that, despite these "attention grabbing tactics," unionists simply had to make up their mind soon on whether they want to continue in the unions or resign and take part in politics.

A-G  Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum accused unionists of deviating from the real issues. “There is a lot of hot air by these personalities and in fact you can count them on one hand.  It’s about three or four of them only who are making this noise and I think the Fijian people are a lot more intelligent than that and they will stop falling for a lot of this hoo-ha."

The A-G said the the Political Parties Decree was quite clear. It restricts the involvement of unionists in political parties and now the government has indicated it will be strengthening this decree further.

But the A-G, readers will note, was also engaged in a little deviating hot air. The main issue is bigger than a few unions. The whole union movement is affected  and he dodged the main question about whether the law was fair or democratic.

A writer on Facebook's Fiji Economic Forum, however, seems to be siding with the A-G. He asked whether the unions would help finance political parties and whether this would be decided by the union leadership or its members. This has long been an issue in Australia and NZ where the Labour Party has strong union links.

The Forum Ministerial Visit

Despite the protestations of former politician Mick Beddoes who said he is "unhappy" with the
governments of Australia and New Zealand, and unionist Felix Anthony urging Australian unionists not to ease up on  the Bainimarama government, some progress has been made towards restoring full relations  with these governments and the Pacific Islands Forum whose Ministerial Contact Group paid a two-day visit to Fiji during the week.

NZ has already lifted travel restrictions against military people visiting NZ for sports and some training purposes, and Foreign Minister McCully signaled his support for the approval of Fiji's Constitution last year with the registration of political parties, the enrollment of more than 540,000 voters including Fijians living overseas and the appointment of an independent Electoral Commission.

For her part, Australia's Foreign Minister Juli Bishop said Australia wants to normalise relations ahead of  the September elections.

She welcomed the PM's pledge to stand down as army commander at the end of the month when he will announce details of a new party he will lead into elections in September.

In their face-to-face meeting, the PM  said he was prepared for whatever role resulted, even if he were to lose the prime ministership. “He talked about a range of post-election scenarios,” Ms Bishop said.

Key among the priorities in normalising relations will be the Australian travel sanctions which she admitted had been ineffective. And in the opposite direction, "Australians have been voting with their feet, holidaying in Fiji in greater numbers than ever."

Ms Bishop said a review of the travel sanctions policy was almost complete, and the next opportunity to take it to cabinet would be very soon when Bainimarama steps down as army chief. She said the new deal she brought to Fiji was not conditional, even on its accepting the return of an Australian high commissioner to the mission in Suva which it has so far refused.

The meeting with the two foreign ministers were decidedly more friendly than last year's meetings with former Australian foreign minister, Labor’s Stephen Smith and more recent meeting with Murray McCully.

Besides support for the election process, the new Australian package will include a twinning arrangement in areas including foreign policy, finance and the Public Service Commission, with Fiji officials working in Canberra, and Australians in Suva. Australia has invited Fiji to send a defence representative to Canberra, and hopes to reinstate its own defence attache in Suva. Fiji will be invited to participate again in Australia’s Pacific patrol boat program, through which its present three boats might be renovated, or it might receive two further vessels. And defence co-operation program will be re-established to include joint exercises and staff college training. Australia’s seasonal workers’ program that brings Pacific Islanders to Australia is set to be expanded to include Fiji.

blish date/time: 21/02/2014 [11:09]
Applicants are expected to be interviewed soon for the position of Supervisor of Elections.

Minister for Elections and Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said the Secretary to the Constitutional Offices Commission is now assessing the applications.

Sayed Khaiyum added the appointment will be made following consultation with members of the Electoral Commission.

According to section 76 (2) of the Fijian Constitution, the Supervisor acting under the direction of the Electoral Commission will carry out three key responsibilities.

The Supervisor will administer the registration of voters for elections of members to Parliament.

The Supervisor will also conduct elections of members of Parliament, and such other elections as Parliament prescribes and also performs such other functions as are conferred by written law.

Under section 76(4) of the Fijian Constitution, the Supervisor is 
appointed by the President on the advice of the Constitutional Offices Commission following consultation by the Constitutional Offices Commission with the Electoral Commission.

SODELPA: Sounds good but it's probably back to before

Readers may be interested into this profile of Pio Tabaiwalu http://www.fijisun.com.fj/2013/05/24/sodelpa%E2%80%99s-secretary/

Government-leaning Fiji Sun published a long statement from SODELPA's General Secretary Pio Tabaiwalu during the week in which he took government to task for forcing it not to use its old name before going on to say, "Many of the guiding principles and values, vision and mission of the former SDL Party are embodied in the constitution of SODELPA. But they have been re-focused and refined for clarity, purpose, and practicality."

"As we look to the future of Fiji, SODELPA is determined to forge a strong, united, peaceful, stable and prosperous Fiji. There is much work to do after such a long period of unaccountable military rule which has been regressive for Fiji.

"We further affirm that Fiji draws its strength and character from a rich variety of traditions, languages and cultures.We will uphold Christian values and principles while respecting the beliefs and values of other faiths."  It will be remembered that in one of its submissions to the Ghai Commission, it wanted Fiji declared a Christian state.

He said the party saw the need for honest and caring governance, social justice and transparency and was  concerned about what it describes as "the present levels of gross mismanagement and rampant corruption.  (It believes)  in the fair distribution of the fruits of economic development with special recognition of the plight of the poor and disadvantaged."

What he did not say was that the party is also against the Bainimarama's decision to pay all land lease money to the mataqali owners, without the massive NLTB administrative deduction. SODELPA appears to want to return to the old system where a hierarchy of chiefs took out the main share, leaving little to people at the botton of the stack. This seems at variance with most notions of caring. social justice and the plight of the poor.

Bainimarama's campaign already started

The PM took two swipes at his political opponents this week,

First, at the launch of the MV Sigavou
("new day") which will service the maritime provinces by referring to "years of neglect." It appears this was the first boat purchased by the Government Shipping Service in 28 years, while this year alone government has commissioned three boats.

Secondly, and far more bluntly, at the opening of the new  Home Finance Company Bank, a wholly Fijian-owned enterprise  75% owned by the FNPF and 25% by the Unit Trust of Fiji.

The PM said "this is a time for celebration but also a time for sober reflection about the sorry history of our first 100 per-cent Fijian-owned financial institution – the debacle of the National Bank of Fiji. The NBF, as you know, was owned by the people of Fiji through the Government."

Launched in 1976, it was declared bankrupt in the late 1990s with debts exceeding $220 million or eight percent of Fiji's GDP. Most people familiar with the reasons for the collapse will agree with the  PM that is was due to
"a greedy elite – after the two coups of 1987 - who used the people’s bank as their personal piggy bank. With their noses stuck firmly in the trough, this elite – aided by a grossly irresponsible management and board – raided the NBFfor loans that many had no intention of repaying. They ripped off their fellow Fijians".

And then the PM really let fly:

"The ultimate blame lies with the then SVT Government, which presided over a prolonged period in which the funds of ordinary Fijians were misappropriated. These elites effectively robbed their own countrymen and women – decent, hardworking ordinary people who had put their trust in the Bank and the Government.

"Our Reserve Bank – which is meant to oversee the system – also shoulders some of the blame for failing to see what was happening, turning a blind eye to it or at the very least, going public with its concerns.

"By the time the whole fiasco ended, 51 per cent of the remnants of the NBF was sold off to foreign interests for what would be considered a pittance. Any notion of good governance took second place to the SVT’s political interests.  After all, many of those treating the NBF as their personal piggy bank were its ministers, SVT members, supporters and hangers-on. Under the SDL Government, the remaining 49 per cent was sold at what would again be considered a pittance.

"Now, some of those same politicians and hangers-on who were responsible for this scandal – and others who benefited personally — are seeking your vote in the forthcoming general election. They are relying on you having short memories.
They are treating you as if you are stupid. I urge you to call their bluff and consign them to the political dustbin of history."

The rest of Bainimarama's speech

My Government expects that the proper mechanisms are now in place to ensure that the Home Finance Company Bank meets the highest prudential requirements and the highest standards of good governance.

We will have zero tolerance for anything else and we will continue to insist on quality and stringent levels of performance if the Fijian people give us the mandate we are seeking to lead Fiji after the election.

We have had a vision and we have delivered it – of a range of Fijian institutions operating at the highest level and being symbols of national pride. Our treasured Brand Fiji includes Tourism Fiji, Investment Fiji and Film Fiji.

It also includes the FNPF – whose timely rescue and prudent stewardship of the savings of every Fijian worker has received an important accolade from the global superannuation industry.

And it includes Fiji Airways, which this Government saved and has been returned to profitably with its state-of-the-art aircraft, flying higher, more frequently and very soon, further.

To add to that glittering stable – whose reputation we must do everything to cherish and protect – we now add our own national Bank, HFC, which is specifically tasked to serve our people by giving them better and more affordable access to finance.

We expect HFC to focus especially on making home ownership more affordable for ordinary Fijians. For too long, Fijians have had to pay too high interest rates for home financing. Yes, while interests rates may be lower than usual at the moment, we need consistency.
We need all stakeholders to realise that home ownership and construction grows an economy, creates jobs and provides security for ordinary families.

By having home ownership, we bring those outside the mainstream into the financial sector. We stop them from going to moneylenders. This is vitally important and the reason I announced a $10-million grant to ordinary people in the last budget to help them realise their dream to own their first home. All the CEOs of the banks have met with us and we hope to make an announcement on the release of this grant in the coming weeks .

My Government is also creating a revolution in the banking system – more competition to drive down bank charges and interest rates and drive up the level of service delivery. We have introduced new players in the market, new competition.

Soon, we’ll be implementing the National Switch, which will benefit every ordinary Fijian who conducts an electronic transaction.
I know that the CEOs of the banks have met with the Ministry of Communications and have agreed with its implementation.
This is good news because it will not only, in a very short period of time, reduce the cost of electronic transactions but increase their volume, encourage the unbanked to bank, and get more non-financial institutions which have high levels of monetary transactions such as i’TLTB to interact more directly with their customers. Of course, new banks entering the market such as HFC won’t have to expend their funds in capital infrastructure but rather focus on, as all banks should, competitive pricing and service delivery.

Starting a bank is no easy process. And I want to thank everyone who has had a hand in the immense task of getting this enterprise off the ground – the shareholders, the Board, Management and Staff.  To all of you I say: Pursue a culture of excellence. Adhere to the highest standards of honesty, transparency and propriety. Always abide by the rules, the regulations that are there to ensure the highest standards of governance. And remember above all that you are there to serve our people – to provide them with the means to improve their lives and to create wealth for them and our beloved nation.

As I keep saying, these are exciting times to be Fijian – a time to be proud, a time to face the future with confidence.

I now have great pleasure in launching the Home Finance Company Bank and its corporate branding.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

1 comment:

Bill Carson said...

The PM was spot on about his comments re failure of Reserve Bank to prudentially supervise NBF's operations. I think Jone Kubuabola and Sada Reddy should have been taken to task for this glaring failure. They had a responsibility to act, they failed to do so.