By Crosbie Walsh
The three major items of political news this week must be the gazetting of the Elections decree late on Friday, the announcement that elections will be held on 17 September (to be a paid public holiday) and the appointment of the Acting Permanent Secretary for Justice, Mohammad Saneem as the Supervisor of Elections.The Deputy Supervisor will be an Australian national. Most of the Opposition's criticism to Government's conduct of the election process have now been met.
One major construct is still missing: the launch of the PM's party which is expected next month. The delay in the launch has been criticised by the opposition United Front for a Democratic Fiji which claims Bainimarama is in breach of the Elections Decree by campaigning before his party is registered.
NGOs excluded from election process
Government previously said it welcomed foreign observers and participation from NGOs in the election process but I'm informed the Elections decree states that organizations receiving foreign aid (and all significant NGOs are recipients; none could survive without it) cannot participate in election-related activities. If this is so, it is ironic (Government itself is receiving aid to run the elections), undemocratic (significant popular bodies are excluded from participation) and counter-productive (how many will doubt the fairness of a process where only Government can engage in voter education?).
Poll shows support for PM maintained
In the latest Razor poll for the week ending 15 March the gap between the PM and Opposition widened slightly.
Bainimarama is now the preferred PM for 80% of the pollsters; SODELPA candidates total 10%, and FLP 4%.
The preferred party figures continue to show a high proportion of undecided voters with 38% saying they were "unfamiliar" with the political parties, but 51 % supported the PM's party (up from 44%) and the opposition continued to trail a long way behind: SODELPA on 5%. FLP 4%, PDP 2%, and NFP 0%.
The difference in the preferred PM and preferred party figures is puzzling, although the gap is narrowing and should narrow more once voters know who is standing and all parties announce their policies. This is especially so for the the PM's party.
Media coverage also shows support for the PM continuing from the provinces (the North, Namosi, Rewa and Matuku in Lau). Favourable comments were made at the Namosi and Rewa Provincial Council meeting, and developments in the Northern Division and Lau have also drawn favourable comment.
In the Northern Division, developments include a new FNU campus and new information office in Labasa as part of Government's ‘Look North’ policy; government's single largest project, the construction of the Nabouwalu-Dreketi highway; mining in Bua; relocation of main water pumps that will improve the lives of hundreds of households in Macuata. and the Mini Hydro Project in Somosomo, Taveuni.
In the Lau Group. the Tui Matuku has pledged support for the PM's party "because of what he had done for the rural and island people. Past governments have made many unfulfilled promises." He said those in the maritime islands were neglected in the past but the Bainimarama-led Government has really cared for them. “We’re tired of the old politicians who will only take the country backwards when elected,”
New Commander Brigadier-General Mosese Tikoitoga, addressing troops in the West, has warned soldiers to remain neutral during the September elections. He said their role in the 2013 Constitution had changed and they needed to be neutral at all times. “You have a right to choose a party, but do not be part of the campaign because it will ruin our standard in front of the Fijian people, who we have vowed to serve,”
SODELPA attacked the Mining Decree and the supposed ban on school prayers; NFP informed the Electoral Commission that provisions in the Political Parties (Registration, Funding, Conduct and Disclosures) Decree 2013 that restrict trade unionists and disallow corporate organisations to donate funds is draconian and undemocratic; and FLP leader Chaudhry likened Bainimarama to the elephant in the house because he has not stepped down from his position of PM and Minister of Finance and is therefore still in charge of government money and manpower.
The UFDF is calling on the A-G and Prime Minister to stop the cover-up of their salary payments and come clean on the matter of the termination of the Public Accounts Committee members. "It is very strange indeed", they say, "that the Attorney General would want to close down the committee six months before the elections." As previously reported, the A-G said the PAC would re-form after the election and full access would be given to all records.
Tuisawau on Taukei land ownership
Rewa chief Filipe Tuisawau has questioned the A-G's comment that Taukei land ownership is not threatened because it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, saying he is "not a native landowner, just another politician conducting just another political campaign."
Tuisawau asks, "What are the effects of placing native land protection under the Bill of Rights? What is the impact on the Native Lands Act, the Native Lands Trust Act and the NLC? What is the effect of the Land Bank Decree? Does it have adequate measures to safeguard and protect native landowner interests and later generations?" He claimed that by removing the "entrenched legislation of the 1997 Constitution, Government has effectively rendered we, the native landowners, powerless over our own land.This power, under the 2013 Constitution, now rests with the politicians in Parliament. All these changes were made without the consent of we, the native landowners, and as such are totally unacceptable.Worse, the changes were made by people we do not know or recognise. They were not made by the leaders we elected, nor were they made by our chiefs."
This argument is not new and is in line with similar reasoning by his chief and SODELPA leader Ro Teimumu Kepa.
What Tuisawau is not asking is what is being done to promote fuller use of Taukei land, much of which is grossly underused, and how can the living standards of rural Taukei be improved through the fuller use of their land resources.
In short, what is his recommended policy on land use and rural development? All that has emerged so far is Ro Teimumu's demand for a return to the old system of lease payments favouring chiefs.
The UFDF checklist
The UFDF plans to release a regular list of 'facts' for voters to ‘check’ and see for themselves just how uneven the playing field is for the 2014 General Elections. People will be "urged to establish for themselves the TRUTH of the matter and decide if the election is in fact being run on an even playing field."
The first Fact check asked whether government and cabinet were elected, and a number of questions on public accounting, government spending, Cabinet salaries, declaration of assets. unrestricted access to the media, and immunity protection. In other words, the same old questions that appear to have attracted little public interest.
In their appeal to voters, Opposition parties have to attack government but they should also say what they intend to do that government has not done, or will not do, that affects the ordinary live of citizens. They have to appeal to and not limit themselves to appealing against. And they have to say something different from what they did when they were in government.
Manifestos needed, not vitriolic attacks
This point, the absence of any party manifestos, was taken up by Sachin Anand Balram in the Fiji Today blog.
"I have searched high and low," he said, " for political party manifestos. Alas! I have not been able to find any. No one really knows party platform of any of the five major parties. As the rhetoric heats up, as campaigning starts to simmer, as the politicians start to huff and puff, the party manifestos outlining the vision of the political party is missing. Manifestos should be one of the most important document that any party can possess."
"I receive lots of phone calls from friends and family members. All they know is that politicians are engaged in vitriolic personal attacks, politicians are not providing any specifics about any important issue and politicians are still seeking donations to run their campaigns. So, the voters are being left in dark about important issues that will affect their lives under a new regime (this is if Bainimarama’s Party does not win)."
His wish list of issues that should be covered in manifestos include agriculture (what assistance for local production and export?); the sugar industry; land leases; tourism; small business; unemployment; bank profits; crime and personal safety; corruption; assistance to charitable and religious organizations; universal, women's and gay rights; bilingualism, multiculturalism and promotion of all cultures; sports; cyber security; a "rounded" education for children, not just academic achievements; health; housing; the disabled, elderly and poverty; devaluation of the dollar; VAT; income tax reform; the environment; rural development; urban growth; the military; media freedom; foreign relations; infrastructure; flood insurance; national debt; national identity; public transport; prison reform; stopping the brain drain.control of "vices" (cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, kava, gambling etc.)
"Without a manifesto no political party should even think of fighting an election. The voters will have lots of doubts and distrust about their party if a simple manifesto isn’t placed in their hands. No party can do without it."I agree wholeheartedly.
Narsey's advice to unionists
Dr Wadan Narsey continued his attack on government in a lengthy address, “Challenges and options for the FPSA in 2014: You shall overcome” when he was chief guest at last week's FPSA AGM.
He pointed to economic stagnation 2006-11 (2% plus since but only because of a large increase in public debts); frozen real wages; the string of of broken promises, a not independent judiciary, unfair laws, rules and regulations, efforts to weaken trade unions, a toothless Public Service Commission, lack of transparency, and development "bestowed on us by people armed with guns,"
"But", he said, "this military government would not have lasted for eight years had it not been for the support of a large number of intelligent but scheming and selfish people: lawyers, former high court judges, businessmen and women, accountants and auditors, public relations experts, university administrators and academics, opportunists from abroad, and at some critical times, some of our own colleagues and friends from the union movement." And this included Fr David Arms for criticising the 1991 elections and Fr Kevin Barr for believing government rhetoric.
The 30% drop in union membership, he attributes to "a weakening of the moral fiber of your members, as more and more potential members are willing to be free riders.
He urged unionists to focus on the bigger picture not individual issues and cooperate with other unions such as the FTU, FTA, FTUC, FNA. "Putting fingers in little holes in the dyke is not going to help when the whole dyke needs to be changed." On which party to support, he said all parties were tainted by association with past coups or the Bainimarama government but the FPSA should engage with all of them, including the PM's party. If they found the inclusion surprising, he noted the frequency of the PM's visits around the country which showed he believed in the power of democracy if not its spirit.
The 2000 Coup: part of the "bigger picture"
Try this Youtube video to see who was supporting the "Speight" Coup
Media responsibility and freedom
The Media Industry Development Agency, established to ensure accurate reporting, says it will keep a close watch on political reporting in the lead up to the elections.
NZ journalist Michael Field, previously banned from Fiji because of his jaundiced and inaccurate reporting, called this a joke.
"It is a joke, this group, this MIDA group seems to be totally about control and dictation and order and you will stay out of this country, we're afraid of you, we've controlled the local media, the local media is totally compliant and foreign journalists can't be trusted."
MIDA chairman Ashwin Raj re-emphasised that three journalists - Sean Dorney (Australia), Barbara Dreaver and Michael Field (both New Zealand) - were still banned from Fiji, and that another ABC journalist, Campbell Cooney, could also be banned.
A major reason why I started this blog was to offset the bias, some would say, the outright lies, that Field was writing.
The Ratuva thesis
Yesterday, I published two extracts from Steve Ratuva's recent book on affirmative action, and in doing so I said I thought he overstated the similarities between the Qarase and Bainimarama policies and insufficiently examined the reason for their differences.
I think Steve is correct in noting the Taukei focus of the Bainimarama government but wish to state an alternative explanation. It could be far less, as Steve maintains, a switch from an appeal to traditional Taukei loyalties to a socio-economic appeal: what the grassroots benefit from supporting Bainimarama. And, perhaps, far more, a question of pragmatism.
Bainimarama could not have survived politically and will not win the elections unless he has the support (or at least the neutrality) of the military, and the support of a large number of significantly located Taukei. Hence, perhaps, his failure to tinker with the racial composition of the military, and the frequency of his visits and development assistance to key locations in Naitasiri and Tailevu, the North, Lomaiviti and Lau. It may not be that these areas have received more actual assistance than other areas, but the PM and his ministers, particularly Dr Jiko Leveni, have been waving the flag especially hard in these areas. It is also true that inland Fiji and the maritime provinces were neglected by previous governments, and development assistance could be justified on these grounds alone.
My main point is that while we have to synthesise and generalise in offering explanations, the "real" explanation may not be as clear cut as we sometimes suppose. There could be a fundamental difference in the Qarase and Bainimarama policies. After all, his much maligned Attorney-General and adviser is not Taukei.