By Crosbie Walsh
The non-political news of the week was the threat of Tropical Cyclone Lusi, that is now only a heavy sea swell warning; the ongoing type 3 dengue epidemic, a new strain to Fiji, that has infected between 10,000 -15,000 people, leaving eleven dead, and the appeal by low-lying Nausori for funding to fight the epidemic.
The opening of yet another telecentre which gives schools and local communities access to free internet, this time at Kalabo, may be considered both political and non-political. Kalabo, just outside Suva, has served as both a staging ground and retreat by anti-Bainimarama elements in recent years.
The big political news of the week was the appointment of Ro Teimumu Kepa as the leader of the SODELPA and her lengthy 34,000 word inaugural address. Rather too long, I would have thought, for a news item, but SODELPA protested nonetheless that the Fiji Sun treated it as an advertisement that needed to be paid for. The 68-year old was unanimously elected as the leader by the party management and her election was announced to a meeting of 300 last Thursday. FLP and NFP leaders were also present.
Most other news derived from her speech: a denial by the Ministry of Education that religion could no longer be practised in schools; a claim by the PM that she was scaremongering on land and religious issues hoping to win the iTaukei vote; a counter claim by Chaudhry that the PM was "shaken" by her speech and should be the last one to accuse anyone of being a racist. How he worked this out is anyone's guess. But the Fiji Sun took the unusual step of publishing the PM's rebuttal in the iTaukei language so there must have been some concern that less educated Fijians might heed the high chief's comments.
Which reminded me of a non-political and non-Fiji item copied by a Fiji Economic Forum blogger from the UK's Daily Mail under the heading "Lawn Again Christians" that could have some resonance in Fiji among the less educated. A South African preacher made his congregation eat grass to 'be closer to God' before stamping on them. If you don't believe it, click on the hyperlink to check out the photos that accompany the article.
Those with knowledge of Ro Teimumu's political record would not be surprised at her speech. She is on record as saying there was no need to consult "her" people. As chief, she knows what was best for them. She was Minister of Education in the Qarase SDL party, the party that SODELPA has all but replaced. And she has been a vocal opponent of almost every step taken by the Bainimarama government, including the People's Charter, even though her Bishop was co-chairman. She hosted the Methodist Church conference in Rewa despite government concern it would be used for political purposes. She used her appointment as chair of the Rewa Provincial Council to launch a attack on government even though the Council is a government body whose agenda is limited to Rewa and not national issues. She opposed the abolition of the Great Council of Chiefs, the restructuring of the iTaukei Land Trust Board, the payment of all lease money to the mataqali whose land was leased, thereby cutting out payments to chiefs, and the Land Banks that again bypassed chiefs and the iLTB, with legal agreements protecting leasor and leasee.
But even those with no knowledge of her political record would have been surprised at a speech that was so blatantly and unashamedly a call for a return to the "old regime" where chiefly and iTaukei "rights" were deemed paramount.
The speech addressed no issues that would appeal to all Fijians, irrespective of race, and offered no new perspectives or promises of policies addressing all Fijians. It was addressed to iTaukei, not to a supposedly multi-racial party. And its main thrust was an attack on the Bainimarama government, hoping that ethnic Fijians would forget what has been done for —and with— them over the past eight years, and that they could be appealed to again vote back into power the elite that had most benefited by an appeal to what, in a political context, are the red herrings of race and religion.
A breakdown of Ro Teimumu's address
God, religion and schooling
An earlier SDL submission to the Ghai commission wanted Fiji to be declared a Christian state. The 2013 Constitution recognized the right of all Fijians to worship according to their beliefs but it did not dedicate Fiji to God, Christian or otherwise. Ro Teimumu criticised this omission:
"We are called now to save our country. We must rededicate Fiji to God, and, with His support, take its destiny into our hands. We should look at this as our sacred duty. I did not at first actively seek the positions of leader and president of the Social Democratic Liberal Party ... But I heard deep in my heart the cry of our islands. I listened; I prayed long and hard and the answers came. And, now, here I am. I am ready...""On this day I declare to you before the nation that SODELPA will always recognize the supreme presence and power of Almighty God.... Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum ... see no place for God in their 2013 Constitution. They made this decision without the permission of the people and then declared that it had our approval. How dare they? "
She went on to say that "a senior official in the Ministry of Education has given written advice following questions raised by Suva Grammar School, a government school. This official, from the ethics and disciplinary unit, states that Christian prayers at Suva Grammar are unconstitutional."
The blog Fiji Today took up the call with a heading "It is now illegal to pray at school". But it transpires that Ro Teimumu had got it all wrong. Education Minister Filipe Bole said no such directive has been issued, and the Suva Grammar School management had only sent letters to parents asking if they wanted to allow or disallow their children attending prayers.
Since then, Sanatan and Methodist schools have publicly stated they have no problem with the constitution or with parents giving or withholding permission for their children to attend prayers and other religious instruction. But Ro Teimumu has not retracted her accusations.
The old new policy
In most other respects Ro Teimumu's policies were similar to the policies of the SDL-led government prior to their ousting in 2006.
After saying that "SODELPA commits itself to building a prosperous and unified nation, based on democratic values, the rule of law, fundamental human rights and social justice and to ensure equal opportunities for all." she outlined policies that to this writer appeared to contradict democratic values and could not possibly unify the nation, namely,
- The reinstatement of the Great Council of Chiefs
- The reintroduction of scholarships based on race
- The revocation of the Land Use Decree and Mahogany decrees that opened land for use with guarantees for all concerned parties
- The removal of impositions on the Methodist Church (that the Church has earlier accepted as it moved to become a non-political organisation)
- All itaukei land to be managed only by the Itaukei Land Trust Board and "the equal distribution of lease money to landowning units will also be reviewed as she claims the current system is effectively destroying the communal foundation of the indigenous Fijian society."
- Asking the Supreme Court about the status of the 1997 constitution (with the clear intention of its re-introduction).
- Reviewing the legality of the Fiji National Provident Fund's unilateral reductions of pension entitlements to ensure that pension contractual agreements are honoured. (The Fund would be unsustainable if the old pension levels were reintroduced.)
One new development in SODELPA organization that could prove very effective in getting people to vote, and vote for the SODELPA, is the formation of women and youth branches, the latter headed by Pita Waqanovonovo, once a leader of an aborted protest march on Suva, now a likely candidate for a seat in parliament.
A multi-part government
Ro Teimumu said if SODELPA won, it would resume a multi-party government with the Fiji Labour Party and would invite like-minded parties to join.
Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry said after the meeting that they have been working together under the United Front for a Democratic Fiji (UFDF). National Federation Party president, Raman Pratap Singh, said: “Under our umbrella (UFDF) we have been here for the last two years and that is an understanding between the parties as the leader of SODELPA has said that we will be fighting the elections on our own. We have an understanding and we are working with that understanding.”
Chaudhry's involvement is not surprising. Once the SDL's bitter enemy, he now sees his best chance, with his Indo-Fijian support base falling mainly due to emigration, to exercise some measure of power is in coalition with his former enemies. His previous "coalitions" hint at a very short coalition this time round. As for the NFP, already overshadowed by Chaudhry and not really needed by SODELPA, I think they have sounded the dead knell on Fiji's oldest political party.
Meanwhile, the PM is still to announce details on his new party.
Ro Teimumu's full speech and PM Bainimarama's response are published separately.