Thursday, December 31, 2015

PM's New Year Message

Pn7. Bula Vinaka and a very Happy New Year to you all.

As we end the past year and celebrate the coming of 2016, I hope you are all able to take the time to reflect on what we have been able to achieve and focus on the path ahead of us–a path that will take Fiji and all Fijians to even greater levels of success and prosperity.

In 2015, we completed our first full year as a true democracy, and the Fijian people had the opportunity to see their votes and their voices become actions.

2015 was indeed a year of action. It was a year of achievement and it was a year in which Fiji truly came into its own as a model Pacific Island country. 
We witnessed how successful a Government can be when it remains untainted by ethnic considerations and division. How effective it can be when it awards on the basis of merit. How fair it can be when it embraces common and equal citizenry for all Fijians. And how successful the country can be when we focus on growing the economy for the well-being and prosperity for all. These values have led us to become a more unified country, and the world has taken notice.

This year, I had the opportunity to visit the Fijian diaspora around the globe and tell them what we have been able to accomplish as a new Fiji. I let them know that Fiji is back, better than ever before, and that we are open for business.  
The changes that we have implemented were long-awaited by many of our Fijian brothers and sisters overseas -- and it was an emotional time, as we reconciled with many people who were told that Fiji was no longer home for them. They recognised the progress we’ve made, and many committed themselves to walk side by side with us towards an even more prosperous and united future for our country.

As we recapture what we lost, and rebuild relationships with many Fijians who were driven away, we will strengthen our global presence. And with their knowledge and investment, and together with our home-grown talent, we will take our economy to even greater heights. That is why reconnecting with our people living abroad is so important.

My fellow Fijians,
Last year I asked you all to capitalise on our transition into democracy, and I am proud to say we are meeting that challenge every day. In 2015, we built upon our education revolution, we continued to improve and modernise our infrastructure – connecting more and more Fijians to roads, water and electricity - and we logged our sixth consecutive year of economic growth.

Our schools continue to equip our children with new technology in the classroom that will keep our students, and future workforce, competitive on the regional and global stage. Our infrastructure continues to develop, bringing essential services to every corner of the country. Our economy is improving every day, and my Government will remain committed to making sure that the benefits reach every level of our society. All of this was made possible because the vast majority of Fijians are focused on the future, they don’t live in the past, and they don’t want to go back to the politics and ways of the old. They have stood as one people, together, to confront the obstacles that came our way and now step into the future confidently. 

My fellow Fijians,
To strengthen our stand as one modern nation, free from its colonial past and to give ample opportunity to Fijians of all ages, and in particular our youth, to further contribute and consider what symbols most rightly represent our wonderful nation; my Government has decided to further extend the feedback period for designs for the new national flag to 29 February, 2016. The Government has received a number of new submissions since the 23 designs were published earlier this year.

The new time frame will be as follows: From 1st to the 19th of March 2016, 5 designs will be chosen, through the PM’s Office, for you all to vote on. Members of the public will have 3 months to vote on the 5 designs through public consultations, social media and text messaging. It is expected that the design with the most votes will be announced on 1 July to be our new national flag. The new national flag will be raised on Constitution Day which is on September 7.

I urge you all to join our pursuit for a flag that represents who we are today, rather than our past and one we can fly proudly into the future.
With that said, my fellow Fijians, our work can’t stop here. There is much that is left to be done, not only to reach our potential in the short-term, but also to pass on better opportunities to our future generations. That means leaving our children and grandchildren a world, and environment, that we can be proud of. 

Recently, I was in Paris at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change advocating a strong deal that addressed the threat climate change poses to our region and demanded real action on the part of developed countries.
At the start of this month, the UN laid out the Paris Agreement. It’s not everything we asked for, but it is still a step in the right direction. But now, more than ever, our commitment will be tested as we continue to fight to make sure the strong words printed on the agreement take the form of real, binding cuts on emissions through the developed world.

I am counting on other small island Leaders to stand fast, as we have in the months leading up to the Conference, and on our development partners to continue collaborating with us as we push forward in mitigating the effects of climate change. By having a national co-ordinated approach, we will mainstream climate change issues to all the Government Ministries and ensure that we are able to source the right levels of financial support and allocations.

My fellow Fijians,
I hope that you have been able to spend quality time with your families and loved ones this holiday season. Families are the backbone of our country, and we must do what we can to protect the sacred bonds of trust that hold our families together. That is why I have committed to using every available opportunity I have to condemn domestic violence and sexual assault that plague our society.

The law punishes these crimes severely, but we need to create a culture that disgraces anyone who even thinks about abusing or assaulting our women and children. And people who commit these atrocities should be mortified to show their faces in our communities and in our society.

When we allow violence to persist in our most private settings, when we have such a fundamental breach of trust, it creates an epidemic of destructive and immoral behaviour that spreads throughout our society, and it is our collective responsibility to prevent that from happening. As Fijians, we should be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we are doing our utmost to protect those who cannot always protect themselves. So, I call on all of you to join me in this mission to ensure that every Fijian woman and child lives a fulfilling life that is free from violence and abuse. 

As we close out 2015, let us, above all, thank God for the many blessings, and let’s resolve to do our best to keep building a better Fiji.
Wherever you are on this New Year’s Day, I wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2016.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Message from NFP Leader


Biman: Christmas is a time for sharing, reflection

Thursday, December 24, 2015
Pn6. WHILE there continues to be many great challenges on the political and socio-economic front, Christmas is a time to reflect and be guided by each one's spiritual leanings and determine how to chart a pathway for the better in the coming year.
That's the sentiment from Nation Federation Party leader, Professor Biman Prasad as the country celebrates Christmas tomorrow.
"This Christmas many Christians will be celebrating the birth of Christ and all that his life embodied as the standard to aspire for, but Christmas is also a time when other faiths join in to celebrate in their own way," Prof Prasad said.
"Here in Fiji, Christmas is synonymous with cherished times with families where many of our people abroad return home to be with loved ones to share in the partaking of sumptuous lovo or goat curry, church services and share reflections of the year around the tanoa of the year."
Fiji Times.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The 2016 Budget: Review

Fiji’s 2016 Budget: consistent, confused? Pn5.
By Matthew Dornan on Dec 17, 2015 06:00 am

Fiji’s 2016 budget was delivered last month by the Minister for Finance and Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, with the theme of “a strong Fiji, a fair Fiji, a healthy Fiji”. The second budget of a democratically elected Bainimarama government, it included a few surprises and policy reversals, which are discussed below. As a whole, however, the budget was very much a continuation of budgets delivered by the government in previous years (including prior to its election).
The highlights of the 2016 budget include:
  • Significant changes to the value added tax (VAT), including a decrease in the VAT rate, which will drop from 15% to 9%, and the imposition of VAT on basic food items and certain medicines that were previously exempt.
  • Higher taxation of the tourism industry, including increases to the Service Turnover Tax (applicable to a range of tourism services, including hotel accommodation) rate from 5% to 10%, and the introduction of an Environmental Levy of 6% on tourism-related activities.
  • Continuation of high levels of spending on capital works, including funding of road infrastructure through the Fiji Roads Authority.
  • A mishmash of changes to import duties across a range of items.
  • A renewed focus on tax compliance, with heavy penalties (and words from the Minister for Finance) for tax cheats.
  • Asset sales (many of which had been flagged previously but have not occurred).
The context in which the budget was delivered is positive, with Fiji expected to record growth of 3.5% in 2016 (a slight decline on expected growth of 4% in 2015, and actual growth of 5.3% in 2014). The Fiji economy has now recorded positive growth every year since 2010, reflecting both increased government investment and higher levels of confidence in the economy. Inflation is also low.
Economic growth has helped reduce the risk associated with high levels of government spending. The Fiji government continues to incur deficits as a result of record spending, with the net deficit incurred by the 2016 budget measuring FJ$286m, or 2.9% of GDP (this excludes repayment of existing debt, which leads to a gross deficit to FJ$445m, or 4.5% of GDP). This is higher than the net deficit set by the 2015 budget, which was FJ$214m, or of 2.5% of GDP, although the actual deficit in 2015 is likely to be higher given that a number of asset sales flagged in the 2015 budget did not proceed. Indeed, the actual net deficit in 2014 was 4% of GDP, more than twice the 1.9% figure set in the 2014 budget.
A more accurate figure for the deficit would exclude one-off asset sales (this would also be closer to the Government Statistics Framework adopted by the IMF since 2001, which incorporates asset sales as financing rather than revenue). For the 2016 budget, exclusion of one-off asset sales produces a deficit of FJ$606m, or 6.1% of GDP. This is a better figure for the simple reason that the government will no longer have the option of selling these assets once the sale proceeds. In Fiji, it is also likely to be more accurate given the fact that many asset sales flagged previously, in both the 2014 and 2015 budgets, have not yet proceeded. The impact of including these asset sales in the 2014, 2015, and 2016 budgets is highlighted in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Fiji budgets: deficits and asset sales
Figure 1: Fiji Budget: Deficits and asset sales
Notes: The purpose of this figure is to illustrate the impact of excluding asset sales from net deficit figures. As a result, 2014, 2015 and 2016 budget figures are used for these years. These figures do not necessarily reflect actual deficits. The actual net deficit in 2014 was 4% of GDP, while revised estimates for 2015 are yet to be provided.
These deficits are manageable, provided the good times continue. But they are also too high for a country enjoying good economic growth. The delivery of deficits year after year places Fiji at higher risk should it suffer a downturn, whether caused by a collapse in consumer confidence or (more likely) an external shock. Those that bear this risk the most are the pension fund members on whose savings most of these deficits are funded. This year’s budget aside, it is therefore encouraging to see the Ministry of Finance aiming to reduce debt (currently 48.3% of GDP) to 45% of GDP as part of its medium-term fiscal strategy.
The focus on infrastructure spending in successive budgets to some extent ameliorates these concerns, provided that (i) infrastructure spending is associated with higher quality infrastructure (and access), and (ii) this leads to productivity improvements, lower costs, and better access to markets for producers (thereby facilitating economic growth). Capital expenditure in the 2016 budget is FJ$1,341m, or 39.3% of total government expenditure, higher than ever before (this is shown in Figure 2). The Fiji Roads Authority (FRA) has again secured significant resources in the budget (FJ$636m). Transparency of this spending has improved, with the FRA publishing annual reports and half yearly reports. However, there are ongoing questions about the ability of the FRA to spend such funds, with the half yearly report published in September noting that 39% of budgeted funds had been spent so far in 2015.
Figure 2: Fiji budgets: trends
Figure 2: Fiji Budgets: Trends
The changes to the VAT and to taxation of tourism are undoubtedly the most significant policy changes delivered by the 2016 budget.
The desire to increase revenue from the established tourism industry is understandable, given most major hotels are foreign-owned and tax revenue received from the sector in the past has been minimal. Nevertheless, the increase in the services turnover tax from 5% to 10% in addition to the imposition of a new Environmental Levy applied at 6% of turnover is a considerable impost on a specific industry.
More surprising are the government’s changes to value added taxation (VAT). For a government that in 2011 raised the VAT from 12.5% to 15%, while at the same time maintaining exemptions on payment of VAT for a range of essential goods (and introducing some new exemptions), these policy reversals are odd. The Opposition Finance Spokesperson, Biman Prasad, has argued that they point to a “confused government”. The reasoning behind the changes was not made much clearer by Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum’s budget speech [pdf]. He first made the claim that by “having exemptions to VAT we … create a regressive taxation system” because “if the logic is that VAT should be exempt on certain items because you want to protect the less well-off, then it does not work because the rich also don‘t pay VAT on those items”. This claim is false. Low income households spend more of their income on essential items than wealthier households. Imposing VAT on essential goods is regressive.
The Minister for Finance subsequently justified the move with the argument that the tax system should be “more equitable and transparent, which means simplifying and rationalising the system to root out inconsistencies or special privileges that serve no useful social or economic purpose.” While a reasonable claim on its own, this argument is undermined by other tax reforms announced in the 2016 budget. The Minister for Finance proceeded in his speech to parliament to describe a long list of special exemptions to import duty, many of which contradict other elements of the budget. These include:
  • zero duty on sanitary pads, tampons and diapers
  • reduced duty on baby garments, undergarments for men and women, and deodorants (32% to 5%); as well as skin-care products, shaving preparations, cameras and camcorders, sunglasses and binoculars, electronic games, and watches and jewellery (15%)
  • reduced duty on quad bikes, used almost exclusively in the tourism industry (taxes for which are increasing) (from 15% to 5%)
  • reduction in the duty on motorcycles (15% to 5%)
  • elimination of the duty on bicycles
Some of the changes are understandable where applied to inputs in industries where final outputs are subject to tax. However, many of the changes seem ad hoc, and without a clear rationale (unlike the VAT exemption extended to basic food items and essential medicines, which had clear equity objectives). These changes will serve to complicate the tax system in Fiji. The provision (and removal) of such exemptions also opens the door for rent-seeking behaviour, and for the extension of “special privileges” to which the Minister for Finance referred.
The 2016 budget is a strange document. As a whole, it is consistent with earlier budgets, reflecting the government’s strong desire to develop infrastructure using government funds, even at the risk of accumulating higher levels of debt. It announces some good initiatives, including efforts (yet untested) to reform the civil service. However, the 2016 budget’s inclusion of major policy reversals and a long list of ad hoc revenue decisions that are not well explained serves to undermine the government’s economic management credibility. Let’s hope that the Bainimarama government produces a clearer vision in its next budget.

Matthew Dornan is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His previous commentary on the 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012 Fiji budgets is also available on the Devpolicy blog.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Parliamentary Committee to Investigate Torture Claims

BREAKING NEWS. Pn3. Military zero tolerance violence
against women.

             Stop all brutality

This is a healthy development. I hope the Committee starts by defining torture, and if the Fiji allegations fall outside the definition, it be widened to include brutality,  a less emotional and, in my opinion, a more appropriate term for the alleged actions. Further down the road the real test will be whether government acts on the Committee's recommendations should they find the allegations valid.   - Croz

Torture claims

Siteri SauvakacolBBBBBo And Nasik Swami
Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A MEETING of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence yesterday has agreed to look into allegations of torture by lawyer Aman Ravindra Singh and the abrupt departure of the former commissioner of police.
The meeting followed a letter from committee member Roko Tupou Draunidalo to committee chairman Netani Rika urging the committee to look into the alleged matters because they were central to the committee's oversight functions, duties and powers.
She said the committee would soon invite members of the public involved in the matter who had been allegedly tortured and unlawfully detained to make submissions before it.
Following submissions, the committee is expected to compile a report and table it to Parliament for further actions.
While the committee finalises a date for public submissions, Acting RFMF Commander Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto has refuted claims by Mr Ravindra Singh of mistreatment at the hands of the disciplined forces.
"There is no involvement of military personnel on any of those allegations but if there is anything, we will wait for police. If they are going to lodge a formal complaint, there will be an investigation," Rear Admiral Naupoto said.
Acting Commissioner of Police Brigadier General Sitiveni Qiliho has given his reassurance they would investigate the claims should an official police complaint be lodged.
"I told him (Mr Ravindra Singh) to call me when he lodged an official complaint but he hasn't and nothing as well has been lodged in the West," Brig-Gen Qiliho said.
"I gave Aman that personal assurance as well last week that we will deal with the issue."
When contacted yesterday, Mr Ravindra Singh said he would call an official press conference on Wednesday.
Mr Ravindra Singh's story has been reported in the international media claiming the men who tortured his friends wore military boots, were well-trained and spoke in a certain manner.
He told Radio New Zealand specifically that he and his staff were fearful after three attacks, two of which happened within hours of each other two weeks ago.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Human Rights and Wrongs in Fiji

Pn2. Today, December 10th, is International Human Rights Day and a time to reflect on the status of human rights world-wide and in Fiji.

A recent Radio NZ International broadcast1 on a claim of torture by Lautoka lawyer Aman Ravindra-Singh is a good starting point for reflection because it raises not one but four important questions: 1) the role of RNZI in reporting news from Fiji; 2) the lawyer's claims, motives and credibility; 3) the ongoing saga of human rights abuse claims against the Fiji police and military; and 4) the role of the Fiji First Government in relation to its domestic and international obligations on human rights. I'll take one at a time.

    1. RNZI reports on Fiji. 

    This is not the first time the state-owned and taxpayer funded broadcaster has taken a less than objective stance on the Fiji political scene. I don't know who called who, Singh or the broadcaster, but responsible journalism required accuracy in publishing Singh's comments; an opportunity for those accused to answer the accusations; and some attempt to place the events reported in their historical and cultural context. RNZI appeared to make no attempt to verify Singh's statement with the Fiji authorities; certainly none was published, and the context was limited to Singh's law practice and not the wider setting in which his accusations need to be placed. In effect, RNZI allowed itself to be used as a unchallenged launch pad for Singh's comments. Its listeners deserved more.

    2. The lawyer's claims, motives and credibility1
Aman Ravindra-Singh (L).
Aman Ravindra-Singh is a former prosecutor for the Fiji Department of Public Prosecutions; the secretary of an unsuccessful party in the recent Elections*, and he is “representing dozens of people who've been brought before the courts in recent months, some accused of trying to set up a sovereign Christian state in Fiji and others alleged to have taken part in a para-military style group.”

He says he and his employees have received threats “by men he believes are members of Fiji's security forces” [and] one employee was bundled into a car and driven into the bush where for two hours he was subjected to acts of torture including being stomped on, hit with a rod, pricked with pins, and injected with liquid.” 

 He says the attackers were evidently members of the security forces. "The men had military boots on, they were well-trained, they were very fit ... it was the way spoke … the men were in plain clothes and their faces were covered [they asked] 'why is he against the government' and 'you can tell him this is going to happen to him' and 'we're looking for him.'" He believes the aim of the threats is to stop him representing those accused in the sedition cases.

So far so good. The attackers could be security, and the attacks could be because of the sedition cases.     
Sitiveni Qiliho
But whoever they were, Singh should have reported the matter to the Police.
As Acting Police Commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho has said —and as Singh knows full well— the police cannot act without a complaint.2 They cannot be accused of failing to act unless a complaint is made. 

I asked an informed observer about Singh's allegations. He replied: 

“The police cannot fail if he does not make an official complaint with chapter and verse and details. Some of this might be true, but I also suspect the lily has been gilded for the international market.”

3. Human Rights Abuses by Police and Military

The remainder of Singh's interview with RNZI concerned what he called a daily "litany of human rights abuses." "In police stations around the country Fiji citizens are slapped, punched, kicked, intimidated, threatened, co-erced (sic!) into giving confessions, sometimes not fed. There are a litany of cases,"

Another informed observer had this to say on the daily litany of torture:

I suppose abduction and being beaten up may constitute 'torture', but as you know police brutality has been fairly common in Fiji for sometime. Assaulting suspects and obtaining confessions is a daily occurrence in police stations throughout the country. Sadly, the military's recent history of brutality and torture goes back to Rabuka's coup in 1987 when FLP and NFP activists and supporters were rounded up, detained and 'tortured'.

The word 'torture' conjures up images of extreme brutality not practised in Fiji. 

See footnote 4. 

4. Government and Human Rights

Singh goes on to say, "It's absolute nonsense what the Fiji government says out there in support of human rights and it is absolutely a farce that the Fiji government receives praise from the United Nations and from the European Union because we are on the ground here and we are the ones putting up with the violation and breaches of human rights and I'm personally experiencing this on the ground.”

The implication is that Government knows what is going on, sometimes encourages it, and does nothing to stop it, which implies a political motive. As my first observer responded:

"As you know there are elements in Fiji's security forces (police, military and corrections) prone to using violence and violating human rights of citizens. Whether 
this has tacit approval of the government of the day is another matter. However, 
those violating human rights are rarely charged and convicted - this is a common 
enough occurrence in many of the so-called democracies of the world including 
the USA.

"Unfortunately with each coup, elements of the security forces in Fiji have enjoyed immunity from prosecution even though there were clear cases of gross 
violations of human rights including the loss of life. The sense of impunity of the 
men in uniform has been enhanced with the coups.”

My second observer was more forthright:

To suggest this is political is nonsense; it is endemic in the police culture which must be eradicated. He is making a political not a sociological comment."

Where now?

A week ago a burglary in a Lautoka internet cafe and alleged brutality by the police is possibly also related to the sedition charges mentioned by Singh but in this case the cafe owner complained to the Police Commissioner and has been assured of police protection.3 

Christopher Pryde 
Also last week, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Pryde, threw out charges against a Jone Manasa because of evidence that that he had been assaulted by Police in custody. 

The DPP said, “The allegations against the police officers are very serious. The file will now be returned to the Police recommending that an investigation is commenced into the allegations raised by Mr Manasa.4

And as I write, the Fiji Times announces that the PM has called on the President to revoke the appointment of the Ifereimi Vasu, Acting Commissioner of the Corrections Service, due to a charge of abuse of office.5

In October Government outlined to the United Nations Human Rights Council efforts it was making in the area of human rights which including police training. Parliament has unanimously agreed to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture. Money has also been provided to the police to set up rooms for video recording of interviews of suspects in custody.

These events show that efforts are being made to eliminate brutal and illegal acts by the security services. But I doubt they will be enough. The problem will probably never be totally solved. After all, far worse abuses are reported almost daily from that self-proclaimed bastion of democracy, the United States. And Fiji is but a fledgling democracy. 

To eliminate police, military and corrections brutality, the Fiji Government must insist that those found guilty of these illegal activities are punishment and their employment terminated.  It must be impressed on all security officers that this behaviour will no longer be tolerated. There must be no more cozy statements about immunity. 

This government is the first since the 1987 coup that has the support, coordination and strength to really act on this issue. But the lead has to come from the top, the very top.
The Top: PM  Voreqe Bainimarama

The Top: A-G Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum
* This sentence has been amended thanks to the reader's comment noted below.
  1. Torture is usually defined as inflicting extreme physical or psychological pain. Methods typically involve intensive and prolonged beatings, extended solitary confinement, rape, sexual abuse, mock executions, water boarding, and the extraction of finger and toe nails and teeth..