By ROSI DOVIVERATA
Political parties who continue to invite or engage trade union office holders in their activities may risk deregistration, says an expert on Fijian legislation. Former High Court judge Nazhat Shameem said: “The risk is that a party which invites public officers to show support for it, or to act in a way that the neutrality of the public office is compromised, could be deregistered.” (Ms Shameem provides training workshops and education programmes helping a wide range of organisations understand and comply with the country’s laws. They include programmes for Fiji Sun journalists.) Recently the involvement of trade unionists in political parties, notably the People’s Democratic Party and National Federation Party, have been highlighted. This is because of the provisions set out in the Political Parties Decree. Ms Shameem explained that the Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding and Disclosures) Decree 2013 by virtue of section 14, provides that a public officer shall not be eligible to be an applicant or a member of a proposed political party or a registered political party or be eligible to hold office in a proposed political party or a registered political party. Nor should a public officer “engage in political activity that may compromise or be seen to compromise the political neutrality of that person’s office” or to “publicly indicate support for or opposition to any proposed political party or [registered] political party or candidate in an election”. “Section 14 goes on to define who a public officer is for the purpose of the section. It includes persons holding positions in boards established by a written law, and persons employed in the police force, military and corrections and persons holding judicial office. “It also includes under section 14(2)(d) elected or appointed officers of trade unions registered under the Employment Relations Promulgation (ERP), or of any federation or congress or council of trade unions or affiliation of employers.” Ms Shameem said section 14(4) provides that if a public officer intends to become a member of a political party he or she must first resign from holding the public office. “In summary; if a person is the holder of an office in a trade union which is registered under the ERP or is a member of a federation or council of trade unions, then he or she cannot do any of the following;
1. become a member of a political party;
2. hold office in a political party;
3. engage in any political activity which undermines or is seen to undermine the political neutrality of the union;
4. publicly show support for any political party. “Under section 14(5) a trade union office holder who becomes a member of a political party, is deemed to have vacated office before applying for membership.
She said the consequences of the breach of section 14 can be found in section 19. “The Registrar has powers to deregister a political party which contravenes the provisions of this Decree.” But trade unionists often claim that they attend political party meetings only on “invitation” by the party. For this Ms Shameem said Section 14(1)(c) and(d) are relevant. “Is the attendance of the union official at a political meeting such that it compromises the political neutrality of the union? “Could it be seen to compromise the political neutrality of the unionist’s office? “Additionally, is such attendance such that it publicly indicates support for any candidate or political party?” She said a good way to approach this question was to ask if a magistrate should attend and speak at a political party meeting. “If it is not appropriate and if it shows a lack of political neutrality then generally the same rule will apply to all public office holders including trade union office holders.”
UNION VIEW Trade unionists Daniel Urai and Felix Anthony are among founders of the People’s Democratic Party. Pramod Rae and Attar Singh previously held positions in the National Federation Party. It has been reported that Mr Urai, who is the president of the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), and Mr Anthony who is the general secretary will both stand in the General Election under the PDP banner. They have yet to announce their resignation from the FTUC. Both Mr Rae and Mr Singh have relinquished their political party positions with the NFP but are often speakers at party meetings “on invitation by the party.” Mr Singh is the general secretary of the Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions (FICTU) while Mr Rae is the general secretary of the Fiji Bank and Financial Sector Employees Union. Mr Singh remains adamant in his claim that trade union officials should be free to at the same time participate in politics.
The Government is adamant that they can participate in politics, so long as they step down from their union position. Mr Singh said political activity was a natural extension of a trade unionist’s daily work. He added: “Let it be clarified that I have not been taking part in meetings or affairs of any party. I repeat that I only speak at any party gathering if invited. “Otherwise I am not entitled to be at meetings of any party as I am not permitted to be a member of any party under the Political Parties Decree.” Mr Singh said the 2013 Constitution entitled every citizen to political rights. “Mine however are restricted under the Political Parties Decree, a decree that falls under the responsibility of the Electoral Commission,” Mr Singh said. “This Commission must now review the Political Parties Decree not only to remove this unprecedented and unnecessary restrictions on trade unionists, but also to make other amendments if it is to fully perform its role of conducting free and fair elections.”