The National Federation Party- Our People’s Future
Speech delivered to the National Federation Party at its Annual General Meeting on 29 March, 2014 at the Nadi Sangam Primary School
By Professor Biman Prasad; New Leader of NFP
“Chief Guest, Gone Turaga na Roko Tui Bau, Ratu Joni Madrawiwi, Madam President of the Party, Ms Tupou Draunidalo, outgoing President Mr Raman Singh, Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic corps, invited guests, party stalwarts, members, branch officials, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
Madam President, I congratulate you on your appointment as President of the Party. More so, I salute your courage in accepting the position in these most difficult of times. Madam, you are also not only the second woman President of the Party in our fifty years but also the first i-taukei to become the Party President. My heart felt tribute and tremendous appreciation to the National Federation Party for its wisdom and farsightedness in taking this decision. Madam, you have my unflinching support, loyalty and best wishes in shouldering this great responsibility for taking this great party forward.
I join the whole party and thousands of citizens of our country in expressing our profound thanks to the outgoing President Mr. Raman Pratap Singh. Mr Raman Singh has ably led and steered our party in difficult times. You have through service and commitment strengthened our party. You have displayed that unflinching spirit of service that has been a hallmark for all our leaders past. This includes your late father Mr Ram Jati Singh our member from my own home constituency in the 1970s. Thank you, vinaka vakalevu Mr Raman Singh.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I do not underestimate what lies ahead of us. With much humility, a clear understanding about the scale of responsibility and excitement, I have accepted the National Federation Party’s appointment as its Leader. The weight of history, I am aware is heavy. Expectations are large. I am accepting a post previously held by some of the finest political leaders in our country, Mr Jai Ram Reddy, Mr. Harish Sharma, the formidable late Mr A D Patel and Late Mr. S.M Koya, people from whom I and so many others draw so much inspiration.
Restoring our freedoms
On behalf of thousands of supporters of the NFP and Fiji citizens yearning for restoration of our democracy, I thank all those individuals in our recent leadership team who have steered our ship through stormy waters; Raman Singh, Attar Singh, Pramod Rae, Prem Singh, Bala Dass, James Raman, Parmod Chand, Kamal Iyer and all branch officials. They never wavered from our commitment to democracy and respect for fundamental human rights of all of Fiji’s citizens. Many of our prominent leaders are not on the stage today because of an unjust and undemocratic decree that prohibits trade union leaders from holding political positions.
The NFP has, since its birth 50 years ago championed the universal freedoms and equality. We have championed this in our good days when we were well represented in parliament. We have championed these values when we were not represented in parliament. This is not fad for our party. It is not a fashion statement to get for media sound-bytes. This belief in fundamental rights and freedoms defines who we are.
Our country will make irreversible social and economic progress when our citizens are free. Their organizations including trade unions they belong to are not free, the media they depend on are not free. We have fought for these rights in 1950’s, 1960’s, after the coups of 1987, after the upheavals of 2000 and after the coup of 2006. We will continue fighting to restore our freedoms. Fighting for these freedoms is in our DNA. We call upon government to rescind the political parties decree, media industry decree, state proceedings decree and ensure a level playing field which is essential for a free and fair election.
Our citizens need these answers. They need to know what differentiates and defines the parties. It is a choice between continued prohibitions on their rights and freedoms or openness and restoration of individual freedoms.
Let me say clearly and unequivocally, that come September of this year, these absurd and so fundamentally unjust decrees will go. We will make it a priority of the NFP to restore fully all political, labor and human rights of all Fijians.
Creating sound policies
As an academic, I am aware that it is easy to criticize government policies from outside. The business of governing is complicated. Difficult balances are needed when making policies. My work as an academic has always been firmly rooted on the lives of our citizens. I know that good policies are those that begin from people, that respond to their needs and that are capable of being implemented by government. Bad policies are those that begin from the need of governments to remain in power, or are incapable of being implemented or derived from the arrogance of the powerful that only they know what is best for our people.
Growing up, I have watched the arrogance of governments in my rice farming Dreketi community in Vanua Levu. Successive government policies failed my family and its efforts to lift itself out of poverty through rice farming; not because governments were ill meaning, but they could not get something very simple right. Our people know what is best for them. They need the support of the Government – they do not need their government to be against their efforts to lift themselves out of their poverty.
Growing up as a young adult in uncertain post-coup times, when my national identity was questioned, my religious convictions challenged, I could in despair have also packed up and left. I did not.
My upbringing has taught me virtues of truth, righteousness. It also taught me that the way to these is often tortured. Politics to me is extension of these values – through slow and deliberate collective action seeking the path of truth and righteousness and on this journey solving problems in national life.
As an academic, I have closely observed that those in government can lose track of what the people need. They are driven by motivations of self-preservation rather than lasting good to lives of our people. There is a dictum that captures this: ‘I know all, and what I don’t know does not exist’. I think many of you have also seen examples of this attitude in our country over the last several years.
We are at a defining point in our history. Without doubt, we need a break from the past. Fiji needs leaders who can energize and bring people together, who will bring new passion and fresh perspectives to begin to use politics for the long term good, rather than the short term goal of self- preservation.
We have had a turbulent history since 1987. Consistent political instability has harmed the social, political and economic fabric of our country. This political instability has been caused by the military’s intervention in the political development of Fiji through its support for the coups.
The 2006 coup continued with the tradition of military intervention in our political life. As a nation, we need a calm conversation about how we are going to address this issue. The military will need to introspect and be part of this national conversation. We welcome the new Commander of the RFMF, Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga’s firm assurance that the military will be apolitical, stay neutral during the coming election and respect the results of the General Election later this year.
In the last 8 years, many things have changed. Many of these changes have been haphazard; many policies are inconsistent and in fact contradict each other. But most of all these changes do not reflect inputs from us people who live in this country.
We are preparing for a General Election under a Constitution that has been imposed on our people. It is very important to understand our history if we are to confront the challenges that lie ahead with determination
In the preparation for the elections, the last thing our people want is to be fed with propaganda, pie in the sky promises, vote buying and more short term populist policies. Policies and promises which will be hard to sustain and fulfill under current difficult economic conditions need to be weighed and pruned.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as a nation we have lived in fear over the last 7 years. Fear grips our national life. Fear of being heard by someone and reported to authorities, fear of being bullied by those in power, fear of losing jobs, fear of being victimized, fear of losing licenses, fear of being witch hunted by government agencies. Workers, farmers, taxi drivers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, academics, journalists, business people, many NGOs have shied away from raising difficult issues because of the fear of being victimized for being critical of the government.
This induced culture of extreme fear has harmed our prosperity and development. It will be a long and difficult journey to re-establish an open, vibrant democracy that derives its core strength from the free expression of our citizens, debate and open discussion.
There is an unhealthy condescending attitude that prevails in our country. If you question government policies, you will be told by the PM and AG that you are an old politician and projected to be anti-national.
To paraphrase, the ‘power and freedom to question is the basis of human progress”. We have lost that power.
Today I ask the people of this country to ask questions to this government. Ask frank and difficult questions of us and all those who will seek your permission to represent you.
To the Government, you may direct questions about your freedoms: freedom to say things and be reported by the media, freedom to ask why you are paying so much for rice, milk, chicken, oil and kerosene, freedom to ask why you are paying such much in water bills, electricity bills. You need to ask why is it that you cannot get a doctor to see you in a hospital when you need him/her, freedom to ask why you are paying punishing fees and charges to set up and operate a small business?
We have crucially not had the freedom to ask why the Auditor General’s report has not been made public, freedom to ask why the Public Accounts Committee has been disbanded without releasing reports for the years of Bainimarama government.
To us, you ask what is it that we offer as an alternative? The present Government has tried to buy our citizens through doles and freebies. Our people don’t need pity, they need respect, and they need their freedoms to be restored. Rather than expensive freebies they need decent and secure jobs, they need secure pensions, they need reasonable prices for the food they buy. Most of all, they need fair play. Fair play means that the government makes credible and sound economic policies that encourages people and companies to, innovate, to initiate new ideas and invest. They need a level playing field, they need less intrusive government. From economic progress will come security and progress of our people.
Our economic performance since 2007 has been dismal. On average the economy has grown by only over 1% in the past 8 years. The persistence of political instability, poor investor confidence, lack of investment in infrastructure, land lease problems, inconsistent government policies, restrictive decrees, high costs of doing business means confidence in our economy remains low. We need to rupture this cycle of low confidence and low growth.
Businesses and employers want certainty in the business environment. Our skilled, professional and unskilled workers want predictability in their employment. They will give their best when they know that their jobs are secure and their wages are fair.
Government policy has been confused, designed to support certain industries and favor businesses selectively. Growth will not happen if Government selectively favors businesses based on their support to the government. Progress will not happen if concessions are granted to businesses based on the loyalty to Government. It is possible in and open and free environment, with a fair and credible business policy regime to position Fiji on a high growth path well in excess of 6 percent per annum. This is our ambition within two years of the party in government.
Freeing small businesses
But for a high growth trajectory, we have to free up our small businesses. The many decrees, fees, fines, charges, business licenses that have added undue burden to the silent majority of business are killing initiative and effort.
Those most affected are those trying to set up very small businesses such as roadside stalls, small operators, taxi owners, farmers, grog dealers, even small farmers. They face a barrage of harassment by LTA officials, FIRCA officials, town council, Water Authority, FEA, Commerce Commission, I-TLTB and Lands Department. They feel that the whole architecture of government is working against, rather than for them.
These small businesses feel that they are being punished by their government, rather than being rewarded for trying to lift themselves out of poverty. These small business operators have suffered in silence over the last 7 years. We hear your pain.
The NFP will remove all impediments in the way of our small businesses. In Government, we will provide a supportive environment for small businesses and will provide incentives to support people trying to make a living by operating small operations.
Our poor economic performance has resulted in rising poverty, rising unemployment and frustrated workers with low wages. The biggest killer for our people has been rising prices of food and utilities.
When it took over power, this government promised to reduce VAT from 12.5% to 10%. Instead it raised it to 15%. It devalued the dollar by 20%. Prices have increased by 45.3% since 2006. Food prices went up by 60%, heating and lighting prices also by 60% and transport by 51%.These are the Government’s own figures.
In Government the NFP will reduce VAT from 15% to 10% immediately providing immediate relief on the growing costs of essential food items. We will review all import duties on important food items to reduce price further.
Forcefully tackling poverty
Poverty is blight on our country; a blight on our humanity. At independence, only 7 percent of our families were poor. It has grown fivefold. At 35%, more than 1 in every 3 child, women and man in this country now lives in poverty. This is unacceptable. Over the same period, rest of the world has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty, Fiji has been on reverse. This government has imposed a national minimum wage of only $2 per hour in the country or roughly equivalent to $88 per week income. The daily struggle that a third of our families who live on these low incomes are intense. They juggle daily choices between paying for medicine for their children or rent, paying for bus fare to go to work or for buying bread and vegetables.
Others, who are being paid above the minimum wage, have also suffered large decrease in their purchasing power. These workers were let down by certain trade union leaders from the Fiji Trade Union Congress who blatantly joined the coup regime and have now set up a break away party There are others who joined the coup and helped muscle the poor in this country will also need to answer to the people of this country. Additionally, government through some of its deliberate policies has made the rich richer and poor more poorer. We will also seek answers to the many questions about our FNPF. Since 1987 the FNPF has been mismanaged.
The NFP will review the management structure of FNPF, review the representation on the board so that workers representatives have a majority decision making power. The NFP will review the contractual violations to the pension rates for our pensioners.
The NFP will abolish all decrees including the Essential National Industries (ENI) restricting the rights of workers in this country and allow unions to operate in the spirit of dialogue and consultation with the employers. We will re-establish the tripartite forum where employers, government and the unions will have the platform to deal with issues affecting the workers of this country in a cooperative, consultative manner. We will revise the minimum wages based on different sectors and we will make the wages council more efficient and effective.
Creating decent jobs
Nowhere is the evidence of failure of government seen more clearly than through unemployment. Thousands of graduates, school leavers, and skilled people cannot find jobs. This is because there has been no growth in manufacturing and agriculture sector. The National Employment Centre tells us that out of 26,000 that registered as jobseekers between 2010 and 2012, only 4,000 found jobs. More recently the figure registered at the NEC has risen to 30,000 and of these 1,000 are University graduates.
It breaks the heart of parents, who borrow to support higher education of their children, when they see them out of work on completion of their studies. It breaks the heart of our youth who work relentlessly to complete their higher education and then rather than have a decent job, find themselves jobless. This pain is played out in so many of our families every day.
In government, the NFP will work with employers and investors to create decent employment opportunities through a range of job creating incentives. We will in particular pay attention to supporting both the manufacturing and agricultural sector as both have significant potential for employment creation. We will work with Australia and New Zealand to join the Pacific labor scheme.
Regenerating sugar industry and the islands and rural agricultural sector
One of the key industries seriously affected after the military coup of 2006 was the sugar industry. The industry lost about 200 million dollars in adjustment funds from the European Union. There is now real threat that lack of progress in the negotiations with the EPA threatens the access of our sugar to the European Union. In fact the government has misled the farmers by suggesting that our market access is granted until 2023. This is far from the truth. The EU has clarified that that we only have until 2014 to negotiate our way in the EPA.
The NFP as it has always done will help negotiate better deals with the EU and other markets. In Government the NFP will substantially invest in the industry to rebuild confidence of farmers, introduce private sector innovations and rebuild trust in our external markets. We will reinstate a bi-partisan approach to the management of the sugar industry. We will re-establish an elected Sugar Cane Grower Council to create cohesion and cooperation amongst the sugarcane farmers in the country.
Ladies and Gentlemen, years of neglect, and concentration of administrative authority in Suva has meant that the reach of Government to our rural villages and islands has worsened. The neglect of some islands and rural agricultural communities is criminal.
Agricultural extension services in near state of collapse, roads in such disrepair that even private buses are pulling back their services in many areas. How did we come to this? We have had nearly 20 years of continuous failure of Government. The attention of an increasingly politicized senior civil service was on serving political masters, rather than ensuring services to rural and island communities. We will begin the task of redressing this comprehensive failure of government. This will not be easy.
In government, we will increase agricultural extension services and work with private sector providers to extend telecommunications connectivity to all island communities as a high priority. At the back of this revolution in networking our country, we will weave onto that IT tapestry, the delivery of front line government services through e-services. Internationally, we will work with our traditional development partners and those in Asia, including China, India and others to learn, adapt and apply low technology solutions to enhancing income opportunities. We will not fail island and rural communities.
This government’s policy on agricultural development in the past 7 years have been confused. The incentive structure has been confused with promoting import substitution and export promotion. We will define a very clear agricultural policy linked to our export markets so that our farmers can increase production and increase income through export-led agricultural development.
Land Availability and Land use policy
Land and the issue of agricultural leases has always been contentious and a source of bitter and acrimonious debates. The NFP’s has in the past advocated the need for a lasting solution to the issue of expiring land leases. The NFP will promote a Master Lease concept where Government leases all available agricultural land from landowners and then re-leases it to tenant farmers for a minimum tenure of 99 years. We will push for agricultural and residential tenants leasing Crown C Land be provided the option to buy the land at a price following valuation of the Un-improved Capital Value of the Land.
Fixing health care
Our healthcare systems are in decay. The health authorities are struggling in their ability to deal with the recent outbreak of Dengue. We might have become the dengue capital of the world! The deteriorating level of services in our hospitals is shocking. Lack of doctors, nurses, medicine and neglect of patients is a familiar story for a lot of people. In the last 7 years policy makers and planners of health care delivery in Fiji have not been able to put in place a durable and need based health care system. Today deaths from Non-Communicable diseases, has risen to over 80%. People are dying of heart diseases, blood pressure, and diabetes because of lack of basic medical care at an early stage to prevent these diseases. How can people have a good diet when they can rarely afford a balanced meal on the meagre wages they can ill afford?
The NFP will review the salaries of doctors, nurses and health workers and implement a new salary structure within six months of being in government. In Government we will implement a health sector modernization program involving private-public sector solutions to improve medical facilities and equipment, to use new technologies including telemedicine to extend services to island communities, and reduce costs of private and public sector drugs through bulk -purchasing.
Education matters for democracy
We have no quarrels with government’s stated priority for education for all the people in this country. In fact we commend them for some policies and NFP will maintain the increase in school grants. However, we also feel that in the rush to create populist reforms they have messed up the whole education system. Starting from primary and right through secondary and tertiary education, government policies have been confused, haphazard and ad hoc. Removal of exams, new assessment methods, new curriculum have all been implemented without much thought on its impact on quality.
There is an urgent need to review the current curriculum to find out where we stand in terms of quality of the teaching and learning process. We appreciate and understand government’s attempt to provide scholarship and loan for all students who qualify for higher education. We will, however, review the structure of TELS and its secretariat while maintaining the goal of providing scholarship and loans to students.
The NFP will keep the toppers scheme for the 600 highest achievers in form seven. However, those who do not make the cut in the 600, we will introduce a means tested scholarship. This will ensure that students from very poor families will get full scholarship and will not be forced to take a loan. We will also convert all loans in 2014 to means tested scholarships for those who meet the criteria. The NFP will review the teachers’ salaries to ensure that we have a salary level commensurate with the work that teachers, specialists and school heads undertake.
When the coup happened in 2006 we were promised fair and equal treatment in many things including the civil service appointments. The regime promised that military officers will not be appointed. The reality today is quite different. The Public Service Commission Chairman and the Permanent Secretary of PSC appear to have shut their eyes and have paddled the appointments of persons based on who they are and not on merit. We know that there are many hard working civil servants and we commend them for their hard work and understanding. I am talking about those that have moved up the ladder so quickly and so fast under this government fuelling a culture of mediocrity. Board appointments, CEOs of government owned companies are all good examples of appointments made on the basis of considerations other than merit.
The current coup regime unilaterally reduced the public service retirement age. This policy is a no brainer. It should have never been implemented.
NFP in government will restore the retirement age to 60. In addition, we will extend this further to 65 on annual contracts on the basis of needs. NFP will focus civil service on delivering services to citizens transparently, in a time bound manner and have clear procedures for resolving citizen’s grievances in a timely manner.
Of our international partners
Thank you for remaining engaged with Fiji in these rough times. We value greatly your support. In going forward, we look to deepening our dialogue with all of Fiji’s development partners. Fiji’s development needs are many. From, education to health, to environmental degradation, to marine resource preservation, to boosting micro-finance access in semi-urban and rural areas, to rural infrastructure rehabilitation, we will work with development partners to seek their financing and technical support across priority areas. We want to focus their support to creating jobs and boosting incomes within these areas especially in rural and semi urban areas.
Making the right choices
Ladies and Gentlemen, I will lead a new NFP in this election. I urge you, especially the young and the youth to listen to us. Listen to what we have to offer? Ask us any questions you may have. Check out our vision for this country. We know that these are difficult but not hopeless times. With the right choices, our future is bright. We need leaders who can move beyond the hallow of egoism and embrace ideas from others, embrace dissent, embrace humility, understand the needs and aspirations of the people.
The new NFP is a party which will stick to its enduring values of freedom for our people, democracy and good governance, humility and understanding of the unique nature of our society. It believes in an open and accountable government.
We understand and embrace changes in the expectations of our young people; we understand their aspirations of living in a free, peaceful and progressive country.
Our vision for Fiji is one where people have the freedom to earn a decent living, freedom to question the government, freedom from fear and oppression. It is a Fiji where we will promote the delivery of services to all without fear and favor.
A Fiji where businesses are allowed to flourish, where economic growth is sustainable, Fiji where employment is plentiful, Fiji where people will want to live and make their homes and not think about migrating at any cost.
Let me say this. The days when young, smart, educated and skilled persons chose to stay out of politics are over. I believe more and more young people and especially women have become conscious of the fact they have lost freedom, they have lost prosperity and they need to do something. More and more young people and women are convinced that they cannot remain ‘apolitical. There is too much at stake. I know that our young and women want freedom, they want respect, they don’t want to be told all the time what is good for them, they don’t want to be told what they should study and why, and they want to be part of the future for this country. The new NFP provides that opportunity. It is a party where young and women activists can develop their leadership skills.
NFP will encourage women candidates in this election and our manifesto will contain policies towards gender equality and empowerment of women.
In the next few months, both the President and I, together with key leaders of the NFP will travel throughout the country. We will present and discuss our policies. We will listen to you as we travel and review our programs and proposals based on your contributions .We will take programs and policies that flow from these into government.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not in an environment which promotes free and fair election. This cannot be the case so long as restrictions on media remain and the bias of public sector media organizations is not reduced.
Mr. Bainimarama, if you want our citizens to have the freedom to choose, please free our media. Remove the punishing decrees, and ask the media to give equal coverage to all parties.
To the journalists in this country, let me say this. We understand predicament. But, you have a large and historic role to play in restoring our democracy. I urge you to do your bit in ensuring that Fiji citizens can watch, read and listen to messages of all political parties and not only that of the Government. In the absence of democracy the media’s role as an effective watchdog becomes even more important and a free and unbiased media is the last bastion of hope for all our citizens.
In government, NFP will remove all restrictions to media freedom
In taking this responsibility, I have consulted widely across the country. Based on hundreds of interactions, I have a clear message on their behalf for Mr. Bainimarama. Our people are not stupid. They will think carefully before they vote. They are asking serious questions. They do not buy your propaganda. I have that infinite trust in the goodness of our people. Come September, they will do the right thing.
Mr. Bainimarama, if you indeed are ready to stand on your record, join me in a public debate on your record.
This country is at a ‘critical juncture’ ladies and gentlemen. I will lead a very talented and committed team in this difficult election. We need your support.
Ladies and gentleman, Ms Tupou Draunidalo and I offer you an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the future of this country.
We are a party of high principles. We hold the use of force in politics as fundamentally abhorrent. Our Party and its leaders have never supported or benefitted from a coup. Our leaders have not enriched themselves in the name of the poor.
The new NFP will re-claim its rightful place in Fiji’s politics. We will return to parliament with a substantial number of seats. We will be in government. We will transform the way we are governed.
We will not be dictatorial, we will not be vindictive, we will not harass and we will not go out on a witch hunt. We will promote a politics of consensus not partisanship. We will bring in a politics of inclusiveness and not divisiveness.
What we desperately need is a clean and efficient government, that creates opportunities for the greatest number instead of favoring a select few; that is fair and consistent, not vengeful and whimsical; that instils hope instead of fear; that encourages initiative and entrepreneurship instead of killing it. We will engage with young, women, persons with disability. We will not condemn old politicians and leaders and Chiefs. We seek out their wisdom and advice.
Ladies and Gentlemen, before I conclude I seek your permission to say a few words in Hindi.
In rebuilding our country, we ask you to join NFP, support it with your vote, and support it with resources and your time.
Let me make this very clear. The NFP will contest the election on its own. We are NOT in coalition with any party.
We are here to secure your future. NFP is our people’s future. It provides a new national beginning. I urge you all to join us in this journey to rebuild our democracy, our economy and our society.
God bless NFP and God bless Fiji. “