I welcome you to the first annual meeting of SODELPA’s central constituency council. I am very pleased to see among you some of those offering themselves as candidates for the general election. I wish you all well in the selection process. We have a mighty fight in front of us. The playing field is far from level; oppressive, anti-democratic laws remain in place. But we look forward to taking the battle directly to Voreqe Bainimarama when he finally gets around to registering his party. He will then have to stand on his own without relying on the resources of the state to propel his campaign.
I can tell him today that the message we are getting from across the community is that the people are with SODELPA! They cannot wait to cast the votes denied to them for nearly eight years. They have had enough of the two-man Bainimarama-Khaiyum government with all its injustices, repression, propaganda and misinformation.
I want to speak to you today about the economy. This will be a critical issue in the election campaign.
The choice is clear.
You either vote for those carrying the miserable and tainted legacy of the current Bainimarama-Khaiyum oligarchy, or you vote for a party like SODELPA, which proved in its earlier life as the SDL, that it had the ability to rescue and revive a battered economy.
Its policies created high confidence, gains in growth and increased employment linked to improved investment levels. These stood at about 18 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).
The SODELPA mission is clear. We must urgently restore the confidence that has been lost and put Fiji onto a path of growth for the long run. We will harness the best economic brains in our party and from the community to implement a plan to revive growth. The focus will be on providing employment and livelihoods for the many thousands of people without an income. We cannot progress as a nation when between 45 to 50 per cent of the population are struggling to survive.
The Minister for Women claimed recently that about 32 per cent of the people was in poverty. She is either dreaming or has been misled.
The Minister might be interested to know that research indicates six out of 10 people in full time work are paid below the poverty line.
This situation is not sustainable in terms of social justice, moral purpose and balanced economic development.
We will achieve success from a well-managed and more open economy constructed on sound policies bolstered by confidence among investors, employers and workers. Full confidence will return when legitimate, accountable parliamentary authority prevails and there is full application of the rule of law. There will be no more decrees issued unilaterally at the whim of the regime. Laws that infringe on investor rights and restrict fundamental freedoms will be rescinded. Business people can be assured that a SODELPA-led government will honour contracts and the right of legal redress. Additionally we will review, and where possible enhance , investment incentives, without giving away too much in tax concessions.
Our target is for investment volumes that reach 25 per cent of gross domestic product annually, with growth at a minimum of five per cent a year.
Fiji’s business sector is suffocating with laws, regulations, permits and licences. This is a reflection of the Bainimarama-Khaiyum government’s psychological need for control. During the term of the last elected administration, the World Bank ranked Fiji at 34 out of 155 countries for ease of doing business. Now our ranking has worsened. It is at 62 out of 189 countries. This means investors find it more difficult and troublesome to set up and operate here, thanks to Bainimarama and Khaiyum.
SODELPA will cut through their thicket of regulation and help smooth the way for reputable investors who can commit the funds and resources to ventures which create decent work.
The regime has also distinguished itself in another way. Its budget processes are among the most secretive in the world. There is a powerful recipe for corruption if budget income and expenditure plans are not fully explained and available and there is no regular reporting to parliament on the nation’s accounts.
SODELPA will immediately give the people of Fiji all the information they are entitled to about Government finances, including the Auditor General’s reports which have been withheld for more than seven years. The Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises these reports, was recently disbanded without notice. We understand it was asking questions the regime did not like.
In our focus on social justice, we maintain that every wage earner must be paid enough to maintain a reasonable standard of family living. From 2007 to 2013 wages were stagnant, except for members of the security forces and certain senior civil servants who were awarded Fiji’s largest ever salary increases.
The pay packets of the Prime Minister, the Attorney General and other Cabinet members over the last seven years remain a secret. The regime has consistently refused to disclose them. The truth, however, will emerge. It always does.
While the workers were largely neglected, Fiji had to contend with inflation – or rising prices. For the five years to 2012, cumulative inflation was 17.6. This meant the purchasing power of wage earners was substantially reduced.
Taking into account varying cost structures and profitability in different industries, SODELPA will pursue a policy of setting minimum wages for each sector. There will be an early study to ensure that wages for various industries are established as quickly as possible.
With the restoration of full union rights, normal collective bargaining will also take place on pay and terms and conditions of employment.
The Bainimarama-Khaiyum regime continues to boast about national growth, but as usual the truth is quite different.
The regime’s economic record has been a disaster for Fiji and its people. In fact statistics demonstrate that it is the worst performance of any government since independence. It is also the worst in recent times among the Melanesian countries.
We acknowledge that there has been something of an upturn in the last three years. This can be attributed to a more positive attitude by investors and business owners as they have sensed that the Bainimarama-Khaiyum regime is moving towards its end.
Let me inject a stiff dose of economic reality here. The regime’s growth rate from 2007 to 2014 will be a mere 1.1 per cent.
That is well below the figures achieved by all the previous governments.
Other statistics show that when the SDL government was in power, cumulative growth over six years was 11.9 per cent. Cumulative growth over five years during the regime’s leadership was an abysmal 0.8 per cent.
The Asian Development Bank provided compelling food for thought when it said in late 2013 that private investment – the driving force behind economic growth that produces jobs – had fallen to one of its lowest levels since 1970. The regime does not want to talk about this.
Public debt, meanwhile, has climbed to about $4 billion from $2.8 billion. It might go even higher if the regime fails to sell off national assets to help pay for the cost of its 2014 budget. However, it has no right as an unelected regime facing an election, to sell assets belonging to the nation. That is a task for an elected government.
Remember this: The legacy of Bainimarama-Khaiyum’s national debt will be carried by every one of us, even though we did not give permission to incur it through our representatives in parliament.
The regime continues to ignore the high price we have all paid for its actions in 2006, and to gloss over the reality with propaganda and misinformation.
It was typical of Mr Sayed-Khaiyum that he recently bragged that Fiji’s current record amount of foreign reserves was a clear indication of how well the country is doing.
He must understand that foreign reserves are only one of a number of indicators against which Fiji’s economic performance must be evaluated. These include annual rates of economic growth (GDP), inflation (or rising prices) public debt, budget deficits, public and private sector investments, income levels and so on.
Mr Sayed-Khaiyum did not mention that his government had to devalue Fiji’s currency as an emergency measure in 2009. This was a device to raise the value of reserves that were under threat because of the coup. One of the main aims of the devaluation was to make prices in Fiji more attractive to tourists and therefore help our crucial tourism industry recover from the devastation caused by the coup. This worked for tourism, but it placed yet another burden on the common people when many local prices were driven upwards.
Mr Sayed-Khaiyum also omitted to mention that in 2011 the regime had to enter the international junk bond market to fund its cash flow. This showed the high risk attached to buying Fiji debt.
The tragedy is that by now we should have been well on our way to becoming a developed country with higher incomes, more jobs, a big reduction in poverty and better basic amenities and services.
Instead we are still trying to climb out of the abyss into which we were pushed after the coup. Losses to the country were at least $2 billion and possibly more. All that money that should have been used for our national well being was just sucked away by the military takeover.
The people, as always, were the main victims. In human terms, the combined impact of the coup damage meant families often went hungry and suffered stress and despair. Their suffering came from lost jobs and incomes, reduced hours of work, lower wages and salary cuts. Unemployment increased and remained high. In a recent statement the Minister of Labour said about 30,000 young people had registered as unemployed. Of these 12,000 had university, or other higher-level qualifications. We do not know how many other young people remain without work but have not bothered to register with the Ministry of Labour because they have no confidence in its ability to find them a job.
This picture represents a social and economic crisis.
I note the Minister has just come out with the story that a “significant percentage” of the unemployed graduates have now found jobs. Of course there is no proof of this. The Minister probably realised the political damage his statement had caused. He may even have been rapped on the knuckles for giving out “negative” statistics.
Friends and colleagues, the commitment we are making is to clean up the economic and financial mess left by the Bainimarama-Khaiyum oligarchy. This will be very demanding but it will be done.
Let us go on to victory!
May God be with us and with Fiji.