Maiden speech for NFP leader, Professor Biman Prasad
29 November, 2018, 3:48 pm
It is the tradition during the debate on the opening of Parliament to thank His Excellency the President for his most gracious address. But I must say that this time it is difficult to say it.
Madam Speaker, I respect our President. Just as you symbolise the unity of Parliament, His Excellency should at all times symbolise the unity of our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation. He does not get involved in politics. His job is to give to Parliament the address prepared for him by the Government.
But I agree with my Opposition colleagues. Those who prepared his address were far from gracious. And they should not have put him in the position of giving a speech that was a continuation of the Fiji First Party election campaign.
It is also traditional for the Opposition in a new Parliament to congratulate the Government on its election win. That is, for now, the official result. The courts may still have something to say about it. But for now, we respect the official result.
And let me also, while I am here, remind the Government that we are the loyal Opposition. We are loyal to this country. We are loyal to the people. Our role in opposition is to serve the people. We do this by scrutinising the Government. We do this by criticising the Government when their actions require criticism. We do this by offering alternative policies to the people. And I assure the people of Fiji today, that this is what we will do in this Parliament.
Madam Speaker, Last week, we reminded the country that the election may be over, but Fiji’s problems are not. We have serious poverty and economic inequality. We have a failing sugar industry. We have under-developed opportunities in agriculture. We have no new industries to create jobs and opportunities for our young people. We have poor public services. Our education, health, welfare and disaster relief is in a pitiful state. Fiji’s score on NCDs and domestic violence are rampant and amongst the highest in the world.
Madam Speaker, We can fix these problems faster if we work together. We have said that if the government wishes to work positively with the opposition parties we are ready. We will do it from the Opposition. I have said that we will scrutinize and criticize, because that is the Opposition’s job. The Government also has a job in this Parliament. It is to listen to that scrutiny and criticism, and to change where needed. This is what democratic governments do.
Madam Speaker, only one party is coming into this Parliament with fewer seats than before, the Fiji First Party. The people of Fiji have sent the government a clear message. They have asked it to change the way it behaves in government.
But the early signs are not good. The Honourable the Prime Minister has been reported by the media to have criticised prisons officers for not voting for him.
On the campaign trail he described the villagers of Vunidogoloa in Cakaudrove as liumuri because they did not vote for them after they got new houses. Whatever message he gave those voters, Madam Speaker, they certainly sent him a message back. He got one vote there.
Madam Speaker, the Prime Minister needs to be reminded that the election is over. As long as he has the PM’s job, he must serve everybody, whether they voted for him or not. That is what the taxpayers of Fiji are paying him for. They are not paying him to complain about who did not vote for him.
The Prime Minister talks about the politics of fear. Yet it was his right-hand man, who sits next to him, who told an audience, in Hindi, that voting for the opposition was like “putting a dagger to your neck.” And even now, the Honourable Bala speaks in this House about how NFP and SODELPA are voting together. I will come back to him, Madam Speaker. But yes, we are the Opposition. And yes, we work together. We work together to make this a better country. And we are not seeing this from the Government party. We are very happy to work with this honourable party.
Madam Speaker, the Prime Minister and his party spent the whole election campaign demonising SODELPA and attacking NFP. Perhaps this is what won them the election. But this does not make Fiji a better place. It leaves us more divided.
And it is now continuing the same vitriol and venom in this honourable House. The Government’s MPs have spent this debate attacking the Opposition side, demonizing the SODELPA side and the new Leader of the Opposition. And I am now asking them – respectfully – to stop this. The election campaign has left Fiji bitterly divided, including on ethnic lines. Do not reinforce this division in this place.
I want to say to them, Madam Speaker, you are the government. You have won the election. Be gracious. Be generous. Talk about the future. The people want to hear about the future. They do not want to hear your personal grievances about the 1987 coup. They do not want to hear about Mr Rabuka and the SVT Government. The 1987 coup is history – just as your leader’s 2006 coup is history. Just as all the violence and lawlessness of 2006 is history. So talk instead about how you will build national unity and make Fiji a better place.
Madam Speaker, one of the Government’s favourite themes is security and stability. But security and stability do not come from the armed forces. Security and stability do not come from passing laws in this House. Security and stability do not come when the people of Fiji are not united. The Government’s performance in this debate is promoting, division, not unity. So I say again, Madam Speaker – stop demonizing the opposition side. Look for ways to work together. This is what the people expect from us.
Look at what happened on Monday, Madam Speaker. There, we witnessed the Government side doing what it does best – bullying, threatening and bulldozing its way to approval of the Standing Orders. We have asked the Government to re-visit the Standing Orders. This is so Parliament can be more effective. We want Parliament to perform its role properly. We want stronger select committees; we want Parliament to hear and debate the people’s petitions.
We want the Public Accounts Committee to be chaired by the Opposition. This has been the rule in every Fiji Parliament until the Government changed the Standing Orders.
As usual, nothing from the Government side. As usual, they have just said the Opposition was lying. Madam Speaker, that is the only thing that the Fiji First Party can say. They never say what we are lying about; they never offer their version of the truth; they just say the opposition is lying.
Madam Speaker, on Tuesday honourable Minister Bala made remarks in this House which are typical of the way the Government has behaved in this debate.
He asked me if NFP had entered into a coalition arrangement with SODELPA at midnight on election night. The answer is that we did not – but why ask such a silly question?
Then he accused SODELPA of being greedy for wanting the return of the 1997 Constitution. He has joined the Fiji First Party chorus against that Constitution. They have attacked that Constitution. Fiji First has attacked the Great Council of Chiefs and its role in that Constitution. But Madam Speaker, let me remind the honourable Bala of a little bit of his own personal history.
Madam Speaker, the Honourable Bala is a former Mayor of Ba. He got there on NFP votes, but that is another story. And at the time of the new millennium, in 1999, our far-sighted Mayor – let us call him our millennial Mayor – invited a chief guest to the unveiling of a special millennial plaque.
This is what the plaque says, Madam Speaker:
“This plaque was unveiled by Major General Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka (honours listed), Chairman of Great Council of Chiefs and former Prime Minister of Fiji, to commemorate the new millennium on 31st December 1999. The foundation of this symbolic millennium structure was laid by His Worship the Mayor of Ba Cr Praveen Bala on 8th December 1999”.
Our Millennial Mayor, Madam Speaker!
And on 6 October 2006, our Millennial Mayor was Chief Guest at the Fiji Day celebrations held in Ba. And what did he say about the 1997 Constitution and the multi-party government of the day? This is what he said, Madam Speaker, and I quote: “For the last 5 months, a Multi-Party Cabinet representing all races of Fiji has been governing the country. This concept of Government must not be allowed to fail. It allows us all to embrace our shared future”.
But that is not all our Millennial Mayor said, Madam Speaker. He went on: “Unfortunately, irresponsible elements who now see their personal and political ambitions derailed by the multi-party government are hell-bent on destroying this concept that is the way forward for this country. Such elements must not be allowed to succeed. They must be told in no uncertain terms that they are living in the past. If they cannot gauge the mood of the nation, they must eat their humble pie. Otherwise they can continue their destructive and divisive attitude at their own peril”.
So, what did our Millennial Mayor say 12 years ago about the 1997 Constitution, Madam Speaker? “A concept which must not be allowed to fail. A concept which allows us all to embrace our shared future”.
And now, Madam Speaker, our Millennial Mayor is happy to serve and sing praises of his Leader – the very person who led the overthrow of that Constitution and that multi-party Cabinet!
Madam Speaker, the honourable Minister Bala and his colleagues would be blind if they can’t see that their government now hangs onto power by its fingernails. Their mandate this election was 50.02 per cent. They must be able to see that they are already the government of the past. But they are still the government.
So we ask them, use this debate to tell the people what you will do for them in your last term of office.
You say you will “study” the minimum wage. Give us a plan, give us your timetable, to improve it. Because it is shameful and wrong that while you are paid $200,000, $300,000 in salaries, while you are collecting your thousands of dollars in nightly allowances, while you are staying at fine hotels in Bonn and New York, you are leaving the poorest people in Fiji behind.
For the sugar industry, the Fiji First Party’s glossy manifesto said virtually nothing. They offered farmers a 10% shareholding in the bankrupt Fiji Sugar Corporation. As soon as the election is over, the Government calls for submissions on a sugar industry strategic plan. For the best part of 12 years, this government did nothing for the sugar industry and allowed it to go into decline. Only when it was facing elections did it begin to throw money around. It still has no vision, no plan. For the sugar industry, this has been a wasted decade.
There is a new Minister for Local Government, Madam Speaker. We do not wish to hear from her about her sufferings in the 1990s. She is a Minister now. We want to hear from her about when local government elections will be held.
For four years her predecessor, the Millennial Mayor, famously stalled and delayed. Why? Because he was afraid of the results. Because for the Fiji First Party, it is never about allowing the people to have their say. They know that big billboards with 688 cannot win them local government elections. So, Madam Speaker, the new honourable lady Minister is on notice from NFP. Make a commitment to give people local government – and stick to it.
And to the rest of the Government – what will you do for farmers, for unemployed graduates, for our health system, our education system? What new industries will you create to grow the economy? What will you do about NCDs, domestic violence and suicide? Talk about that. Be useful.
And finally, Madam Speaker, some advice to the Government. We know you do not take advice very well, but you must try. Don’t be arrogant. You can’t be arrogant with a 0.02 % majority.
You must now think about your place in history. Will you be remembered as a government that brought our nation together? Or will you be remembered as one that deepened our national divisions? The government that would not listen to the people when they asked you to change your ways?
Madam Speaker, if the Fiji First Party wants to continue on the road to its own self-destruction, we on the opposition side will be happy to see you go. But as the government it has a responsibility to work positively for the country, to build national unity and to show respect to the Opposition as the alternative government. So once again my plea to them, stop your vitriolic attacks and venom. Focus on the future.
Thank you and May God bless Fiji.