Opinion: Our choice – The partnerships and the teams

NFP Leader Prof Biman Prasad and PAP Leader Sitivenu Rabuka in Rakiraki on Thursday, November 24, 2022. Picture: ANISH CHAND

Fiji’s voters in the 2022 elections face a real choice between two dominant partnerships who could form a government: Bainimarama/Aiyaz or Rabuka/Biman.

On the surface, the two partnerships appear similar: Bainimarama and Rabuka are both former coup leaders; both partnerships espouse multiracialism; and both partnerships are multiracial with one member an indigenous Fijian and the other Indo-Fijian.

But that is where the similarities end.

The nature of the 16-year partnership between former Commander Bainimarama and lawyer Sayed-Khaiyum is well known, and it is unlikely to change after the 2022 elections.

While just born, the nature of the potential Rabuka/Prasad partnership after the 2022 elections can only be conjectured by assessing Rabuka’s record as a Prime Minister between 1992 and 1998, and by assessing the record of Professor Biman Prasad in the Fiji Parliament, his prolific writings in the media, and his record at USP (my recollections).

The Fiji voters (and any small parties who make it into in Parliament) can use the following four sets of criteria about who they should choose; n the nature of these two partnerships and the teams they offer n their policies on constitutionality and the rule of law: how Fiji, the civil service, the state institutions, the public enterprises and the people are governed n what they offer on the bread and butter issues: the impact on the welfare of the Fiji people, especially the most vulnerable n their record on self-service: how they butter their own bread: for themselves, their families and friends.

For transparency, I declare my personal historical links with these four leaders.

My links

I attended Marist Brothers’ schools, also attended by Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and Voreqe Bainimarama.

Rabuka went to RKS, Prasad went to Labasa College.

Sports-crazy Fijians may be amused to know that in the 1967 Fiji secondary schools athletics games held at RKS, a certain Sitiveni Rabuka (QVS) was the Fiji shotput champion, while a certain Wadan Lal Narsey (Marist Brothers) was the Fiji 1500 metres champion.

In 1988, I was with the “Group of 18” which included one Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, arrested for a night in the police cells for protesting against Rabuka’s 1987 coup, tried and convicted by Justice Davendra Pathik (that Group of 18 also included an Imrana Jalal who I see appearing at this week’s trial of Richard Naidu).

Between 1996 and 1999 I was a member of the Fiji Parliament as NFP’s Shadow Minister of Finance, actively supporting the partnership between Prime Minister Rabuka and the late Jai Ram Reddy, which led eventually to the unanimous parliamentary approval of the 1997 Constitution.

Just before the 1999 Elections, because of the voters’ suspicions about us, I took out a full page advertisement in The Fiji Times explaining to voters why we in the NFP were in partnership with the first coup leader Rabuka (deja vu with Biman Prasad and NFP today).

That advertisement is Reading 17 (“SVT, Rabuka and NFP”) in my recently published book of community education articles (Vol. 3 Our Struggles for Democracy in Fiji) available at the USP Book Centre.

Professor Biman Prasad was not only my student at USP in the late seventies, but became a colleague as Professor of Economics, and eventually became my boss as Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics.

In 2006, at Bainimarama’s request, I gave a one-day workshop to him and 300 of his senior RFMF officers just before the 2006 Elections.

After the 2006 coup, he asked me (via Howard Politini) to join his Military Council (an offer I declined).

Being “Fijian”

Let me state upfront what I consider to be the Bainimarama Government’s most important contribution to political dialogue in Fiji: their assertion that all citizens must be treated as equal “Fijians” without facing racial discrimination in government public policies or appointment to high positions in the civil service.

I believe that this one idea has been responsible for the massive groundswell of Indo-Fijian support for them at previous elections.

I have argued that this good idea should never have prevented the Bainimarama Government from gathering statistics by ethnicity, whether
it be on population, fertility, health, poverty or business ownership as there are crucial ethnic differences which must be monitored in order to have effective public policies (the Government Statistician who professionally did this was sacked).

Ultimately Fiji came to realise (even in 2018) that the welfare of the poorest citizens cannot be helped by simply calling everyone “Fijians” or
changing the Fiji flag (has everyone forgotten that fiasco that delivered egg on the face of our current leaders?)

The governing partnerships

Public commentators, including former FFP ministers like Dr Neil Sharma, all understand that one minister, Aiyaz Sayed- Khaiyum, a lawyer by training, is probably the most dominant minister Fiji has ever had in its entire history, more than his Prime Minister.

PM Bainimarama makes few public statements, and that usually from a prepared script.

His “off the cuff” statements get him into hot water, such as the recent one alleging that Professor Biman Prasad is “probably a rich Indo Fijian” who may take the next flight out after the 2022 Election.

But then, Bainimarama also referred approvingly of his own deputy as a “smart kaindia”).

Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has held multiple, and the most important, ministries whose policies he determines and announces, even that of his
own PM’s.

Any journalism student can do a quantitative analysis of the last 50 years of media pictures of Fiji’s political leaders and the media stories (column inch or seconds of sound bites) and show that Sayed-Khaiyum stands heads and shoulders over every other leader Fiji has had – “in your face” in the media.

In contrast, I can say from my time in the Fiji Parliament that PM Rabuka was his own man who was the most authoritative speaker in Parliament, usually without any prepared speech.

His oratory matched that of the late Jai Ram Reddy, except that Rabuka could speak with a touch of humor, that Mr Reddy lacked.

I suspect that deep down Sitiveni Rabuka also is not power hungry.

I recollect (and I have told this story before) that just after the 1999 elections when Rabuka and I were playing golf on the Vatuwaqa Golf
Course, I was astonished to hear Rabuka offer his services as any minister to FLP Leader Mahendra Chaudhry (that humble offer was not taken up – maybe Fiji’s history could have been different).

Biman Prasad has been criticised by some for stating up front that he will support Rabuka for prime minister, whatever the outcome of the
elections.

He could have said that “whoever wins more seats will become the prime minister”, except that Biman is pragmatic and modest in the
seats he is likely to win, just as Jai Ram Reddy was in the 1999 Elections.

My personal assessment is that Professor Biman Prasad, unlike his counterpart in the FFP partnership, has no egotistic power-hungry
ambition to become prime minister, but would be happy to serve in the ministries he is most suited for as a professor of economics – those to do with the economy, creating jobs and incomes and rescuing Fiji from its massive debilitating public debt. Of course, he would be happy to serve as PM if called upon.

I recall that when Biman was Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics (FBE), he displayed excellent leadership by bringing together a
wide range of academic staff from the different schools for the Pacificwide Development Dialogues we organised in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga, and the massive $400,000 regional Population and Development conference we co-organized with the United Nations.

The FBE under his leadership was a hive of activity with public lectures and debates which were sadly all curtailed under the then prevailing USP leadership.

One criterion we should discuss is how these leaders treat their opponents.

Both Biman and other Opposition MPs have frequently offered their advice (such as a very sensible motion to develop a value- adding
timber processing industry in Fiji).

Sadly, the Bainimarama/Aiyaz Government have reacted with contempt, disdain, scorn and vicious attacks, and rejection of their motions and advice.

I expect that a Rabuka/Biman Government will treat their opposition with utmost of courtesy and respect.

The governing team

Management experts all know that good leaders prefer capable members in their team, not subservient mediocrities.

The brilliant entrepreneur David Gilmour, the founder of Fiji Water, once told my economics students in a guest lecture that his policy was to hire the best subordinates, and leave them free to do the job they were supposed to do, not micro-manage them.

The older generation of voters (over the age of 35) will remember that all the governments of the late Qarase, Mahendra Chaudhry, Sitiveni Rabuka and of the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara had important powerful ministers not just running their own ministries, but seen to be in charge.

In the Rabuka Government were Berenado Vunibobo, Sir James Ah Koy, David Pickering, Jo Kamikamica (who once even challenged Rabuka for leadership), Vincent Lobendhan, and too many others to mention.

In contrast for the last 16 years, the support ministers in the Bainimarama/Aiyaz Government have had absolutely no presence and independence of their own, other than that allowed them by the most powerful minister.

Even one FijiFirst minister with a PhD in economics, a former associate professor from USP, has not been given the responsibility for any
economics portfolio, not even the ailing sugar industry on which he did his PhD at University of Hawaii.

Strong ministers such as Mereseini Vuniwaqa Rakuita have been pushed out, only to be gladly snapped up by a solid regional organisation.

I suspect that the Rabuka/ Prasad Government will have absolutely strong candidates for ministers from both parties such as Manoa Kamikamica, Dr John Fatiaki, Sashi Kiran (proven social leader), Seini Nabou (read her excellent newspaper articles), FTU trade unionist Agni Deo Singh, and the many others.

Rabuka and Prasad promise that they will provide a “government that understands that its role is not to win at all costs, but to listen, to respond, and to serve… work together and cooperate with each other before the election and in government as a government of the people, for the people, by the people”.

• PROFESSOR WADAN NARSEY is a leading Fiji economist and commentator on economic and public affairs in Fiji. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The Fiji Times.

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