Talk about issues – Focusing on an interesting spectacle

NFP leader and Opposition MP Professor Biman Prasad in Parliament. Picture: SUPPLIED/FILE

FIJI was treated this week to the unedifying spectacle of the Prime Minister on the verbal loose. Not that it hasn’t happened or been seen before in our nation. But this was different. It was a totally wild and unsubstantiated attack against a woman of academic repute by none other than our national leader. Why? Because she happens to be the wife of the leader of the National Federation Party, an opposition party that has exposed the failure and betrayal of promises by Mr Bainimarama’s government over the past 14 years – both as a military regime and an elected administration. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. And a little knowledge, especially when it is from fake social media accounts, is dangerous. I am sure the PM would be writhing with anger if someone said similar things about his own immediate family members being appointed to key national positions. And this is what precisely his defamatory claims have generated.

Condemnation

Mr Bainimarama should know this. By now he must have personally seen, or been told by his minders and spin doctors, particularly Qorvis and Vatis, of the huge show of support for Dr Rajni Chand and Prof Biman Prasad, thanks to the PM’s attacks on them. But what good has it done to the nation, which is struggling to keep its head above the water due to economic strangulation? All this has done is seriously demeaned and brought disrepute to the Office of the PM. Why digress from the real issues facing the nation and all its citizens? Why not discuss and debate, not with bitterness and acrimony but with honesty and passion, our fast-tracking economic, social and moral decay, and how to cure them? Simply put – talk about issues, not Dr Rajni Chand and Prof Biman Prasad.

Poverty

Last week, the 2019-2020 Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) report was released. It had startling statistics on poverty. The survey was done between February 2019 and February 2020. This is well before COVID-19 affected Fiji. It established a national poverty rate of 29.9 per cent. This means that almost 260,000 Fiji citizens live in poverty. A similar HIES report during 2013-14 showed poverty levels at 28.1 per cent. This means that, despite the so-called “Bainimarama Boom”, poverty has increased over the past five years – the very same years the economy was booming, according to the PM and his Attorney-General. So, what was the good of the nine years of so-called “unprecedented economic growth”? “The reality of the matter,” as our Attorney-General is fond of saying, is that poverty increased during these years of the “Bainimarama Boom”. Poverty boomed. And now that our already fragile and declining economy is being strangulated by COVID-19, poverty levels have risen stratospherically. In my view they must be approaching 50 per cent. This should concern anybody in a position of authority, most of all the PM. Instead of taking Prof Prasad’s name an astonishing 14 times in his statement, he should be diverting his attention, together with his Economy Minister (who he has boldly conferred with his “full support”), to cushioning the effects of poverty.

Dialysis and medicine

Lack of subsidised kidney dialysis and shortage of basic medicine have been highlighted time and time again. Last week in Parliament, both Prof Prasad and NFP MP Lenora Qereqeretabua highlighted the issues of shortage of medicine and the plight of kidney patients needing dialysis. The Minister for Health brushed aside these concerns as lies. No sooner had the Minister made his statements in Parliament, a fellow doctor and prominent nephrologist (Dr Amrish Krishnan) said through social media he was concerned about the minister’s comments. There is widespread evidence of a lack of medicine in our hospitals. Diabetes patients throughout Fiji are being turned away from hospital pharmacies and health centres because there is no metformin – a basic tablet used to treat diabetics. The lack of subsidised dialysis in public hospitals for outpatients is well documented. Patients spend between $200 and $250 for a session of dialysis at private facilities. Some patients need this treatment two or three times per week. Why isn’t the PM concerned about this? Shouldn’t a head of Government be concerned,
that public hospitals in a nation that he has been leading for 14 years are not able to provide quality health and medical care?

TELS

The PM has repeatedly brandished tuition-free education and the Tertiary EducationLoans and Scholarship (TELS) as his proudest achievement. “No one will be left behind,” he has said. “My government believes in giving everyone a leg up,” he has said, loudly, over the past few years. But come 2021, his government is leaving many students behind. Their futures are clouded in uncertainty due to drastic changes to TELS. Students are being denied both scholarships and loans for medical and dental
studies because, the Government says, Fiji has enough doctors. What a lame excuse. Students, who graduated as qualified
veterinarians, say they have not been registered and therefore cannot start working and serve their bond as required by recipients of toppers scholarships. Then there is the serious issue of those with less than 250 marks in Year 13 examinations
being denied loans for tertiary education. This is causing sleepless nights and anxiety for students and their parents. It was the Government that four years ago reduced the minimum entry marks into universities to 200. Now the policy has changed. Why? Why leave behind students between 200 and 249 marks to ponder their future? And why isn’t the PM even fluttering an eye-lid to realise the pain this is causing to our ordinary students and parents? Instead, the PM thinks he can steamroll over long-held and well established policies and processes with his outrageous claims.

Leadership

Most of Fiji’s political leaders since 1970  have demonstrated sound and sensible leadership, both in Government and Opposition, to overcome challenges and chart a way forward for a peaceful and progressive Fiji. There were many bitter and acrimoniousdebates. But at the end of these debates, the national interest prevailed Because leadership is always about
averting disasters, not creating conditions in which they thrive.Sound and sensible leadership means a meaningful and robust democracy. Sadly,that has been lacking in Fiji for the past 14 years. There is no bipartisanship. There is no consensus building and no dialogue. Democracy now is about arrogance and “My Way or the Highway” leadership. It is about a “bull in a china shop” approach, damaging and destroying long established legacies, innate goodwill and common decency. This is not how we will survive the onslaught of COVID-19. There is no clear vision about how the government will meet its social obligation to the people to support their incomes – apart from telling them to raid their own Fiji National Provident Fund balances. Just as all eggs were put in one basket– tourism – to generate economic growth, the Government is hoping that the arrival of COVID-19 vaccine will kick-start Fiji’s recovery. This is hallucination. We need a wel ldefined plan for every sector. People need help. Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasa and TC Ana victims are awaiting assistance from Government to rehabilitate their homes.
But all the PM can do is spew venom at his opponents. Fiji is far too important to be sacrificed for the inaction and egoistic behaviour of its leader.

  •  Kamal Iyer is the political administrator of the National Federation Party. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily shared by this newspaper.

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