Biman Prasad: Is our Fiji democracy really working?

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National Federation Party leader Dr Biman Prasad is shocked by Media Industry Development Authority chair Ashwin Raj's suggestions about regulating social media on national TV earlier this month. Image: Jona Konataci/Fiji Times

Dr Biman Prasad, leader of Fiji’s Opposition National Federation Party, suspended for 30 days yesterday by the Fijian Elections Office, assesses the country’s “deeply flawed”  post-coup democracy. This article was written and published before the latest move against his party.

The exuberant mood among the Fiji people after the 2014 election is fast fading. The realities of the high cost of living, low wages and deteriorating health and education services have not gone away.

This is because of a dysfunctional political system born of a deeply flawed and imposed Constitution, and economic policies designed to boost the government’s image, not Fiji’s long-term economic future.

The FijiFirst government has been big on announcements, but poor on implementation. Many of their publicity stunts are carefully crafted by government-hired and publicly-funded public relations firms like Qorvis, with the help of pliant media bodies like the Fiji Sun, a grateful beneficiary of exclusive government advertising contracts.

But what good is this for the rest of us?

Dysfunctional political environment
Serious questions continue to be raised about the independence of Parliament, state institutions and the civil service.

The highest bipartisan political institutions are parliamentary standing committees. In these, the people’s representatives — from the government and the Opposition — listen to the views of everybody on important legislation. Then they issue their reports making their recommendations.

-Partners-

In most “true democracies”, the government listens and responds meaningfully to these findings. Not in Fiji.

One such instance is the Standing Committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights. Last year this committee discussed the amendments to the Employment Relations Promulgations (ERP) Bill. We agreed unanimously — government and Opposition members together — to recommend changes which complied with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.

But before these changes could be presented to Parliament, the Bill was changed overnight, without the knowledge of the Opposition members. The committee process, therefore, was just about window-dressing. A bipartisan committee had carefully considered how to achieve the best laws; the government just went ahead and did what it wanted.

In a similar way, the Standing Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs considered and issued a report that Fiji should unconditionally implement the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

The government did not go back to the committee. Instead it moved a motion in Parliament to reject the Standing Committee’s report. So the government members of the committee were forced to vote in Parliament against their own report!

Recently, the Attorney-General interfered in the work of the Standing Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs by asking the government-appointed chair of the committee to stop deliberating on allegations of torture made by lawyer Aman Ravindra-Singh. The Attorney-General said in his view this was not the work of the committee.

But his view should not guide the work of a bipartisan committee. He has an obvious interest in these allegations not being heard because they do not reflect well on his government. But Parliament — an independent institution — has no budget for independent lawyers to advise it.

Draconian Media Decree
The draconian Media Decree remains in force. State radio and television media organisations and the pro-government newspaper (which is rewarded by exclusive government advertising contracts), continue to deny the opposition any voice. They openly parrot government propaganda.

Media organisations operate under the threat of their editors being hauled before the Media Tribunal and subjected to huge fines and other punishments. The lack of access to a free and independent media has been the single most frustrating obstacle for the opposition parties when they try to make the government publicly accountable on various national issues.

The only positive thing in all this is that, as I travel around the country, I realise that the people have begun to clearly see through this facade, and the real news has begun to seep through the firewalls.

The government continues to interfere in how parliamentary funding is allocated. The original allocation of funds by the secretary-general — who is supposed to be independent of the government was abruptly changed in December 2014. Under the new formula the NFP, with three MPs, gets only $45,000 per annum to run its parliamentary office and conduct its parliamentary activities.

The FijiFirst party, despite the fact that half of its MPs are ministers with their own taxpayer-funded civil servants, gets the same amount per MP as the Opposition parties.

In most “true democracies”, the Opposition receives a minimum amount of funding to operate on — to pay for researchers, support staff and travel. This is because “true democracy” recognises the importance of a well-resourced and informed Opposition to hold the government accountable.

Unbelievably, Opposition political parties are required to apply for permits for meetings with party members and others. This makes a mockery of democracy. Why do the people’s representatives need permits to meet the people?

The government, on the other hand, continues to use state resources to do roadshows, meetings and consultations. The Prime Minister seems to be on a permanent taxpayer-funded political campaign tour.

This sort of political dysfunction in Fiji has a direct negative impact on the accountability and transparency of government activities. Because the government does whatever it wants and does not listen to anyone else, many of its policies and programs are poorly thought out and implemented. If they listened more to other views, the people would get better policies and services.

Inconsistent economic policies
In 2013, no doubt with the 2014 election in mind, the Bainimarama government started spending on everything — tuition free education, bus fare subsidies and other social welfare programs. These would be good things if we could afford them and they were delivered well.

But they are certainly not delivered well.

School textbooks might be free, but they are useless if they don’t reach students on time. Unbelievably, the government has messed up textbook delivery for the second year running.

Now it has called in the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) to “investigate” its own inefficiency.

Health services continue to stagnate and deteriorate with appalling standards of service in hospitals and health centres. The free medicine scheme, another worthwhile idea run badly, is turning into a disaster. Now FICAC has been called in to “investigate” drug shortages in hospitals.

All of this FICAC investigating might help the ministers pass on the blame to someone else, but it is doing nothing much for the people.

The Tertiary Scholarship and Loans Scheme (TELS) program continues to disenfranchise poor students and their parents by imposing debts on them which they will struggle to pay in the future. A better designed TELS and scholarship program based on means-testing would have brought about better distribution of the benefits and the burden of debt on individual households.

The government of course is spending big on roads. That is a good thing, if this spending is run efficiently. Only a few days ago, the Prime Minister himself was reported demanding that the Fiji Roads Authority deliver results. If the Prime Minister is complaining, how confident can we be that these hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent well?

After all, these funds don’t belong to the FijiFirst party. They belong to the taxpayers. We are the ones who will be repaying the loans taken out to build these roads, for many years to come.

Based on 2013 figures, each woman, man and child in Fiji had a debt burden of about $4440.

A child born today automatically inherits a debt of $4440 upon birth — before they’ve even opened their eyes, grown their first tooth or taken their first steps. This debt figure burden rises with every passing year.

Government debt levels
Government debt stands at about $4.4 billion which is close to 50 per cent of GDP. This means that, like any household that borrows money to spend, we are becoming too deep in debt to be able to borrow any more.

The debt table below shows information government’s Budget Estimates and financial data is sourced from the website of the Ministry of Finance.

Microsoft Word - GOVT DEBT.docx

These are devastating figures. Remember that government’s actual revenue figures for 2014 and 2015 will only be known next year. So the percentage of debt to actual revenue will undoubtedly increase if government’s income projections are not met (like previous years, when they have not been met).

The government is very proud of its economic growth figures for 2013, 2014 and 2015 years. It is worth noting that this economic growth is much lower than in many Asian countries.

But the real test of our economy will be how it grows when the government stops borrowing and spending. The government’s own projections for economic growth has been revised downwards to 3.5 per cent in 2016 and about 3 per cent in 2017 and 2018.

Growing debt repayment requirements mean government has to find new sources of income to pay interest and principal every year. In the end, this can only be paid for if taxes increase or Government spending decreases. Either way, it is the people who will bear the consequences. It is the poorest people who will bear the biggest burden if Government services decline.

In the 2016 budget, the FijiFirst government was forced to break its election promises. In the election they promised they would keep the policy of zero VAT on basic food items. In the 2016 budget they broke that promise. Most people see little change in their household bills and the poor people only see their costs rising.

People think that the Opposition just opposes government policies and offer no alternative.

But the NFP, in its manifesto, had carefully proposed a reduction in VAT to 10 percent, leaving VAT on basic food items at zero. We had a credible plan to reduce wasteful expenditure that would not have created much pain for our lowest-income households.

The government recently claims that poverty has been reduced. Even if that is true, for the amount of public money it has spent, the reduction is very small. Unfortunately, the government has kept its statistics secret for so long that it is getting harder to trust their objectivity.

It seems that the government will only release the statistics that show good things. But, as Professor Wadan Narsey recently pointed out in an article in The Fiji Times, all the information should be available, for everybody to see, as soon as it is ready. In that way, all of us — the government, the Opposition, NGOs and the public — can work together to achieve the best solutions.

Of course these claimed reductions in poverty are before the 2016 Budget. Now the cost of basic food items has gone up, wages are not increasing and a huge number of people remain unemployed. So it is the next set of figures that will be the real test. Will the government delay releasing them if they aren’t good?

Economic management in Fiji has become dictatorial, confused and inconsistent, mostly reflecting a complete lack of understanding of how business and markets work.

Tax and tariff policies seem to veer in different directions in every budget, depending on which favoured businesses the government is listening to at the time. Meanwhile some businesses are being forced by the government to do business they do not want to do.

For example, government is forcing private pharmacies to participate in government’s free medicine scheme, even though these pharmacies cannot even recover their costs in doing so. If the government wants services from private business it should, like the rest of us, be required to pay those businesses properly and fairly.

The culture of servility and sycophancy has become so deeply ingrained under the FijiFirst government that some business people behave like obsequious fools. Few are prepared to criticise government policies.

Big businesses who are benefitting from bad government policies will pay the price in the long term. Their sycophancy and servility will to perpetuate a culture of bad governance, favouritism and ill-will. If the next government does not favour them, they will be the first to be demanding good governance — but it will be too late.

Deception
The economic and political deception of the FijiFirst government is likely to cost the country and our people dearly.

First, there is the political deception that has been created that Fiji has a “true democracy” under the 2013 Constitution. The government is forever talking about its “true democracy” — in its speeches, statements, even its advertisements. If this is “true democracy”, I wonder why it has to remind us so often? Is it because perhaps people aren’t convinced?

Many of Fiji’s international partners, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), have called for a review of the 2013 Constitution. They know it does not promote genuine democracy. The separation of powers, the derogations in the Bill of Rights, the ouster clauses, and the existence of draconian decrees all render the Constitution undemocratic. More importantly, they make it unsustainable in the future.

The dubious claim that this Constitution ensures “equal citizenry” (another favourite mantra of the government) is another deception. Just because we are now calling everyone a “Fijian” does not ensure the protection of minorities and other ethnic groups.

The reality on the ground is a stark reminder to many that there is no such thing as equal citizenry. Appointments in the civil service, government boards, and other government-controlled organisations, and selective awarding of government contracts continue to be based on patronage.

Recently the Fiji Sun has reported that the government is investigating staff members of Fijian Holdings Ltd (a private company) for “political agendas”. Apparently their crime is not to support the FijiFirst political agenda!

In the Ministry of Education, some staff have been promoted 5-7 ranks upwards in a single sweep, bypassing many qualified and experienced people. Similar cases have been highlighted in the Health Ministry.

This is a result of the lost independence of state institutions responsible for these appointments. The provision in the Constitution that all appointments below permanent secretary level will be done by the respective permanent secretaries, in consultation with the minister responsible, is a recipe for disaster. Ministers will demand senior positions for their cronies and yes-men.

Already we see ministers deciding which people are recruited, promoted and sacked at their whim. The current reform of the civil service by creating a Ministry of Civil Service and removing the Public Service Commission as an independent institution responsible for the civil service, is going to spell further disaster in the future and will be difficult to reverse.

Flawed economic policies, aimed mostly at looking good for politics, will cause much economic pain in the future. Fiji’s economy has grown modestly in the past few years on the back of remittances, tourism, borrowing and tax cuts. But borrowing and tax cuts are one-time tricks. After the so-called asset sales to fund spending in 2016, what will be the next rabbit that government will pull from its hat? That is when the economic pain will deepen, which will take a long time to reverse.

Can we get out of this rut? It is time to change course
The time for dictatorship and arrogance is over. It is now time for dialogue, it is time for bipartisanship in Parliament, it is time to free the media, and it is time to engage meaningfully with our development partners. It is time for the people to demand better. Moreover, it is time to change course.

The NFP has always advocated dialogue as a means of resolving national issues and our political record shines proudly untarnished from this approach.

I once again call upon the Prime Minister to shed his government’s patronising and dictatorial attitude and initiate a process of sincere dialogue on key national issues such as the review of the Constitution, a process to address the grievances of the indigenous Fijian people, the repealing of draconian decrees, and a process to address the deep concerns within the sugar industry.

Telling Opposition leaders to “jump in a deep pool”, telling gay people to shift to Iceland and shackling the nation with debilitating debt is not much of a political legacy.

True nationhood, common and equal citizenry can only be achieved if we work together. Reciprocity, humanity and national interest should be our guiding values if we are to succeed at bipartisanship, and not arrogance and condescension.

We continue to offer our hands for bipartisanship. It is now up to the government to reciprocate with sincerity and respect, in the national interest.

Dr Biman Prasad is an economist and former university professor. This article was first published in The Fiji Times on Saturday, 30 January 2016 and has been supplied to Asia Pacific Report. Two days after publication in the Times, the National Federation Party was suspended from Parliament.

Fiji’s National Federation Party suspended

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