Tess Newton Cain: How to turn democracy into autocracy

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama basking in the wake of his Fiji elections triumph in 2014 ... but no genuine media freedom anytime soon. Image: Mads Anneberg/Asia Pacific Report

In September 2014, after 8 years of military rule, the people of Fiji went to the polls.

The FijiFirst party, led by Voreqe Bainimarama, won an overwhelming victory, which allowed them to form a government in their own right.

In April 2014, in the lead up to Fiji’s elections, I made the following comment on The Interpreter:

It is useful to take a wider perspective on what is happening in Fiji. It is not the first country to transition from military rule to democratic government. What history tells us is that democracy is a process, not a product. The September elections are part of this transition process but they are only the beginning.

Since the elections, Fiji has witnessed something of a democratic roller-coaster, as all the players, including the media and the populace at large come to terms with a changed landscape.

However, in the last few weeks, the ride has either come to a stop or plunged off the rails, depending on your viewpoint.

By railroading through cynical changes to standing orders, the FijiFirst government has used its majority to create a parliamentary dictatorship. Any potential for Parliament to act as a check on executive action – what the government wants to do – has been diluted to the point of non-existence.

Here are some examples. The number of Parliamentary sitting days has been reduced from seven weeks to four weeks in the year.

This means that the opposition MPs have fewer opportunities to put questions to ministers to highlight their concerns with government policy and legislation.

The 2014 Standing Orders stipulate that a member of the Opposition must chair the influential Public Accounts Committee.

This has now been overturned, undermining a very important “check and balance” on government activity.

It is these checks and balances that make a democracy. Matters of public interest, as identified by petitions submitted to the Parliament, must receive approval of 40 percent of the Parliament before it can be referred to a standing committee for consideration.

In other words if the government doesn’t want to discuss the issue then it won’t get onto the agenda. In the United Kingdom, once a public petition gets 10,000 signatures the government is required to respond, regardless of whether it approves or not.

Here in Vanuatu we are looking forward to seeing how our new government deals with the policy and legislative challenges that lie ahead.

We hear many calls for reform to the Constitution and legislation to give us more “stability”. As Transform Aqorau noted recently on Devpolicy:

“The opportunity costs of constant changes and attempted changes of government are huge.”

But we need to be watchful as moves to increase stability are undertaken to ensure that our democracy remains intact and vibrant. Fiji looks less like a democracy than it did a month ago and Papua New Guinea and Nauru have been demonstrating worrying shifts towards autocracy for some time.

That is not a club we need or should want to join.

Tess Newton Cain is a development consultant with TNC Pacific Consulting. This commentary was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.

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