Fiji Dictator's Road To Reform


Last month Fiji’s Interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama unveiled the country’s 2013 national budget. "We deliver, and we deliver for all Fijians," Bainimarama told the Fiji Times the day after the budget speech. "In return," the story’s author added, "they expect all citizens to meet certain standards of behaviour." It is a reminder that Fiji, despite appearing stable, is still under authoritarian military rule.

The budget itself is a moderate mix of business concessions, new entitlements and revenue raisers: the foreign investment threshold of $250,000 (AU$135,000) has been scrapped; duty on imported cold climate vegetables is down, in a nod to Fiji’s luxury tourism sector; and the corporate tax rate has been reduced to 17 per cent, one of the lowest corporate rates in the world.

A tax free agricultural zone has been created from Tavua to Korovou in northern Viti Levu. Fifty young farmers will receive $20,000 each from the government to build infrastructure that will allow them to process and refine crops on-site.

On the revenue-raising side of the ledger, a green tax on motor fuel has been introduced and excise on cigarettes and alcohol are up. The most obviously progressive reform is the introduction of Fiji’s first old-age pension — around 9000 people over the age of 70 will be eligible in the scheme’s first year.

In a sign of Fiji’s impoverished and craven media climate the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation held a panel discussion immediately after the Prime Minister’s address. Heading the panel was Bainimarama’s deputy, the Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. About 12 other men — cabinet ministers, business association leaders and the governor of the Reserve Bank — praised the budget’s effect on their specific portfolios or business interests.

Not everyone was singing in their suits. The Fiji Labour Party called the budget "irresponsible". Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, a former prime minister ousted in the 2000 coup led by George Speight**, said the budget would "drive the nation into a dept trap".

If Bainimarama is to be believed, elections are just around the corner as well. Around 400,000 people have already registered to vote in the projected September 2014 election. $11 million (AU$5,935,897) has been allocated to polling preparations and $1 million (AU$539,627) to refurbish Suva’s parliamentary complex.

In the country one citizen described as "Alice in Wonderland" there are some things only the PM and his inner circle knows. How much is the military getting? No line item was released. What are ministers being paid? Since the Bainimarama takeover in 2006 there has not been an Auditor General’s report. Ministerial and top civil service salaries have not been released. The Prime Minister and Attorney General between them hold 18 ministerial portfolios. In 2007 they pledged to draw only one ministerial salary no matter how many portfolios they held. There are allegations that top ministers’ salaries are being administered by an accounting firm managed by the Attorney General’s Aunt, Nur Bano Ali.

Graham Davis, a Fijian-born former journalist now working for the Fijian government as a media consultant with Qorvis Communications, told New Matilda, "I’ve got no idea mate … all these guys have multiple portfolios, it’s not really a burning issue," he said. "But of course there should be transparency."

Perhaps more important than ministerial corruption, Fiji’s wage-earners have been left out of the 2013 budget. Sixty per cent of Fiji’s workers in full-time employment come under the Wages Council, a centralised body that fixes wages, which is under the Ministry of Labour and Industrial Relations. Father Kevin Barr, the council’s former head, resigned in protest in October after its recommended wage increases were deferred without notice after initial acceptance, after repeated delays in acting on previous recommendations. As a result Fiji’s workers have not had a wage increase — even one tied to the consumer price index — in six years. The Fiji dollar was devalued by 20 per cent in 2009 and inflation continues to rise.

Barr wrote in the Fiji Times (in somewhat unpriestly language) that the ordinary people and the workers of the country got "bugger all" out of the last few budgets and called business leaders "a pack of cry-babies" who "run to their ministers".

His view is backed by the former professor of economics at the University of the South Pacific, Wadan Narsey, who in a recent study found that since independence over $1 billion in just wages that should have gone to workers, was instead pocketed by employers.

The Essential National Industries Decree of September 2011 voided all current bargaining agreements for workers in industries "vital or essential to the economy and gross domestic product of Fiji". The decree allowed for a union representative’s position to be terminated if an employer had "reliable objective information and evidence" that a mere 35 per cent of workers didn’t support that representative. The most striking sentence of the decree was this: "No job actions, strikes, sick outs, slowdowns or other financially or operationally harmful activities shall be permitted at any time for any reason". All dispute resolution is to be conducted by the government with no recourse to an independent arbitrator or the courts.

Davis counters that had the unions in Fiji blocked industrial relations reform, Air Pacific, 46 per cent owned by Qantas, would have gone bust. "It is absolutely essential that Fiji maintains the ability to bring people to the country to support its biggest industry, tourism," he said.

While Australia and New Zealand continue to impose travel bans and other "smart sanctions" on the military regime, Fiji is being welcomed by the rest of the world. Bainimarama will go to London in January to take over as chair of the G77. The US Marines attaché Colonel Boswell got chummy with the military’s top brass and China and Russia continue to invest in infrastructure. Fiji recently extended diplomatic recognition to Iran and North Korea.

A draft of the new constitution will contain the government’s 14 non-negotiable principles (Davis prefers to call them unassailable principles). Many of these principles are taken for granted in Australia and are supported wholeheartedly by democratic activists in Fiji.

Several will be firsts for Fiji, including one man/one vote and proportional representation. Separation of church and state (When Fiji was briefly declared a Christian state following the first 1987 coup the ban on commercial activity on Sunday meant that thousands of people were tardy or absent from church because there were no buses or taxis), a common and equal citizenry, an end to racial discrimination in the public service and an independent judiciary will all be novel reforms.

Although "social justice" is one of the non-negotiables, details about what this entails are scarce and judging by the regime’s current actions that notion is likely to be fairly limited.

**This has been corrected from the original, which said Chaudhry was ousted by Bainimarama.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.