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An overview of the Coalition’s year in Office

The Coalition government was welcomed into office a year ago by a nation straining to be freed from the oppressive rule of the Fiji First Party, led by Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum.

Its one year in office will be judged on the basis of how well it has delivered on the anticipation of the people for an open, accountable and inclusive government committed to the principles of democracy and good governance, and addressing the needs of the people.


It will be judged on its sincerity to act on the many promises made to the people in the 2022 election campaign to not only fully restore the rights and freedoms of our people but also to provide relief from critical social issues such as high cost of living, poor wages, rising unemployment, a lack of decent affordable housing, and inadequate health care for the poor.


The early signs of its governance were promising with the repeal of the repressive media laws and the unpopular restriction on women using their married names, and the re-instatement of the Great Council of Chiefs. It reverted retirement age in the civil service to 60 and removed short term contracts.  


However, a government’s real test lies in its adherence to the principles of good governance – openness and transparency, accountability, proper management of public finances, adherence to the rule of law and sensitivity to the needs of the people.


In my view, the Coalition has been found wanting on much of these.

Transparency and Accountability


A year has gone by without any moves to enact legislation on a Code of Conduct for holders of high public office and on Access to Information. A necessary adjunct to these is the establishment of an Accountability and Transparency Commission which cannot operate without the enabling legislation. These are mandatory requirements under Sections 121,149 and 150 of the Constitution.


How can a government claim to be accountable or transparent if these three crucial constitutional requirements for good governance are not actioned?  Fiji First did not do so for 8 years. The Coalition does not seem to be giving it any priority either.   


There are emerging signs of questionable practices and a worrying lack of accountability and transparency in the management of public funds.

A case in point - the allocation of $200,000, a huge chunk  of the funds set aside for Girmit celebrations, to the Global Girmit Institute (GGI), a defunct institution headed by the Finance Minister’s wife and a close political ally.


Following controversy on this, both the Finance Minister and Prime Minister Rabuka gave assurances that accounts of the expenditure incurred for the celebrations will be made public.


No such disclosure has occurred. The Attorney General also gave an assurance that the matter will be investigated. This has not happened. In a recent media interview the Finance Minister said accounts have been submitted to the Finance Ministry. This is not acceptable. They should be made public as promised, particularly in light of the fact that the GGI has a questionable record. It was                   de-registered in 2022 for not submitting its accounts and annual reports for five years, in fact ever since its registration in 2017. It was hastily, and unlawfully, re-registered in February this year, in time to receive the Girmit fund allocation.


Since then other similar cases have arisen where the Minister has defrayed public funds to financially bail out his political allies and/or failed institutions connected to them.  


Such cases reflect badly on the integrity and credibility of the government and need to be addressed in an open and credible manner.


They underscore the urgency for the Code of Conduct and Access to Information legislation so that the Accountability and Transparency Commission can be set up to inquire into allegations of such nature.


Access to Justice


Denial of access to justice and the administration of justice are other crucial matters of concern.  Justice is still denied in the tragic case of the ferris wheel accident in Suva six months ago which ultimately led to two deaths and caused serious injuries to two others. The two surviving victims have received no assistance to obtain specialized medical attention or compensation despite the seriousness of their injuries.


The Minister concerned has still to make public the report on the accident. He now says it is with the DPP’s office. Why is it not being released for public information? Just who is being protected here?


In recent times we have witnessed a disturbing disregard by the authorities to constitutional provisions in making appointments to senior positions in the legal and judicial services of persons who are disqualified.


I refer to the appointments of Alipate Qetaki as a judge on the Appeals Court panel and John Rabuku as acting Director of Public Prosecutions. Despite strong criticism from opposition parties and the Fiji Law Society that the appointments were unconstitutional, the government has done nothing to rectify this.


Likewise, the case of the Chief Registrar who pleaded guilty to a charge of drunken driving but was not convicted because the Magistrate worried he could lose his job!

As a holder of high public office, the Chief Registrar must now be held accountable for his improper conduct which has brought disrepute to the Judiciary.

There is a process in the Constitution for dealing with such cases and it should be followed in fairness to other officers who have been subjected to such investigations.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Adherence to its provisions is mandatory if the rule of law is to prevail.  


Social Distress


In my books, the Coalition is grossly insensitive to the needs of the ordinary people while subscribing to the well being of the rich and prosperous. Such policies have further widened the gulf between the rich and poor in our society. 


Budget 23/24 is testimony to this. Finance Minister Biman Prasad raised VAT to 15% on all goods and services with the exception of 21 items. Thus exacerbating the suffering of the poor already burdened by intolerably high cost of living. It sent the inflation rate soaring – put at 13% by a reputable independent economist.


Nothing was done to raise the minimum wage as promised during elections . A paltry $15-$20 increase in the monthly social welfare allowance is totally inadequate to cushion  recipients against the severe impact of the hike in Vat.


FNPF pensioners victimized by the 2012 restructure, implore the government in vain for a review. Meanwhile, members who were forced to withdraw funds from their retirement savings to survive the Covid crisis, are still waiting for government to fulfill its election promise to reimburse to their accounts the $180m they withdrew.      


Whilst the poor were subjected to such austerity measures, or deprived, the Minister gave an inexplicable 7-year tax holiday to an extremely profitable foreign-owned bottling company (Fiji Water) which recorded a profit of $64m last year.


To help the well off, he reduced the top personal tax rate from 44% to 39% and scrapped the social responsibility tax for those earning over $270,000. Nor did he deem it necessary to tax their dividend income.  


More Pay, less work


While such policies may seem the height of social injustice, there is worse. In a move that must be strongly condemned, Members of Parliament awarded themselves a tax free hike of $10,000 a year to their own substantial parliamentary pays. They also surreptitiously gave each political party in parliament an annual grant of $325,000.


Pays went up but they actually reduced their work load by substantially slashing parliamentary sitting days. A cynical public believes this was done to allow them more time for overseas junkets!


The Coalition continues to abuse Standing Order 51 by fast tracking Bills, allowing severely limited debate on them – exactly as Fiji First did, much to their displeasure at the time.   


Frequent overseas jaunts by Coalition ministers, enjoying the excessively high travel allowances set by the Fiji First government, came under strong criticism from the public. It was only at the last sitting of Parliament (in late November) that they finally moved for a reduction.  


The year ends on a note of much public disenchantment. The Coalition will have to radically alter its policies to win back goodwill. It must address the public perception that its ministers are having a good time and enriching themselves at the expense of the poor. They must cut back on overseas jaunts and get on with the work at home. 


It must also deal with the heightened perception that in its pre-occupation with fast tracking issues of the indigenous people, it is overlooking the just treatment of the minority communities.


Mahendra P. Chaudhry

Former Prime Minister

Leader, Fiji Labour Party


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