2021-2022 National Budget Reply - Hon Lenora Qereqeretabua
Reply to the 2021-2022 National Budget
NFP Vice President Hon. Lenora Qereqeretabua
Tuesday 27th July 2021
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Honourable Speaker, I begin my reply to the Budget 2021-22 address by offering my deepest condolences to the families of those who have succumbed to Covid-19; All of them deeply loved and deeply missed; Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, Sisters and Brothers, and beloved Grandparents. We must not forget, Mr Speaker, the many other men, women and children who have died because they could not access medical intervention for other serious illnesses including Cancer and Kidney failure. I know words cannot take away the pain you feel or fill the empty spaces in your hearts, but I want you to know that we grieve with you.
I also wish to express my deep gratitude to all Medical and Non-Medical staff and workers at the frontline and those working in the background, trying under the most difficult of conditions and circumstances to stand between Covid-19 and us. Many of us have no idea the struggles you encounter daily nor the dangers many of you accept as part of your duty to your country. On behalf of NFP, I thank you most sincerely.
I pay tribute at this juncture to teenagers Anne-Mary and Faith Raduva, founders of the Lagilagi Relief Drive for all they have done to lift girls from period poverty. Since May, 2020 the Lagilagi Relief Drive have distributed more than 3000 sanitary pads to cyclone & COVID affected communities, villages & families. They are self-funded and assisted by financial donations from relatives, friends and supporters. Faiaksia and vinaka vakalevu, AnneMary and Faith.
I also pause to thank our rugby teams and their outstanding performances both in New Zealand and Japan, and a special shout out to the Fijiana team and all of Team Fiji in Tokyo.
Mr Speaker, we know that this 2021-22 Budget is a result of government’s failure to prevent the deaths and despair we are now faced with.
This budget rides on hope and prayer to alleviate the terrible hardships faced by the vast majority of our population as a direct result of the failures of this government to protect our people and our economy. BUT the economy, indeed the whole country was teetering at the edge of an abyss way before Covid-19.
There is no doubt that this is indeed an Elections Budget. Mr Speaker, this government has failed the people of Fiji. We all know that. Government knows that too, but they will not admit it. They also know that this is their undoing at the polls next year, and that the people of this country now see them for who they really are: arrogant bullies, lacking empathy who don’t consult but think they are always right.
Let me take us back to March 2020, Mr Speaker. Paraphrasing the words of Jacinda Ardern on March 14th to “Go Hard and Go Early” against the virus, our own prime minister said, on 23 March 2020 that we had to act quickly and decisively.
On March 29th, 2020, he said: “I appreciate that our lockdown measures and travel restrictions haven’t been easy for everyone –– but it is clear these were the right measures taken at the right time to lock down this virus.”
Mr Speaker, everyone knows the verse, “Pride cometh before a fall”. I have used it several times in this house to caution government’s boastfulness in relation to everything.
In April this year the PM boasted at an FNU event that no other country could beat Fiji’s Covid record. A few days later this deadly second wave began. If govt had been quick to act and locked us all down with all the appropriate financial assistance in place, the super-spreader events which caused this current traumatic 2nd wave would not have taken place. The super-spreader events, and of course the primary infection point for the second wave from the flight of 10 April, which I must add no one has owned up to, nor apologised for.
But this is typical, this is how this government operates, protect their buddies, blame everyone else.
Mr Speaker, Reuters news agency reported that on July 12, just 2 weeks ago, the Dutch Prime Minister conceded that coronavirus restrictions had been lifted too soon in the Netherlands . The Dutch Prime Minister apologised as infections surged to their highest levels of the year. This is what he said: "What we thought would be possible, turned out not to be possible in practice, We had poor judgement, which we regret and for which we apologise."
Do you think we will ever hear the word “apologise” from either the Prime Minister or his Minister for Economy? Let me, through you Mr Speaker, put that question directly to those watching on the Parliament livestream, to respond as either a YES/NO in the comments field.
Honourable Speaker, may I again quote some lofty words spoken in this very House, five years ago.
“In a democratic society”, we were told, “the test of a government‘s strength lies not in the way it controls or prescribes to its people, but in what it demands of itself.”
Very honourable. Very democratic. Also, very selectively truthful. And whose words were these? Honourable Attorney General & Minister for Economy when delivering the 2016-17 Budget!
The same Economy Minister who now tells the people of Fiji “no jab, no job”. The same Economy Minister who threatens people’s welfare payments if they do not get vaccinated. The same Economy Minister who is getting ready to blame the people for Government cuts if we do not reach our vaccination targets.
Mr Speaker, good leadership is no longer a luxury for Fiji. It is desperately needed. We need good leaders to help guide us. We need good leaders to make the essential large-scale decisions that keep Fiji moving.
But most of all, we need leaders with integrity and honesty.
We need leaders who can delegate, who are not control freaks, and who can allow decisions to be made. We have already seen what happens when decisions are not made: people die.
And we need leaders who can communicate. You cannot lead if you cannot express yourself without the Qorvis or Vatis online and offline spin all the time, that is so far removed from reality, it is a joke.
We need leaders who are self-aware, and know what to do when they don’t know what to do. They do not just bluster and blunder on.
Good leaders are grateful. They are thankful for the efforts of others. They are also respectful of others. By doing so, they build trust and improve their own effectiveness.
Mr Speaker good leaders have influence over others because they can use logic, emotion and appeal to co-operation. They are empathetic. They can understand and share the feelings of others.
And good leaders, Mr Speaker, have courage. They do not avoid problems. They do not allow conflicts to fester. They step up and deal with them and try to move things in the right direction.
These are the basic elements of leadership Mr Speaker. And unfortunately, these elements are nowhere near Fiji's wheelhouse.
The government has one responsibility before all others, Mr Speaker. That is to look after the people as per its social contract. And in this it has totally, utterly failed.
The government believed it could put the economy before the people. And now we face economic failure, and a people crying out for help.
And I say to the Government – how could you fail to understand, that without the people, there is no economy?
Why did the prime minister not heed the medical experts repeated pleas to lock us down? You “went hard and went early” last year. Why did you not do this in 2021?
How many people have to die before you will admit you were wrong and apologise to the people of Fiji?
Mr Speaker this Government has blood on its hands. This Government has the pain and misery of the dead and their families on its hands.
Mr Speaker occasionally we will see a picture of a Minister touring some Government facility or another. But what has any of them done to understand and hear the anguish of the people who cannot pay their rent? Have they listened to the workers who are now working only 3 days when they used to work 6? Can they even begin to imagine how many impoverished families worry about how they will feed, shelter and clothe their children?
Mr Speaker this Prime Minister and his First Mate refused to listen to the experts. Now all of us are paying for their arrogance.
He is no leader. He is the captain of a sinking ship, his own Government. And he has run our nation onto the rocks, despite repeated warnings from the health experts in the lighthouse.
This Government has failed completely, totally, to communicate with the people through this crisis.
The Prime Minister barely talks to the people. When he does, he turns up hours late. What kind of leader speaks to his people at midnight when he promised to turn up at hours earlier? He thinks that the people that WE ALL WORK FOR, have the time and mobile data to be waiting on him to show up, at his leisure. Every video speech they make, shows up reactionary emojis -- all those orange frowny faces furiously doing the tuiboto along the right-hand side of the screen. I know this Government is tone deaf, but surely it cannot be blind as well to all that?
The Prime Minister thinks that because he gives one speech, we are all glued to the TV and we have all listened and will obey. He does not understand the essence of communication, is to repeat the message, to listen to the feedback and adjust the message and communicate some more.
His Government can barely communicate in the vernacular languages. These are the languages our people need to hear. Their very lives depend on it.
Imagine Mr Speaker. The New Zealand Government can communicate in Vosa Vakaviti, in Hindi, in feyang roTuom for Rotumans – New Zealand can do this. But in Fiji – the birthing ground of our mother tongues – we cannot or we will not. It is shameful.
And now Mr Speaker, the people get barely any information in any language. Dr Fong and the health officials are barely seen. Then suddenly they turn up without warning.
Dr Fong turned up in a once-in-a-blue-moon press conference on Sunday night Mr Speaker, but nobody was listening because they were all gripped by the sweep by police on honourable members of this House, for questioning.
I don't know about you Mr Speaker, but to my mind as an elected member of this august House -- the highest court of the land which makes laws -- for which the people sent me to do, I find the overreach of the Police on shady allegations of "malicious acts" worthy of parliamentary censure. It is our job as Members of Parliament to inform our constituents of our views on bills that are before us. It is not the job of the police to act as a primary enforcer of false or fake news related to laws that we are looking at.
Mr Speaker, it is just amazing how the government loves to criticize the Opposition as POLITICIANS. Last time I checked everyone who sits around these tables, apart from you Hon Speaker were politicians. If you are not a politician and not registered under a political party, you cannot be sitting here in this august House. So all these wordplays, really are quite pathetic.
And furthermore, the Head of the Government continues to show appalling behaviour towards women. Calling a female journalist an ULUKAU resulting in the Fiji Media Association putting out a statement. Calling out women MPs as worthy only of TikTok. This is disgusting and unbecoming behaviour of a leader of this nation. Stop it!!
Mr Speaker, all over the world, we have seen television footage of hospital wards and the suffering of people and the desperation of doctors and nurses. The people must see these images to understand how serious our crisis is. The people must know the truth.
But not here Mr Speaker. Because the Government wants to hide the truth about its own incompetence and unreadiness.
And yet the news has now leaked out. Fiji and the world have now seen the deplorable state of our medical facilities, our morgues and quarantine centres because the people, not the government, shone a light on them.
Last Friday, Prof Robert West, Emeritus Professor of Health Psychology at University College London said of the UK government.
“We are seeing a decision by the government to get as many people infected as possible, as quickly as possible, while using rhetoric about caution as a way of putting the blame on the public for the consequences”.
And Mr Speaker, this is what this Government is doing. It is setting up the people of Fiji for the blame.
Reaching 80% vaccination is NOT the "open sesame" command that reopens borders outside of our own. The state of our health system is enough to stop anyone from coming to Fiji! But I find it dishonest, that the budget address and all other statements from Government, dangles a carrot that high vaccination numbers will automatically make outside borders reopen to receive us, when "the fact of the matter" is, that THAT is beyond Fiji's control.
This is a desperate budget Mr Speaker. It tries to please everyone, in the desperate hope of winning next year’s elections.
Why do I say Desperate Budget? Because it all just seems too good to be true. The government refused to lock us down because they said they could not afford it. Yet all of a sudden, they say they have money to throw around for market vendors, state lease tenants, people needing birth certificates, and mobile data for our young learners.
Mr Speaker, the four-yearly lolly scramble has begun!
Do these promises sound familiar? They should! It's written and loudly declared, just like all the activities in Head 50 that appear year after year. Lots of activities and millions allocated but not a lot in terms of real and actual improvements to infrastructure, health, education -- or even the cost of basic food items.
To illustrate, I skimmed through the consequential bill for Customs Tariff Act hoping to see some basic food items on the list! But no -- the only products that will cost less are: green tea. fruit juice not manufactured locally or has no added sugar, vegemite, lead acid batteries for buses and taxis, audio visual equipment such as television cameras, digital cameras, video camera recorders, pocket-sized radio cassette players and radio receivers. electrical equipment, non-woven bags, cement, timber/wood, reinforcing bars, veneer plywood, nails, powdered milk, liquid milk, butter, yogurt and cheese. Really?? I mean really?
But watch! Just before elections, water tanks, free connect wifi at central points, walesi TVs, $1,000 -- that many probably didn't even apply for, will fall like manna from heaven. That will not work this time around, Mr Speaker. The threshold for lies dressed up as truths, has been reached,
On medicinal marijuana or industrial hemp, the Government ridiculed Hon members from this side of the house when this subject was raised by two MPs. So imagine my surprise when the AG brought up the subject of medicinal marijuana.
Imagine my further surprise to see another budget consequential bill on the Gambling Turnover Tax which updated the schedule to increase this from about less than $1, up to 15%. Is the Government expecting revenue and high-rollers in this sector? What have we learned or EARNED from the 100 sands casino exercise so far -- apart from a Native American headress as gleefully worn then by the Prime Minister?
Mr Speaker, In his budget address, I note that the Honourable Minister is very proud of having a $150 million cash balance to carry over at the end of the year. He describes this as an additional buffer should tax revenues underperform”. I am wondering how that is possible within the procedures of the Financial Management Act. Don't all left-over funds automatically go back to the main government consolidated fund??
That further reminds me. The NFP has received its annual party parliamentary allocation. Yet we got it in the bank BEFORE this budget was passed. How is that happening within the procedures of the Financial Management Act, Mr Speaker?
Mr. Speaker let me get this clear. At a time when Government had enough cash to pay for a short, sharp lockdown, the Government refused to lock down. Instead, it opened up the containment areas.
Government said it had no money but it had $150m in cash?
In failing to lock down Mr. Speaker the Government did not just destroy people’s lives and health. It destroyed the economy. Viti Levu is paralysed by the virus. It will remain paralysed for the rest of the year, and maybe even longer.
If the economy is down, of course companies will not make profits and pay income tax to the Government. And of course people will not spend money which gives VAT to the Government. So of course tax revenues will underperform.
But the other thing the Honourable Minister is not saying is this – how much does the Government owe to its creditors? How much does the Government owe under the tax incentives for the film producers who came to Fiji? This includes those who came to Kadavu, who have been in the Mamanucas and in other parts of Fiji. Because I am told that the producers’ claims are more than $70 million. There’s half of your $150 million dollars gone, right there.
And how much does the Government owe to its other creditors? Talk to any business person in Fiji. They hate doing business with Government because it takes so long to get paid. Imagine – we are talking about the Government of Fiji, which cannot even pay its own debts on time. And you talk about confidence in the Government’s financial management!
It is so incredible just like the fairytale that the Minister for Economy told us a couple of years ago, that debt is good. And now we are drowning in it!
Finally, Mr Speaker,
I urge the government to withdraw the amendment to Bill 17, and stop answering our concerns and the concerns of Land Owning Units with an empty assurance that “Itaukei Land is safe”. No one believes that. I urge government to have some respect for the traditional owners of this land and consult. I urge the members of the Fiji First government who are members of land owning units to think very, very carefully about what it is they will no doubt be voting for.
It amazes me that the CEO of TLTB consulted with the Solicitor General's office but not the Board. It amazes me that the CEO can be part of a ploy to amend such an important legislation and not even have the gumption to advise his WHOLE Board; who by the way are the lawful trustees of the landowners.
But it amazes me further that a week after that so-called budget consequential Bill was tabled, the Board was still in the dark about it, by which time public debate was already stirring. As far as I can tell, all the members of the Board are still members and no one has resigned in protest -- so it stands to reason, that there is an element of complicity in this whole exercise with the Board?
And Mr Speaker, it also amazes me that apart from the incompetent way this TLTB Bill is coming to this House, the TLTB itself is coming to ask for about $5M for its operating expenses in the budget, yet this House is not up to speed with the status of its latest Annual Reports -- a key KPI, one would think of the TLTB CEO, and yes the Board.
Mr Prime Minister, as the Chair, maybe your CEO is on too many other Boards and can't honour what he is being primarily paid to do??
Mr Speaker, I do not support this budget because I don’t trust this government to implement the promises it contains.
When the voters send this government out through the ballot box, in their wake, like so much flotsam and jetsam, will float the many broken promises and failed policies. Most tragically, also in their wake will be the broken lives of ordinary Fijians who this government sacrificed at the altar of greed, arrogance and ego.
I thank you.