2021-2022 National Budget Reply - Hon Prof. Biman Prasad
Reply to the 2021-2022 National Budget
NFP Leader Hon. Biman Prasad
Monday 26th July 2021
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Last night I was questioned by Police on the statement issued on Friday about changes to Bill No. 17 – I Taukei Land Trust Act. The NFP President Honourable Pio Tikoduadua, former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and colleagues from SODELPA were also detained along with the Unity Fiji Party Leader.
In my case, all I said it was arrogant and disrespectful of Government not to have consulted landowners about the changes. In the case of Honourable Tikoduadua, all he did was a video calling for calm.
Yet earlier today, Honourable Assistant Minister for I Taukei Affairs accused me for spreading lies. It is a joke when one behaves like a puppet of her masters, reading something penned for her.
She also said I did not follow the old values of NFP. If she read my statement, it clearly stated that since its inception in 1963, the NFP has always respected the right of the indigenous people to their land.
How can this be construed as malicious, spreading lies or creating disunity?
And then Mr Speaker, Honourable Parveen Bala said in relation to the NFP’s strong stand on the plight of cane growers that I was also doing it for personal political interest.
This coming from a person who jumped from a party where he received his political tutelage to become a candidate for Fiji First for reasons that everyone knows. Get real Honourable Bala.
Mr Speaker, In the last few years, as I have risen to contribute to the Budget speech, I have focused every year on the same thing. It was the same before the corona virus. It is the same now. This is a Government with no ideas and no money.
And this year Mr Speaker, I want to add more to this. This is a government with no courage, and no compassion.
This is the Gutless Government. It is the Invisible Government. It is the Missing in Action Government. It is the “Don’t Give a Damn” Government.
Mr Speaker I listened for more than two hours to the Budget speech. I waited to hear the Honourable Minister for Economy talk about the crisis we are facing in Fiji, right here, right now.
We are in the worst health, social and economic crisis Fiji has ever had since independence. Thousands of people are infected with a deadly virus.
Our health system is in a state of collapse. 186 people have died. Our hospital morgues cannot even give dignity to the dead.
This is when the people look to the leaders for a plan. They need information. They need reassurance. They need support.
And instead Mr Speaker, I could not believe what I heard. The people got nothing.
The Honourable Economy Minister does not want to talk about it. He only wants to talk about when we are vaccinated.
Mr Speaker, this is gutless. It is cowardly. This government does not want to face the reality of what is happening.
The Honourable Minister likes to talk about the “reality of the matter”. But on this reality of the matter, he is silent.
Mr Speaker if the Honourable Minister will not tell our people about this crisis, let me do it. Let me tell the people of Fiji the truth.
First point Mr Speaker. This crisis will not end in October. It will continue at least to the end of the year. Even if we reach vaccination targets, we will still have people sick and dying.
Second point Mr Speaker. It is likely more than 50,000 people will be infected with this virus. In fact, we may already have reached that number. Why?
Because the Ministry of Health is no longer testing people showing symptoms. People are told “just stay at home and look after yourselves”.
So what does this mean? It means the Ministry of Health is too busy treating people to get good information on the virus.
Mr Speaker they know that the virus is completely out of control. Nobody knows how many cases are out there.
So we are now powerless against this virus. We do not know where it is and we do not know where it is going.
And Mr Speaker, the Honourable Minister of Health must tell people this. Who can forget? Two months ago, he told us the virus was under control.
Now, he must tell the people the truth. The Ministry is now reporting fewer than 1,000 cases per day. Of course the Fiji Sun and Government supporters are saying the virus numbers are coming down.
But this is fake news, and it is dangerous. Dr Fong has warned us about this.
Dr Fong has told us to be careful about the numbers. So the Honourable Minister for Health must speak up and tell people the truth.
What is the truth? The truth is we are reporting fewer new cases only because we are not testing all the suspected cases.
The Government must tell the people the truth, Mr Speaker. If not, it will lose even more trust with the people.
Mr Speaker when Government loses the trust of the people, it loses authority over them. It loses credibility with them.
Maybe this is why we cannot see Government Ministers on social media, on talkback, on Zoom. We do not see them talking about vaccination and distancing.
Have they given up Mr Speaker? Or do they know that they will only make things worse – because nobody trusts them?
Third point, Mr Speaker, more than 1,000 people could die from this crisis. Right now the death toll is 186. But the mathematics tells us - we have a long sad way to go.
This is a small country Mr Speaker. We are a close community.
We all know families who have lost loved ones. We all have friends, across all ages and ethnic groups, with desperately sick relatives. And yet, the worst is still to come.
Mr Speaker it is not just the virus that is killing people. People with other illnesses cannot get attention in a collapsed health system. Heart patients, diabetics who need surgery, kidney patients – these people, too, will die in this crisis.
Because the virus now dominates everything. People cannot get treatment. They cannot even get into hospitals.
Fourth point, Mr Speaker. There will be long term damage to our people’s health.
No one is talking about what is called “long Covid”. Even when the infection leaves them, the illness will not. We are now seeing the reports from overseas.
Maybe 20% of all Covid victims suffer long-term effects – organ damage, loss of senses and other severe consequences. This is so for young people.
So thousands of our fellow citizens will be left permanently damaged by this disease. They will add to the burden of health care.
This burden does not just fall on our hospitals and health centres. It falls on families. It will cause long-term distress, pain and expenses.
These are the facts that people need to know about this crisis. And is the Government telling us of this? No.
Is the Honourable Minister telling us how long there will be a curfew? No. Is he telling us how long we cannot go back to our shops and workplaces? No.
The Government is saying nothing about this. All it is saying is “no jab, no job”. And Mr Speaker let me be clear. This is the Government’s fault.
And I say to the Honourable Prime Minister and Honourable Economy Minister – this is your fault. This is not the people’s fault. You have failed to protect the people.
You refused to lock down when the problem was small. You opened up the containment zones instead of closing them.
You failed at the first and most important job of the Government – that is, to protect the people. And now you do not even have the courage to talk about it. You do not have the courage to tell the people the truth.
Mr Speaker why am I spending my time on this when I could be talking about economics? Because, in government, at this time, in this crisis, economics is second to leadership.
You can throw money around. You can talk about your freebies, even though we know they never happen.
But nothing will change. The arrogance, the stubbornness, the ego – these are the problems. Until you people are honest about your mistakes; until you people are ready to work with others, in humility and good faith – until that happens, nothing in Fiji will change.
The past, Mr Speaker, is the best guide to the future. And for the next year, pain and disaster is our future.
Mr Speaker the Honourable Minister told us he had three objectives. First, he said, Government must protect people from the virus. Second, he said, Government must support the economy. Third, he said, Government must rebuild the economy.
So the whole world knows the Government has failed on the first objective. It has failed to protect people from the virus.
Now let us talk about your economic measures. The big numbers sound good. $200 million for unemployment assistance. $200 million for business recovery. You will give people relief on their electricity bills. This all sounds great. But the key, Mr Speaker, is delivery. The talk must be turned into action.
And look at how poorly the Government has delivered during this crisis.
Look at all the big talk about the $50 grant for lockdown affected people. We all know it was a disaster.
The 161 number crashed. People could not get through. Some people got money. Some did not.
What about the delivery of food rations? This became a joke. The Government was just basically throwing around ration packs. And why? So they could say on Facebook, “we delivered 4000 ration packs today”.
And yet, on the very same Facebook platform were people saying they got ration packs they did not need and did not want.
People have been struggling for months. And only now, when there is a big Budget announcement, is the Government doing anything. Why? So they can talk about it.
And like everything it does, these fancy schemes will take months to set up.
Let’s look at the record of broken promises Mr Speaker.
What has happened to the great free milk and Weetbix giveaway? Gone.
What has happened to the great Ba and Lautoka Hospital Aspen contract? It never happened? How much did FNPF lose in this? How much money Aspen make? Now we find there is another allocation for Public Private Partnership to run Ba and Lautoka Hospital. Who is the owner of this new company?
What happened to the $10 million first home buyer’s grant? Quietly reduced to $4 million.
What about the free medical scheme for families to visit their doctors they announced during the 2018 election campaign? Never happened.
What happened to the goals set in the Sugar Industry Strategic Plan to for a 2.5 million tonnes of sugarcane to be harvested each season from a few years ago? It disappeared amidst the so called Boom under the stewardship of a Leader who reduced the economic mainstay of our economy for over a century until the turn of the millennium to a pocket-sized industry.
What happened the to the Dairy Industry after the so-called restructuring zero-rating milk and butter imports for the company to have a monopolistic hold for over 10 years? The milk supply has virtually dried up and the industry has all but disappeared.
And so we see in this Budget speech Mr Speaker. They talk big numbers of money but not how they will spend it.
And of course, politics. Why is the Government making a big song and dance about paying the stall fees for market vendors? Because the town and city councils are running out of money. They need the money anyway.
So the Government makes a big political deal out of it. They say “we will pay the stall fees”.
$1 million for free surveys. What does that mean? $4 million for so-called “Jobs for Nature”. There is no detailed plan for this. This is just crowd-pleasing talk, throwing figures around. It will never be delivered.
Mr Speaker, time and time again, we have seen what has happened. Big talk during the Budget. One year later, no action.
Mr Speaker, this is the point. We have been in this Covid crisis for a year. The Honourable Minister despite having all his advisers, all his thousands of civil servants for that year. And yet, yet he could only come up with these ideas now, in July 2021. What have you been doing until now? Does he listen to the advice of his civil servants? Do we have a proper national planning unit?
And so, people may say, why am I complaining about the past? Because Mr Speaker, I say it again. With this government, the past is the best guide to the future.
This government can throw money around and talk about it. That is what they are good at. But they cannot deliver effective, long-term solutions. All they want to do is look good for the next elections.
Finally – and it is always the same. What is their vision for the future? Zero.
There is big talk about alternative livelihoods for cane farmers. Where have they been for 15 years?
And of course the farmers remember. The European Union had given $350 million for alternative livelihoods in 2007. This was lost because of the military coup in 2006.
So there is a lot of talk about alternative livelihoods now. But the farmers have been around for all of that time. They know that it is meaningless.
What is the plan for sugar? Mr Speaker, I have just read the FSC sugar price submission to the Commerce Commission. FSC tells the Commerce Commission that in future it will only need one sugar mill in Viti Levu. It will decommission two mills.
When was the Honourable Economy Minister going to tell us this?
Our long-term economic future depends on modernizing our education system. What is the Government’s plan for this?
There is talk about studying aged care homes, there is talk about studying industrial hemp. It is just that – talk. Why now, Mr Speaker? After 15 years, what has the Government – with all the civil servants, all the billions of dollars – what have you been doing? Yes, I know, what the government has been doing.
Borrowing and spending like nobody’s business. Mr. Speakers our estimate show that under this government in the last 6 years, i.e. between 2015 and 2020, an average of 500 million dollars per year, total of 3 billion dollars in 6 years, or about 5% of our GDP per year have been stolen from the tax payers of this country through wastage, pilferage, inflated projects costs and mismanagement.
That is why I say Mr Speaker. The best guide to the future is what this Government has done in the past. And look at its failures in the past.
Finally Mr Speaker I return to the question of leadership.
Where has the Government been? Why are the Government Ministers not talking to people about vaccination and its benefits? When the Honourable Economy Minister goes on talkback, all he can do is attack other people. This pettiness, this narrow-mindedness is what defines this government.
It does not want to work with people. It only wants to threaten them and punish them.
And this is its biggest failure. Its failure to lead with courage. Its failure to lead with compassion and care. They have abandoned the people in this crisis.
They need to apologise to the people that they failed to do the right thing to control the virus.
They need to apologise to the families who have lost loved ones because of their negligence.
But Mr. Speaker, they won’t do that.
There is only one solution Mr Speaker – this government must go. Only then will Fiji change for the better.