Are We Free Yet? - OPINION BY LEBA SENI NABOU
Commemoration of Fiji’s 52nd anniversary of Independence
OPINION BY LEBA SENI NABOU
Are We Free Yet?
In 1965, AD Patel, the then NFP Leader while emphasising the need for Independence said, “Political liberty, equality and fraternity rank foremost among the good things of life and mankind all over the world cherishes and holds these ideals close to its heart. The people of Fiji are no exception”.
The peaceful struggle and vision of the founder Leader of the National Federation Party paid off on 10th October, 1970, when the then Prince Charles (now King Charles III) handed over the Instruments of Independence to Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, at Albert Park.
As the clock ticks forward over the half century mark, towards Fiji's 52nd year of coming into being, it must a day where we reflect and remember the birth of our country as a sovereign and independent State, cognizant of our colonial history, while being firmly rooted in the present.
There are no words more apt, to reflect on during this long weekend than directly from our national anthem, and the particular stanza: "A land of freedom, hope and glory"
And therein lies the rub. At 52 years old, is Fiji really free? Where is the hope and glory?
1969 Legislative Council debates
It's perhaps useful to situate oneself back in time, and draw from the Legislative Council debates particularly from the year 1969, prior to the year of our Independence in 1970.
The Legislative Council was the "form" that Parliament took for lawmaking, after Fiji's first national elections in 1966 and was adopted from the Westminster Parliament and UK Government.
What will strike anyone reading the hansard of the Legislative Council debates of 1969 is quite simply the effortlessly classy, dignified wisdom from both sides of the Council chamber.
All Legislative Council hansard should be mandatory reading for any keen student, practitioner, or follower of politics. It is bound to make any reader yearn for those days of political sophistication and refinement.
There is simply no competition with the obnoxious, belligerent arrogance from the FFP government side that has nauseated us all from the 2014 parliamentary sessions, right up until the most recent September 2022 parliamentary sitting.
These are the political standards of debate by which NFP as a 59 year old political party has had tutelage. Yet, we've had to endure being dragged down into the muck and filth of parliamentary thuggery promoted by the ruling party, over the past 8 years.
Even when there were opposing views -- without iPads or Qorvis scripts -- our nation's founding father's and mother's spoke cogently putting their views forward while masterfully weaving in non-malicious political up(wo)manship, into their debates, mostly intended to generate laughter from both sides of the Council chamber.
The 1969 Liquor (Amendment) Bill
It was 27 January 1969, and they were debating the second reading of Liquor (Amendment) Bill, where both sides of the chamber were generally in bipartisan support of the amendment to permit women of all races to buy and consume liquor.
There was a minority opposition to the Bill from both sides of the Council chamber, but every member was given the freedom to speak and vote as they saw fit.
In case we are not aware, these were the days of old in Fiji when liquor was only available to iTaukei and Indo-Fijian women if they possessed a certificate of exemption. The same restriction had applied to iTaukei and Indo-Fijian men earlier but had since been removed.
Many of us may recall stories from our grandparents who lived through those times, and for which the yagona (Kava) parlours on Cumming Street during rare excursions into Suva City, was the consolation prize for those without permits.
This column is by no means promoting the use or purchase of liquor or kava, but to simply make the point that even in the eloquence of those debates in 1969 on this subject matter, the Legislative Council was united in shattering racial discrimination that they themselves had lived through, and removing restrictions on women's rights. Yes! Even in 1969!
As they debated this Bill, iTaukei and Indo-Fijian women were still not permitted to enter bars of hotels, or public houses.
It makes for fascinating reading when we realize that despite the App-laden, virtual reality quirks and "intelligence" of today's modern era, we really cannot compare to the astute foresight of those who began the arduous process of amending colonial laws, to make Fiji fit for purpose. They were future-proofing Fiji.
Two out of the three of the female members of the Legislative Council, made incisive points during the debate on this Bill.
"Hon Mrs I Jai Narayan: ...Mr Speaker, Sir, it is truly said that one of the unfailing indices of cultural maturity and refinement in a society is the treatment of its women and I would conclude by saying that if this discriminatory law remains on our statute books it would not only be a slur to the dignity of Indian and Fijian women but it would also be a reflection on our society. Thank you, Sir."
"Hon Adi Losalini Dovi: ...Racial discrimination in most of its forms as has already been mentioned is objectionable and leads to objectionable results. We have, however, to distinguish between objectionable discrimination which may be termed as benevolent discrimination and I think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this legislation which had existed in this colony in the past may just as well be described as benevolently discriminatory. Knowing the women of this colony I am confident, Mr Deputy Speaker, of their ability to cope with this additional freedom in the same way as our men think they can cope. Mr Speaker, I support this Bill."
There are many other development issues for Fiji that the Legislative Council debated way back in 1969 that are still being debated, or perhaps more aptly described as being gradually undone, by the FFP government. Let's examine a few.
On Tuesday, 22 April 1969 the Legislative Council Minister for Communications, Works and Tourism, Hon CA Stinson was asked a question by the Hon HWW Yee, the second General Member for Suva whether the Government intended to do a comprehensive survey of the water resources in order to establish potential sites and locations for future water supply, irrigation, flood control and hydro-electric development.
The Minister replied that data on rainfall and river levels had been collected but records were incomplete and that there were never enough funds to do the job properly, but he anticipated an increase in budget as per the Development Plan.
The Minister also said that detailed surveys were expensive but they had hired consultants to make an initial report on the potential of the Navua river system, while the Rewa river system was being looked at by the UN FAO, while some drilling had been done in the Western division for groundwater potential with encouraging results. He envisaged that the investigation would be extended to the Northern division when a drilling rig from an Australian assistance programme arrived. Remember this was in 1969 and the then Minister was jusitifying the expenditure of $91,000 of public funds.
Now compare that to the present day, when the best that the Minister responsible can say in the Fiji Times of 26 May 2022, is that water issues faced by Suva residents stem from a mismatch in the amount of water needed and amount of water available, despite the hundreds of millions of public funds cumulatively poured into upgrading water infrastructure since 2014.
USP (Interim Council) (Amendment) Bill 1969 On 9 September 1969, this Bill was moved by the then Minister for Social Services, Hon J Mavoa.
Full disclosure: This Legislative Council member is my late maternal grandfather.
In this amendment, the Minister took the Council through the second and third reading of the Bill whereby the then interim Council of the University of the South Pacific would be permitted to guarantee the repayment of loans raised by staff of the University for the purchase of homes and motor vehicles, given that the then powers of the interim USP Council were not wide enough to do this.
That Bill passed through a second reading, and the Legislative Council read the Bill a third time and duly passed it.
It was yet another example of bipartisan unity within the Legislative Council to support an institution that would benefit the people of Fiji.
Contrast that to the present day fiasco where the FFP government obstinately refuses to honour their approximately overdue $80 million grant owed since 2019, as a USP Council member and host country.
Free and Compulsory Primary Education
On 29 January 1969, the Indian Member for Suva, Hon I Jai Narayan of the Legislative Council tabled a motion for "free and compulsory education" based on an education report that had highlighted that 20,000 children were not in school.
In her motion she said: "If we can realize the importance of providing free and compulsory education for all our children now, we would be making a huge saving in terms of time, money and energy in the future. I believe that the new nation that we are helping to build today would be more than adequately equipped to take care of itself in the future."
In response, the then Minister for Social Services, Hon J Mavoa said that the Government had already accepted an objective of free education in the colony, but that it had to also ensure there were enough classrooms and teachers which was dependent on finances.
In the interim, the then Government had increased a grant of 10 shillings per child to all registered non-Government schools to help parents that were unable to pay school fees.
He also detailed that the Government had introduced free textbooks costing £500 in 1967, that was increased to £20,000 the year after.
The then Legislative Council government was also assisting for the first time in 1968, payment to teachers at the rate of £15 per teacher.
The Minister then moved an amendment to Hon I Jai Narayan's original motion.
During the course of that insightful and robust debate with rich contributions from both sides, the Fijian Member Western Hon Ratu JB Toganivalu tabled further thoughts for consideration such as education for disabled children which was non-existent in Fiji then, and free busfares for rural areas because children had to walk miles to get to school. He suggested the free busfare would also alleviate the cost of building boarding houses at schools.
That motion plus the amendment was passed. Once again, bipartisanship for the greater good of Fiji and its people, won.
Is free education, free textbooks, disability access to education and free busfares really the "unprecedented" intellectual property of this FFP government?
Freedom, Hope and Glory
These are but cursory examples of the foundations of our great nation, as laid down by our founding mothers and fathers.
From the first national elections in 1966 to Legislative Council deliberations all the way up until Independence on 10 October 1970, there was conversation, compromise and understanding.
Fiji can only break the 16-year shackles of political bondage, at the upcoming polls. We all know this. We must all resolutely make it so.
By the time the nation turns 53 next October, we will all be singing our national anthem with passion and gusto, as a land truly of freedom, hope and glory.
Leba Seni Nabou is the General Secretary of National Federation Party.
As published in the Fiji Times - Saturday 8 October 2022