Debate in Parliament on 2018-19 Budget Monday, July 9, 2018 By Hon Parmod Chand
Madam Speaker, I rise to contribute to the 2018-19 Appropriation Bill handed down by the Honourable Minister for Economy on 28th June 2018. I would call it a Budget of a “I Love Me” Government. This is colloquially how people tend to label boastful personalities who cannot stop singing praises about themselves. This, I, believe is the 13th Budget of both the military regime and the current government – and both headed by the same leader. And it is the 5th budget handed down by the Minister for Economy of the Fiji First government after the September 2014 general elections. The theme of the first Budget in this parliament was “Turning promises into deeds”. It was then labelled by Honourable Government Members as the “Mother of all budgets”. But it turned out to be “Mother of misdeeds” with the loud proclamations in that budget being tossed out a year later with the imposition of VAT on basic food items and prescribed medication.
And this Budget Madam Speaker claims to cater for “All Fijian Families” who this Government, suddenly realises, now matter. We know why they matter because this government is clutching at straws and fears the worst. And in doing so, it thinks that it can camouflage its failure and please the people of Fiji with this Budget that is a pre-election bribe. But what has been offered is much too little, and way too late. Madam Speaker, let us look at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services – and whether it has improved over the past four years. The allocation of $335 million in this Budget sounds good but when we review it using the recommended budget allocations set by the World Health Organisation, it is simply not enough. The Health budget allocation is down to 7.9% of the total Budget, more than 3% below the WHO recommended figure of over 11% for the region. The Health to GDP ratio is 2.8%, which is again well below the stipulated minimum of the 5% WHO regional recommendation. Both figures are well below allocated recommendations and ranking of how poorly healthcare is placed in the Governments vision despite being the 3rd highest priority of this Government behind Education and FRA in this Budget. Madam Speaker, the state of health and medical services as we have continued to highlight is a blight on our nation. There is no denying this. And if Government believes this isn’t true, then they should do what the majority of all Fijian families who matter DO, and go to health centres and hospitals, — take a patient number, wait in the queue, endure the environment for a few hours before they can finally see a doctor. Or better still, they might like to get admitted in a ward where patients share a single washroom and shower, and need to their own beddings, and sleep in wards that do not have mosquito screens. They might learn something when they see how our doctors and nurses and ancillary staff are struggling to do their job with the bare minimum of facilities and equipment. I am sure that would be an enriching experience for some who enjoy private and personalized medical care, fly overseas first-class or business-class and who entitled themselves to exhorbitant allowances. They will, Madam Speaker, find out that hospitals and health centres do not have basic medication, have malfunctioning equipment, lack beds and beddings, have disgusting washrooms, have malfunctioning and in some cases unworkable lifts, have unpainted and un-maintained buildings, and have an overworked and under-staffed workforce that is doing its best despite the obstacles and depressing environment. Madam Speaker, building new hospitals and health centres is progressive but government cannot even maintain the existing facilities. Even a new centre in Makoi was barely staffed and not utilised for a long time with patients being referred to CWM Hospital. The Nakasi Health Centre while it has 4-walls is all locked up.
Madam Speaker, breaking ground with billboards announcing new medical facilities are one thing and having functional facilities quite another. We hope this will change for the better. On 9th March this year, I asked a written question to the Honourable Attorney General who is also the Minister for Civil Service to inform Parliament of the number of doctors recruited both locally and overseas to work in public hospitals and health centres since the enactment of the Medical and Dental Practitioners Act 2010. Four months have lapsed and no written answer has been provided. This is totally unacceptable. It is a blatant breach of the Standing Order 45(3) where the answer must be provided within 7 sitting days. This is not how parliamentary democracy should be treated by anyone, least of all the Honourable AG who is also the Minister responsible for Parliament. In the absence of information, we don’t know how many doctors have been recruited. One would have thought that after the enactment of the amendment to the Act that empowered the Honourable Minister for Health to recruit doctors without the approval of the Fiji Medical Council. Madam Speaker, Parliament was informed by the former Minister for Health that by 2017 the doctor to population ratio will be 1 to a 1000 people. That means 900 doctors. Have we achieved this? We don’t think so because of the reasons that I have just given. The Free Medicine Scheme has been tweaked and pharmacies will now dispense from the list of 142 free medicines and send a bill every month to the Ministry instead of being supplied the medicines as has been the case.
Madam Speaker, we note that this is the third attempt to launch something which is already free for all individuals in the Public Health system in the last four budgets. But this will not resolve the problem of those recipients under this scheme to access any medication prescribed by a doctor.
The tweaked process falls far short of what is required for logistical integrity. The private retail pharmacists are not supported logistically with equipment and human resource, and are still unaware of the balance of items after two years. Now the tangential vision, is that the private sector will purchase the medication and government will re-reimburse the private sector. Additionally, the importation of substandard pharmaceuticals, and consumables were to be addressed with the Pharmaceutical Products Act in 2013-14. Some items in Fiji are not even approved in the countries of origin. This is unacceptable. Similarly, General Practitioners are now being encouraged to set up practices in rural, maritime and peri-urban areas in what is a stopgap measure. We understand that NO consultation has taken place with the stakeholders in Private practice, namely the Fiji College of General Practitioners as to the programs feasibility or sustainability. This is similar to the public-private partnership being espoused by the Attorney General when he first announced it to staff at Lautoka Hospital at the beginning of March. On the other hand, he berated staff by saying they were taking home utensils, cutlery and beddings. This is how this government thinks it can boost the morale of our health workforce! Madam Speaker, the proposed privatization of Lautoka and Ba Hospitals announced by the Attorney General under Public- Private Partnership confirms the National Federation Party’s firm belief that the Fiji First Government has failed abysmally to deliver decent and quality medical and health care to the people of Fiji, as its most fundamental obligation in a social contract between the State and the People. This government paid little attention to our major hospitals and medical facilities. It did not lack resources but refused to prioritise improvements to medical and health-care. The current government is now forcing the people of Western Division to pay for health-care. The very same pockets shackled by high cost of living in the West are expected to fork out more! In March the AG also announced a National Health Insurance scheme. But it lacks merit in the face of massive failures by the Bainimarama regime and Fiji First government resulting in severe deterioration of delivery of health services and medical care. The Attorney General had also announced that Expressions of Interest (EOI) would be called first and further revealed the Fiji National Provident Fund would be one of the partners. It is logical to ask why the workers of Fiji whose interest is supposed to be protected by FNPF have not been consulted. Why are the workers pockets continually being punched and kicked to cough up more without their consent? This announcement has been another gimmick designed to hoodwink the people ahead of the general elections. On the brighter side, we see that the Opposition’s repeated Motions to increase allocation for kidney dialysis is finally coming to fruition. But then again the subsidized treatment is not available to those who undergo dialysis at the Kidney Foundation. It is not immediately clear why the Kidney Foundation is being singled out and we note with interest the concern raised by the now departed CEO of Consumer Council in a 2017 statement querying the disparity in fee’s being charged BUT this does not justify a blanket blacklist like this! There should have been more effort by the Government to discuss this AND ensure that as many kidney dialysis treatment centres are made available to alleviate the pain and suffering of those suffering from this illness! Madam Speaker, I am a businessman. I am a bus operator and a large scale cane grower. So I declare my interest when I talk about bus operators and business. Regretfully within the four years we have been in this Parliament, Standing Order 59 which compels us all as elected Members of Parliament to register pecuniary or other specified interest has never seen the light of day. Let me say Madam Speaker that as a businessman, the high cost of doing business in Fiji is not a joke anymore. The cost of establishing a business is financially excruciating. The range of fees and charges is exorbitantly high while there are little incentives for a vast majority of businesses except for a privileged few that I will explain in a minute. Madam Speaker Fiji’s latest ranking on the Ease of Doing Business Index, created by prominent economists at the World Bank, is ranked 101 out of 190 countries worldwide. It fell four places from a ranking of 97 in 2017. In 2006 before the military coup, Fiji’s ranking was 34th out of 190 nations. Our ranking is rated as Medium, while our neighbours New Zealand occupy first positions on a list of 48 nations with a rating of Very Easy on the Ease of Doing Business. Worse, our regional neighbours Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu are ranked above us. So much for Fiji First being an investor-friendly government. Madam Speaker, I just mentioned that a privileged few were enjoying a calm, peaceful and in most cases profitable business operation and we wonder why? In one case in Savusavu, one investor is preferred over another and even has obtained leases of State land that belonged to the Savusavu Town Council. That investor is well known to Government and I have documentary evidence, that I am sure has been given to the AG as well as well as to possibly two other Honourable Ministers. Madam Speaker, there are many questions about this particular operation; 1. How this particular business obtained lease on a large piece of land that was in control of the Council? 2. How this business is allowed to operate an aging helicopter and escape CAAFI’s strict regulations? 3. How this business has been awarded Medivac services by the Health Ministry? 4. How this business has lately contracted out Medivac services to a Nadi based flying company because it is now in financial strife? 5. How this business obtained a loan of more than $970,000 from a local bank? This investor, Madam Speaker, was given a license by this Government to operate a business over another investor who was fully prepared to comply with all the regulatory requirements. How and why did this happen? This issue re-enforces the need for transparency, accountability and good governance. It re-enforces the need for fair and equitable distribution of wealth. That is what a National Budget and government policies should achieve. And this brings me to an allocation of a total of $12.5 million in this Budget: $8 million for the construction of a new office complex for the Prime Minister. In the last two years there was an allocation of $10 million comprising $5M in each budget. Nobody knows where and how this was spent. In total $18 million would have been allocated for this expenditure, inclusive of this financial year’s budget. Madam Speaker, the Fiji Procurement called for tenders for this project this year. The project director’s name is from an engineering firm whose principal is a member of the Constitutional Offices Commission. Not only on the COC, he is a member of other boards like Fiji National Provident Fund, Amalgamated Telecom Holdings or ATH and Fiji Roads Authority.The firm whose principal is this COC Member, has been awarded supervision of many other civil and structural engineering contracts, including construction of the Fiji Aviation Academy.
We all know he is heavily involved with political activities of the Fiji First including interview of applicants for candidacy of Fiji First that the Attorney General, himself the Fiji First General Secretary and Registered Officer, did not deny in his reaction to our Leader’s revelation last week. Notwithstanding also that the gentleman in question is also a major fundraiser for Fiji First as well. Madam Speaker, it is therefore too much of a coincidence if the firm of which he is a principal is awarded contracts for major projects, more often than not, also acting as project consultants. Similarly, in another case, a regular donor to the Fiji First coffers, of which we have evidence, is listed as a key part of the project for a medical facility in Nakasi. There are many other cases that we can cite Madam Speaker where the use of public funds can be critically examined as to who its beneficiaries are but for now these are sufficient. The fact is every business that fulfills the stringent requirements of a tender process, must have an equal opportunity to bid for projects funded by taxpayers. This may have been the case, but unless and until evidence to this effect is produced, lingering doubts and questions about the lack of lack of transparency and accountability will remain. Madam Speaker, when all is said and done, this Budget, which is attempting to bribe our voters, is a colossal failure in addressing the fundamental grievances of all our people and all our families. On the single most important count of all, it has exacerbated the already significantly high cost of living instead of reducing cost of basic food items. It has failed to fix our public health and medical services. And it lacks transparency and accountability. It is a budget of a few good’s overshadowed by seriously bad and the ghastly ugly policies. May God bless and Save Fiji.