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  • Writer's pictureNational Federation Party - Fiji

Do Manifestos Matter?

30 April 2022

by Seni Nabou, NFP General Secretary.

Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:

30 April 2022

Now that we are four days into the official campaign period, and the notorious pro-Government personalities (real and fake) seem suddenly and oddly subdued in online spaces because of the campaign rules, the electorate will be keenly watching for the release of various political party policies, through their manifestos.

Are Manifestos Illegal?

According to changes made to the Financial Management Act passed in 2021, there are 2 phases in this revised law that will be key to formulating party policies.

The new section 27A in the Financial Management Act obligates the Minister for Economy to ensure that a "pre-election economic and fiscal update prepared by the Ministry is published on an official government website" within a 14 day window after the official campaign period has been made official.

The official campaign period, complete with the campaign rules came into effect this week on Tuesday, 26 April 2022.

That means we should expect to get this pre-election economic and fiscal update, anytime between now and 9 May 2022.

Given that Parliament sits from 9 to 13 May, it is likely that either this pre-election economic and fiscal update will be publicly available online earlier, or in the House on Monday, 9 April, followed by its online transmission on the same day.

Should this pre-election update be made in Parliament, it stands to reason that we should expect the Government side to try and drown out the Opposition with their choreographed version of either "boom", "gloom", or somewhere in-between, on the nation's state of the economy, leading into the elections.

The second phase of the new changes to the Financial Management Act that have a direct bearing on political party manifestos is the sudden addition, somehow labelled (illogically?) as a "consequential amendment" within a financial law, to include new clauses to another law -- specifically, section 116 of the existing Electoral Act 2014.

Would it not have been more seamless to make the changes specifically relating to political party manifestos within the Electoral Act itself, seeing as the Electoral Act also underwent changes in Parliament earlier in 2021?

The new requirement for manifestos in the new section 116(4C), in very simple terms is as follows: any political party, candidate or their agent or political party supporter who as part of their campaigning, claims verbally or in writing that their party is going to do anything that will cost money, must immediately put into writing these 4 requirements:

(1) how this commitment will raise revenue;

(2) where they will get funds for this exercise;

(3) how this exercise is to be carried by the various sectors and budget sector agencies;

(4) if the proposal/s costs more than the money that government expects to raise from taxes, how they will meet the short-fall.

If the political party, candidate or their agent or political party supporter who makes this claim as part of their campaigning fails to follow those clauses, it is an offence and if they are convicted can face fines up to $50,000 or a jail term up to 10 years, or both.

Automatically these clauses may nullify manifesto proposals to improve normal social obligations of any Government like reducing the cost of living, clean running water 24/7, consistent electricity to all especially rural communities, good healthcare, a solid educational system that future proofs our children, etc. These are basic expectations as per the social contract, that the electorate expects in return for the VAT, fees, fines and charges denting holes in their wallets! It is unreasonable to expect social obligations of a Government to be viewed with a rigid "return on investment" frame like that set out in section 116(4C), especially when our ballooning absolute poverty numbers are as they are!

Tabulated below is a fictitious scenario of a social obligation in compliance with section 116(4C) of the Electoral Act 2014 should a campaign state its intention to improve the dire water woes we presently face here in Fiji.

Manifesto Proposal: Water 24/7How will this raise revenue: Within the first 100 days in Government conduct a parliamentary Commission of Inquiry complimented by forensic accountants and criminal lawyers as advisors, with a specific terms of reference that within 6 months recommends and effects fines and criminal charges including the immediate seizure of proceeds of crime, for those who mismanaged the US$405M loan from ADB and GCF for the "Water Supply and Wastewater Management" project.Where will they get funds for this exercise: $800K from Head 26-1-1-5 currently allocated for Qorvis Communications for the Parliamentary Inquiry.How will this be carried out: Parliamentary Motion by the new Attorney General, with the requisite details listed in the motion, to be tabled at the first sitting of the new Parliament.How to address revenue shortfall: No shortfall envisaged as it is a reprioritisation and reallocation of a current budget expense line item.

As highlighted in this column earlier, NFP had asked the Elections Office who we should submit manifesto proposals to, by when, and what happens after we submit, is it rated or approved, or what? We had to ask because it was not clear in the law.

At the time of that meeting of political parties, the FEO and the new Electoral Commission Chair who was observing on 18 March 2022, the Election's Office advised that as of that moment, the law was not in force yet. On that, the FEO was correct. The changes to the Financial Management Act passed in 2021 said (s2): "This Act comes into force on a date or dates appointed by the Minister by notice in the Gazette, except for section 35 which comes into force 2 years after the enactment of this Act."

On 28 March 2022, the Election's Office responded to our written, follow-up query on manifestos with the following guidance: "The FEO does not have any authority under the Electoral Act 2014 to create template manifestos or set out guidelines for manifestos in light of the recent amendments to the Financial Management Act 2004. Political Parties are at liberty in the matter."

Upon seeking further clarification about what this written advice from the FEO actually means in practice, in the margins of the stakeholder workshop of 30 March 2022 convened by the Election's Office, I was advised that the FEO would just assess that the requirements were fulfilled as laid out in the Financial Management Act.

But even then, it is not immediately clear in the law who political parties should submit their manifestos to in the first place so that the Election's Office does not end up hounding parties for these details, even as they are striving to sort out nationwide logistics and manpower for elections within the tight timeframe that kicks into gear, once the Writ is issued.

Words and Numbers

The common justification that political parties have heard about why these new manifesto rules came into being is because it is common practice by many developed countries.

But the reality is that countries like Australia do not dictate specifics on how political parties should commit in writing to raising revenue for manifesto proposals.

The Australian Parliamentary Budget Office for example, during the caretaker period for a general election will prepare costings of publicly announced polices upon the request of authorised members of Parliamentary parties or independent members.

In the Fiji Sun of 31 March 2022, it highlighted that the Election's Office in its pre-election survey found that 18% of voters would not read party manifestos.

To put that into perspective, of the 664,000 plus registered voters so far, about 119,000 or so them will not read a manifesto. About 545,000 registered voters will read manifestos.

If we consider the 98% of the respondents of the FEO pre-election survey who indicated that they would vote, against the fact that 545,000 of registered voters are influenced by manifestos, and then overlay again the confusion about the law and serious penalties of breaching the manifesto rules by political parties, would 545,000 plus registered voters still feel like voting? Or would it worsen low voter turnout numbers? Time will tell.

Past, Present and Future

The question and discussions on the campaign trail between political parties and the electorate, will emanate around this centrality: will we DO everything that we say we will do, if you send us to Parliament to work for you, and how do you hold us to account for our promises?

Before one can even start that conversation, we need to know where we are, and the "reality of the matter" of our financial footing, our dinau's and obligations before we can even think about spending.

Seni Nabou is the General Secretary of the National Federation Party.


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