Hon. Lenora Qereqeretabua contributes to motion to amend Land Transport Act 1988
Thursday 21st November, 2019
(Hon. Lenora Qereqeretabua MP's contribution in response to the motion by the Attorney General's Motion to amend the Land Transport Act 1998. Find the text of the speech below. Please check against delivery.)
Mr Speaker, we are being asked to approve a fast-tracked Bill under Standing Order 51 that is going to re-define the manner in which bus fares are to be determined as well as how temporary road operating licences or temporary permits will be issued.
After more than 19 years since LTA came into being following the enactment of the LTA Act in 1998, the Authority’s Board has no longer sole powers or authority to determine the issuance or otherwise of temporary permits or licences in consultation with the bus operators who service almost every corner of the country as long as there is an accessible road that can accommodate buses and even other transportation.
This includes feeder or rural roads as well where I have seen buses reaching the end of the road at the completion of their route and then turning with difficulty with drivers using many driving manoeuvres to turn back and travel along the same route again.
This requires investment in tough and safe buses, skilled PSV drivers possessing expert driving skills and patience and tolerance in large amounts because a wrong turn or even the slip of a wheel can force a bus to go off-road or even plunge down a cliff.
Then of course there are highly profitable urban or express routes that are serviced extremely frequently as determined by the LTA. I am sure we have all seen – unless we are travelling in dark-tined government Prados and speed on due to escort vehicles – how bus drivers jockey for space at bus bays or any designated bus stop area in our towns and cities.
Mr Speaker the two scenarios that I have pointed out illustrate the two extremities of bus operations in this country – indeed this is an extremely old industry started by the first generation descendants of the Girmitiya.
Therefore it is an iconic industry.
This Bill therefore has the real potential to destroy this iconic industry through granting of temporary permits or licences through regulatory means determined by a single person who happens to be a politician – when it has so been through a consultative process and determined by a Board.
One wonders why do ministerial regulations need to be incorporated into the Principal Act and for the LTA to be bound by its directives? Why collective and consultative responsibility is being reduced to the wishes of a single politician, albeit via regulations?
Is this the type of yet another example of common and equal citizenry and merit based award of something that is being practiced by the Fiji First Government? Or by extension, is it another example of a control-freak government?
Mr Speaker, what this Bill seeks to amend in the Principal Act is LTA’s autonomy or total absence of any influence by Government or the Minister responsible from having a say in the issuance of temporary permits or licences.
21 years ago in 1998 when this Act was passed in Parliament, the then SVT Government and the NFP led Opposition wisely decided to take away the role of the line minister from this decision making process even via regulations to quell any perceptions of nepotism and cronyism. The sole survivor of that parliament was the then Prime Minister and the current Honourable Leader of the Opposition.
Provisions in law following the enactment of the 1997 Constitution and its subsequent enforcement from July 1998 were at time, drafted in conformity to the Constitution’s objective of keeping politics and politicians out of decision making processes that may be construed as influencing outcomes of authorities tasked with making such decisions.
But Mr Speaker, as we know, the 2013 Constitution has reverted decision making to politicians – for example even the Constitution Offices Commission is chaired by the Prime Minister with Government dominating its composition by 4 members (PM, AG and 1 each nominee of the two) to 2 from Opposition (Opposition Leader and his nominee).
Therefore we know this Government’s modus operandi- Change the rules of the game if doesn’t suit the Fiji First – one need not look any further than the Public Accounts Committee chairmanship that until May 2016 was always held by an Opposition Member of Parliament.
Similarly, in the name of flexibility, a heavily regulated bus industry will be at the whims of a Minister who is a political appointee expected to tow the party line at all times.
This is yet another blow – a direct one - to the confidence of the bus operators who have invested substantially in their fleet and are expected by government to modernise their fleet – perhaps at an average cost of $200,000 per bus – through commercial borrowing.
Mr Speaker, no one is a fool to innovate, upgrade or even expand if he or she knows that their investment will go to waste should a politician via regulations decide to shred its income by under-cutting the business through entry of another operator – whether it be temporary or otherwise.
Mr Speaker, allow me to quote what the Principal Act of 1998 says in respect of Section 66 (1 & 2) that this Bill seeks to delete and replace with provisions that to us go against transparency ; -
66 (1) of the Act says, “The Authority may issue a temporary road permit for a period of not more than 3 months and such permit authorises the carriage of persons on such routes or within such areas as may be specified in the permit and subject to such conditions as may be specified.
(2) A temporary permit shall not be issued if, within the period of 12 months preceding the application, a similar temporary permit was issued in respect of the same route the subject of the new application.
Mr Speaker, the amendment before us seeks to delete 66(1) and replace it with the issuance of a temporary road permit as prescribed by regulation.
This means that a temporary permit can be of any duration – not a maximum of three months as stipulated in the Principal Act. Temporary means temporary. Nothing else. If there is no limitations than it is not temporary.
It can be of any duration. How will a bus operator serving the rout react if a temporary permit holder becomes a daily operator for unlimited period of time? This is like a coup – usurp power and sit on the throne for as long as you like!
In this case – cut the business and profitability of a service provider and a legitimate holder of a licence for as long as you wish because of the protection provided through the regulation of a politician.
Mr Speaker the Bill seeks to delete 66(2). Currently if one had a temporary permit for a route, he or she cannot have a temporary permit re-issued for 12 months in respect of the same route. This is because of the 3-month maximum timeline for a temporary permit.
But this Bill seeks to delete this provision and in conformity to 66(1), make meaningless the definition of temporary.
These amendments smack of political nepotism and cronyism. It means undermining a long-term investor by introducing a competitor with no checks and balances who has the protection of a politician, despite his or her rank as a Minister.
We cannot support these amendments.
As for the amendment shifting powers to determine fares to FCCC – we note that this may be a retrospective change - to consider the application to increase bus fares because it was the FCCC boss who chaired a team to look into an application for bus fare increase – when the role is legally bestowed upon LTA.
FCCC may be the ideal determinant of what is fair and just but once again consultative and legislative framework requires the expert input of those proficient with the transport and bus industries in its entirety. Not only monetary aspects.
Whether or not the fare hike application is granted is another matter but either way it will leave a bad taste for everyone as the outcome, in our view, would be pre-determined by giving consideration to factors not even remotely linked to the welfare of the most important stakeholders in both bus operator and the passengers.
Mr Speaker, we re-iterate our opposition and urge the Fiji First government to adopt a more consultative approach with all relevant stakeholders instead of riding roughshod over everyone else in the name of mantra of mandate because it will come back to haunt you.
PARLIAMENT PROCEEDING FOOTAGE: