Hon. Lenora Qereqeretabua - Response to H.E.'s Speech on the Opening of Parliament Nov 2019
Response to H.E.’s Speech
Parliament of Fiji
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
By NFP MP Hon Lenora Qereqeretabua
Mr Speaker Sir, protocol dictates that we thank His Excellency for his most gracious speech. But I lament the fact that His Excellency’s image as a symbol of national unity has been shattered by Government’s spin doctors who compelled him to outline falsehoods and fabrications to camouflage the colossal failures of this government.
His Excellency was made to portray our 6 year old Constitution as the set of rules that was turning Fiji into a land of milk and honey. A constitution born out of authoritarianism, absolute dictatorship, trashing of a Fiji Court of Appeal judgment and burning of a draft constitution that had a semblance of legitimacy due to the work of an international constitution expert.
The 2013 constitution was imposed on the people of Fiji, having been drafted by mysterious personnel behind closed doors, in an environment where all political parties were suspended under the pretext of being made to re-register and all processes put in place for the now trashed draft confined to the rubbish dump.
Under this imposed Constitution we have the right to fair treatment if we are suspected of a criminal offence. So how is it that a 16-year-old boy can be taken away by Army officers and tortured? How is that the boy’s torture can be justified by the Commissioner of Police under Section 131(2) of the Constitution? How is it that a young man can end up in hospital after boiling water is poured on his back?
Under this imposed Constitution we are told that we are all equal before the law. But how is it that some people in this house are able to avoid prosecution for assault, while others, who provided the evidence, lose their jobs?
Under this imposed Constitution we are told workers and unions have the right to organise and participate in union activities. But why are they never given a permit to march in support of their rights?
Under this imposed Constitution we have the right to freedom of expression. But how is it that the majority of our people are too afraid to speak up and criticise the Government?
Under this imposed Constitution we supposedly have the right to a just and fair minimum wage. But how does this government expect our workers earning a weekly minimum wage of $120.60 at a rate of $2.68 an hour and a 45 hour week to survive when government’s own Household & Expenditure survey of 2013/14 established an average income of $55.12 per adult or $220.48 for a family of adults was needed for a small family? And mind you, that determination is as old as the Constitution—and the cost of living has since risen stratospherically.
The President’s speech said nothing about the problems faced by the ordinary people of Fiji. We have problems with increasingly violent crime. We are now at the point where foreign governments fear that the main streets of Suva are not safe. We have seen an upsurge of crimes against Police officers. Domestic violence continues to be rife. Drug use is clearly on the increase.
H.E. was absolutely spot on when he said, “The quality of our leadership in these formative years will be defining for our political system.”
Proverbs 11: 14 warns
Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.
The Prime Minister has failed this country because he has not listened to counsel, preferring only to listen to his right-hand man. I once said in a speech that Pride comes before the fall. This govt is caught in the Hubris of power – arrogance and self-confidence. (Where is the PM today, why is he not here in the Chamber listening to our feedback?)
What I believe we now have before us is a precipice, a cliff – towards which we are rushing. And the captain of the ship that is Fiji does not know how to tell his passengers that we are headed for sure catastrophe. He is in fact steering us directly towards the rocks. That is, when he is actually in the wheel-house.
H.E. spoke of the praises heaped upon the imposed Constitution of 2013 by some members of the public in September in particular how “the right of information enhances civic engagement and lends transparency to our democracy.”
In a true democracy this would be the case. But Fiji is not a democracy. Just because we had an election does not make us a democracy. Fiji’s Two-man rule, or maybe one man rule, makes us a dictatorship, where the right to information is a just an empty phrase.
Right to information – Let’s start with Grace Road.
Like any patriotic Fijian, I was disgusted with what I saw on the Al Jazeera expose. There was the Grace Road cult leader describing Fijians as “not very smart”. She described us as people whose brains “do not work very fast.”
Mr Speaker, this cult made headlines around the world last year after major international news networks like BBC and CNN broadcast video footage showing the cult leadership physically attacking and abusing followers.
Fiji is where the assaults occurred. And the Fiji Police and the Fiji DPP did nothing. Of course, we in NFP know only too well how, if there is a complaint of assault, the Police and the DPP can do nothing.
But let us look at what we have. A cult that uses violence on people in Fiji. A cult leader who mocks Fiji people. So who was going to speak up for us, the people of Fiji?
After all, if you are not a Fiji citizen and you criticise the Government – like Fiji-born Dr Brij Lal – you are sent out of Fiji on the next plane. But if you insult Fiji’s people and say you will enter politics to take over the government, then our Fiji Government has no problem with that. Al Jazeera asked the Hon Attorney-General for an interview. He declined. They asked the Prime Minister. He was also unavailable. These two gentlemen are very familiar with Fiji’s TV cameras. What was the problem with Al Jazeera’s?
Al Jazeera asked Investment Fiji for an interview. Investment Fiji said they had been told that they could not speak up. Who, I wonder, gave those orders?
In Fiji we have a Foreign Investment Act. And under the Foreign Investment Act and Regulations, cafes and bakeries are “reserved activities”. So how do the Grace House “Snowy House” cafes operate in Fiji? How do their “Pacific Patisserie” bakeries operate in Fiji? Aren’t these activities reserved for Fiji citizens?
Why are they doing basic work – working as cooks, as wait staff – that Fiji citizens could be paid to do?
We know that Grace Road has a construction company. And we also know that this construction company works for the government.
So Mr Speaker, I say to the government - you say you are a government that is transparent and accountable. So tell us - what is the real relationship between government and Grace Road.
And let me say one more thing to the Government, Mr Speaker – and I say this with the authority of my leader and my party – an NFP government will ensure a thorough investigation into Grace Road will be conducted and if needs be, people will be charged or sent home…make no mistake.
H.E. Did not address the Hard Drugs which have infiltrated our cities, schools and communities.
Our porous borders have over the last 10 years have allowed criminal elements to flood Fiji with this cancer. So instead of strengthening the powers and resources of our border control by the Navy and Customs, we had the millions of dollars in Freebies given away last year before the elections.
Customs and the Navy should be patrolling our far flung islands. These cartels are probably dropping off drugs on isolated islands, showing up at ports of entries to go through customs and immigration, then going back to the hidden drugs to carry on with business as usual.
Cases of Detention and Torture are unprecedented – We should not be surprised – The Culture of Bullying is well and truly alive and I dare say even aided by the behaviour they see from those who have sworn to serve and protect.
The only thing that is unprecedented under this govt is the rise in violent crime, murder, drug abuse, human trafficking, and environmental damage.
Mr Speaker, like many law-abiding citizens who are concerned about the increasing incidence of lawlessness in our country, I am appalled that the Police Commissioner sees the arming of the Police Force as a solution to the recent spate of violent attacks against police officers.
Arms of any kind are designed to kill, maim or injure. Arming the police can only be seen as a further attempt to militarize our police force, which is inconsistent with the role of police to protect citizens and prevent crimes.
Mr Speaker, “Violence only breeds violence and more violence,” as we have witnessed in our recent experience of armed violence. I draw your attention to a 2016 report by Amnesty International titled, “Beating Justice: How Fiji’s Security forces get away with torture.” The report documents the cases of young (mostly i Taukei) men being killed or tortured by military or police officers in custody, following the 2006 coup.
The report acknowledges that “an ingrained culture of torture, thuggery, abuse and bullying has taken root among Fiji’s security forces,” through beatings, torture and other forms of physical and sexual violence by uniformed officers. The recent media report of a young man in Navua who was burnt with hot water by the police to force him to confess (which the Police Commissioner has vowed to personally investigate), is a recent example of police brutality.
The Prime Minister himself had acknowledged the persistence of this “buturaki” culture of beating when he opened a regional workshop on the “UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” in Natadola in 2016, using the example of police inflicting the “buturaki culture” to extract confessions from criminal suspects.
I shudder to think Mr Speaker, the lethal combination between an armed police force and the “buturaki culture of violence” they already practice.
The New Zealand police force is currently trialing Armed Response Teams for 6 months, to deal with serious firearms related call-outs. However, this has soon developed into dealing with whatever incidents of offending they came across, including low-level offending. Similar situations or worse could develop here in Fiji with our police armed. There is also a danger that police with arms could target vulnerable members of our population who are already marginalised in police operations.
Furthermore, arming the police can increase the potential for inter-service rivalry between the different branches of the security forces, as witnessed in the lead up to the 2006 coup, when the military moved to confiscate arms belonging to the police. Such a risky situation could be catastrophic for a small nation like Fiji.
Mr Speaker, given the increased reports of attacks against police officers, there is a real danger that in violent situations, these weapons can be seized and used against the officers themselves, placing their lives and those of innocent bystanders in greater harm.
Arming the police is not going to solve the problem. Moral is low in the Force. Perhaps if Police Officers worked under better, more fair conditions, Perhaps if we had a career police officer as Police Commissioner instead of someone from the military imposed on them by this regime, things could be better in the force.
Prevention is better than cure, Mr Speaker. With our current volatile situation of lawlessness, we must prevent opening a “Pandora’s box of evil” upstream by choosing the default solution of arming our Police, while we lack the capacity and resources to deal with the consequences downstream. I therefore strongly oppose any attempt to arm our police force.
The Role of Racial and Ethnic Data Collection in Eliminating Disparities is well known, just as it is well known that this data are vital markers which are used to better identify and understand risk factors in a population.
I want to use Diabetes to highlight the absolute need for ethnic data to be collected. Fiji in 2018 had the highest mortality rate from diabetes according to global life-expectancy rankings. Many diabetics put off seeking medical attention due to denial about their condition, which results in diabetes-related complications by the time they do seek medical help. As well, many prefer to approach traditional healers, delaying medical treatment. These factors necessitate greater community education. Different ethnicities have different diets and social habits and so the fight against Diabetes has to include data that is specific and relevant to each group in our communities.
In the U.S. scientists have found different rates of diabetes among people of different races and ethnicities. Diabetes is also more common among African-Americans and Asian-Americans compared to whites. Rates can vary by ethnicity, too. Asian Indians are 2-3 times as likely to get diabetes as Korean-Americans are. (Jun 30, 2019).
Calling us all Fijians does not magically make us all the same. This govt, because of some mysterious reason known only to the AG, continues to bury its head in the sand about the dire need for desegregated data along ethnicity in the fight against not only Diabetes, but other diseases and social problems; family debt levels, unemployment, education levels, domestic & sexual violence, teenage pregnancy and the list goes on!
Data on ethnicity is universally accepted as a vital tool for development. It does not need to be divisive which seems to be the irrational fear that AG has.
If there was a need to assist a particular ethnic group in terms of economic development, it does not mean that you are favouring one particular ethnicity. It is important to bring up others who are behind so that we can all be moving forward together.
The Minister for Economy loves to berate the Opposition on what he terms an “obsession with Ethnicity”, (Fiji Sun March 06, 2018). I put to this house that it is he that has an obsession with ethnicity.
The prime minister and AG have gone on record to say they want Fiji to be the Singapore of the Pacific. Are they aware that Singapore collects data on ethnicity during census?
I wish to direct the following questions from H.E.’s speech to the Govt members; “Are you speaking in the national interest, or are you speaking in the interest of self or party? Are you advocating to advance our people’s collective good or for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many? And are you speaking the truth or are you bending the truth to serve a political end? "
H.E. said We have made education free; Any parent, grandparent, guardians including older siblings looking after their younger brothers and sisters, will tell that you that nothing could be further from the truth.
H.E. said We are, on a daily basis, creating transparency across the business of government; Then tell us what the connection is between Grace Roads and Cabinet is! Tell us the truth about the economy. Tell us who the local shareholders are of Freesoul!
H.E. said We have ratified all nine of the core human rights conventions; Ratification is useless if not followed by real action, monitoring and reporting to Parliament via the Standing Committee responsible.
H.E. said “We are assuming world leadership to confront unprecedented global challenges; and we are investing historic sums to expand the services and infrastructure that lead our people to higher standards of living.
Of borrowed money!
The FNPF is being treated like a cash cow as domestic borrowing balloons this financial year by a maximum of 1.019 billion dollars / and the majority of borrowing will be local, obviously from FNPF through bonds and promissory notes as well as the sale of 20 percent shares of EFL .
H.E. said “So much of Fiji’s progress over the past decade is owed to our ten-year unbroken streak of economic growth.” Tell that to the tourism industry who only this past weekend in an article in the Fiji Sun said that 2020 would be a challenging time for the industry. What will be the first to suffer? The biggest part of operating costs; wages. What does that mean? Less hours and pay cuts, generally, for many workers of the most important industry in the country.
Our Economy is in fact at its weakest since 2010, according to the Reserve Bank.
H.E. spoke about The politicisation of our economy.
Demanding that the Govt tell us the truth about the economy is NOT political football. This is our job as the opposition; to hold Govt accountable. H.E. was absolutely right when he said, “the Fijian people – particularly our young people – will not look kindly on any who seek to undermine their economy, their jobs, their investments or their financial security.”
Playing fast and loose with economic football has been the game of the military regime and the Fiji First government for the last 13 years, culminating into a consumption-driven economy grinding to a halt with projected growth spiraling downwards. The Opposition has been consistently warning Government to change course. But the two-man rule and their team have continued to steer us aimlessly, resulting in the mess that we are in as a nation.
At the end of his address, H.E. again highlighted input from 3 siblings, all under the age of 8, praising the 2013 Constitution by saying their favourite part of the Constitution was the Rights of Children because we are protected, cared for and empowered to become good Fijian citizens.
How? You get on a bus or boat which show’s movies to passengers during journeys, and invariably these movies show gun violence whether by the good guys or the bad guys, and the objectifying of women. Children can easily access pornography on their devices. What are we doing about this? Let’s start by fixing these, with some tangible actions.
Finally, H.E. spoke about planning being underway for Fiji Day 2020, our 50th anniversary of independence. I beg govt to please spare us the tirade which usually begins with, “No other government has…”. Surprise us by making sure that credit is given where credit is due; to previous governments and leaders and all they did for Fiji. Let it not be the usual hogwash of blame and finger-pointing at previous governments, or the chest-beating but empty boasting that this nation has been subjected to ad-nauseum. Have some shame!
Isaiah 5;21 warns “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.”