NFP Leader: Remarks at 50th Anniversary of Independence Conference
Saturday 26th September 2020
REMARKS BY NFP LEADER
50TH ANNIVERSARY OF INDEPENDENCE CONFERENCE ALBERT PARK CONFERENCE ROOM, SUVA
BY HON PROF BIMAN PRASAD
His Grace Archbishop Loy Chong, President Hon Pio Tikoduadua, Hon Qereqeretabua, Members of the Management Board, Party Elders, invited guests, ladies and gentlemen. First, I would like to thank Archbishop Loy Chong for his thoughtful address to us. The principles and values of which His Grace has spoken this morning lay down a challenge to all of us. They resonateacross all walks of life – in our work, in our community life and also in politics. I thank him for sharing his thoughts with us. But even more importantly I would like to thank him, sincerely, for agreeing to be with us at all. It is too easy for leaders who do not consider themselves politicians – those who lead their faiths, who lead businesses, who lead community organisations – to shun opposition parties and to say “I will stay out of politics”. Yet the same people, particularly those in business, think nothing of actively making connections with those in power. Opposition parties, despite being made up of elected representatives of the people, are treated as people to be avoided.
Politics and governance are two sides of the same coin. They concern everyone. Ideas, policies, and leadership must be contestable and all their proponents respected, not just those who exercise power today. Your Grace, I thank you for sharing your time with us and exemplifying that respect for a party that offers alternative views and an alternative vision for our country. For our part, I wish to say to you that we are a party that respects the contributions of all organisations of faith. We respect all community organisations who play critical roles in the health, education, welfare and spiritual lives of our people. When we see such organisations we see the potential for partnership and the power to do good. Soon, it is our intention to realise this potential in government. Ladies and gentlemen we meet today at a defining time in Fiji’s history. In two weeks Fiji will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence. This is a time for celebration, but also reflection. It is a time to think of our history and those who have brought us to this point. I look back with great pride at the part NFP has played in the development of this nation.It is important to reflect on it at this time, when our current leadersare attempting to re-invent history,and to suggest that nothing good happened before 2006. Ours was a party born in the community in 1963. It was created to demand social and political change and a better life for all.
I invite us to think for a moment about what I have just said. Unlike the other parties in our Parliament today, we were not a party created by the ruling class. Our source of strength was not because we held the reins of power in government. Our source of strength was ordinary people – in the beginning, farmers and workers in the sugar industry. We playeda key role in demanding independence for Fiji. This was at a time when other political leaders, comfortably holding power, resisted it. Colonialism, for us, was not a boon – it was a hindrance to our growth as a united country. We fought those early elections in the 1960s with no resources other than the support and commitment of ordinary people. And NFP’s elected leaders played their part in the negotiations which led to independence in 1970. We never wavered from the vision of our founding leaders, A D Patel and SM Koya. We wanted Fiji’s people to be in charge of their own destiny. We wanted the same future for everyone, including those who gave their political support to others. We worked cooperatively with the government of the day to end the long reign of the CSR in Fiji and to establish the Fiji Sugar Corporation. It was NFP’s leaders who fought for the Denning Award in 1969 which secured our farmers’ future. We worked with the government of the day to extend land leases to bring stability to our sugar industry, in times of greattension and suspicion.
We have never sought to take advantage of the disastrous and destructive military coups that, since 1987, have severely set our country back. We have always worked to build – and then to rebuild. We have faced periods in the political wilderness rather than compromise on our core principles. We rejectedthe racist 1990 Constitution. But, led by anotherof our visionary leaders, Mr Jai Ram Reddy, we agreed to work under it so we could achieve national reconciliation and reform, leading to the 1997Constitution. We paid a heavy political price for it – but history has shown we were on the right side. I remindour current leadersthat Fiji’s historydid not begin in 2006. All of the things that are good about Fiji werehere long beforethen. Our economy was built by farmers, workers,entrepreneurs and the owners of land who generously shared it with them. Our schoolswere built by religious and social organisations and led by committed and legendary teachers. Our health system was staffed by many local pioneering doctors and professionals. The Fiji National Provident Fund, the Housing Authority, the tourism industry – these were all built up by the same “past governments” that are now blamed for everything which goes wrong by our 14-year old two-man government. Their rhetoricwill not changethe reality of our history. It is a matter of pride for us that through all the turbulence and turmoil that Fiji as a country has endured, the NFP and its values have stayed constant - a lamp whose light was steady. For Fiji, we have been a consistent force for good. But now we must look to the future.
This is a time full of challenges. This year and the next two years of our time will test to the limit the resilience and patience of our people. The coronavirus is a once in 100 years event. It is testing the resources of the richest, most powerful countries on earth. Many who thought it was beaten now face a second wave. We have successfully contained the outbreak in our country, but at huge economic cost. The economic pain is deep and unremitting. And this economic pain will continue. We must all face this reality. Some of our leaders want us to believe that this will soon be over, that things will soon be back to normal. They talk of “bula bubbles” and “blue lanes” as the solutions to our problems. This is fantasy. They refuseto face reality.So if they will not do it, then we must help our people to understand what is coming next. Even with a vaccine, even if the virus subsides, the economic consequences will not. The economies of our trading partners and tourism markets have been severely impacted with businesses permanently closed and jobs permanently lost. Tourism will not instantly spring back to its past levels. That means that the government’s tax revenue will be low and our high levels of debt will increase further. Jobs will be hardto come by and wages will be severely depressed.
For thoseof us with the good fortunestill to enjoyjobs and incomes, this is a time to save and conserve for the future. In the immediate future life will become harder, not easier. It is also a time to look around us - to look at the loss, deprivation and despair that this coronavirus has wrought. It is a time to join hands with those many committed people and organisations who have stepped in to help. It is a time for the people to show solidarity and strength, to think ahead and prepare for a different future. Ladies and gentlemen a 50th anniversary provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our past as we prepare to embrace that future. If we face the past honestly,we must ask ourselves - why havewe fumbled for so long, why the missed steps and the missed opportunities? Why have we not been able to live up to that aspiration expressed by Pope John Paul II all those years ago in 1986, that Fiji could be “a symbol of hope for the world?” Where and why did we lose our way? Fundamentally, we refused to face the truth of our past, the assumptions and understandings which underpinned our lives. The last Governor of Fiji and the first Governor-General, Sir Robert Foster, wrote in his last dispatch before leaving Fiji that a ‘bomb lies buried’ in our Independence Constitution. We failed to diffuse it before it was too late. We failed collectively to explore each other’s fears, hopes and aspirations in a frank and fair manner.
And we failed as a nation to examine the deeper causes and impulses which contributed to our problems. We averted our eyes from them. Let us face it. We have had all these coups and periods of debilitating convulsions, but we have never had an inquiry into their causes. We have to confront our reluctance to face the truth of our history. There is much truth to the adage that those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. This is as much true for individuals as it is for nations. For us, there is no futurefor us without an inclusive, representative democracy. But paper democracy is not enough. Our country – and most importantly our national governments – must practise democratic principles not just once every four years. They must do it every day. Democracy everywhere survives on the oxygen of free speechand the free association of its citizens. Dialogue and discussion and, yes, responsible dissent within the framework of our laws,form the cornerstones of real democracy. All of our citizens, and all of their representatives, must be heard. Truly democratic governments recognise that they do not have monopoly on wisdom. They listen to the ideas of others. They understand that they are not always right. And they exercise powerwith restraint. They understand that when leaders abuse their power to oppress others, they are setting a precedent that will consume them when the wheel turns. Worse, they are setting up a future which will multiply their failures.
As we look back at the last 50 years of our national life, we give thanks to all those souls who gave their lives to the cause of freedom and prosperity so that we, their children, would be spared the ordeals they endured. Our party has played an honoured part in the life of our country. We remain proud of our past and committed to our people’s common future. The historyof our partygives us hope.Our party has alwayswalked on the right side of history. We know that the current period of our political history, one which will not be judged kindly, will soon end. And we stand ready as the next generation of leadership. We are ready to extend the hand of cooperation to everyone including the leaders of opposition political parties. We can build a nation powered by partnership, in which we all participate and are heard. We can build a nation with a government which supports the initiative and enterprise and hard work of our people, not one which leaves them in fear. But we must work for it. Nothing of value comes easy in life. So it is with the task of nation building. We cannottake the work of nation-building for granted. Nor can we run away from our challenges and leave them for future generations to fix. That is not honest and it is not courageous. This generation cannot fix every problem our country is facing. But let us at least show the courage to begin. As Team NFP travels around the country, it is becoming clearer that our people can see through this façade of almost the last 14 years.
The time for dictatorship and arrogance is over. Now is the time for dialogue. Now is the time for accountability, transparency, ethical conduct and good governance. The time has come for bipartisanship in Parliament. It is time to free the media, and it is time to engage meaningfully with our development partners. It is time for the peopleto receive and be equipped with meaningful solutions to safeguard their livelihood.
The revelation by the UN Pacific Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in Fiji must be a warning sign of what is to come as we navigate our way through the crisis. The poverty rate of 37.5 percent for the most severe is only likely to get worse in the next one or two years. The failure of the government in the last budget to make adequate allocation for those in poverty shows that it is removed from the reality. We call on the government to revisit the 2020/21 budget and ensure that appropriate provisions are made for those who have already fallen below the poverty line and those on the margins who could quickly fall below the poverty line. In fact the government should immediately bring a revised budget to Parliament and reallocate expenditure to address those in severe poverty. In that budget it should remove the allocations such as $7million for PM’s office, remove assistant ministers, reduce the size of the cabinet and cut unnecessary travels by ministers and reallocate expenditure to social welfare, to NGOs helping people.
The focus should be people first and rebuilding lives. Essentially, it is time to change course.
True nationhood, common and equal citizenry can only be achieved if we put asideour personal agendasand differences and work together.
Reciprocity, humanity and national interest should be our guiding values. This is different from the “My Way or the Highway” approach of the current FijiFirst Government.
We cannot and must not be afraid of change for the better. The principles of equality, dignity, justice have been the cornerstones of NFP’s 57-year-old history since our birth in 1963.
Our existence is primarily based on our truly democratic ideals as a political party that was, is and will remain a principled impregnable fortress.
Fiji is at a critical cross-roads. But we all must be brave, not faint- hearted in demanding that our leaders act democratically and accountably.
Together, we shall prevail.
May God bless NFP
May God bless Fiji.