May 12, 2016
Statement by the NFP Leader Honourable Professor Biman Prasad
I was today voted out as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.
It is obvious why I was removed as Chairman. My removal is not a surprise. After all that is what this Government wanted and enforced changes to the Standing Orders in February in our absence.
This goes against the norms of transparency and accountability in most Commonwealth jurisdictions. It also violates the standards and resolutions adopted in respect of developing democracies by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) and Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) of which Fiji is a member.
Changes to the Standing Orders have further eroded parliamentary democracy, transparency, accountability and good governance. Again this was pushed through by Government when the Standing Orders Committee did not agree to the changes.
This is the most serious example of usurping parliamentary democracy. Two specific changes will make a mockery of our democracy already struggling to find its feet more than 18 months after the general elections.
For example, the requirement of 40% approval in Parliament for petitions being brought to Parliament by MPs on behalf of the people, to be referred to the relevant Standing Committee, means that at least 20 MPs need to vote in favour of the petition being given the attention and importantance that it deserves. A petition has already been derailed in April.
The Opposition has only 18 MPs and with the suspension of Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, is reduced to 17. We have seen in the last 18 months that no Government Member except on one occasion has voted for an Opposition Motion.
And in the lone case, the member who voted in favour of a motion on NCD – Non Communicable Diseases, is no longer in parliament.
Therefore the people’s voice has been suppressed. It is farcical of Government MPs to brag about being given the mandate of the people in large numbers when the same mandate is being abused to ride roughshod over them.
The other serious change apart from a few other controversial changes is to change the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee, which has always remained with the Opposition since Independence and is the practice in 67% of Commonwealth Countries.
It now means that Government can elect its own Chairman because it has majority members on the Public Accounts Committee – just like other Committees.
One has to ask the Government why the change? Why is the Government frightened that an Opposition Chair is leading the scrutiny of Auditor-General’s Reports?
The role of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts has been diluted. Standing Order 109(6) states that the “The committee must only examine how public money has been dealt with and accounted for in accordance with the written law and must not examine the merits of the underlying policy that informs public spending”.
PAC has now just become a toothless Committee. One can see from the calendar of meetings of standing committees that today’s meeting was one-off for the month of May with no further meetings this month.
My removal was expected because the Attorney General accused me of politicizing the Committee. If thoroughly scrutinizing Auditor General’s Reports and seeking information about controversial expenditure like payment of consultancy to an Accounting firm for a study into the operations of Rewa Dairy leading to its sale, miscellaneous expenditure of Head 50 and payment of salaries of Cabinet Ministers through an Accounting Firm is politicizing the work of the Committee, then taxpayers of Fiji can no longer expect any discrepancy highlighted by the Auditor General to be scrutinized and highlighted.
If a Government policy leads to abuse and wastage of funds, the Committee should have every right to highlight it and raise it in Parliament. With the change in the Standing Orders restricting the role of the Committee to basically only browse through reports, this scrutiny will not happen. This is ridiculous and a grave injustice to the taxpayers of Fiji.
Verbatim of the Sanding Orders Committee of 2 nd November 2015 reveal that the Attorney-General vigorously argued for a change of Section 117 of the previous Standing Orders, claiming the current Chairman (Biman Prasad) was politicizing issues saying “That is why PAC is losing its mana…”
The amended Standing Orders, first adopted by Parliament in October 2014 and later in December 2014 stipulate rules for election of Chairperson of Standing Committees. 117(2)(a) state “the Standing Committee on Public Accounts may only elect an Opposition Member as Chairperson”.
The amendment sought by Government completely deleted Section 117 of the current Standing Orders, including 117(2)(a) that requires the appointment of an Opposition Member as Chairperson at all times.
The new amended Section 117 states a standing committee at its first meeting must elect a chairperson and deputy chairperson. This therefore applies to all standing committees including Public Accounts Committee. The amended Section 117 (3) also provide for majority committee members to outvote and replace the committee chairperson and deputy chair person provided they have served at least 12 months in their respective positions.
The Verbatim of 2 nd November 2015 shows the Speaker (Dr Luveni) asking the AG “what is the problem of having this Opposition as Chair of PAC Committee that we should change this now?”
The Attorney General replied that it should not be prescribed as to who the Chairperson should be saying “Chairman from the Opposition will try to politicise the matter and that is what has been happening unfortunately with the current Chair…these Committees need to be de-politicised”. This is nonsense.
Dr Luveni replied that having an Opposition Member as Chairperson “has been a plus for Fiji” and that this was told to her by other Parliaments.
The AG is on record of having lamented about the work of the Committee in July last year, two months after I tabled a Consolidated report of PAC on the Auditor-General’s report from 2007 to 2009. That report has not been debated one year after it was tabled. The Fiji Sun of 22 nd July 2015 reports the AG as saying “it was premature to have a standing committee in Fiji on corruption because political maturity was lacking”.
He said there has been a culture in Fiji of standing committees being used for political point scoring.
Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said this would not work for a standing committee on corruption, because “enquiries of corruption need to be dealt with apolitically and, with confidentiality.
Despite the non-agreement in the Standing Orders Committee, Government went ahead and amended the Orders in accordance with its wishes.
PAC was truly a bipartisan committee and I thank Honourable Aseri Radrodro and former members Honourable Semi Koroilavesau, Honourable Sanjit Patel and Honourable Balmindar Singh for their honesty, transparency and hard work as well as complete cooperation with me. Their work in a bipartisan manner has been exemplary.
I have also resigned as a Member of the Public Accounts Committee following today’s meeting.