NFP Submission on Electoral, Voter Registration & Political Parties Amendment Bills
Friday 5th March 2021
Submission to the Justice, Law and Human Rights Standing Committee of Parliament
The National Federation Party makes it abundantly clear at the outset – we do not support the three amendment bills relating to electoral process and political parties tabled in December 2020.
Our submission extensively outlines the flaws in the proposed amendments in the three bills DO NOT address the fundamental flaws in the electoral processes exposed during the 2014 and 2018 general elections.
The amendments do not bring about electoral integrity. It is easy to label any process free and fair. But we noticed lack of transparency and different interpretation of rules in the last two elections.
Last month, Parliament debated the Review Report of the standing committee on Justice, Law and Human Rights of the 2014 Elections Reports by the Electoral Commission and Multinational Observer Group.
Yet two months before that in December, Parliament was told that electoral processes and how political parties operated needed reform.
This is despite the fact that the Justice, Law and Human Rights Committee rightly recommended that after two elections it was time to establish a special parliamentary committee to extensively review electoral processes.
Yet, the government has ignored this salient recommendation. Why?
Simply, a review in a bipartisan manner doesn’t suit the government's agenda, especially that of an administration that believes in micro-managing policies.
Major recommendations from the 2014 reports like
empowering the Electoral Commission with independent legal advice instead of solely relying on the Solicitor-General, something that this Parliament must also have access to and not only depend on Solicitor-General,
provision of symbols on ballot papers and not only in candidates’ booklets,
freeing up the media,
making observation of elections less restrictive,
removing draconian provisions in the political parties act
Simply, there has been very little or no heed paid to the recommendations of the 2014 Annual Report of the Electoral Commission and the Multinational Observer Group findings into the 2014 general elections.
It is better late than never. As the Committee stated, it is important that a special parliamentary committee is established to review the entire electoral processes.
And time is of the essence. We are less than 16 months away from when elections can be held at the earliest in 2022 – which is July next year. This has been confirmed by the Electoral Commission during its recent meeting with political parties.
Might we add, we have even less time if the issuance of Writs and nomination period is taken into account.
But instead, this government is forging ahead and blatantly ignoring what was recommended after 2014 and 2018 elections. It only made cosmetic and not real changes as recommended by the Commission and MOG before the nation went to the polls in 2018.
And the government seemingly has no intention of adopting major recommendations of the recommendations from the reports in 2014 and again in 2018.
While turning a blind eye to substantive changes, it has decided to make changes that it thinks are suitable, as seen in Bills of the Electoral (Amendment) and Political Parties (Amendment) Acts tabled in December 2020.
Absolute independence of an independent institution is totally necessary for transparency.
Surely, any government that believes in transparency, accountability, good governance and absolute independence of institutions, would have embraced these recommendations.
That is why the bills before the committee are premature, draconian and catalyst for further entrenchment of power into the hands of a few with duplication of roles such as that of the Supervisor and Registrar of Political Parties.
We therefore believe that given the experiences of the last two elections, the laws are tailor-made to ensure continuity of the rule of Fiji First by restricting functions of truly democratic parties of the Opposition.
The ruling party is not democratic. Its constitution is restrictive. It doesn’t hold any meetings of its members. It confines party leadership in the hands of two people.
Its financiers are rewarded by board appointments. One only has to look at the donors lists of Fiji First and see the names who occupy key positions in statutory organisations.
Yet no action is taken against Fiji First. Why?
This is the kind of Animal Farm application of laws that we are being subjected to. Not to mention the latest attempt to entrench dictatorship and totalitarianism through the latest draft legislation of the Police Bill.
The draconian provisions of the Police Bill and Cybercrime Act are a perfect catalyst to apply the regressive provisions of the amendments proposed in these bills to politically persecute the opposition.
It is as simple as this.
We will now look at the individual bills.
Electoral (Registration of Voters) Amendment Bill
The new insertion to section 2 states that applications for registration has to be on a form approved by the Electoral Commission.
This seems like a redundant clause because many have already registered and updated their cards based on FEO's alarmist public announcement in February 2020 on the invalidity of the green cards.
What is not explicitly stated and should be in this Bill, is that all voter ID cards used from 2014-2018 elections are now invalid and all citizens must get new ones, provided that new birth certificates and associated costs are not a barrier to citizens constitutional political rights.
Thankfully the insane proposal of Feb 2020, of FEO that married women can not use their husband's married name is missing from the Bill.
The amendment to section 4 where the registration of voters must now include a primary polling venue, in addition to an alternative polling venue, that may then be selected by FEO, is messy and illogical.
There is nothing in any of the reports post-2018 Elections by the Electoral Commission or the Elections Office that justifies the need for alternative polling venues.
What we political parties do know is that it was the actual voter registration list and data used in the 2018 elections that was problematic. There were, for example, people registered to vote in Nukuloa Gau, but actually lived in Nukuloa Ra.
Then just as political parties were being given the lists of registered voters for August 2018, we noticed that certain polling venues were listed under random provincial divisions as commonly used all over government systems. The reason for these ad hoc arrangements according to FEO in media reports that year, is that the Elections Office "have carefully distributed the entire country into 25 administration areas which will be looked after by 23 administrative staff."
And he further "stressed that they are not required to distribute the entire country along provincial, district or town boundary lines."
This year, FEO actually acknowledged during a meeting with political parties that there were "some" problems brought to his attention about wrong classification of voters to wrong polling venues, but we have never had closure on the full extent of those disenfranchised voters whose constitutional political rights were denied when they wanted to express their voting intent. The questions still remain!
Why did approximately 637,000 voters make the effort to register yet only approximately 458,000 actually cast a vote? This is a damning indictment on the Elections Office, and the millions of public money poured into it to conduct the elections!
Sections 16, 17 & 18 have new insertions. Yet these new additions were repealed in a previous version of the Bill -- and it only leaves more questions in our mind on the competence of both drafting and intent.
Political Parties (Registration, Conduct, Funding & Disclosures) Amendment Bill
Much of the trial by media that NFP faced with regards to our audits, conveniently hides one thing. That after all these years of having all political party audit records with them, the Fijian Elections Office decided to execute a retrospective investigation spanning a number of years.
One wonders why?
Mr Chair, in section 3 of the Bill, whereas the register of political parties held by the Registrar of Political Parties, only listed the names of political parties registered under this Act before, the amendment seeks to detail much more about registered political parties -- such as office holders and contact details, party bank account details, and names and contacts of party auditors and legal advisor.
Why is this extra level of detail necessary? The Registrar of Political Parties told parties at a recent meeting that parties have been observed as engaging "premium legal practitioners" and auditors, but the cost of these services to the party are not being declared according to their market value.
Parties were told that companies or hotels cannot give discounts to political parties, on services or products otherwise this will be considered as donations to the party, and if these types of donations were more than $10,000 in value -- these are breaches of the law.
In section 24, the new sub-sections 2A and 2B of the Bill are deeply, deeply concerning for NFP.
Candidates must now within 30 days of polling day, make more onerous declarations to Mr Saneem.
At a recent meeting with political parties, the Registrar that once candidate nominations are filed, apart from the usual assets and liabilities disclosures, candidates must also disclose all monetary donations made to the candidates personal campaign with receipted details of names and addresses, INCLUDING in-kind donations such as vehicles for campaigning etc.
Parties were informed that within this nomination period if a candidate was found in breach of this -- parties would be suspended and would not be able to campaign within that final stretch before elections. Needless to say, parties that were there were shocked at why political parties should be held liable, but the Registrar was adamant that candidates "were agents of the party".
Not only that, 30 days after the writ has been returned, all candidates whether elected to Parliament or not, must again file more disclosures.
This is clearly designed to hinder Opposition parties, because the types of disclosures that would show up the ruling parties accumulation of wealth, have never been mentioned or highlighted by the Registrar YET they have now been quietly removed from the Bill. These are disclosures like:
any business interests in Fiji or abroad for the candidate or spouse;
any business transaction entered into by the candidate or spouse in the 5 years preceding the date of nomination whether in Fiji or abroad;
any gift received by either the candidate or the spouse whether in Fiji or abroad (apart from gifts from normal events such as relatives or customs),
any assets acquired by either the candidate or spouse whether in Fiji or abroad, in the 5 years preceding nomination
liabilities incurred or discharged by a candidate or spouse whether in Fiji or abroad in the 5 years preceding the date of nomination, and the amount of each liability.
Section 26 now places the burden of publishing our accounts both in the gazette and in the media, on political parties. This burden will be no problem to the ruling party that has millions of dollars of donations, but not so for the rest of us.
Section 30 is also a dangerous precedent where any appeals that political parties may wish to make against the Registrar’s rulings, can no longer go to the High Court, but will be deliberated by the Electoral Commission. This is a gross miscarriage of natural justice because the Registrar as Supervisor is the Secretary to the Commission?
In all of our past dealings with the Electoral Commission, there has never been a punitive stand against the ruling Fiji First party, and frankly we have no confidence in their ability to mete out justice fairly where our appeals are concerned.
The High Court must remain as the judicial mechanism for redress, just as it is for every other constitutional independent institution. One man cannot have such an excessive concentration of power.
The new section 30A on dispute resolution between parties "on any campaign issue" as the Bill states, to be presided over by the Electoral Commission is farcical and again completely contrary to the norms of natural justice. It merely gives rise to frivolous and vexatious sub-campaigns that are not a lawful credible tribunal, that will serve to distract political parties from speaking to the electorate directly on policy and legislative changes they need, and draw parties into mindless debates and paper-wars.
There is no such need for this clause -- if there are issues, the High Court should be the only lawful mechanism for redress.