Op-Ed: Why are we passing laws against people instead of giving them help?
by Honourable Professor Biman Prasad, NFP Leader
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 13th March 2021
Two days ago, a good Samaritan forwarded confirmation of payment of 50% of fees for this year of a first year student entering the MBBS program at Fiji National University.
I know this because the good Samaritan, who doesn’t want his identity revealed, is an NFP stalwart who held office in the short-lived NFP/FLP Coalition Government of 1987.
He has offered to pay the tuition fees of an exceptionally bright student with an extra-ordinary grade point average (GPA).
But why does the student have to turn to him for help?
Because the Fiji First government has decided NOT to provide National Toppers Scholarships or even Tertiary Loans to students who qualify for MBBS and Oral Health programmes. This is, the Government says, because Fiji has enough doctors.
Since when has Fiji had enough doctors? Is there anybody in Fiji who agrees?
Even if the Government believed it, how wrong can this possibly be? Our hospitals are short-staffed. We have few if any Fiji doctors who are specialists in areas such as heart conditions, diabetes or kidney disease.
We should be trying to make Fiji a hub for medical services to overseas patients as a way of improving our own health services. Instead, we are deliberately putting the process into reverse.
This is just one more example of a government that makes it up as it goes along, which cannot face the people and say it has no money, cannot tell people its strategic direction and will not admit the many mistakes it has made which have led us to Fiji’s current situation.
Everyone and everything in the Government is drifting. So the Government tries to look busy by proposing draconian legislation like the draft Police Bill.
Now the Local Government Minister is trying to talk her way out of why she was proposing to impose hefty fees on market vendors, at a time when the economy is going backwards and tens of thousands of people are unemployed and can barely buy food.
Our Attorney-General and Economy Minister, apparently running the economy by remote control from Singapore, is fond of talking about
“the reality of the matter”. What is it? A government that has lost direction and has lost any sense of what Fiji’s people need.
Everything in the Government points to chaos in the ranks.
The Local Government Ministry issued out a draft of new regulations trying to over-regulate (and over-charge) market vendors. A few days after an online meeting with vendors (and we assume that did not go well) she now says that this was all wrong.
It was only a consultant’s draft, she says.
Of course. Because in this Government it is always somebody else’s fault.
When there are drug shortages in hospitals, the Health Minister says “people must tell us”. How hard is it to monitor its own inventories of drugs? Does R B Patel supermarket tell its customers “you must tell us when we are running out of tea”?
The Government makes wild and unsubstantiated allegations about governance at University of the South Pacific so it can withhold the $27 million it owes to the university, putting Fiji students’ education at risk. It is not prepared to admit “we don’t have the money.”
As of 30 June 2020 the Government owed Fiji National Provident Fund almost $3.4 billion. That amount will now be larger. This creates a problem for FNPF. How will it be repaid? Its stability depends on having a good spread of assets. But Government debt is becoming an increasingly part of its portfolio.
The Government will push through Bills in Parliament under Standing Order 51, restricting debate to one hour, but it will take no action to legislate a Code of Conduct for Ministers and public officials.
Who can forget the Fiji First Party’s “strategic workshop” at Level 9 of Suvavou House where every single elected Government MP camped out with mattresses while opposition party bailiffs tried to serve them with electoral petitions?
Remember what the Economy Minister told us? Their strategizing was to bring in the “low-hanging fruit”.
The terms “Level 9” and “low-hanging fruit” have become national jokes now. But what could they have been talking about?
The so-called “Bainimarama Boom” – fueled by Government debt – is now in a state of total collapse.
The struggling sugar industry now has a new CEO, promising to restore it to its former glory. But isn’t that what the last CEO promised five years ago? The Fiji Sugar Corporation is insolvent. It cannot survive without Government money. But now Government has no money!
What about our agricultural sector? The dairy industry is as good as dead. Last year the Agriculture Minister tried to talk up rice-growing. Nothing happened. The pine industry, once known as Fiji’s “green gold” is now in a state of neglect. Our mahogany forests, a legacy of some visionary public servants in the 1960s, is now unheard of.
Our roads are littered with potholes
We cannot keep a reliable electricity supply even in urban areas, even to hospitals
Our water and sewerage systems are also in a state of near-collapse. We will need hundreds of millions of dollars to fix them
Wharves and other critical maritime infrastructure are also decaying. More hundred-million dollar investments are on the horizon for these.
Our education system is not a system. It is organised chaos, with seriously declining standards. The price of this will be paid by our people for generations to come.
At a time when Government should be directing all its energy and financial resources into helping the people and cushion the impact of high cost of living, it is focused only on restricting their rights.
The Police Bill, the laws abolishing assessors and creating new anti-corruption courts are about increasing the power of the authorities, not about helping people who desperately need it.
The only solution
We can no longer suffer a government that dishes out freebies and trades in fear, which tells our people to “look for work” while its Ministers pay themselves six-figure salaries and travel in air-conditioned four-wheel drive cars that we have paid for.
The Fiji First Government has not just lost its moral authority to govern – it doesn’t even know what to do. It will not even listen to those who do.
The latest date for the next election is January 2023. Somehow, we will all have to hold on until that long defending our basic rights as they come under repeated assault.
But once election time is here, there should be no doubt about what we do. This government has to go.