What is Written and What is Given
OPINION BY LEBA SENI NABOU
A senior Fiji First Party Minister for Youth and Sports, Parveen Bala is on public record on 11 October 2022, making petty political statements while handing over two fibreglass boats and engines to two youth clubs.
In that statement he claims the youths should "evade misleading information being spread by individuals that this assistance provided through budgeted and Government-funding is ‘vote-buying’."
To be absolutely clear, all youths their groups and clubs should be entitled to as much government assistance as possible, so that they are built up, invested upon and future-proofed as Fiji's next generation of leader's.
But it is critical that what our future leader's are told, is the fullest of truths.
The first logical point of reference to assess the intention and the actual giving, is the current "live" Strategic Development Plan 2018 to 2022, which should serve as the Ministry's overarching framework of prioritisation, and for which all budget allocations should follow.
What does this document actually say? It is after all publicly available on the Ministry's web-site.
Let's take a cursory look at the first two prioritized initiatives that were carried over from the Ministry's 2015 to 2018 Strategic Plan:
• Upgrade/realign and establish vocational colleges in each district of Fiji to provide Level 2 certification in key trade areas.
• Technical Colleges established by the Ministry of Education.
• Ministry Youth Technical College (YTC) Nasau has been upgraded to Level 2 Certificate in carpentry 2017, other YTCs to follow.
• Expand sustainable livelihood programs to train people from rural and maritime areas in various trades relevant to local market demands including small engine repair, baking and cookery.
• Conduct skills needs survey for hotels and resorts and young people living in and around hotel/resort areas. Train young people for employment to address the human resource requirements of these hotels.
• Ministry continues its training based on a needs assessment run in villages in rural, interior and maritime areas, moving to accredited training with the Technical College of Fiji and other service providers.
• FNU runs a large scale training on Sustainable Livelihood Projects covering some rural and maritime communities.
• Basic hospitality training is now conducted in the Western Division through Multi Skills Training by the Ministry. Training needs are identified through community and hotel consultation.
• The Ministry introduced, through close coordination with Ministry of Education, basic hospitality to meet the identified need which commenced in Yasawa High School to be in extended to other vocational schools.
And as we all know now with the benefit of hindsight, both these strategies were culled even before FFP Minister Bala's Strategic Plan, had outlived its shelf life.
The much needed youth technical colleges were stopped abruptly and the NFP Leader, Hon Prof Biman Prasad lamented this repeatedly in November 2020.
Firstly, by insisting on a full Inquiry given that the Attorney General had justified closures of youth technical colleges based on the lack of qualified teachers, even though this initiative had been running since 2015.
Secondly, Prof Prasad questioned the FFP Government and FNU why on one hand there was talk that these colleges would remain open, yet staff of these technical colleges had received inhumane termination notices where employment would end during the Christmas period of 2020.
Likewise, the Ministry strategy for sustainable livelihood projects had earmarked training on small engine repair, not more (boat) engines.
Volleyball tournaments and gym equipment assistance presided over by Minister Bala also prominently features him, NOT vote buying.
But his own Strategic Plan, while seemingly eager to develop sports initiatives says something a little different.
The Plan details the following:
• The Ministry is constructing two integrated rural sports complexes in Vunisea, Kadavu and Sawaieke, Gau.
• The Ministry continues to support the Fiji Sports Council on upgrades and maintenance of existing sports facilities.
• The Ministry continues to develop multi-purpose courts and Rural Sports Facilities across rural communities.
Even if the COVID19 pandemic hampered many Government initiatives, FFP Minister Praveen Bala's Strategic Plan should have been adjusted accordingly, with proper consultation. Was it so?
Even more striking to note is why the Minister is not visiting young people still struggling to recover from natural disasters that were pre-COVID19 and who still live in tents like those in Nabavatu, Dreketi as the Fiji Sun captured on 13 March 2022?
The FFP Minister is accountable to ALL taxpayers after all, because its their money that pays him and all his Ministry's priorities.
Budget allocations and the accompanying speeches by line Ministers, are the next logical point of reference.
The FFP General Secretary and Minister for Economy in his 15 July 2022 budget address said the following in relation to fibreglass boats:
"Mr. Speaker, Sir, of course, we cannot reach everywhere in Fiji by road, as mentioned earlier on. In this Budget, we have allocated $500,000 to subsidise the purchase of fully equipped and operational fibreglass boats for Fijians living in the most isolated coastal areas of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. The initiative known as a Seafaring Entrepreneur Assistance or SEA subsidy, furthers our longstanding commitment to the self-starting culture of business in our maritime community.
To date, $108,053 has been approved for release and disbursement to 16 applicants. This half-a-million dollar allocation will fund many more. Given the large number of requests during the Budget consultation meetings, the subsidy will now be extended to those living in deep rural areas where there is no road access. These include; Tikina of Tawake - Tawake, Nagasauva, Vatu, Wainigadru, Wainika and Yasawa; Tikina Udu - Cikobia, Yacata, Galoa, Kavewa, Yaqaqa, Druadrua, Navaidredre, Qamea, Nukuni in Rewa and Bau Island. This will, of course, be extended to these areas too."
Clearly this budget allocation was not for youths.
The line Minister himself however, during his very brief budget response of 26 July 2022, said nothing of direct consequence to youths and fibreglass boats and engines, or volleyball tournaments or gym equipment, except the following broad statement:
"today, we are proud to say that the Bula Boom is already being felt by our nation."
The Ministry of Youth and Sports Budget Estimates show that an allocation of $13.8 Million was allocated. Of that amount, $12.9 Million was for the Ministry's operating expenses alone.
Under the "Youth" programme allocation, no specific narrative details allocations for fibreglass boats and engines, or volleyball tournaments or gym equipment.
Thirty five thousand dollars ($35,000) of public funds however, was allocated for "social media management".
Fifteen thousand dollars ($15,000) is allocated for the leasing of copiers, while almost sixty eight thousand ($68,000) dollars is allocated for the upgrade of Youth Training Centre. The Ministry has 5 such centres in Sigatoka, Nasinu, Kadavu and two in Vanua Levu.
It is only under the "Youth Development and Training" activity that $500,000 of taxpayer funds has been allocated for "Youth Capacity Building and Training Programme".
The narrative is so broad, it can mean anything particularly if the Ministry's Strategic Plan appears outdated, and the latest Annual Report available to taxpayers to assess how their funds have been spent, are for the years 2018 to 2019.
So can one consider that the Hon Minister is being factual when claiming he was not vote-buying because it was budgeted for?
Or could it be more of the same such as his long promised but never realized "in the pipeline" local government elections?
Or perhaps its more along the lines of the modus operandi of Ba's Govind Park upgrade and the Lautoka swimming pool construction, where both of these projects have been colossal multimillion dollar failures and gross pilferage and wastage of taxpayers’ funds.
You be the Judge. Don't forget to make your performance review clear on voting day.
Leba Seni Nabou is the General Secretary of the National Federation Party. The views here are her’s and not necessarily shared by this newspaper.
As published in the Fiji Times - Saturday 22 October 2022