Opinion piece - It's all about them
Why the PM won’t reveal election day
OPINION BY PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and the Fiji First government are holding the nation to ransom by deliberately delaying the announcement of the date for the general elections.
By not announcing the election in due course, the PM is showing his contempt and disrespect for the people of Fiji, who until April 2020 paid him more than $300,000 a year, together with grossly inflated overseas allowances averaging $3,000 daily from October 2016.
Fiji First Government knows the elections will result in a sad and inevitable end of 16 years of “My Way or the Highway”-style government under the two-man rule of Bainimarama and his attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
In a strong democracy, Prime Ministers announce the election date well in advance so that everyone can plan ahead, including voters. In 2014, for example, New Zealand PM John Key announced the date more than five months in advance.
Our attorney-general laughably describes Fiji’s current political system as “the best democracy ever”. But the delay in announcing the election date is a good example of why that is not so.
By being ridiculously secretive about a major public event – when the people get to choose their government - the Prime Minister is causing uncertainty and confusion to everyone. It is now clear that the polls will be held in what traditionally is the festive and holiday season when a lot of people will be away from where their polling venues.
What is the PM scared of? Is it just the inevitability of defeat in this election?
Individuals and families will be grossly inconvenienced during Diwali, or Christmas or other family celebrations which may require domestic or international travel. Civil society organisations like NGOs, religious bodies and unions will be hampered in their planning capabilities to serve their stakeholders.
The diplomatic community who may be involved with the Multi-Observer Group for elections will also be struggling to plan for their observer members to be in Fiji in good time, with ample support.
And this uncertainty will have a severe negative impact on our already struggling economy. With elections looming, investment and spending will be more subdued than normal. The business community is gripped by uncertainty and lack of confidence when needing to plan its strategies for investment for the following year.
Borrowing and spending
Unfortunately, the next government will be left to deal with not only the economic mess but also mess in our health system, education system, infrastructure and key productive sectors such as agriculture.
The election date fiasco follows the ill-conceived economic policies of the last eight years, which has left the country in a perilous situation. The government’s unabated borrowing and lavish spending, aimed only at keeping itself popular, has left a big fiscal hole which will take years to fix.
Even before the covid-19 pandemic hit us, the economy was in decline in 2019, when it shrank. That was a result of ill-conceived, vote-buying spending before the 2018 election. So when the pandemic hit, we quickly ran out of money.
If it was not for our development partners such as Australia, New Zealand and the international institutions who helped us obtain vaccines, who supported us with grants, and who provided additional loans, we would have been in deep trouble as a country. As it happened our two leaders disappeared from public view. They could do nothing and say nothing.
Our two leaders are clueless about leadership or policy. Their only policy ideas involve throwing borrowed money around.
The Government has tried to take most of the credit for the spending through the Covid crisis, but it is our development partners that we need to be thanking.
Our families and friends outside of Fiji collectively sent about $1.5 billion dollars in remittances in the years 2020 and 2021. Many families sustained themselves during Covid through this support. Many are continuing to rely on remittances.
During the first quarter in 2022 - January to April - we received about $300 million in remittances. If that is the trend, we would expect to receive more than a total of almost $1billion in 2022.
So what is truly sustaining our economy? Is it the economic management of this government? No, it is the helping hand of development partners and families living abroad.
What we have seen over the last eight years is the sole focus of the Fiji First government on tourism. Their single-minded obsession with Fiji Airways and hotels with borrowed funds from FNPF is shortsighted.
One would have that thought they had learnt some lessons from our Covid-19 experience, but it does not seem like it. They continue to spend like there is no tomorrow, brandishing the sudden increase in tourism numbers as justification.
The current disaster
The Fiji First government has virtually destroyed the sugar industry, dairy industry, and many aspects of agriculture and other productive sectors. The overly optimistic focus on tourism will take us back again when we are hit by the impending global economic slowdown.
The nation is in a state of paralysis but the PM and his right-hand man, the Attorney-General are fidgeting with the election date. They are fearful about the verdict of the voters.
Health and medical public service delivery and care are in a state of absolute decay. Reports are now emerging of even the specialised children’s wing at CWM Hospital in a state of deterioration, with children and their parents looking after the patients forced to erect makeshift planks to stand on and have their showers because of blocked outlets.
Lies and shameless excuses have been made by government since March about the start of 24/7 heart surgery and cardiac care at Lautoka Hospital, managed by the Aspen health group, following a deal shrouded in controversy.
Cane growers do not know if they will receive the full $85 per tonne of guaranteed price or will they be short-changed for the third year in a row.
The next government will have to focus on resetting the economic agenda, including agriculture, to ensure sustained economic growth. It will have to seriously cut down wastage in government, which has reached unprecedented levels, so that we can provide better services in health and education, and boost support for farmers and rural communities.
We will have to work with the business community to build confidence, certainty and consistency of policies, while removing bureaucracy that inhibits growth and confidence in the economy.
The job for the next government will be tough. We will probably be hit by a global economic slowdown, and increasing food and fuel prices, which will hit our low-income earners and rural communities the hardest.
Unfortunately, we have a clueless government that is not acting transparently by refusing to inform the nation about the election date.
If this government has any decency, it will immediately announce the date of the election so that the people can have their choice at the ballot box.
But it does not. It will try for as long as it can to keep the election date a secret.
Why? Because this is not a government that cares about the people it serves. They care only for their own survival. Their government is not about the people. It’s all about them.
Professor Biman Prasad is the Leader of the National Federation Party. The views here are his and not necessarily shared by this newspaper
As published in the Fiji Times - Saturday 22 October 2022