Saturday 4th January 2020
We begin 2020 recovering from a cyclone. Perhaps it is a timely reminder that hard economic times are ahead – and we have little confidence in our current government to solve our problems.
In my NFP’s New Year message, I asked the people of Fiji to remain optimistic and positive. I also said in the next 12 to 24 months, the NFP would roll out policies and a vision for the future – how we must change our economy, our education system, our social services, and how we must prepare for the next 20 years.
I also said it was most important for us to learn from our mistakes of the past and to change the way we are governed
Our economy is now projected to sharply decline to just 1% economic growth in 2019, following the debt-fuelled spending spree of the “Bainimarama Boom”. The reality is that the economy will in the next few years, struggle to achieve any decent growth to sustain our development requirements.
All our economic sectors are either struggling for survival or severely affected by lack of funding from Government.
Fiji’s current two-man “My Way or the Highway” government cannot:
• fix our basic utilities and infrastructure
• reduce the increasingly unbearable cost of living
• fix our deteriorating public hospitals and medical services
• grow our declining sugar industry
• improve our declining quality of education.
For years we have asked the Government to work in a bi-partisan way with Opposition parties. If there are to be lasting solutions, all of us must consult each other and work together. We must go back to Fiji’s most important resource – the skills and generosity of our own people.
Independence and people
We are now in our fiftieth year of Independence. We will celebrate that anniversary in October. In our first 50 years our different governments have built many things – roads, schools, hospitals and water supplies. They pay the salaries of our public servants. And all of these are important and necessary. But these things do not build a country. That is what people do.
Our real quality of life depends on our attitudes to our neighbours and our willingness to share what we have with others.
Fiji has been built on generosity and sharing. The indigenous people of our country have been generous with their land and resources. Over many decades they made room for other communities to build their lives and raise their families here.
And those migrant communities have, in their turn, given back, contributing significantly to our economy, to education and the development of the skills we all now possess and which enable us to live and work together as an independent country.
And this process goes on. Every day people share their food, their time and their views with each other. They help each other in times of need. They build bonds that last lifetimes.
Most of our people are young. For them, Independence is history. But there are still many of us who remember the towering figures in our past. Ratu Sukuna and Mr A D Patel had left us by 1970. But leaders like Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Ratu Edward Cakobau, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau and Mr S M Koya were there.
These leaders had a clear vision and a determination to look past our differences. Because of course we had our differences then, just as we do today. They were politicians who depended on votes, just as we do today. They attacked and criticized each other, just as we do today.
But these leaders were generous with each other. They respected each other and in that way, they respected the people for whom they spoke. They resolved many issues through direct dialogue. And they shared a unified vision for Fiji – for building consensus and a sense of security, for education and social services, for the economy, for dialogue between employers and unions. It was on this wisdom and generosity that the success of Fiji’s first years was built.
If we are honest with each other we must accept that the vision of our founding leaders has not always been honoured. Since those optimistic times after Independence, we have endured dark periods of intolerance, suffering, dictatorship and fear.
And yet, the people of Fiji have always returned to the work of building. After the fear and insecurity of 1987, our political leaders created a new reservoir of goodwill. We remember NFP leader Mr Jai Ram Reddy, now in retirement, another far-thinking leader who went on to become an international judge. He painstakingly and carefully negotiated a new national consensus with then Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka.
This gave us the 1997 Constitution, a democratic document with a new shared vision.
In 2006 this new vision was again destroyed by a military coup. Once again, government by dialogue and consensus was exchanged for rule by fear and intimidation. But nothing lasts forever. And we are more confident than ever that in a few years’ time, a new period of rebuilding and rejuvenation will begin.
Sound and sensible leadership
Of those vibrant political parties that were there at Independence, only NFP remains. Our party, too, has suffered hardship. But we are still here. We remain optimistic, positive and full of hope for our country. We want to return Fiji to good leadership, to a government that is generous and tolerant, which listens to the people and to its opponents and has a long-term vision for our future, not one that is focused on the next election.
NFP’s founder, Mr A D Patel, led a party that was strongly Indo-Fijian. But he was a man dedicated to multiracialism and unity. I think he would be pleased and gratified now to see how our party has changed and how diverse it has become.
But he would also be pleased to see what has not changed. We still stand for the things he valued – working together, promoting generosity and national unity and ensuring that everyone has a voice and a right to participate in the life of our country.
Most of life is not about politics. We all cherish our families, enjoy the company of our friends, and advance in our careers. Many of us dedicate time for reflecting at our places of worship, meeting our cultural obligations or pursuing sports, as fans or players.
And many of us, too, give up our time for others. In my work as a politician I meet hundreds of people every year whose generosity and goodwill fills my heart. They work to improve the lives of the poor. They build facilities for their local school.
They work to keep language and culture alive. They care for their elderly relatives or for others’ children. They give time and counsel to others whose lives have gone off track. They work for better community health or are activists for the rights of women and minorities. Most of these people work quietly and without fanfare.
These are the people who continue to build our country.
These are the people who represent our future. And these are the people we now need to involve in finding lasting solutions to our problems.
We need to enhance this abundance of generosity and goodwill to deliver lasting social, economic and political advancement for Fiji. Let’s involve the people. They have so much to contribute.
• Professor Biman Prasad is the Leader of the National Federation Party. The views expressed here are his own and not of this newspaper