The speech is set out below:
The President and Members of this Rotary club, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for this invitation to speak here again on topical issues.
Due to the repressive environment that we live in, with decrees and other restrictive laws- this is a great forum for people like me in the Opposition side of the House to come and share our views too.
And I’m sure that this club is an equal opportunity, democratic one that would invite government members too and that is to be encouraged.
So yes, you’re doing a great public service with this speaking forum and I thank you very much for it.
I will take it too as an opportunity to give my comments on the national budget that is being debated in the House now that I’m suspended from that place. Please let me start with a quote from that great marketer and businessman Steve Jobs who is reported to have said about leadership::
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
Ladies and gentlemen, you’re all leaders in your own right in your businesses, employment and families- and you know too that leadership is no easy thing. For the military, it’s what’s informally referred to as the ‘burden of command’ or total commitment.
As for political leadership, I grew up around it.
Not just national political leadership (which changed our lives forever from 1985 until today), no- provincial and vanua leadership was at home from birth. In my maternal grandfather’s home where I was raised. We were required to give, give, give. Others first, self last. Things that Rotary encourages. But believe me when I say, our communal Fijian structure expects nothing short of total surrender to service and some cheerfully or foolishly carry that out. I recall telling the Close Up program during the last campaign, if you take a poll of Fijian chiefs- many of them will wish to be relieved of the hereditary burden. Especially when flimsy politicians turn around to paint them all as self serving but I’ll save that gripe for another sunny day. But I do recall too as I was growing up thinking, I am never ever ever going to subject myself to those horrors of national leadership. And here we are.
Back to the issue of excellence, commitment and the budget- I am very proud to have heard Hon. Member after Hon. Member discuss the burden of the military budget on our poor country. I am very pleased to have done my part in putting this issue at the forefront too of the national debate. It is a genuine concern as stable foundations are absolutely essential for economic, social and political growth. I am proud of all that discussion in the House in my absence and in spite of the reservations of a leader of another party whose immunities is enforced by the military.
All of you in this Rotary club know the depth and breadth of poverty in this beautiful and rich country. It is heartbreaking and criminal. A disgrace and reflection on all of us. How can we carry on as normal or not be angered by such things. In a land of plenty for all of us and more- destitution at our noses. The wealthiest billionaires in the world come to our country to unwind and enjoy what we have but we can’t provide the very basic to about forty percent of the population. It is disgraceful ladies and gentlemen. And against that, we pay at least $170 million a year to maintain a military that has cost us so much more losses through their interferences with governance over the last twenty nine years. The UN remits a tiny fraction of the monies that our country pays to maintain such a large military to go and serve the UN in places where we have absolutely no business.
One would think that after all of the billions, not millions- but billions that our poor country has lost to our military and their service to the UN- that the returns would include swift action by UN resources and members to totally rebuild the TC Winston damage. I mean we have paid over and above for it right? Where is it? Where is that return on investment to our country in our time of need? Sorry to say, we will only get a few millions here and there from well meaning friends (Australia and NZ) - which countries we like to verbally bash up by the way even when we invite their elected leader to grace our shores.
But who has to pay the bulk of the $1 or $2 billion Winston damage?
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, back to the back of Fiji’s taxpayers which is now largely indirect taxes.
The very poor that I have just referred to earlier now have to pay 9% Vat on basic survival foods. How bad is that? In a land of plenty, we are taxing the very poor 9% on basic survival foods to pay for excesses like serving the UN in foreign lands. Now please don’t get me wrong ladies and gentlemen, the UN does carry out much important work around the world.
All I am saying is that our very poor country is paying a very disproportionate part of the bill for that service.
If our soldiers are acknowledged to be some of if not the best UN peacekeepers, then the wealthy UN members need to pay Fiji and our military the right amount of money to provide that service. They should pay for our peacekeeping budget. When we get into government, this is something I will be very interested in. To get the wealthy members of UN to pay our military peacekeeping budget of about $100 million plus directly and indirectly per year- so that our poor country can be relieved of the financial and other burden.
That will also mean, increased professionalism in the military (as the funders will insist on it) and back to the basics of a professional military which ours desperately needs especially in light of S. 131 of the constitution that appears to put the military above everyone and everything else in the governance of our country.
Alternative thinking about that Fiji sourced budget will be to fund and prioritise the training of current military personnel so that they can be employed in the health and education sectors- to allow more of government spending in those two sectors. In what areas in particular? The Opposition asked for a significant increase in government spending on dialysis treatment for Fijians everywhere.
But the government can only give $300,000.00 last year and again this year.
Both Opposition motions to increase that sum were defeated by this government.
The health of our people is obviously not high on their list of priorities. Our hospitals, most of us if not all of us will never use the public health system but as Fijians and Rotarians- we have been there and we know its state. I feel for the professionals and all those employed in that sector who are all doing their best. On this note, I want to thank government for pay increases in parts of this sector. This is something that I spoke about in my budget response speech last year.
So democracy does work in that house in some incremental way. Emphasis though on incremental. Back to the hospitals, they are in a very bad way. The current ones need thorough cleaning, painting and new beds, pillows, sheets, bed pans and other basics. We also need new hospitals and upgraded medical centers.
Then they need much more modern equipment. And they need to retain more trained professionals. Let’s admit it, we have the best doctors and nurses but we lose them overseas when their working conditions push them out.
As for education, we need to pay teachers much more. We need more classrooms, desks and chairs and books, books, books and computers with internet connectivity. I would also like to spend some of that military budget saving on fully funded scholarships for our young people to go overseas and broaden their minds and come back to use it in Fiji. Hopefully they don't return to be suspended from parliament but that's another story.
Also the government should through the Ministry of Defence look into discussions with military command so that military funding goes into areas that Fiji requires for its defence. Like strengthening the Navy to protect our vast sea resources. A few more boats there and upskilled personnel. Drones for aerial photography and other modern and efficient technologies. The engineering corp boosted and a DISMAC corp to be established, skilled, kitted and ready to rebuild Fiji efficiently when disasters like TC Winston happen. They should have two or three helicopters with pilots and boats for that work.
This is all possible from a re prioritising of half of the current military budget. It just needs the right thinking. Not the one that buys $40m in Russian arms of no use to anyone in Fiji. The last part of my speech today- how can you help?
I know Rotary and Rotarians are not politically partisan and that’s good but as individuals- there is plenty you can do.
Please use your contacts and influence in various places to talk about these things.
And please give generously to political parties that you think will be good for Fiji today in the modern world and going into the future- for a prosperous and stable Fiji.
On that note, meet me after lunch to take the number of the NFP HQ so that you can go and make a contribution there.
Thank you all very much again for your time.