"Why is the indigenous community shut out and discriminated against? If we fail, the consequences for our small ethnic community cannot be calculated. Keep in mind that there are only some 500,000 indigenous Fijians on this earth! But we will succeed with the backing of the people, and the support of post-election coalition partners" - Ro Kepa
This is indeed a momentous day for SODELPA and for Fiji. We gather today to introduce to you the majority of our candidates to contest the general elections, as we fight to determine the future of Fiji and her people. The delay in announcing others is related to their resignations from the posts they presently hold and their need to fulfill contractual obligations. When the candidates making their debut today have been officially endorsed they will begin to move out to all parts of Fiji carrying our banner reflecting what we believe to be the important messages for all voters.
Although we will not be launching our manifesto until July 7th our Parliamentary candidates understand all too well the task ahead presenting the framework and thrust of our main policies.
From December 2006, Bainimarama and Khaiyum have been reshaping Fiji in line with their thinking, their laws and their personal interests and aspirations. Much of what they have done is consistent with the commentary and ideas in an academic thesis on Fijian indigenous culture written by Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
I have read some of it and can understand why it has been characterized as a roadmap for the marginalization of Fijians, their chiefs, and their culture.
The Bainimarama-Khaiyum regime has yet to complete its project for remaking Fiji. But they are pushing it forward. Witness the way indigenous Fijian students have been grossly disadvantaged in the award of national tertiary education scholarships. Witness, too, the humiliating and unwarranted way certain Fijian public officers who had expressed genuine concerns about this, have been summarily removed from their positions. There was no regard for their legitimate and fundamental rights as citizens. And yet we are constantly being told that everyone is equal in Fiji in their rights and before the law.
Ladies and gentlemen, and fellow SODELPA candidates
It is our task to stop the Khaiyum thesis project as soon as we can and reclaim the country the regime is intent on taking from us. We see this as a sacred cause; we must defend our way of life, our culture and traditions. MEDA TAQOMAKA NA NODA VAKALIUCA NA KALOU, NA NODA I VAKABULA O JISU KARISITO, NA NODA LOTU, NA NODA QELE, NA NODA VANUA, NA NODA I YAU VAKAMAREQETI. E LEVU VEI IRA SA RA LIU YANI ERA A TAGICA TU NA KENA A MAI TAURI NA NODRA QELE. SA NODA I TAVI MEDA TAQOMAKA NA VEIKA VAKAITAUKEI WILI KINA NA KENA VAKALESUI MAI NA BOSE LEVU VAKATURAGA.
If we fail, the consequences for our small ethnic community cannot be calculated. Keep in mind that there are only some 500,000 indigenous Fijians on this earth! But we will succeed with the backing of the people, and the support of post-election coalition partners. And here, let me reassure all communities in Fiji that SODELPA is committed to co-operating with all our citizens to overcome the consequences of a complex colonial history of ethnic separation. Just 44 years into independence, we are still constructing this nation; it is a work in progress. We must come together to strengthen social cohesion, to deepen tolerance and respect, and to forge a greater national unity from our diversity. But all this cannot be imposed and it cannot be forced upon us by oppressive and restrictive decrees.
Ladies and gentlemen, and colleagues, We live in an era of global interdependence. Nations and people are connected in new ways and by new technologies. We cannot tell Australia and New Zealand that they are not welcome in the Pacific Islands Forum when they are essential in the lifeblood of our economy. They are our most valuable partners in trade, investment, tourism and development support. We should be doing all we can to build stronger long- lasting and mutually beneficial ties. We need them, other neighbours and allies, and the European Union, in our endeavours to modernize and expand our economy. We need them to help us give our children not just free education, but the best in the quality of education. Similarly we require support from overseas to create quality jobs for thousands of our young people entering the labour market every year.
The heart of the message we will take to our people is that SODELPA seeks a Fiji revived, a Fiji renewed and radiant; a Fiji of full employment and opportunity where people can lift themselves out of poverty. We seek a nation united and happy in its distinctive diversity, a Fiji that says to the world: We are again a symbol of hope for humankind. We see a free Fiji of equality and just laws, well-governed through the collective authority of a cabinet that is representative of our communities, and answerable to parliament and the people. In our Fiji, the citizenry will possess the constituent power of the state; their voices will be heard.
Together with partners in Cabinet and our respective Members of Parliament, we shall undertake a review of the Constitution.
The starting point is to ask the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the status in law of the 1997 Constitution. In this review, there will be full consultations throughout Fiji, so that the outcome is a constitution the people can truly describe as their own. That is true democracy and the true pathway to returning Fiji to the rule of law. A SODELPA government and cabinet will be based on collective consensus and mutual respect in the time-honoured way of the best of our Fijian traditions. There will be no place at all for dictatorial national decision-making dominated by two men. On the crucial issue of a lasting solution to agricultural leases under ALTA, SODELPA will consult closely with its Cabinet partners and with the Opposition in Parliament. There must be a just and fair solution both to the landowners and the tenants.
The SODELPA manifesto has numerous policies for repairing the damage of dictatorial rule and proposals for rebuilding Fiji now, and for our children and generations to follow. All will be revealed at the manifesto launch on July 7th. But I can tell you that our priorities include helping those who are reaping the bitter harvest of poverty and unemployment. Never have so many people been poor; never have so many been without jobs and incomes. Never has there been a greater need to enact measures to put food on the table and provide work for those in need. SODELPA is up for the challenge. If the people give us the votes we require to form government we will begin 100 days of emergency action to get the country back on course and to bring initial relief to ease the burdens of the masses.
We are committed to bringing relief also to those whose lives are disrupted regularly by power and water cuts and who are denied other basic services that are their right. Rectifying these problems will take time, but you can be assured, we will be engaged on finding solutions from day one. We will invest in the ailing, deteriorating health system that tests the patience of the pubic every day and that cannot properly meet their medical and clinical needs. There is more, much more. What I have just mentioned are the pressing concerns that require urgent attention. We cannot produce miracles; but we can promise that in government we will bring a high level of commitment and energy to restoring Fiji.
I also assure the nation that we will offer a style of leadership and a moral and ethical code that is very different from the authoritarianism, the vindictiveness, the bungling and the secrecy of the regime. We will be open, fair, consultative, compassionate and just.That is the difference we stand for. Consider just some of the things we have experienced and witnessed at the hands of the Bainimarama-Khaiyum leadership. They took aim at the Great Council of Chiefs, which opposed their military coup and declined to support their nomination for a vice president. The GCC therefore became an obstacle to their project and ambitions. The chiefs were insulted and treated with contempt. The GCC was dismantled and banned.
SODELPA will reinstate the GCC and let the chiefs and people determine its future in the light of history, experience, identity and tradition. There lies the difference between SODELPA and the regime. They robbed all of us of our liberties and freedoms and denied us certain legal rights. We are still subject to oppressive decrees . Where the genuine rule of law prevails, laws are enacted for the general good. In a dictatorial regime laws are often decreed in order to protect the few and to target particular sections of society, including trade unions, the media, and opponents.
Today I bring to the attention of the nation a question which says much about the regime. I declare now that as one of our first acts in Government, oppressive and restrictive decrees and policies of spite and vindictiveness will be cast out. They do not belong in the Fiji of our future. So tell the people that we are different and they can trust us to bring lasting and fair changes. A SODELPA Government will return all authority for dealing with indigenous Fijian land issues to the native Lands Trust Board and abolish the Land Use Decree. The Decree gives dictatorial authority to the prime minister. The landowners have no right to challenge his decisions in court if they feel those decisions are not in the best interests of their mataqali. On the other hand , owners of freehold have access to the courts to protect their interests.
Why is the indigenous community shut out and discriminated against?
We will review the policy on landowner consultations. If, after wide discussions with them it becomes clear they are not happy about the fairness of the current policy of obtaining the consent of only 60 percent of the landowners for a dealing on indigenous Fijian land, we will change that policy. The security and needs of the landowners must always be the paramount consideration.
And we will also review the current policy on poundage deductions on lease rent incomes.
We shall reduce the deduction by requiring Government to pay for the surveys and demarcation of land made available by the owners for leasing and for the general economic benefit of the nation. We will continue what Prime Minister Qarase’s government started with indigenous landowners at Nadi airport. This is to pay to the original landowners the rent that is being paid for their land which was acquired, but is no longer used for a public purpose.
Here again, you can see the difference between SODELPA and the current Bainimarama and Khaiyum regime.
The regime withheld the Auditor General’s reports, thus denying the people the right of full disclosure of government finances, especially before an election. Bainimarama-Khaiyum will soon have spent nearly $15 billion of our money, without properly accounting publicly for a single dollar of it.
The latest vote-buying strategy is the promotion of their housing grant subsidy offered to individuals or couples buying or building new homes if their combined income is not more than $50,000 a year. It cannot be coincidence that this is being pushed only three months before the elections. The 2007 national population census showed that the majority of the Fijians now reside in urban and peri-urban areas. It also showed that the biggest urban-based family units in terms of numbers per family are Fijians.
I wonder how many of these Fijian families will benefit from this housing assistance scheme? Are we going to see the same unjust outcome as the national scholarship scheme? We will publicise all the Auditor General’s reports and operate an accountable and open government. And we will table in Parliament for all to see full details of the distribution of the benefits of this government’s policies in education, housing and various welfare support assistance schemes.That is the difference we in SODELPA and our partners in Cabinet will represent.
The regime uses fear as a tool of control. Bainimarama-Khaiyum have stayed silent on the fear question. The reason is clear: fear serves their purpose, their desire to dominate and command.
SODELPA intends to rid Fiji of the fear they have created and which prevails in the country today. That is the difference we and our partners in Cabinet will bring. Voreqe Bainimarama has refused to renounce violence. It is an article of faith for SODELPA that solutions to a nation’s challenges cannot be reached through violent acts and illegality. We believe in the peaceful, democratic power of the people and the application of the law.
Note well the difference.
Bainimarama-Khaiyum got several thousand pensioners in their sights and, in collaboration with the FNPF, unjustly slashed their contractual payments and then refused them the right of legal redress. They went after a group of former members of parliament and enacted a decree to stop their pensions. I declare my interest. I was one of the victims. There is a suspicion they acted in this way as a warning to us to behave ourselves. When they decided to resume payments they left amounts still owing.
I declare today that SODELPA will never, ever target and penalise pensioners. We will treat them with respect. We are sympathetic to restoring pensions that were cut or alternatively providing some form of compensation. Again, I declare my interest and will act accordingly at the right time. The voters can see the difference between us on pensioners’ rights. Just recently we heard through the media about Tamanirarama Jone, a student who lost his scholarship because he exercised his right to be associated with a political cause. It appeared to be an act of intimidation; the message to other young scholarship holders was clear. This mean action by the regime’s scholarship board left that boy and his single mother, Sereima Kidia, in distress. For 19 days they were twisting in the wind. An anguished Sereima pleaded publicly for her son to be forgiven. I wondered then what our country was coming to when a mother had to seek forgiveness for her son when he had done nothing wrong. Finally someone, somewhere relented, and Tamanirarama was told his scholarship would be reinstated. The explanation for what had happened was not persuasive or clear. This episode is still surrounded by confusion. The truth is elusive.
SODELPA says Sereima and Tamanirarama are owed a full apology by the scholarship committee and from the regime. That is what a SODELPA Government would have done. That is the difference we offer. When you are in the wrong, apologise. In any case, we would never have attached a political restriction as a condition for the grant of a publicly funded scholarship. The right to free speech, free association and free assembly is a fundamental human right. I could go on at greater length highlighting the points of difference separating SODELPA from the Bainimarama-Khaiyum government. But let me offer just one more example. We are all familiar with the complete mess the regime has made of introducing its unpopular e-ticketing scheme for bus fares. Confusion still reigns. What has probably not been noticed is a detail buried in a statement last year from the Fiji Bus Operators Association.
They disclosed that passengers failing to obtain and retain a ticket can be fined $500 and sent to prison for up to five months! Think about that for a moment. An absent-minded Bubu, or a housewife loaded down with shopping, might easily lose a ticket. Under this law they could end up in prison! Where else in the world would this happen? This is not the Fiji we know. It is not the Fiji we want. It is the Fiji of Khaiyum’s law. SODELPA is with the Bubus and the housewives. We will scrap this extreme legislation.
That, once more, is the difference.
Ladies and gentlemen, I return now to the agenda of the day - the announcement of election candidates. We had over 100 applicants; they were interviewed over a period of several weeks by a selection committee. The committee worked on a points system linked to criteria designed to assist the party in its decisions. Hard choices had to be made because of the overall high quality of the contenders. The result is a representative group with the qualities, the skills and the experience required for forming a stable and effective government and strong cabinet. Importantly, eight have served in parliament previously. They will give the newcomers the benefit of their knowledge of parliamentary procedures.
The candidates come from many parts of Fiji and will campaign in designated areas so we can retain the concept of “local” members, which is a cornerstone of representative democracy.
I am very proud of the calibre of our line-up. The people of Fiji can feel confident they are worthy representatives to look after their interests in parliament.
And now candidates will be called to step forward.
Today they receive their commissions and call to service from SODELPA. It is a summons to national duty.
They march under the SODELPA banner. But their mission is to serve all the people, all communities, and all sections of our society, wherever they live. For all those who applied and could not be accommodated, I say thank you for your assurances of continuing support. We shall explore other ways through which we can enlist your help in the service of our nation.
Thank you for listening. God Bless you all.
On to victory!