"Where is the equality of sacrifice, consistency of policies, and reprioritisation of expenditure that they demand from all others and exempt the rich, powerful, and privileged?"
By Charan Jeath Singh
Former Member, Fiji Parliament and Ex-Mayor of Labasa, Businessman
On the one hand, he talks about turning the pandemic crisis into new opportunities, and on the other hand declares “we cannot promise more suffering will not follow.” This is not the budget of hope and aspirations; equity and fairness, but one of disaster, despair and distress. It is partisan, punitive, unbalanced and regressive to the extreme.
Just sugar coating it with high sounding sloganeering buzzwords like Bula Bubble, Road to Recovery and Blue Town Recovery and Modelling of Savusavu, does not hide the fiscal policy failures of this government and its inability to find the right answers for its people.
1. PUNISHING THE RURAL SECTOR
The rural agricultural sector which still supports some 60 % of the national population in the villages,koros and maritime settlements, have not just been ignored but severely punished.
Given its size and significance, disappointingly, it received only a 70 words mention and a 30 second soundbite in the Minister’s address of about 90 minutes. If this is any reflection of the government’s regard for this sector, then people have every right to be alarmed and concerned. There was not a single reference to the raging poverty in the informal sectors, escalating cost of living, problems facing the food growers, market vendors, fisherman, carrier drivers, school children, elderlies, sick and the homeless and the wider subsistence community.
The rest of the live televised show was all about tourism, business relief packages and removal and reduction of duties. Job creation front and centre as he stated. It was spiced liberally with praises of his own government‘s Covid performance , even drawing some very invalid and questionable comparisons with Aust and N.Z. The Cabinet, Arif Ali and his own Ministry of Economy came for special accolades by him, leading up to the highly immodest claim that their “love for the country has been the beating heart behind this budget creating solutions.” Clearly when it comes to bragging and proclamations of self righteousness, the Minster has not lost his trademark form.
In lauding those praises, he overlooks the fact that all these people, even during this current pandemic, are on 6 figure salaries and that they have all taken an oath to serve the people. They are all paid to perform and to perform conscientiously in the best interests of our people. Their efforts and contributions pales into insignificance when compared to our frontline medical staff, security and border control personnel and an overwhelmingly cooperative and patient general public.
2. PRO BUSINESS AND TOURISM
It is an unashamedly pro business and tourism focused budget, which completely ignores the importance of the informal sectors and the need to maintain growth and support for the hundreds of thousands others who are trapped in poverty, unskilled and without any opportunities and alternatives. These vulnerable communities do not have any structured platform or organisation to voice their hardships and seek solutions for their daily suffering.
Under the current electoral system, they have no local Members of Parliaments to go to, nor any appropriately coordinated local level village advisory councils, district administration, or any other support agencies. So where do they take their grievances to? None of the MP’s have a district office or a physical point of contact where the poor can access them. They can’t all be directly ringing up the PM or the Minister of Economy with their problems. This is not how representative democracy operates. Just holding a couple of town hall meetings is no way of gauging the publics’ real problems and hardships. But this is exactly what has happened. If the consultation process is flawed and, more so, conducted in an environment of fear and lack of freedom, then obviously the outcomes are also flawed.
However, the formal sector comprising business, manufacturing, retail, tourism and transport groups have the advantage of their own organisations, lobbyists, power brokers and back channel links to government policy makers. The proof of their overwhelming satisfaction with the budget is evident from its loud cacophony of joy and chorus of sycophantic endorsement. They have got more than their fair share of help. Now the govt must ensure that they deliver the jobs and keep to their part of the bargain rather than just using those policy advantages to protect their private profits.
3. DUTY REDUCTIONS WITHOUT ANY RELIEF FOR THE POOR
The Minster misleads the nation that by simply reducing or removing the import duties, the sufferings of the poor will be alleviated
The relief that has been provided through the widely hailed duty reductions is more of a public relations jig , devoid of any major real benefits to the majority of ordinary Fijian families.
For example just consider the following.
1. Food Item.
Of the 1600 items with duty exemptions and reductions, 83 relate to food, of which the most affordable for the ordinary people being sardines and herrings. The other 70 or so are either not in common use or clearly unaffordable and well outside their reach.
How many of our people consume or can afford to buy imported lettuce, carrot, gherkins, cherries and apricots? How many would if the choice was between cassava, flour, sugar and these expensive imports? Who are the people in Fiji who can treat themselves to these expensive foods? Certainly not the poor rural folks and those who have lost their jobs.
2. Alcohol Products
Likewise, duty reductions on some 60 alcohol related products is another example of a meaningless concession. In the middle of this severe crisis, how many of our people are thirsting for cheaper alcohol, beer, spirits, gin, whisky, wine, vermouth, liqueur, vodka, stout, RDT and single malt beverages? Most of our despairing citizens have not even heard of these drinks, forget about being able to buy them. Where is the duty of social responsibility of this govt when in fact they should be encouraging families to spend only on essentials rather than making alcohol more accessible? After all, is it not the same FFP, that during the 2018 election campaign ridiculed Biman Prasad for suggesting a minor reduction in the duty for beer?
The assertion by the Minster, that the reduction in alcohol duties is to attract the Tasman tourists is ridiculous. No Australian or Kiwi tourist will ever travel to Fiji tempted by the bribe of cheaper beer and spirits. Alcoholic drinks of all types are much cheaper in their own countries. They come to Fiji for the experience of our friendly people, diverse cultures and our rich flora and fauna. It is of serious concern that a Minister who makes no secret of his supposed superior knowledge of all things, including economics and public finance, predicates a $60 million tourist subsidy package on such unrealistic assumptions.
3. Cars, vehicles etc.
The list of these ill conceived and meaningless duty reductions goes on. From item no 1160- 1476, (316 ) items , it covers duty reductions for cars, hybrid, non hybrid, luxury vehicles, trucks, tankers, machinery, locomotives ,trailers and even aeroplane, cruise ships, yachts and bizarrely warships. It does not get any more laughable than this.
How many of our poor people need luxury cars, aeroplanes or warships and how does this create greater economic activity, more jobs and get food on their family’s table? No other country in the world would consider these grandiose schemes as part of a credible stimulus package. The economic mantra globally is one of austerity, not reckless profligacy to subsidise the lifestyles and tastes of the rich through luxury cars, vintage wines, whiskies beers and vodkas.
4. Gold, diamond, Precious stones and white ware
Of what real benefit are these duty reductions to the ordinary Fijians who do not have money for adequate food, shelter, education, transport and health needs? This a govt that has clearly lost its contact with its people.
In his zeal for duty reductions, the Minister has obviously forgotten that he is killing the local producers, manufacturers , retailers and service sectors by reducing their competitive advantage. This is a no brainer 101 economics. This will lead to massive dumping of cheaper Asian goods, thereby killing our local industries, draining our overseas reserves and negating the more sensible strategy of import substation.
THE STABBING OF THE SUGAR INDUSTRY
Tragically, the worst blow of the night was reserved for those 14,000 cane farmers, thousands of truck operators and 10,000 plus cane cutters and their families. In precisely 70 words and within 30 seconds, of his imperious 90 minutes speech, the Minister crushed the hopes and compounded the anguish of our bleeding cane farming community; representing some 200, 000 of our people by announcing that the price per tonne of cane would be reduced from $85 to $70. On what basis, economic analysis, research, consultation, advice and authority was this decision taken? A decision of this economic magnitude which affects the livelihood and wellbeing of some 200,000 plus people directly and indirectly, is well outside the mandate of unelected bureaucrats, ministers, or, indeed, even a govt, unless it can be publicly and fiscally fully justified. These decisions will have intergenerational impacts and cannot be left to the whimsical instincts of the incompetent and ignorant.
Not only does this represent a serious 18% loss to every cane farmer, but also at the projected forecast of 1.8 million tonnes, a reduction in gross revenue of about $30 million for one of the most important, yet persistently undervalued sectors of the country. Most credible economists and governments agree that the most effective way of revitalising the economy is to encourage greater public spending. It is a fact that the $30 million taken away from the cane sector would have served as a powerful lubricant to reignite the stagnant economy.
This government does not have the heart, the conscience and compassion to support our cane farming community; its own sons, daughters and citizens even to a value of $180 per head. Yet it is willing to underwrite a $ 60 million lifeline and lay the red carpet to 150,000 foreign tourists by offering each a $400 subsidy. All to revitalise one sector. Nobody begrudges the tourist sector, but nobody can argue that the rural informal sector has been treated unfairly without its rightful entitlement to help and support.
Where is the real spirit of Fiji and its respect for the rights of its own people? No country discriminates and denigrates its own citizens, least of all against foreigners.
This is the industry which has been the bedrock and loyal beast of burden upon whose shoulders Fiji’s prosperity and development has been built over the last 150 years.
Who cannot see the double standards of the Minister, who on one hand reduces the meagre $10 bus fare assistance of our elderlies, cuts their pensions and yet sees no contradiction in continuing with the construction of the Prime Minister’s multimillion dollar office complex.
Where is the equality of sacrifice, consistency of policies and reprioritisation of expenditure that they demand from all others and exempt the rich, powerful and privileged?