I congratulate the honourable Members on the other side of the House on their success and I extend my congratulations to your good-self, Madam Speaker, on your appointment and that of the honourable Deputy Speaker.
I would also like to congratulate the Fiji Sevens team for winning the IRB Gold Coast Sevens and wish them well for the lead up to Rio De Janeiro.
Madam Speaker, there is an air of optimism in Fiji today and depending on which side of the political divide one sits, the expectations of the people will vary. For ourselves, since 5th December, 2006, we never had more voice. We were made invisible; we were a non-entity; we were not even second-class citizens and we had very little rights. Today, almost eight years later, through the Elections which we view as a victory against all odds, we have been given a voice - all 18 of us in Opposition.
We are visible once against, Madam Speaker. We look forward to the restoration of all our rights, and best of all through the thousands of people who voted for us. We can debate our country’s laws to take us forward to hopefully true democracy. For most of our people, I am sure, Madam Speaker, their hope is that Monday, 6th October, 2014 signals the end of dictatorships, oppression and suppression, and the beginning of accountable and transparent governance in Fiji - for the first time in almost eight years.
This is certainly what my colleagues and I on this side of the House hope for, and I have no doubt that those who voted for us also look forward to this and as Members of the Opposition, we are ready to play our part to deliver this to our people.
Madam Speaker, His Excellency’s speech was wide ranging and while my colleagues will all touch on various aspects of the speech, allow me to comment briefly on a few.
His Excellency spoke of the significance of the 44 year history of this Chamber and the momentous events that took place here, as well as the names of some of the great leaders who have gone before us yet this and our Deed of Cession history is not even mentioned in the 2013 Constitution. Although according to the pomp and pageantry and ceremony that we witnessed on Friday, 10th October, 2014 this is an important date in the country’s calendar. So why is there no inclusion in the 2013 constitution? Something does not quiet add up. This begs the question as who really is the author of the 2013 Constitution.
Madam Speaker, I was pleased that His Excellency made reference to the most traumatic and painful events in our history and agreeing that the pain lingers with us three decades later. I am glad he referred to the cycle of instability that theses coups have plagued our nation with and retarded our development. Allow me to add, Madam Speaker that experts place the cost of these coups to our people and this nation at more than $10 billion. Yes, Madam Speaker, more than $10 billion.
Madam Speaker, what His Excellency omitted to say was that ‘coups’ cannot occur or succeed in this country unless the Military is involved and we therefore, look to the new Military Commander to return our military back to the professional and disciplined force it once was and to recommit itself to acting in defence of our people and not against them.
Madam Speaker, I believe the question of transparency and accountability of this parliamentary process is something that in time will reveal itself.
Madam Speaker, I now refer to His Excellency’s reference to the planned increase from $2 per hour to $2.32 effective from 1st July, 2015 for the minimum wage rate for all workers in Fiji. This is a 16 per cent increase and workers have to wait for 9 months until 1st July, 2015 before it comes into effect. Yet, the Government does not hesitate to reward themselves with increases over the last salaries of the last elected Government.
That said, Madam Speaker, with regards to His Excellency’s call for all sides of this House to work together for the good of the nation, I can say on behalf of the members on this side of the House, we stand ready to ‘engage’ the Government and we are willing to work towards creating an united Fiji for all.
Madam Speaker, all political parties made promises during the elections to alleviate the oppressive high cost of food currently bearing down on the majority of our people.
Madam Speaker, as Leader of the Opposition, I call on all members of this House to work together and introduce immediate measures that will bring the much needed relief that our people so desperately need. We, in Opposition, look forward to working with Government to resolving this issue as a matter of urgency .I commend to the Government our proposal for a $50 million subsidy as a starting point to ease the cost of living for our people.
Madam Speaker, we all appreciate that education is important to Fiji’s future and I wish to acknowledge Government’s continuation for free education to primary, secondary and what I believe Madam Speaker, is the inclusion of SODELPA’s Manifesto in extending free education to pre-school students from Term 2 of 2015 and perhaps the honourable Minister of Education may in his maiden speech clarify what is meant by “free education”.
Madam Speaker, a modern trend of education is to introduce into the system of teaching and learning a more focussed formative learning and a lesser concentration on summative. The fact that classroom-based assessment or CBA has been implemented in the Fiji Education system is a positive steps towards the slogan knows as a “no one is left out” However, Madam Speaker, an appraisal system is now warranted to find out the benefits and non-benefits of this CBA. A lot of negative comments have been forthcoming from parents, teachers and the community at large about this latest development in the Ministry of Education. That whilst it is classroom based, the spill over is taken home where everyone contributes to the effort which is being passed off as the child’s completed task and graded accordingly.
Many parents and teachers, Madam Speaker, have asked for the re-introduction of exams, particularly year 8 and year 10. As students presently have a shorter span of attention rotating from one task to another; plagiarism is common, high absenteeism by the students trying to complete task by due date and also high absenteeism by teachers as many schools have to have Saturday classes to complete syllabus, thus giving teachers very little rest where they themselves have to complete their moderation. Because of the high students to teacher ratio, sometimes 50 in a class, there is less time for interaction between teacher and student, less chalk and talk time, thus students tend to acquire lower proficiency in literacy and numeracy, which means if something is not done to reverse this trend we will have children who cannot read or write, whereas only a few years ago, Fiji has the highest rate in the Pacific of numeracy and literacy.
In addition, Madam Speaker, the Ministry of Education needs to review teachers terms and conditions. At 55 years of age, teachers are their optimum level of performance and service, therefore retiring them at that age makes little sense since other Pacific Island countries are recruiting our retirees and are themselves benefitting from these services. Also, Madam, Speaker, rural and other location allowances have been pending, so to be fair please pay them their fair wages and even raise their salary package to commensurate with their burdening responsibilities.
Madam Speaker, the three scholarships, the Public Service Commission Scholarship, Multi-Ethnic Affairs Scholarship and FAB or Itaukei Affairs Scholarship which have been combined to the merit based system of what is popularly called “Toppers” which was introduced in 2010. Since its introduction, the intake into tertiary institutions are disproportionate to the numbers in the population . For the Fiji School of Medicine, University of the South Pacific, the Fiji School of Nursing and teacher training at the School of Education in Lautoka’s Fiji National University and also the University of Fiji, the way this trend is developing indicates that there will be problems in ensuring the main communities participate equitably in professions which will determine in a major way the running of our country in the professional, technical and intellectual output of graduates from our tertiary institutions.
It is obvious from the figures that the indo-Fijians are outstripping all the other communities including the indigenous Fijians and especially the minorities – part Europeans, Rotumans, people from Rabi and Kioa. This is why, Madam Speaker, merit alone is not and should not be the only criterion for determining access to tertiary studies. Looking at Pillar 9, Madam Speaker, of the People’s Charter which states that “Making Fiji a Knowledge Based Society by ensuring access to quality education for all “emphasis that equity has to be built into the merit based system as the notion of being fair, just or reasonable must not be forgotten or overlooked in any educational policy, otherwise education will lay the basis for division and dissension in the future.
Education, Madam Speaker, must bring together, therefore the equity provision, otherwise known as social justice, plays this vital role. Evidence suggests that most recipients of government sanctioned scholarship programmes tend to migrate overseas after serving their respective bonds. Consequently, the merit-based system in its present form will aggravate the increasing migration trend. Ultimately, Madam Speaker, this will result in continuous shortage and imbalance in the labour market in terms of addressing the Human Resource needs of the country in priority sectors of the economy. This defeats the policy intent and points to the reality behind the merit based system of awarding scholarships.
It is imperative, therefore, Madam Speaker, to note that a total of 5,201 employed skilled personnel migrated overseas in 2006. This consists of 83 per cent indo-Fijians, 12 per cent of indigenous Fijians and five per cent belonged to other races. Similarly in 2007, 81.3 per cent were indo-Fijians, 13 per cent indigenous Fijians and 5.7 per cent other races migrating overseas. This illustrates the point, Madam Speaker, that the over hauling of scholarships – that is the PSC, Multi-Ethic Affairs and FAB or Itaukei Affairs scholarships and providing a single merit base system across the board without harmonizing and taking into consideration all ethnic groups will hardly cater for the future needs of our human resources and these concerns must be urgently addressed by the Ministry of Education and other relevant government Ministries.
Another important factor, Madam Speaker, needing urgent review is the funding criteria for schools where bigger schools because of their numbers are the major beneficiaries of the Ministry of Education funding and because of the economy of scale they can provide for various specialist facilities like libraries, IT facilities and other necessary technical and musical and science facilities. As a consequence, these schools found mostly in the urban areas attract the best calibre of teachers and students. Even government schools and their boarding facilities have been allowed to deteriorate and without a need-based funding formula these boarding schools and the rural maritime schools will not be able to compete.
Madam Speaker, in the 2013 Constitution, it affirms there the right to education, however, I am very concerned However, I am very concerned that, in spite of the Government’s emphasis on free education and its full support; it is still intent on closing down Laucala Bay Secondary School by the end of 2014.
Madam Speaker, repeated requests by the School Board, PTA and Old Scholars not to close the school in 2012, as most of the students came from low to middle income families fell on deaf ears as Ministry of Education Officials continued with their plans for the closure of the school.
Madam Speaker, the school is now fenced in the middle and the Sports Council is using one half and the other classrooms are occupied by Forms 5, 6 and 7. Forms 1, 2, and 3 have been relocated to Nasinu Secondary School and there are plans in the pipeline to move Nasinu Secondary School to another location to make room for a development project.
Madam Speaker, extra costs for students and families in buying new uniforms, adjusting to new schools and new bus routes, which would contribute to an increase in high school dropouts, were hardly considered. The Ministry of Education has compromised the principles of education for all by closing down thriving urban schools in place of opening new schools with unknown potentials, costs and threats; is of great concern.
Mr. Speaker, I thank God for his guidance and the people for their support and delivering to us 18 seats on this side of the House to keep the government in check, which to my mind is a good first step and a solid foundation on which we can and will build for the future.
Madam Speaker, I make this solemn pledge to the families of those citizens whose lives were lost in yet unexplained circumstances and who still wait for Justice, we will not rest until you do receive justice, for so long as one family in Fiji is denied Justice, then Justice is denied to all. Thank you, Madam Speaker.