Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the budget submitted to Parliament by the Attorney-General and Minister of Economy.
In fact, Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate the Hon Minister of Economy for an announcement that so clearly made the global context local for every Fijian. It was an eye-opener and a lesson in economic statecraft for the people who heard it. I suspect that even a few disappointed members on the other side of the aisle had to concede—grudgingly and silently, of course, so no one would hear them—that we were right.
Yes, Mr. Speaker, seeing where Fiji is today, I am going to give myself the right to tell the opposition and every detractor where we were right. We were right to loosen the public purse, of course. Virtually every country in the world did it because it is a proven way to prevent an economic collapse and the social chaos that would follow. We were right to seek cheap and highly concessional loans abroad, and we were right to lower taxes and keep money in the pockets of the people and businesses of Fiji.
We were right to support families, in the formal and informal with unemployment assistance. That was a small price to pay to keep households afloat economically and keep our society cohesive and strong. We were right to mandate vaccines. We right to re-open the border and start our recovery. We were right to return our children to school and time will prove the announcements made yesterday to be the right decisions as well. Just as we adapted during COVID, we have adapted to the food shortage and supply chain crisis as a result of the pandemic and Russia’s senseless war on the Ukrainian people.
Mister Speaker, 21 essential household items will be zero rated VAT from 1 April –– a measure that reaches far beyond what was called the six basic food items that were once VAT exempt. These 6 items were frankly more of political ploy than anything else. But that was then, this is now. And the measure announced last night makes living more affordable for ordinary households because we know that the listed food and non-food items are essential in all homes.
It is practical and wide enough to give actual relief. I know that members of the opposition no matter what will rise to oppose, as they have a track record of doing so, ridiculous as their objections would be. But this time around I don’t think their hearts would really be in it. Because the truth may be inconvenient or politically not in your favour at times, but it is still the truth. And the proof is in our bustling streets, our busy shops and the planes of Fiji Airways, which are bringing people back to Fiji—Fijians abroad who have missed their native home and their families, people in transit, and tourists. Yes, tourists are coming back, Mr. Speaker. Whether you believe our policies were right or not, you should rejoice in that.
Our economy is rebounding under difficult global circumstances, of course, as the Hon Attorney General explained, but we are meeting this challenge as well. We have suspended the fuel tax, adjusted the VAT and lowered or eliminated duties on many items, all to help our citizens absorb the impact of higher global prices. These high prices won’t last forever, and we will adjust again.
Mr. Speaker, the many initiatives announced under the umbrella of the adjusted budget are truly remarkable—remarkable because a majority of them cost little or nothing but promise to produce great dividends, some right away, some over time. Rational reform has been a defining feature of my government, and we are redoubling our efforts to change laws, regulations and practices that stifle initiative and limit the choices available to Fijians.
The medical reforms will free the resources of our public system while giving Fijians more choice and access to more services. Expanding access to private practitioners and dentists and we will break up the shameless system that has kept good doctors out of private practice.
Mr. Speaker, I am extremely proud of the reforms announced last night that will make the TLTB a more efficient organization in the service of our landowners and tenants and the growth of the wider economy.
As guaranteed for all time under our Constitution, iTaukei land is protected and will remain with our landowners forever. Developing this resource for their benefit is vital to our recovery –– because when our landowners receive the right returns and tenants have security of tenure the rest of us Fijians succeed with them. And that is mission we have instilled in the TLTB as part of this reform programme.
You know, Mr. Speaker, every time we do something to help our iTaukei communities preserve and use their land, most of the opposition figures, inside and outside Parliament try to stoke fear amongst them that their land is threatened. Yet the only threat they face is from the status quo and the politics of fear mongering, which pevens them from using their most valuable asset to become wealthier. And despite all the fear that the opposition seeks to brew among our landowners, we are forging ahead with the reforms.
On a daily basis more and more iTaukei landowners are coming forward to partner with us in these reforms because they are realizing that the politics of fear, fear without any rhyme or reason will not get them anywhere. The only group that will get somewhere will be those politicians who simply want to gain political office by misleading their own people.
So, Mr. Speaker sir, under my chairmanship TLTB will modernize its practices, it will improve customer service both for the landowners and tenants. It will outsource to engage professionals to carry out their subdivisions as opposed to doing it in house without the necessary professionalism and accountability. It will work intimately with and develop synergies with the Department of Town and Country Planning, Ministry of Lands, Ministry of Economy, municipalities, professional surveyors and valuers.
This will mean subdivisions and zoning being carried out professionally, no more disputes regarding boundaries and valuations. Therefore, unlocking earnings for landowners and creating greater opportunities for all Fijians that will rapidly grow our economy. No more working in isolation but working together for the benefit of all. Failed TLTB subdivisions will be regularized through this budget. This will fix the longstanding problem of landlocked lots by funding the development of access roads to all tenants.
Imagine, Mr. Speaker, that you leased a plot of land that was completely blocked in by other parcels, and you had no access to a road. That is what some tenants have been facing. The unlocking will again result in more earnings for landowners as they will get the premiums fully paid and start earning market rates and the tenants on the other hand will obtain proper and secure leases, again growing the economy.
Soon partner entities will be connected to the TLTB LDVC portal, which will make cooperation and easier and allow all to track surveys to ensure that bottlenecks are identified and timelines are reduced. All of this means that development can happen faster, sending the subdivision of professionally well-planned schemed lots into overdrive alongside our recovery.
Of course Mr. Speaker all of these reforms at TLTB are separate to the iTaukei Land Development being carried out through the Ministry of Economy. The subdivision initiative was devised by my Government because we understand that we need to help our land owners solve a very simple problem. It is this: Many of our landowners have huge assets at their disposal. They have large amounts of land.
But they don’t always enough cash at their disposal to develop that land for their benefit. Rather than leave these communities vulnerable to third-party developers who will get the windfall, government stepped in. We want to ensure that landowners receive the maximum benefit of developing and leasing their land at fair market rates. That is our commitment, and that drives our policies.
Again, unlocking the economic potential for Fiji. Mr. Speaker, this budget was also unflinching in addressing the massive increase in the costs of the inputs needed to grow cane despite almost no rise in the world price of sugar. Fertiliser is breaking price records –– a spike that could break our cane farmers’ backs. We are paying millions to shield them from global events they did nothing to cause but which could destroy their bottom line.
Still, many farmers are starting to recognize that their future is not in cane growing –– it is in other more lucrative, more stable and promising crops. This is especially true among the majority of cane growers, the 43 percent, who harvest less than 100 tonnes annually. Many of these farmers were trapped in cane growing, held hostage to leases that didn’t allow them to do what every farmer in the world does: follow the market and grow the crops that make economic sense. Some rightly feared they would be homeless if they ever dared to plant different crops, because they would be evicted as the lease does not allow that flexibility. I know this Mr. Speaker because when I speak with sugar cane farmers, when my team speaks with sugar cane farmers, we don’t seek to exploit them for political purposes or see them as a vote bank, I see them as Fijians who need genuine assistance to give them long term security and sustained livelihoods so they can live and work in peace and security and with dignity.
We are stepping in to help convert the leases of any cane grower who seeks another agricultural purpose, or even simply for residential purposes.
We will do so by conversing with landowners, seeking their consent, working with TLTB, Ministry of Agriculture and providing a package to make this transition. So whether they choose to grow another crop, or simply reside on the land that they lease ––– they have their government’s support.
You cannot make a firmer commitment than that, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, as the President of the Fiji Rugby Union, I could not be more excited about Government becoming the majority shareholder in the Fijian and Fijiana Drua. These teams are the future of Super Rugby, and we all see that weekend after weekend. For years, our athletes have competed in the league on teams based overseas. Now, our ruggers –– who are I believe the best players in the world –– have the chance to compete for Fiji. Investing in them is the smartest investment we can make.
It’s an investment in the Fijian brand that we couldn’t match if we spent 100 times our investment on advertising. And I hope very much to have this budget passed in time to watch them take on the Rebels tonight. Mr. Speaker Sir, many of the members opposite –– as well as those who have turned tail on their voters and abandoned their posts –– have opposed every measure that carried us to this point.
Our recovery undermines their political narrative, and they know it. This is why their analysis, if one can call it that, will become more wild, nonsensical and silly and of course, as seen las night, out of touch with ordinary Fijians.
Their policy prescription for response to the economic crisis driven by the pandemic was simple: They thought we should take to our bed and pull the covers over our heads until the crisis passed. That is why they demanded we keep the border shut; they demanded we keep our children from returning to school; they went so far as to claim we should cut the salaries of the civil servants whose courage, commitment and compassion carried us through the pandemic. They were wrong every time. We confronted the crisis. Now, they have a chance to show they care about the country and care about Fiji’s recovery by whole heartedly supporting this budget, without reservation.
There is a saying that fortune favors the bold, Mr. Speaker. Fiji is a bold country, and we are a bold people. Fijians deserve bold leadership, and that is what we are giving them–tirelessly. So this is our challenge and our invitation to our colleagues across the aisle: Be bold with us.
Support this budget and the measures that support every Fijian. A wise man knows he can’t change the mistakes of the past. What makes him wise is his determination not to repeat them. Members of the opposition please for once become wise. Mr. Speaker, the opposition’s votes will speak louder than anything we have heard or that they can say in this session.
Will they be bold, or will they go back to bed? Thank you.