Mr. Speaker, Sir, I rise as the Mover of the Motion, and to thank His Excellency the President for an eloquent address. Mr. Speaker Sir, he gave us a very clear message that we must be united for the sake of our beloved nation.
I thank him for outlining the Executive’s Mission and Vision, and key Programmes and Initiatives of Government, and its legislative agenda while opening Parliament on Friday, February 3rd 2023.
I congratulate Honorable Members on both sides of the House for winning their seats at the December 14th elections.
Mr Speaker, I also send greetings to the chiefs, leaders and people of Fiji, and thank all those Candidates of the Government Coalition Parties, whose votes have allowed us to be elected with the number of seats the three Parties have won, and formed the government, according to our constitution provision therein D’Hondt Multi-Member Open List system of Proportional Representation in a Single National Electoral Roll of all Registered Voters according to (S. 52 of 2013 Constitution).
Mr. Speaker, while the People’s Coalition Government and the Opposition have many differences, we have a shared common interest and duty, that is the welfare of our people, and policies and measures that will benefit them and the nation as a whole.
There are many opportunities, Mr. Speaker Sir for Government and Opposition to adopt a united approach on certain issues and jointly develop legislation and to pursue other initiatives for the common good.
I had hoped we can work together on policies to better protect our children; eliminate violence against women; improve services in our municipalities; provide better opportunities and inspire our sports people; alleviate the level of poverty etc. The resolution of many of our national challenges could Mr. Speaker Sir draw on the combined wisdom of all MPs in this Honourable House.
I give an assurance that we in Government will continue to ensure that our democracy functions properly, and fulfill our democratic obligations to the people of Fiji.
Mr. Speaker, Sir, for the proper and efficient functioning of the Government in serving the people and the country, our Civil Service is very, very important.
Mr. Speaker, in recognition of the pivotal role of our Civil Servants, a Ministry of Civil Service, and the Public Service Commission, are the responsibility of the Prime Minister.
The core values of the Service will be strengthened through the PSC and the Ministry. Our intention is also to improve planning, accountability, efficiency to ultimately lift the standards of service to all Fijians.
In its first month in office, your government has amended the Civil Service (General) Regulations to deliver on two critical policy changes.
The first Mr. Speaker Sir was to increase the retirement age from 55 to 60. This will give Fiji a greater return from institutional knowledge, experience, and skills. It also caters to the aspirations and the needs of hardworking civil servants.
Due to shortages of teachers, nurses and doctors, the increase in retirement age, for them is effective from the 1st of January 2022. For the other occupational categories the amendment is effective from the 1st of January this year Mr. Speaker.
Our second major initiative is the removal of Contractual Appointments. This provides civil servants with the long-term security of employment which they very much need.
Consultations are ongoing for the full implementation of this policy, the policy which represents virtual permanent employment across the Public Service, governed by the usual terms and conditions. We look forward to improved morale and productivity in the Public Service once this policy is fully implemented.
The PSC, with the assistance of the Ministry, will develop guidelines and policies to provide better cohesion and coordination throughout the Service, consistent with our determination to enhance performance to benefit Fijians.
Mr Speaker Sir, the PSC will be given greater autonomy, and responsibility, within its Constitutional mandate. This is to ensure impartiality, and integrity in recruitment, remuneration, professional development, and in addressing grievances and disputes.
The Ministry will engage with all government agencies and development partners, in providing training, and career growth opportunities.
Mr. Speaker Sir, the re-establishment of the Higher Salaries Commission will lead to greater consistency in setting and administering remuneration of senior Civil Servants and CEOs of State-owned enterprises. Compliance with international best-practices will ensure that senior civil service executives are remunerated fairly, and equitably.
Recent revelations about certain public and state-owned enterprises have generated much interest and debate in the media and in the community. Some disclosures have raised red flags and highlighted the need for greater scrutiny and accountability by executives and directors in these enterprises.
These entities Mr. Speaker Sir are involved in food processing, agriculture, livestock, timber, farming and fisheries; postal, trustee and financial services; broadcasting, airport operations and biosecurity.
Mr. Speaker Sir, State-owned enterprises relate to aviation, sugar, banking, housing, forestry, energy, digital television and airport services.
Mr. Speaker Sir, when the Coalition Government invited expressions of interest for Board Appointments, over 1,200 applications were received.
It is imperative that the right people are appointed to Boards on merit. Board membership must also reflect the dynamics of our population diversity. Some appointments have already been made.
With the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation, it was imperative that a new Board be appointed given the resignations of the previous Board members. The same applied for the Fiji Development Bank, where resignations prevented the meeting of the Board due to lack of a quorum. A meeting was urgently required to seek a guarantee extension, which will be tabled in this Honourable House later this week, as the current guarantee expires soon.
Mr. Speaker Sir, directors and employees of statutory bodies and State-owned enterprises will be required to observe appropriate standards of conduct, performance, ethics and act within the law. The aim is to lift profitability and sustainability and to ensure diligent control. In this regard, Mr. Speaker Sir, it is critical that timely annual reports are produced. I thank you Mr. Speaker Sir for announcing those standing committees and select committees, they will be very busy.
In light of publicity about excessive remunerations, the re-established Higher Salaries Commission will set guidelines for salaries and benefits for CEOs and other high-level executives.
The Commission Mr. Speaker Sir will also be the responsible agency to ensure the consistency of salaries and benefits for CEOs for State-owned enterprises and Statutory Bodies, rather than the Prime Minister and Attorney General as had been the case between 2011 and 2022. We want to ensure that these are realistic and appropriate for the demand in the labour market. At the same time, there must be consistency and transparency.
Mr. Speaker, with regard to our foreign relations, I have prioritized rebuilding regional unity as Chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum – this position I inherit from the former Prime Minister. The State Visit to Kiribati and the meeting with His Excellency President Taneti Maamau, three weeks ago, were successful. The aim was to find a path for Kiribati to rejoin the Forum Family after their withdrawal last year.
A united PIF is better placed to protect the interests of our region. This is especially significant at a time of international maneuvering for big power influence in the Pacific, and the common challenges we face in particular the Climate Change problem.
His Excellency President Maamau and I also agreed on various measures to improve and strengthen the Fiji –Kiribati bilateral relationship.
The Coalition Government has also prioritized mending our relationship with the University of The South Pacific, the most successful example of cooperation in our region. We will make an initial payment to begin reducing our significant debt left with the USP, and we will do that later this week.
I am glad the Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia has returned to Fiji Mr Speaker Sir, and I look forward to meeting him later this week.
As Foreign Minister, I intend to review the closure of some key diplomatic missions in key strategic locations. The decision worked against our interests, particularly at this time where Fiji needs to engage more effectively with our strategic partners.
Mr. Speaker sir, at this juncture I would like to acknowledge the support given by our development partners in helping to make the Black Rock facility in Votualevu, Nadi, fully operational. I thank the former government for their effort in the establishment of that. This will surely enhance and strengthen our regional disaster response capabilities.
Australia and New Zealand remain key strategic partners. We will continue to strengthen our relationship with the United States, while continuing cooperation with the Peoples Republic of China, respecting our mutual understanding of the ‘One China Policy’ and our national sovereign Rights.
Our long-standing relationship with India continues to grow from strength to strength. We are keen to further develop bi-lateral and multi-lateral relations in Asia and the Middle East, particularly with Israel, while we consolidate partnerships with the European Union, the United Kingdom and other countries that share common interests.
Mr. Speaker, Climate Change and the Environment is now under my portfolio. The hallmarks of climate change are global warming, rising sea levels, pollution and more frequent and increasing intensity of adverse weather conditions.
Mr. Speaker, the issues that confront us at home continue to be;
• Polluted shorelines and coastal areas such as Laucala Bay, and Draunibota Bay in Lami;
• Clogged drains and waterways leading to regular flooding;
• Suva Harbour is a graveyard for rusting wrecks and abandoned ships;
• Contaminated marine life, and related threats to humans;
• Rural and urban landscapes polluted by thousands of tons of dumped rubbish and waste, including mountains of plastic;
• Toxic emissions from buses and other vehicles;
• Widespread destruction of mangroves; and
• sea-water intrusion into the coastal villages which require relocation to higher ground, an expensive and culturally very sensitive exercise.
Mr. Speaker Sir, we do not yet have a specific master plan to holistically address these environmental problems, but we are starting to look at opportunities and the possibilities of donor support to help us in that big exercise.
I will be recommending a study to be carried out into investment in recycling which will help minimize pollution, it will also reduce solid waste and protect the environment. I note with interest Mr. Speaker Sir, that Tourism Fiji is now expressing an interest in waste management and recycling and I commend them for that.
There is a need for extensive public consultation on the problem of pollution and environmental damage. This will also be on the agenda for the upcoming National Economic Summit or “The People’s Forum” sometime in April.
Individual government agencies are also initiating clean-up programmes around the country, and I encourage all of us to participate where, and when, we can Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Speaker, my portfolio also includes Information –meaning the media and its operations.
As Prime Minister, I have made it clear that the Government is totally committed to allowing the people freedom of the press, allowing the nation, freedom of the press. That will include the review of the Media Industry Development Act (MIDA).
Mr. Speaker, I believe we cannot have a proper democracy without a free press which has been described as the “Oxygen” of democracy. We depend on newspapers, television, radio and other electronic and digital forms of communication for information and news.
Citizens must be informed Mr. Speaker Sir, about events and developments in society; otherwise, they cannot truly fulfill their democratic obligations to give their views and participate in governance.
An active and free press creates a progressive society. It is a self-correcting mechanism for a free and fair society. Admission of national wrongs is part of that. So is the ability to learn from one’s mistakes.
Mr. Speaker Sir, the Coalition Government will carefully study the arrangements by which one of our daily newspapers had received substantial amount of public funds for advertising over more than one and a half decade.
We are also interested in the connection between that money and the newspaper’s servile admiration of, and bias towards the government of that era. It was no more than a propaganda act or a propaganda paper.
The Coalition Government has given an assurance that we will end the era of media oppression. We are discussing new legislation that reflects more democratic values.
There is also discussion about establishing a system of self-regulation, underpinned by a code of conduct, with a Media Council to adjudicate complaints by the public about media coverage as was the case before 2006.
After the election result of December 2022, the atmosphere in Fiji has changed dramatically.
The climate of fear has gone.
In his address Mr Speaker Sir, His Excellency called for Fiji to be united as one nation that we all call Fiji home. We need to be united. Those words resonate with me, with us, and with the entire population. Fiji is home to us all.
This leads me to the question of our national identity.
I have previously stated that I favored ‘Fijian’ as our common name.
However, I always knew that the question of a common name is a difficult one. It is not a simple matter. The commentary by lawyer Graham Leung in The Fiji Times on Saturday dealt very well with the complexities involved.
Mr. Speaker, Sir, we are reaping what the former government sowed in its 2013 Constitution – our national Constitution of today. It declared we were all ‘Fijians’, but did so without the consultation that should have taken place on such an important and sensitive national matter.
I am fully aware that many indigenous Fijians are less than persuaded. Others too have divergent views.
I recently mentioned the possibility of a referendum. It’s an option. But there may be other ways to proceed.
I’m going to add to this debate by briefly quoting social media comments made by a Mr. Ranjan Charan, a People’s Alliance supporter in Ba.
He argues that “we will not get togetherness by imposing the name ‘Fijian’ on everyone”. He suggests more discussion on the common name.
He says, and I quote: “I am convinced that we have enough good leaders on both sides of the House to get to a result that is acceptable to all.”
Mr Speaker Sir, an iTaukei gentleman from the West, said, and I quote, “had the Fijians been consulted, via their chiefs and others, they would have shared the name willingly.”
And he further stated and I quote, “There is no doubt in my heart that being the kind and accepting people they are, the iTaukei will bestow on everyone the dignity of a common national identity in the term ‘Fijian’. All you need to do is to politely ask them.”
Mr Speaker Sir, the department of Veterans Affairs is now under the prime minister’s overview. It will be in consultation with the Boards of the Ex Servicemen and the Returned Seamen and Servicemen’s association that I will be developing welfare papers for their benefit.
National unity, Mr. Speaker, is a complex matter. I have worked very hard across boundaries to bring people together. I will continue to do so. We all now belong in these islands. Our national mission is for a society of equality, fairness and justice.
Mr. Speaker, I hope I’ve shared some food for thought and democratic discussion, and I commend the Motion to the House.
May God Bless Us All and May God Bless Fiji.