Starting from Parliament itself, we have made changes to improve the way it functions.
We have approved the use of our vernacular languages in the House to more fully reflect the multi-racial nature of our country, Fiji.
We strongly believed the country would be better served by a Parliament employing a joint approach by Government and Opposition on crucial national issues.
The previous administration always rejected any suggestion of co-operation.
I was pleased therefore when the new Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Inia Seruiratu, responded favourably to overtures from me for Members of both sides of the House to work together in the interests of the nation and its people when circumstances demand.
I count this as an achievement.
The new relationship between Government and Opposition will have positive significance not only in Parliament, but also in the country at large. It will be one more step towards achieving a more favourable and productive political climate.
Obviously the Opposition will continue to play its democratic role of keeping a check on Government. There will be many clashes and arguments, but this should not deter us from joining forces when necessary.
In January your Government acted quickly to put together a $50 million Back-to-School support package to help parents and guardians buy school items for their children. Assistance went to more than 220,000 students who shared a total payout out of $44.4 million dollars.
As pledged, we maintained social pensions and other forms of support and benefits for the poor and needy, including bus fare subsidies, care and protection of children and single parents. At March 5th, there were 96,966 recipients under social protection programmes.
Resolving the on-going dispute between the University of the South Pacific and the former Fiji Government was central to our agenda. The penalties and persecution directed at the USP by the Government were a major concern. We were particularly focused on the welfare of many thousands of Fijian students, and those from neighbouring countries, whose education was under threat.
We therefore made urgent arrangements to pay $10million to support the USP’s operations for the remainder of the financial year. More payments will be made to meet our total arrears.
We also lifted the immigration ban on the USP Vice Chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia so that he could resume his duties at the Laucala Bay Campus.The Coalition made a commitment to write-off debts related to the Tertiary Loans Scheme & National Toppers Scheme. A Working Committee is looking into the legislation to make provisions on forgiving of TELS debt. The Coalition Government is undeterred on its promise to forgive TELS debt on the basis that students will do service to the country through bonding provisions. The Study Loan agreement will be converted into bonding agreement in the next budget.
We campaigned hard against the oppressive Media Industry Development Act (MIDA), which curtailed media freedom, and promised we would scrap it.
A Bill is before Parliament right now, to achieve this.
We have taken action as well to repeal the controversial i-Taukei Land Trust Amendment Bill, known as Bill 17. This was enacted with undue haste without consultation with the landowners.
At least 12 other pieces of legislation impacting the i-Taukei will be reviewed in the 2022-2023 Parliament session. This is in line with our commitment to review and repeal i-Taukei-related laws that marginalize their rights.
A shadow was cast over Fiji’s history when the Great Council of Chiefs was closed down. For the indigenous people the GCC is a symbol of their identity and culture. They regard it as the traditional apex of the vanua.
We therefore decided that it must be restored. Its new life begins on May 24th and 25th of this year on the chiefly island of Bau which also occupies a renowned place in the annals of Fiji.
The outcome document of the Inaugural iTaukei Resource Owners Forum is ready to be submitted to the National Economic Summit and Cabinet.
Cabinet has endorsed Fiji’s support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Many women were angered and confused when they were required to revert to their birth certificate names to register as voters. Legal action was taken by one group. Meanwhile your Government is engaged on changing this law so that women can use their name of preference.
One of my first duties in office was to fulfill a promise to allow Dr Padma Lal, widow of our famed historian and academic, the late Professor Brij Lal, to return to Fiji. She had been prevented by the last Government from bringing home the ashes of her late husband, for his last rites at his birthplace in Tabia near Labasa. With her family and the nation, she finally got to say the last farewell to Professor Brij Lal.
You all know Fiji is weighed down with a record level of debt. Our Coalition’s aim is to manage this prudently while preserving the ability to meet our commitments to you and to Fiji.
Those commitments are to give you the services and amenities to which you are entitled; to create the conditions for poverty to be defeated; and for wages to rise and businesses to flourish. It is private business owners and investors who will produce the new jobs that we so much need.
Our appointment of a Fiscal Review Committee of highly qualified Fijians was in line with our thinking on consultation and tapping into local expertise. We will draw on the skills and knowledge of Committee members to add to our thoughts and ideas on solving the financial difficulties that confront us today. The Committee will take account of the views of as many people as possible. We want to know what they think, even if they are not financial experts. Many have written in with their ideas; others have joined in public consultations.
We must brace and prepare ourselves for the findings of the Committee by the first week in May. The country may not receive good news. But that should not diminish our belief in what Fiji can become.
A National Economic Summit is another Government priority, reflecting awareness that special initiatives are needed to get a grip on the economic and social hazards that are before us.
Plans for this exercise in community democracy are well advanced now. Five hundred delegates from a cross section of society will take part in the summit from April 20th to 21st in Suva. They will join with the Government in debating and making recommendations on sundry issues affecting society and the economy.
From that will come the basis for a national vision to guide the nation forward. The ideas and proposals adopted will assist in putting together the Coalition’s first Budget.
We devoted time and energy to follow up on our frequently expressed concerns about the need to encourage businesses large and small to either expand their existing enterprises or go into new ventures. Since December, approximately 480 small and medium enterprises have qualified for financial support.
Your Government has made a start on further improving the business climate by removing or simplifying regulations that often acted as an obstacle to investment.
I am pleased to report that business confidence is high, and expressions of interest are coming in locally and from overseas for significant new investments, especially in tourism. With these investments will come jobs.
After Government intervention, Fiji Airways is prepared to reinstate 212 employees laid off at the time of the pandemic crisis.
The airline is playing a key role in the revival of tourism, and at last count had flown in 304,688 visitors from December, 2022 to March this year. It recently started a new and potentially lucrative service to Hong Kong.
The contentious No Jab, No Job policy led to some workers losing their jobs. Some unvaccinated citizens were not able to worship with their loved ones.
We revoked the policy.
The Civil Service retirement age was increased to 60 and arrangements are being implemented to change contract appointments into permanent positions.
A new Public Service Commission has been appointed.
Preparations are in hand to re-establish the Higher Salaries Commission to determine and regulate salaries of Permanent Secretaries and Chief Executives of public enterprises.
A scheme is in place for engaging experts to help improve many aspects of the Service.
We are in the process of changing membership of Government and Statutory Boards with initial focus on the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (FBC). Our aim is to ensure greater transparency and accountability.
Consistent with our collective aims, plans have been taking shape since the start of the year for creating new developments and incomes in agriculture.
Similarly, we are moving to revitalize the sugar industry that had come very close to collapse. The main initiative at the moment is to finish preparation of a draft strategic plan to increase production and efficiency. It should be ready by the end of this month.
Consultations with farmers were held in Viti Levu and Vanua Levu to listen to concerns and find out solutions.
We have announced a price for sugar cane this year of $85 per tonne. Depending on production, this could lead to approximately $130M being shared among 10,672 farmers. Initial discussions are taking place about establishing an ethanol plant.
Throughout the election campaign, the removal of voting rights from citizens of towns and cities was a constant theme.
We committed to bringing democracy back to the municipalities. I can report that preparations are now underway for local elections, particularly on the legal aspects of it. We will provide an update as soon as possible we will be releasing that date very soon.
Cabinet has approved a Public Private Partnership Affordable Housing project on six sites in the western and central divisions. There are schemes for upgrading squatter or informal settlements to a number of affordable housing schemes around the country
Your Government, as promised, made the historic decision to inaugurate a new public holiday commemorating the arrival in Fiji in 1879 of the Girmitiyas from India whose descendants have become an integral part of our nation.
The first Girmit Day is on May 15th, preceded by an international Girmit Conference.
Ever since the last Government scrapped the holiday honouring the great chief Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, it’s been our mission to reinstate that national celebration. We’ve done that.
May 29th will mark the revival of this major annual occasion on the national calendar.
At a time when Fiji moves forward, big power rivalry is affecting the region, the need for greater unity amongst Island countries is crucial. This was evident during the election campaign. It came in much clearer to us when I became Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and when I took over as Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum.
I made a special visit to Kiribati which had relinquished its membership of the Pacific Islands Forum. I had successful discussions with the President His Excellency Taneti Maamau. Kiribati decided to return to the Pacific Islands Forum.
The over-riding principle is that a united Pacific Islands Forum is better-placed to protect the interests of Members, and the region, than a Forum divided.
Unity was further enhanced at a virtual meeting with Micronesian leaders and a PIF Special Leaders Meeting in Nadi.
It is also crucial that we continue to engage with our bilateral and multilateral partners in our commitment to ensure a sustainable, resilient future for all Fijians and the people of the region.
Your Coalition Government has engaged with a number of our diplomatic partners since our appointment. It is clear that they, as well as you, have confidence in us to lead and to achieve the goals we have set out for ourselves and for you.
Fellow Fijians, I have shared with you just some of the Coalition’s achievements since December 24th.
As mentioned, further data is still being assembled.
I leave you with the same thoughts with which I began. We are faced with some real challenges, especially financially and there may be hard times ahead.