Sa tiko saka Na Gone Marama Bale na Roko Tui Dreketi
Ni tiko na masi ni vanua
Kei kemuni na lewe ni nodatou Yasana Vaka-turaga o Rewa
Ni sa bula vinaka.
I’m delighted to be here this morning in the chiefly village of Lomanikoro to open the Rewa Provincial Council meeting. And I thank the Marama Roko Tui Dreketi for her early support of the Government’s vaccination efforts. She and every other Fijian who stepped up in solidarity to get both doses of the vaccines –– and their boosters –– have brought us to where we are today; and that is back to normal.
The pandemic was the worst economic crisis to befall the world in 100 years. It single handedly dragged 150 million people globally into extreme poverty. That is entire population of Fiji, 166 times over. The pandemic may be what pushed Fiji into an economic crisis but, my friends, we are who have taken ourselves out of it. Since the success of our border re-opening, the economy is projected to grow by 12.4 percent this year. Tens of thousands of our people are back in their jobs and earning wages that support their families. As a result of those people getting back to work, 210 million dollars in wages were paid in the first six months of 2022 compared to this same period last year. We did this together as a nation. Government created the vision for our recovery. You gave us your cooperation and support. And for that we will forever be grateful.
The new challenges we face demand that same quality of cooperation between government and the people we serve.
The rising prices of food, fuel, and fertilizer brought pandemic-induced increases in freight costs, supply chain shortages, and the Russian war in Ukraine –– a war as brutal as it in unjust ––are being felt across the world and across our islands.
This past Friday, our Attorney-General and Minister for Economy announced a new national budget that is responsible, innovative, and compassionate, and which builds more buffers to the price-increase crisis, and both creates a vision and builds upon our foundation for a stronger Fijian future. Through it, we will provide Fijian families with a combined annual income of $50,000 or less with one dollar per day per child, or seven dollars a week or around 30 dollars per month –– making for a total of $180 per child for the next six months. A family with three children, for example, will receive $540 in cash support over the next six months that they can use to alleviate the rising prices they’re feeling.
Social welfare recipients, government-funded pensioners and tertiary students will also receive a payment of $180 over a six-month period. And government will be stepping in pay to ten percent of the bus fares of all members of the public to combat rising fuel costs. Our opponents call these freebies. We call it compassion. Because prices are rising, and we must rise up together as a nation to protect those most vulnerable. And this comes in addition to the removal of VAT on 21 basic food items and the gradual raising of the national minimum wage that we announced earlier this year.
The new budget also invests in roads, bridges, and jetties, in water and electricity access, and in telecommunications. We also extended our seafaring entrepreneurs assistance subsidy –– or SEA subsidy –– to more coastal areas of the country without road access, including here in Rewa, with fully equipped and operational fibre glass boats. I urge you to read the budget materials online for yourself on the Fijian Government and the Ministry of Economy website. It is a powerful statement of our plan for a stronger Fiji, not only for a single year but for many to come.
On my trip to Lomanikoro this morning, I also couldn’t help being reminded of some of the discussions I have had recently at global and regional events dealing with the challenges we face to our environment. I attended the UN Ocean Conference, the G20 meeting, and the recently concluded PIF Leaders meeting here in Fiji, and we continued to push our climate and oceans agenda in every one.
I know this has a lot of significance to your chiefly province, which consists largely of delta areas. The threat of flooding and saltwater intrusion confronts Rewa every day, and all around us we see and feel the very real threat of climate change.
That is why I attend these international meetings. I don’t attend to see new places. I don’t attend for the prestige of speaking before other world leaders, including the leaders of the most powerful countries in the world. I attend because the actions taken or not taken at these meetings affect every woman, man, and child in Fiji. Yes, I am proud that Fiji now has a loud voice on the international stage. And yes, it is gratifying to be viewed as a leader on climate change and the environment. But none of that would be worth a handful of dalo if it did not serve the Fijian people. We are threatened by warming oceans, rising seas, brutal storms and unpredictable weather, and we need to keep pressing the rest of the world to face up to its responsibilities. That means drastically reducing their carbon emissions and providing generous funding that will allow us and other small island developing states to adapt. Our future depends on it.
So we are threatened, for sure. But your resilience as a community and province continues to amaze us. We are never short, and indeed blessed, with mana, moci, kai, via and rourou vakautona – four famous Rewa delicacies.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am also so impressed by the entrepreneurial capabilities of our women, who use the natural capital readily available to produce hand-made goods that are successful in the market. This has played a significant role in improving sustainable livelihoods for our communities.
We see this in Rewa’s important role as an advocate for sustainable and inclusive tourism. More often than not, visitors look forward to the Beqa firewalkers. But, inspiring as our firewalkers are, visitors can get much more. Our traditional knowledge belongs at the cutting edge of our most serous challenges, such as climate action and ocean preservation. Our way of life springs from our Pacific location, our warm climate, our coral reefs, our native plants and animals. These must be protected through solutions, some of which are drawn from traditional practices and others that come from the latest science and technology.
We also we launched the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, a strategy that represents the ongoing commitment of the region to work together as one throughout the Pacific. The success of the 2050 Strategy largely depends on our commitments to it. We must commit to it as a country and as a province, but most importantly as a family.
It is my personal belief that we are at our most resilient as a family; we speak more powerfully as a family; and we can only build our best possible future, together, as a family.
It is the family where true power lies. So for those of us who want to strengthen and improve society, there is no better way than strengthening the relationships on which families are built. That is why, apart from our inflation mitigation package, which targets families specifically, we are supporting women entrepreneurs, making housing more accessible, affordable, and climate-resilient, and widening access to education at all levels. And whether it’s tackling crime or drug addiction; whether it’s overcoming hurdles to social mobility or improving educational outcomes. Whatever the obstacle we want to overcome, the answer should always begin with family.
Your province consists of many families coming together with a shared goal – a shared mission – and as partners: to build a better Fiji.
To support you, my Government has dedicated over $90 million directly to improve life in Rewa Province from 2014 to 2021.
We have expended a sizeable amount on strengthening our Social Protection System. We dedicated over $53 million for recipients of Social Pension Schemes, Poverty Benefit Schemes and Disability Schemes in Rewa. My Government believes that it is imperative that we help individuals and families, especially the poor and vulnerable, cope with crises and shocks, find employment opportunities, improve productivity, invest in the health and education of their children, and care for all Fijians, young and old alike. To ignore our responsibility to the most needy and vulnerable would be unconscionable. But it would also be a foolish waste. We would be throwing away the potential of thousands of Fijians who only need a leg-up, mind you, not a hand-out or freebie, to produce and contribute to our country. In our communities, we have always taken care of those who were weak or needy. We need to do it as a nation, because development without compassion will create long-term inequality. And that is not true development; it is the illusion of development.
This is also why my government has made education one of our priorities. Through the Ministry of Education, my government has invested over $27 million in free education grants and transport assistance for Rewa.
The past 8 years of free education have no doubt left Fijian families with a little more in their pockets to invest or use for discretionary spending. But most importantly, free education has created certainty. No mother or father wants to wonder if they will have to sacrifice some necessities in order to send their children to school. For years, our parents were hit with school fees—sometimes special and unexpected fees—so that their children could attend public schools. That is not right. Under my government, our children are able to pursue their aspirations without any limitation and without the need for their families to make great sacrifices. As a result, we have more girls and women in school and university than ever before.
Through the Ministry of Health, we have committed over $2 million. This has enabled the extension of lease for Nausori Hospital and the construction of the new nursing stations at Vatukarasa and Raviravi in Beqa. These kinds of investments are critical if we want everyone to have access to reliable and quality health care—and that means quicker diagnosis and effective treatment.
Of course, prevention is better than cure, and I urge the Council members and the people of Rewa to work with the Health Centre and other government agencies to promote healthier lifestyles. We can all eat less and exercise more. We can eat better foods – more fresh fish, fruit and green vegetables. We can drink less alcohol and yaqona. And we all need to give up smoking. Ironically, this is not new. We can take a giant step toward a healthier lifestyle by living more like our ancestors lived.
Ladies and gentlemen, our assistance to Rewa also extends to electricity. Through the Department of Energy, my government has contributed more than $1 million to provide solar home systems, grid extensions, and wiring for homes in Rewa. Through the assistance, we can make sure that our families can connect to a dependable electrical supply and experience all the comforts of a modern household. Reliable electric power is something every family should have. It is no longer a convenience; it is a necessity, and it gives every family flexibility to manage their time and their daily tasks as they see fit.
We have also invested more than $1 million in Rural Water Schemes to provide clean and safe drinking water throughout this province. More people here have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water than ever before—and that is a great asset in improving overall health. But there is another reason to celebrate, because the upcoming Rewa River Water Supply Scheme will be completed in the May of 2023, only nine months from now. This won’t only help resolve intermittent supply issues throughout the Lami-Suva-Nausori corridor, it will allow us to expand access to reticulated water to other areas that are currently don’t have clean tap water. In the meantime, I ask that you bear with us on alternative measures undertaken by WAF. We have a date and we have plan.
I can go on and detail all we have spent here on the environment, agriculture, forestry and fisheries and other services. But the point is that Rewa has benefited greatly from this Government. To put it more plainly, Rewa is now a better place to live.
Yet I am not here for that. I am here today to speak on “what is next” for your province and for Fiji.
Ladies and gentlemen, one way we expect to bring greater prosperity to this province over the longer term is through the Natural Resource Owners Committee, which is part of the wider National Environment Council administered by the Ministry of Environment. This year, Natural Resource Owners Committee representatives from the 14 provinces convened at the Centre for Appropriate Technology Development in Nadave to provide updates on the natural resource management in their respective provinces. This is vital to ensure the full disclosure and total transparency of the management of natural resources in Fiji.
You cannot manage what you do not know or do not measure, which is why the community-based reporting from NROC members to document our natural resource inventory is so important. It helps establish the health of our biodiversity and protect our ocean resources.
So, Ladies and gentlemen, may I remind you that it is important to fill vacant chiefly titles. Of the 349 chiefly and customary titles in Rewa, only 132 are filled. That leaves 217 vacant. As we continue the development momentum, it is very important to fill these vacancies. This will maintain the vanua’s stability and allow for more thorough and timely consultation on development initiatives and more efficient execution of development projects once they are approved.
Those individuals who have not been confirmed by the iTaukei Lands Commission in the leadership positions have little or no mandate to speak for their vanua. And I give you fair warning: Government will not allow the leadership void in the vanua to be exploited by any self-serving group. Fill the vacant positions. Do it for your people. Do it for your Vanua. Do it for Fiji.
Ladies and gentlemen,
A lie being circulated is that the iTaukei are not benefitting from the use of their customary fishing rights. The truth is this: The iTaukei Affairs Board manages the customary fishing rights funds. This responsibility was passed to them from the Ministry of Lands, and they take it quite seriously. Currently, TAB has $3.2 million invested in term deposits, which are released on request from the vanua.
Now let me address the subject of iTaukei land, because that has been the subject of a great deal of fear-mongering and outright falsehoods. iTaukei land ownership has never been more secure and more useful to its owners than it is today. Ownership has remained fully intact. Nothing has been taken, and nothing ever will be taken. That is more than my solemn commitment –– it is your constitutional guarantee, which I am sworn to uphold.
My Government enacted the equal distribution of lease monies in 2011, which ensured that everyone listed under a landowning unit in the Vola ni Kawa Bula received equal shares of lease money. That has made a huge difference in the lives of real people, and it corrects an injustice of many years’ standing. $52 million is currently being held by TLTB right now on behalf of more than 47,000 Fijians below the age of 18. In the meantime, TLTB has invested this money for them until they turn 18 and receive that money. This initiative has created several young iTaukei millionaires, all of whom can access their funds when they turn 18 to give them a head start in their lives; they can start a business, buy a house, or buy a car. Everyone is now receiving the same amount – chiefs and commoners.
And ladies and gentlemen, that is as it should be. Our land is held communally, and that means that all members of the unit own an equal share. It is not right for chiefs to help themselves to a larger share and leave scraps for the rest of the people. We do not have a feudal system, like they had in Europe, where the nobles owned the land and the serfs and sharecroppers worked it. All members of the unit are equal owners. A chiefly title is not just a privilege, not just a position of status; it is a solemn responsibility.
Not only have we protected your land, we are finding ways to increase its value and ensure that the owners enjoy the full benefits of land leasing. Again, I want to stress that it is our goal that the benefits be equitably by your community members –– including women and young people. A few months ago, I officiated at the groundbreaking ceremony of two new subdivisions, in Vuda and Tavua. These are iTaukei lands, and the landowning units will benefit in a big way from these projects. And I urge landowners in this province to partner with us to realize the full cash-generating potential of your land.
We do not only want you to own the land so it can be kept idle –– we want you to own the land and make it able to work for you for your tangible and practical benefit. We want this great asset to generate cash for you, your children, and their children.
At the last nine provincial councils I’ve had the chance to open, I have warned about lies my opponents have chosen to spread about iTaukei land. These critics know that our reforms have succeeded, and that has made them desperate.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me turn to another important subject, and that is the sustainable use of our resources. As part of Government’s effort to sustain community livelihoods, stimulate local economic activity and encourage economic growth, the ban to harvest and sell certain species of beche-de-mer or sea cucumbers is lifted with effect from 1 July 2022 to 31 October 2022. There is an independent committee that assess application for licenses to buy and sell this species at a sustainable pace to ensure that we maintain this resource over the long-term. It must last us more than a day or even a year. Our grandchildren should be able to rely on this same resource.
Friends, we have done what is best for Fiji and best for our future generations. We have listened to what the people have told us. We have heard your frustrations and your desires, and we have responded with action. We have levelled the playing field so that all Fijians can have better transportation, greater choice in the market, better health care, and better education.
On this note, it is my pleasure to open the 2022 Rewa Provincial Council Meeting. And I wish you all the best in your deliberations.