Mister Speaker, I am at home in isolation after coming into contact with a positive case. I speak to you today in support of a people’s budget — a budget fit for the purpose of guiding us to the end of the pandemic.
Mister Speaker sir, before I begin my response, I would like to extend our best wishes to Team Fiji at the Tokyo Olympics.
We’re counting on our Olympians to fight hard and show the world what our small country can do — we are all with them in spirit.
Mister Speaker, after a full year without the virus, we are in a fight of our own against a variant of COVID-19 that exploits every opportunity it is given to spread. We are adapting, we are making great sacrifices to protect ourselves, and we are racing to administer life-saving vaccines. I am vaccinated, as are you Hon Speaker, – in other words, we both have received the two doses – and more than 70 per cent of adults in Fiji have received one or both doses.
Our mission is to fully vaccinate 80% of the adults in Fiji by the end of October. Our people’s health and our economy’s recovery depend on meeting that goal, and we are acting decisively to reach it or even exceed it.
Anyone keeping a close eye on our daily COVID updates knows that the worst effects of this virus — severe disease and death — are among unvaccinated Fijians. The story is the same around the world. Overseas, in countries where vaccines have been available for months, people who refused the vaccines are dying in hospitals.
The stories are heart-breaking: Moments before they succumb to the virus, these former anti-vaxxers are begging doctors to vaccinate them. By then it is sadly too late.
We will not meekly accept preventable death in Fiji by needlessly stalling our vaccine campaign. We have worked with our development partners — like Australia, New Zealand, India, and the United States — to bring these vaccines to Fiji, and we will not squander the protection they provide. We have the chance to save lives, and we’d be fools not to take it. That is why employers, employees, and all those receiving Government assistance in Fiji must be vaccinated.
To the bush-lawyers who want to litigate that mandate, I ask: Do you want us to remain an island of disease and desolation in a world that is moving on from the virus? Do you want to let lies, misinformation, and unholy insanity lead people into early graves? Do you want to continue to overload our healthcare system, making it more difficult for people who suffer conditions that are not preventable to get treatment? Do you want to continue to put our frontline health workers at risk? How about children and the elderly?
The people who are refusing to accept the vaccines threaten to use up the people’s resources and make their fellow citizens pay for their foolishness. When they become sick, they will beg for help in an eleventh-hour conversion to sanity and sobriety. They will call for an ambulance and cry to be saved from the virus they dismissed as insignificant. And we will do our best for them, because our humanity will outweigh their smug ignorance. Protection through vaccines is our duty to ourselves, it is our duty to each other, it is our duty to the world. When we reach our vaccine goal, our lives can return to normal. At least, some form of “normal” that feels much more familiar than today.
This Budget meets the once-in-a-century challenge upon us with creativity. It lifts the burden costs for Fijians across every sector of the economy. It keeps taxes low on businesses. It prepares us for our long-awaited recovery. It is the most resourceful budget we have ever announced. I thank our Hon Attorney-General and Minister for Economy for leading the formulation of the Budget and the economic framework it provides for the new normal. I wish to also thank members of his team, several of whom tested positive for the virus, yet whom continued to work from home to help finalise the Budget.
Mister Speaker, this Budget did not shy away from tough decisions. Across my portfolios, total budgetary allocations have been reduced. The same goes across Government, and these cuts to expenditure come as no surprise. We have to do more with less. It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention. It should also be called the father of efficiency. And the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, iTaukei Affairs, and the Sugar Industry that I lead are ready to show by example how fiscal diligence and efficient service delivery can co-exist. I believe we will be a better government, supported by a better and more efficient civil service, for having endured this ordeal.
I, for one, think we could all do with less cake and other unnecessary indulgences at Government events. That’s one cut to my Ministry’s budgets that I’m happy to make permanent. Even small cuts are important because we are in a situation that simply cannot tolerate excesses.
Mister Speaker, our strong friendships around the world have paid off in many important ways, including vaccines and direct budgetary support into our internationally-trusted social safety net.
This did not happen overnight; the support we have received builds on years of effective diplomacy to strengthen our ties and win the respect of the countries that are most important to us. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue our international engagement — mainly virtually — to uphold Fiji’s proud place in global affairs. Our leadership for climate action will continue, as will our advocacy for the ocean, for nutrition security, for gender equality, and for the many noble aims that we have fought for years to achieve at home and for humanity as a whole.
Throughout our global engagement, we are delivering a simple message: An unequal recovery from COVID-19 will leave us all more vulnerable to the forces we fought before this pandemic — like climate change and oceans degradation.
By addressing matters at home on climate, oceans and the environment we are creating good green and blue jobs for our people — through the new Jobs for Nature and the Fijian Stewardship of Tires programmes. Mister Speaker, that is Fiji the way the world should be, a nation that walks the talk about sustainable development.
Mister Speaker, the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs will continue its mission to empower the iTaukei people through the next financial year. We’re continuing assistance to landowners looking to make productive use of their land so they can turn their assets into cash-generating vehicles and build generational wealth for their communities. But our efforts on behalf of ALL iTaukei landowners have been maligned and intentionally misrepresented. They have been distorted beyond all recognition by Opposition politicians who wish to create resentment and ethnic division that they can ride to power.
But they have not mounted a thoroughbred, Mr. Speaker; they are riding an old, sway-backed nag/horse that they found in the darkest corners of Fiji’s history. We prefer progress and economic opportunity for all Fijians, and that means helping iTaukei landowners use their assets to improve their lives and livelihoods and become more prosperous.
Here’s the problem the Bill fixes: Even though someone may have a registered lease on iTaukei land, which means that TLTB has obtained consent from the land owning unit and the premium and lease terms and conditions have all been met, they still have an uphill struggle with bureaucracy to carry out development on that land, even if it clearly falls within the terms and conditions of the lease.
Say you lease three acres of iTaukei land for your retirement home. But to build your home on that leased land, you want to connect the land to water supply or get a better financier to construct a bigger home. Doing so does not violate the terms of your lease.
Still, you have to get approval from TLTB. You want electricity to the land, you have to get approval from TLTB. You want to add a new road on the land or you want to change your financier — guess what? It’s back to the TLTB for approval. And these approvals can take months or even years, depending on where the land is and which officer you are dealing with, for something as simple as making sure there is water running when you turn on the tap. Such a bureaucratic legal requirement has not only made iTaukei land unattractive, in particular for individuals, but it gave opportunity to corruption which we cannot tolerate.
So we proposed an amendment to the iTaukei Land Trust Act that makes a simple administrative change to remove the TLTB’s tedious approval process for development on leased land. Cutting this red-tape makes iTaukei leased land more attractive to potential lessees, and that makes the land more valuable — and that increase in market value will directly increase the income our landowning units will receive from leased land, as they are entitled to receive under our Constitution.
Mister Speaker, that’s what this amendment does — it helps landowners generate more income. Unfortunately, we are up against an opposition that thinks “income” is a dirty word.
They think “development” is a dirty word. They think access to water and electricity should be held up by time-wasting approvals. Every day since the Budget announcement, they’ve been super-spreaders of lies about the amendment. They have been lying to the ordinary iTaukei people.
It’s pathetic, it’s political and it’s a waste of the nation’s time. We should all be focused on beating the pandemic and reviving the economy through this Budget.
But their entire party is built on scaring the iTaukei people into submission — they cannot stand the idea of masses of well informed, financially stable and prosperous iTaukei people; because that means an end to their political careers.
Hon Gavoka is going on about guardianship of the TLTB. Is that what he calls months of delays for even the most basic of approvals? There is no need for the TLTB to weigh-in to grant approval for every development-related decision, which a bona fide leasee, operating under a registered lease that has the terms and conditions of lease which the land-owning unit has agreed to, is making.
Mr. Speaker all of this has been confirmed by the CEO of TLTB, Tevita Kuruvakadua yesterday. I urge everyone watching and listening, please read what the CEO of TLTB has stated. Though I suspect Mr. Speaker, Hon. Gavoka and merrymen and women who are hanging on tenuously to this self-imploding party called SODELPA, will not back off from their opposition. They have put themselves in a corner and they do not have the humility to admit the merits of this amendment.
But no one, Mister Speaker, no one has had the gall to lie more boldly or more often than Hon Tabuya about this amendment.
I think she was a bit embarrassed after proposing that the Government “print more money” to put in people’s FNPF accounts. That is an option that has been tried and discredited time and again because it has led to hyper-inflation and economic ruin. It has destroyed peoples’ savings and stifled productive investment. I guess she got the message. Maybe someone bought her a history book. Maybe someone from TikToK Zimbabwe reached out and asked her if she was crazy enough to repeat Zimbabwe’s experience. Now, instead of advocating these loony ideas that would destroy the Fijian dollar, she’s run back to more familiar turf: Lying to the people of Fiji.
I have some easy-to-follow advice for those on the front-end of her lies about the Bill. Read it. Read the Bill. It’s on the Parliament website, read it.
When you read it, you’ll see how simple it really is. With this amendment, the landowners still set the terms and conditions on the basis on which they will lease their land, as is their right. It is their land, it is their decision. And this amendment does not change this process nor does it in anyway disenfranchise landowners; it simply does away with needless approvals from the TLTB. By doing so, investors will be more interested in iTaukei land. That raises the value of all iTaukei land in Fiji.
As a direct result, our landowners will have more money in their pockets — not because we are printing it, as Hon Tabuya suggested. But because we are taking practical, administrative measures to bring the value of their land up and increase lease income.
Mister Speaker, we, the iTaukei people, own 91% of the land in Fiji. We are the biggest landlords in Fiji –– we should act like it! We should act with economic foresight by making our land attractive and available with secure market tenure. We should stop listening to politicians who want us to live in fear, who want us to be caught in a time warp and not realise our true potential.
Because when more iTaukei land is developed, the economy grows. When the economy grows, more jobs are created, there is more money in circulation, and Fiji overall becomes more prosperous.
It was the Bainimarama Government that substantially removed administrative rates the TLTB used to deduct from and lease monies. TLTB used to cleave 25% of lease income off in administrative costs. Now that figure is down to ten percent. Less waste; less bureaucracy; more money for landowners.
Thanks to the Bainimarama Government’s and now FijiFirst’s Government’s commitment to equality, the money from lease payments is distributed equally among members of the landowning unit. We even have trust accounts set up for children from landowning units. In some instances, they will be extremely wealthy by the time they access their funds at the age of 18.
Mr. Speaker, I want the iTaukei who are young, the women, those who are about to turn 18, and the too-often marginalized members of the land-owning units, to remember that the equal share you are currently enjoying or are about to access was all opposed by the SODELPA leadership and membership and the NFP which never openly supported equal distribution.
Mister Speaker, we do these things because we are a Government that looks out for the economic wellbeing of the iTaukei and all other Fijians. We don’t lie to people. We serve the people. Past governments gave away iTaukei land under the justification of economic development.
We have never struck that bad deal and we never will because we believe communally held land has an intrinsic and inter-generational value that must be protected. We believe we can have economic development without giving up iTaukei land permanently.
Mister Speaker, the work of the Ministry of the Sugar Industry has protected cane farmers from pandemic price swings for cane because we have maintained a stable guaranteed price floor of $85 per tonne. That promise from Government has kept food on the table in cane farmers homes. As announced in the Budget, we are guaranteeing $85 a tonne for two seasons.
Mister Speaker, you may recall that there was an effort to organize a protest by cane farmers against the Government. It fell flat on its face, and why? It failed because cane farmers know manure when they smell it.
This Government has been straight with the cane farmers. We have worked in their interest. They know that, and they trust this Government to do what we say we will do. We always have, we always will. And we thank them for delivering cane that this being crushed as we gather here today.
Mister Speaker, imagine if cane farmers had listened to the politicians who wanted them to protest and withhold their cane. Imagine that the mills had sat quiet. Imagine that no cane was exported, no money was paid — imagine that our cane growers had to endure this crisis with no money in their pockets at all. That, Mister Speaker, shows the quality of the selfish, power-obsessed people we are up against. Wanna-be politicians who are so desperate for power and so bereft of ideas that they are willing to leave cane farmers destitute just to elevate themselves.
I want to thank our farmers for choosing their livelihoods over the lies being told by these demagogues. You will always find your government in your corner. Through next year, with elections on the horizon, we’ll see those same so-called leaders go to great lengths yet again to use you to help themselves. In the same way you see SODELPA and those political parties allied with them create fear about losing ownership of land, even knowing that the law guarantees iTaukei land ownership. These cheap politicians will always try to use you. Don’t let them. Cast them aside and let’s work together freely and harmoniously to prosper together.
Mister Speaker, this Budget is unlike others because the health of our people and the health of our economy have never before been more inter-twined. Within six months, our economy has the chance to begin its recovery in earnest as we go about our normal business at home, and open our borders to welcome back visitors from abroad. That future depends on more of us being vaccinated. We are very, very close to our goal. 75% of our target population — all of the eligible adults in Fiji — have received at least one dose of the vaccine. We need to get to 80% with both doses, at least. I want to get to 100%. That means all of us will be protected; and that’s the goal I want us to set for ourselves.
But 80% is the threshold that will bring our economic recovery in reach.
Mister Speaker, it became quite clear immediately after the Budget, the last thing the Opposition wanted to talk about was the actual budget itself. That is because it is a good Budget. They are clamouring for any distraction they can create. And I’ve had to spend much of this statement addressing the lies they’ve been telling. But they will not shake our focus on passing the Budget the nation needs. And we will pass it — because it is the Budget our people deserve at this difficult time.
Mister Speaker, as our healthcare teams continue going to every imaginable length to treat those most vulnerable to the virus, I also want to take this opportunity to urge every Fijian to follow the advice we’ve heard countless times from Dr Fong and his teams: Wear your mask, keep your distance from others, install careFIJI on your phone, and stay home if you feel unwell or have been in contact with someone who is COVID-positive. Don’t wait to be tested if you feel sick. Stay home where it is safe rather than risk the health of others. And please be vaccinated.
Thank you, Mister Speaker.