Bula Vinaka and good morning.
I’m sure everyone watched our Fijian Drua play the Highlanders this weekend. No matter where you saw the game, in-person in Suva or on the Walesi platform, I think you’ll agree that the atmosphere was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. For the first time, we had a world-class Fijian team taking on world-class competition in the Super Rugby League in front of over 15,000 fans in ANZ stadium. Regardless of the final score, we had plenty to celebrate: Fiji is back, our economy is strong and getting stronger every day, and our people are united in their love of country and the beautiful game of rugby.
That is what brings me here: Not just rugby, of course, but to speak to you about the greater subject of our national progress and what it means for you, your people, and Fiji’s future. The recovery we promised you is here, and it continues to deliver jobs and opportunities for all Fijians, including those who call your beautiful province home. This is just the beginning. The work of building a nation is never done, and so there is always more we can and must do together. So for the past several weeks I have been speaking with Provincial Council leaders, such as yourselves, because everything we have accomplished has been a joint effort between the national government and the people—with communities, the private sector, with the civil society organizations, and the provincial councils. And we need to build on what we’ve already achieved together. Our recovery depends on it and so does our future.
When I think of Nadroga-Navosa, I think of the development we’ve delivered together for your people. I think of the beautiful coral coast and the vital role it plays in Fijian tourism. I think of your rugby legends, past and present. I think of your vast untapped potential. And I as made the short drive here from Suva, I also thought back to the risks that Fiji faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. We drove past dozens of hotels to get here, all of them open and all of them employing Fijians, many of whom call this province home. Every Fijian who is working in an open hotel is a testament to the success of the policy we implemented in response to the pandemic.
We got here by making tough decisions and sticking with our strategic plan to free Fiji from the COVID-19 pandemic. I urge you to think back to the earliest days of this crisis–– we promised a recovery, we told you exactly how we would deliver it, and then we did deliver it.
Surrounded by the success we share today, it’s easy to forget the very difficult questions that government had to answer. This time last year we faced a crossroads. We could either continue to pursue a policy of zero-COVID, isolate Fiji from the world, and wait out the pandemic for maybe months, maybe years, maybe a decade, or maybe forever. Or we could trust and use vaccines to save lives and allow our economy to mount its recovery. We chose to use the tools and the common sense that God gave us and used vaccines decisively. Through a staggering national effort, we vaccinated nearly our entire population across over 100 populated islands, and we did so much faster than some developed countries managed to do. Then, once it was safe, we chose to open Fiji; open our schools, open our businesses, and open our border. And time has shown that we chose right. Fiji is one of only three Pacific Island Countries that have successfully opened for tourism. Up and down the coral coast you can feel that our recovery is here.
Hotels, from the Warwick, to the Naiviti, to the Hideaway, to the Outrigger, to Tabua Sands, to the Shangri-la, to the Intercontinental, are open. Tourists are back. The jobs are back and people are finally working; your people are working. None of this was guaranteed –– this is all the result of the leadership government showed for your benefit and the benefit of the country.
During this entire ordeal, we faced unrelenting opposition from our critics. They made demand after demand in favour of timid and short-sighted policies that preyed on day-to-day anxieties –– not for the sake of science or sensibility, but for the sake of their political ambitions. Really, they did us a favour. Because if you consider the sum of everything they advocated, it proves why they can never be trusted with national decision-making. Their policy to slow our vaccination campaign would have kept Fiji hostage to the virus and left our people vulnerable to disease and death. If they had had their way, sports in Fiji could not be played today. The Drua-Highlanders match would have been a pipe dream. Our schools would be closed. Our businesses would be shuttered, our border will be sealed to the world, and thousands of our people would still be without their jobs –– including your people, your neighbors, friends and family.
Thankfully, that is not the case because we ignored the critics in favour of what we knew to be necessary. Now that our recovery is underway, we cannot afford to lift our foot from the pedal.
We must keep growing the economy, creating jobs, and helping our people to thrive. We must keep building our resilience to climate change –– building seawalls, planting mangroves and moving vulnerable communities. And we must continue to respond to a new crisis –– the Russian war in Ukraine that has exacerbated already-rising prices of fuel and food commodities like wheat skyrocketing. Imagine if we had to deal with this price-increase crisis with over 100,000 Fijians still out of work. The costs would be enormous. But that’s exactly the situation we would face if we had listened to the other political parties –– all of whom fought our recovery every step of the way.
What they either could not understand or refused to understand was that the pandemic was a once-in-a-century crisis that could only be overcome with extraordinary actions. We took decisive measures. Our prudent and wise financial management earned us the confidence of development partners, like Australia and New Zealand, who provided us with direct budgetary support for the first time. They put their trust in us, and we delivered. We also borrowed from credible financial institutions to help feed Fijians in need, protect the vulnerable, and stimulate economic activity. We borrowed that money very cheaply, at rock-bottom interest rates, or sometimes with no interest at all. In fact, $900 million of what we borrowed was borrowed at highly concessional rates, where anywhere from 55-60% carries a grant component. To put that simply, we do not need to pay back 55-60% of that money we borrowed. And Fiji was not alone. Almost every country on Earth borrowed money during the pandemic to keep their economy afloat.
Think about it this way. Say you owned a business that was very successful before the pandemic, but the pandemic made it harder, or maybe even impossible, to make money. So, instead of letting the business go under completely, you apply for a loan to ride out the crisis. The banks assess your business to determine your ability to repay. And based on that assessment, you are given a loan. The same principle applies to our borrowing at the national level. We didn’t let Fiji go under. We borrowed money, at low costs, to prevent a socioeconomic crisis and keep our macroeconomic fundamentals strong. We paid out $500 million in direct and indirect government assistance to Fijians affected by the pandemic; those who lost their jobs, those on reduced hours, fisherfolks, taxi drivers, market vendors, domestic cleaners –– everyone. Two rounds of $360 payments; two rounds of $50 payments; one round of $90 payments; and $225 paid per fortnight paid directly by government through FNPF to those who were not working, with stipends paid to those on reduced hours. We continued paying for subsidised electricity and free water. And we continued with social welfare payments, which cost $110 million per year, in addition to other social support schemes, like free education. Thanks to that management, we weathered the worst crisis to ever hit the country. Now, we can recover. Over time, as the economy keeps recovering, it will provide us with enough fiscal space to recalibrate our economic policies and reduce our debt level. That is already happening.
Because we borrowed prudently, because we earned the confidence of our development partners, and because we prepared carefully for our recovery, we’re now expecting the economy to grow by 11.3 per cent in 2022. Other independent economic analysts put the figure even higher, as our current Debt-to-GDP ratio of around 88.6% is expected to drop steadily over the next three years
My opponents can shout, scream, and jump up and down all they like, but my response will simply be to point to that record. Because the numbers don’t lie –– and they mean more than anything that anyone can say. A strong economy means that people will have better lives. They will have better jobs. They will have more opportunities. And their government can invest more in their future. It means we will keep driving down poverty in Fiji, as we have for years. And as partners, it means we can build on the progress we’ve secured together, as a government and a provincial council.
From our first national election in 2014 until 2021, your government has invested just shy of $75 million into your province. A good portion was used to elevate the status of Navosa, which was ignored for decades by past leadership. We don’t view Nadroga-Navosa as a forgotten province or a small part of a vast confederacy –– you are on equal footing with every part of Fiji. The result is what you see in across this province today; from the here at the coastline to the highlands.
We spent $38,000,000 on health. Of this, $30,000,000 was used to construct the Keyasi sub-divisional hospital, which serves Noikoro, Nasikawa, Namataku, Bemana, Naqalimare, Navatusila, and Nasivikoso in Ba. We ended the decades-old struggle of travelling vast distances to see a doctor. We did that because your lives and your health matter above all else.
We spent $13,485,200 on rural roads. The villages of Nobianitu, Draubuta, Nakoro, Nawairabe, Navitilevu, and Matokana all now have road access. For these areas, the days of riding on horseback, crossing rivers, and traversing rugged terrain to leave and return home are over. To add to this, Balenabelo and Navaga villages now have new bridge access.
$5,091,620 was spent on water connectivity and improving water systems. Namada, Tubairata, and Mavua Villages, and Hideaway Resort, among others, benefitted from this assistance.
I believe that universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services everywhere in Fiji is vital for our nation’s long-term success. $4,146,966 was spent on grid extension and solar home systems programmes. An additional $1,589,442 was spent on grid extensions to Waumosi and Nasivikoso villages and to Tau village.
We continue to promote education as one of the keys to a knowledgeable society. We have never faltered in our commitment to fund free education, which costs us $60 million per year. And we spent another $3,708,509 on education to build the Kulukulu wing of the Sigatoka Methodist Secondary School, the Teachers Quarters at St. Theresa Lisieux, the Ratu Lalabalavu High School in Malolo, and the Vatutoko Bainimaramara Primary School. And I want to thank your Province for the honor of including our family name in one of its schools.
Agriculture will always be one of the pillars of our economy. We spent $3,183,021 on food security programmes, the Sigatoka Development Programme, and to improve the dairy industry.
Another $2,350,752 was spent on rural development to build the Cuvu Health Centre, self-help programmes, community access roads, footpaths, and footbridges.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would be here all day if I listed all the development we have dedicated to Nadroga/Navosa. As I have done in Serua, Namosi, and Cakaudrove, I am more interested in speaking on our future, on “what is next” for Nadroga-Navosa and for Fiji.
Speaking of tourism, we have some big plans in the pipeline.
The Vanua o Vatulele agreed to facilitate the redevelopment of Vatulele Island Resort –– a massive development that will transform the island and Fiji. Vatulele has been on a journey towards recovery and resilience since Cyclone Harold devastated the island –– and this is another step in that journey that will create employment and other benefits to the community.
Let me reassure you that your land is well protected under the 2013 Fijian Constitution. Thanks to that Constitution, no one can alienate you from your land for any reason –– unlike how past governments allowed iTaukei land to be converted to freehold land and given away forever.
That was then. This is now. And my government has ensured that no such travesty can ever befall any landowner in Fiji ever again. That’s why I never understood the campaign of lies and fake fear my opponents launched to distort Act No. 22 2021, previously known as Bill No. 17. They must have known the truth; that iTaueki land could never be taken from landowners. Regardless, they sought to deceive our people into thinking that such a thing was possible.
I don’t need to unravel their lies, time has done that for me. The bill became an act over a year ago. Yet no land has been taken –– not a single inch. And no land has been leased without the consent of the landowners. This is precisely what the opposition said would happen, but it has not happened. And will not happen, because the Constitution does not allow it to happen and, regardless, my government would never even attempt to do it. Our Constitution protects iTaukei land for all time, just as it did the day it was ratified and just as it did the day Bill 17 became Act 22.
The truth is that the Act is doing exactly what we said it could: It is making iTaukei Lands Trust Board more efficient and making iTaukei land much more valuable. The Act’s purpose is and always was to streamline TLTB’s bureaucracy so it can better serve tenants and the landowners, all to improve the value of iTaukei land.
Prior to the Act, a person who had secured the full consent of the landowning unit to register lease on iTaukei land, paid the premium, and met all the terms and conditions imposed by the landowners, still faced an uphill struggle to develop the land. The TLTB, which was supposed to serve the people, had become an obstacle.
So, for example, if someone leased three acres of iTaukei land for their retirement home and wanted to build their home on that leased land, obviously they would want to connect the land to water and electricity, and eventually construct the house –– development that as all in line with the lease. Still, every single step they took required approval from the TLTB.
You want water? That went through TLTB. You want power? That went through TLTB. You want a road? TLTB had to sign off again, despite all this development being part of the lease agreement. And these approvals could take months or even years to be granted, depending on where the land was, which officer you were dealing with, and what sort of day they happened to be having.
So the Act makes the simple administrative change to remove the tedious approval process for development on leased land. It simply cuts the red tape. That makes development more attractive. Not any less sustainable nor any less agreeable, but more attractive and more capable of generating income for you, our landowners. And it does not infringe on your rights of landowners one bit.
It has long been this Government’s philosophy to create an environment that allows people and communities to use their land in ways that best benefit them. Land is an asset that should be cherished and used wisely. Where possible, that asset should become a cash-generating vehicle for our communities.
Through our Ministry of Economy, we’re invested millions of dollars to develop iTaukei land with and for iTaukei landowners for subdivision purposes. Some of the sites under development include Yadua, Saweni, and Wairabetia. The Yadua subdivision is on the cusp of being commissioned and once the lots are sold, the money will be going directly into the pockets of its landowners. I will soon have the pleasure to attend the groundbreaking ceremonies for new subdivision developments in Tavua and Vuda. I urge landowners in this province to take up this opportunity whereby Government invests, with you, in your land, and you get the profits once the land is leased. It’s a win for you, the landowners, and a win for the wider economy.
To ensure that international benchmarks are respected and best practices are followed in land valuations, the TLTB will outsource valuations to ensure that the landowners and the lessees get the actual market value of the land. This will result in efficient and impartial valuations by sector experts and ensure that landowners get the appropriate valuations on their land; another way we’re making iTaukei land more valuable for your benefit.
The lengthy delays that people have experienced in the survey process before leases can be finalised is unacceptable. And the economy has suffered needlessly from these inefficiencies. We have set up a Working Group with the TLTB, the Ministry of Lands, the Department of Town and Country Planning, and the Ministry of Economy to address the backlog of surveys and streamline processes moving forward. These key agencies will be connected to the TLTB’s Land Development Vetting portal, allowing surveyors and the development authorities to communicate through a digital platform to check the status of each survey. $50,000 has been allocated for the Facilitation of Resolutions to Lease Complaints by the Working Group. They will send teams to go out on the ground to attend to your complaints on lease matters and ensure we solve lease issues efficiently.
Furthermore, $100,000 has been provided to the Plan Assessment Unit of the Ministry of Lands and the Department of Town and Country Planning, respectively, to provide additional staff solely focused on assisting the Working Group to clear the backlog of surveys and address all complaints.
TLTB has recognised that some of its subdivisions were not done professionally. In several cases, lots had no access to roads in the subdivision. They were effectively locked in, unable to get a vehicle in or out. There are tenants with such agreements who have been languishing for years. To ensure landowners get proper lease returns and the tenants get proper leases, $1 million has been provided to TLTB for the development of access roads and to connect more than 200 tenants to public roads. This will also benefit subdivisions across Nadroga and Navosa.
The TLTB will also now be moving into pre-packaging comprehensively schemed subdivision lots. The development of comprehensively schemed divisions and access roads will involve full outsourcing of services by TLTB—for civil work by contractors and engineers, and for surveying, valuation, and planning for selected subdivisions. All of this will be done in close consultation with the Town and Country Planning office.
$1 million has also been provided to people with disabilities and low income facing financial hardships to pay for residential and agricultural arrears. This will allow those in need to clear arrears and be in a better position with TLTB when lease renewals are considered. TLTB will also provide those individuals facing financial difficulties the option of a payment plan for lease renewals and lease offers. To further assist those in the agriculture sector, $500,000 has been allocated to fund the cost of surveying agricultural leases. We have not forgotten those facing financial difficulties with residential leases and will also provide $500,000 to surveying residential leases as well. This is all through the cooperation of TLTB and the Ministry of Lands to ensure that we unlock land, provide more returns to landowners, and expedite much needed economic recovery.
We’ve also been hard at work behind the scenes to ensure efficient administration of your province. We audited the TAB and Provincial Council accounts for the first time since the late 1990s. As for the Nadroga/Navosa Provincial Council, the Annual Accounts for 2000 to 2012 have been audited, and the audit team is now working on the 2013 to 2018 accounts. All of this will help ensure efficient administration of the province’s resources in the future. We need to take an honest look at what we did right and what we did wrong in the past. That is the only way we will improve.
I have been told there’s a new political party, the ‘We Unite Fiji’ party, that has sprung up here in Nadroga-Navosa. It is interesting to note that the leaders of three separate political parties are all from this province. One of them has commandeered the acronym W-U-F. Many of you know, that the original WUF was the Western United Front, which sought the separation of your region due to sentiments of neglect and isolation from the rest of the nation. That is not the case today –– not under the leadership of my government –– because we have ensured that no community, no village, no province, no part of Fiji, and indeed no Fijian has been treated differently or left behind. We believed that a united Fiji is a strong Fiji. And any honest student of history in this province knows that is the truth, just as I know that each of you will choose wisely to protect and preserve the unity we’ve forged for Fiji against those who seek to divide us.
Our leadership at the helm of the nation has created unity, stability, prosperity, and confidence like never before in history. I can honestly say that we have made Fiji a better place to live. All you need do is look around you. We have gained genuine stature and respect on the world stage. When Fiji speaks, the world listens. And we are making sure we build for the future. So that young people and future generations look back on this time with nothing but gratitude. That is what is at stake as we move forward and when we vote in the next election. And that is how we should assess the various political parties that vie for our support. I urge you to ask: Who will our children and grandchildren be most grateful to look back on as their leaders? I believe that our investments in free education, in social welfare, and in resilient infrastructure development; our prudent management of the economy; and our focus on the grassroots and on the bread-and-butter issues affecting our people will be remembered as the time that Fiji became a more caring and truly great nation. We must continue that journey. Like with our pandemic recovery, we must choose the future we want for ourselves. There is more that we must do together, and I believe my ministers and I are best equipped to make this moment count. Not only for you and your people today. But for every Fijian, and for all those future generations yet to come.
I wish you all the best in your deliberations, and I declare the 2022 Nadroga/Navosa Provincial Council meeting open.