Vakaturaga Kina Doka ni Bure e Va ena Yasana Vakaturaga o Ra;
Na Vanua Vakaturaga o Rakiraki Vua na Tui Navitilevu;
Na Vanua Vakaturaga o Nacobicibici Vua na Turaga Tui Nalawa na Vunivalu;
Na Vanua Vakaturaga o Nakorotubu vua na Gonesau;
Na Vanua Vakaturaga o Burelevu Turaga na Ratu ni Natauia;
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Ni sa bula vinaka.
My friends, it is a privilege to be with you. This is the eleventh Provincial Council Meeting I have opened this year, but I want you to know that I am here first and foremost to listen. I am also here to ensure that our economy’s sweeping recovery is reaching Ra in the way that will make the greatest positive difference in the lives of the people here. And I am here to deliver––because the work of the next four years for Ra begins today.
When I was last with you, Fiji was beset by the global pandemic, the worst economic challenge the world has ever thrown our way. Our borders were closed by necessity, and over 100,000 Fijians were out of full-time work –– including many in your Province. I can say with pride that we have delivered on the promise I made to free Fiji from that crisis. That is not a boast. It is fact. We acted compassionately, paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in social support to the worst-affected Fijians. We acted boldly, enacting policies that achieved a near-universal rate of vaccination, driving down case numbers and saving thousands of lives.
And we acted decisively, opening our border as soon and as safely as was humanly possible. Most importantly, we acted in partnership with the people. We took to our hearts the three words that define Ra Province and make it great: “Mae na Mae”. [CT1] Because these are more than words; they are an attitude of strength and a call to bold action. With a once-in-a-century challenge upon us, we said bring it on. We not only took on the pandemic, we took on the super-storm of ignorance and indecisiveness preached by those set against us. And we have won. Our economy has never been growing faster than it is today. We’ve welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors since last December’s re-opening. We have earned 446.9 Million Dollars from Tourism in the first half of 2022 and, last month, visitor arrivals were 89% of pre-pandemic levels.
We have re-opened our businesses. We have broken records in annual agricultural exports. We have broken records in annual forestry exports. Fisheries exports are rising and our blue economy is blossoming.
There has been a surge in the number of newly established businesses. Investments are pouring into the country. Tens of thousands of our people are back at their jobs and earning wages that support their families. By every measure, my friends, we are a nation recovering. This is not my Government’s victory alone –– it is our victory, because this was truly a national effort. It is the victory of Ra and every Province. It is the victory of every community. It is the victory of every Fijian. And the benefits will be felt by every Fijian.
Our development progress is back at the break-neck pace my Government set before the pandemic. Two days ago, I was here in Ra opening a new Health Centre in Nasau and a new Government Station in Namarai to bring life-changing services to your people, in their communities, rather than an arduous journey away.
Today is about what we can do next. Your provincial boundary was re-drawn without consultation in the 1990s. We are committed to consult with you and others who are affected by this As we have always done, we will do so in consultation with your communities as we seek a just solution. You can trust that your concerns will be heard and that your Leaders will act—because this is not the Fiji of 1991, in which Government made a decision that affected your lives and told you to like it. This is not the Fiji of 2005 either, or any year before it. This is the new Fiji. Our country is stronger. Our people are more prosperous. And our Government serves our people—not the other way around.
Prior to 2006, the only people the Leaders of Fiji listened to were society’s elites. Our entire political system was built for the benefit of a privileged few who served themselves in the comfort of our cities without sparing a thought for rural development. They lacked the courage and compassion to heal a nation traumatized by the upheavals of 1987 and 2000, which sent scores of our best and brightest citizens overseas.
Those Leaders failed to see unity as our strength, and so Fiji was weak. We were set upon a path that could only lead us to descend into obscurity, condemned to be a backwater island country run by a government that was plagued by corruption, inequality, and incompetence.
I refused to watch that happen. Fiji needed a new approach and a new direction—and we provided that. We took the country down the path of unity, meritocracy, and equality. And it was not hard. Once you understand that it is the responsibility of government to serve all Fijians equally, from all backgrounds and from all places, the path becomes clear. The questions are easy to answer. The needs are easy to see. And our success has proved the folly of the leadership that came before us. A snake can change its skin, but it will always be a snake, even after it has stopped hissing and has slithered away. And last century’s failed Leaders cannot improve or even sustain the new Fiji we have built together. They cannot solve this century’s complex challenges.
We have proven that our brand of compassionate and fair leadership can heal the wounds that others inflicted on our society, modernise the country, and take Fiji forward. We have become the change Fiji that needs–– and under my leadership that change is here to stay.
We have certainly had challenges during my time as Prime Minister, and our share of setbacks. Luckily, I am no stranger to adversity. I have experienced stormy weather at sea that has put my very life at risk –– God has guided through those rough waters, and he has guided my leadership as Prime Minister. Together, the progress we have achieved is indisputable. The past 15 years have been the most progressive in Fijian history. Our economy has grown faster and more consistently than ever. Our development has reached every corner of the country. We are the most powerful voice in the Pacific and a giant among island countries globally. We are respected in every international forum. Our resilience has been proven. We have built back better from super-storms. Our decisiveness can be counted upon.
We are recovering from the once-in-a-century pandemic. We have created stability out of insecurity, confidence out of uncertainty, and prosperity out of disparity. Fiji is not the same country it was when this century dawned, and going backwards now is unthinkable. We have transitioned safely to the new normal and we must press forward now with speed and urgency. It is time to seize the opportunities our recovery is creating and find solutions that achieve economic growth in harmony with the environment and in keeping with our commitment to inclusivity.
My Government has worked hard to confront and solve the major problems Ra has faced through investments of around 74.5 Million Dollars in your Province from 2014 to 2021.
Out of this, over 27 Million Dollars has gone towards social pension programs, poverty assistance schemes, and disability schemes to protect those most vulnerable.
We have invested over 16 Million Dollars in grid extension projects to connect remote areas to the national energy grid.
This was never seen as a major priority until my Government came into power. You have seen our commitment for yourself with the Waimecia to Navesau grid extension projects, the Tokaimalo grid expansions, and the Delaiyadua to Namarai community extensions.
We have also made headway in our vision for a digitally connected country. Through 8.7 Million Dollars’ worth of investments, we are narrowing the development gap in your Province, installing fibre optic cables from Rakiraki to Korovou town to ensure better connection and data access for everyone. We have also extended our national free-to-air radio and television platform through Walesi so that you never miss any national news, rugby games, Parliamentary sessions, or entertainment that is enjoyed by your fellow citizens in our major cities.
Friends, access to water is a fundamental right. That is why we have invested over 8 Million Dollars in the Ra Rural Water Scheme and ecological purification systems.
We have made sure that communities have an uninterrupted piped water supply.
In 2019, 100 households in Nasukamai village gained access to the same. And before that, Government had commissioned a total of 68 water projects within the Province. This included giving the 135 households on Malake Island access to clean water from Viti Levu.
We have also focused on infrastructure. We listened to your very real and valid concerns about the condition of our roads and devoted over 6 Million Dollars to improving them and to upgrading crossings and access roads. Rural communities now have better access to the services provided in towns – thanks to the upgrade of the Waimari Crossing, the Toki–Draunileka Road and the Nasatogo–Navitilevu Road. Most recently, the people of Nukulau, Roma and Nasoqo Villages have been granted the same.
Friends, we have also contributed more than 3 Million Dollars to rural development in your Province – a key national priority – through public sector investment programs, self-help initiatives, and construction of community access roads, walkways, and footbridges.
Of course, all these expenditures do not include the vast amounts we have spent after natural disasters for rebuilding schools, health centres and other public infrastructure.
There is more we plan to do – particularly in expanding electricity access, water access, and mobile connectivity. I could go on all day explaining every dollar we have spent for the benefit of your Province, but I would prefer to defer to you so we can have a conversation about your development aspirations.
The worst of the pandemic is behind us. But ahead lie defining choices to confront the most serious challenges Fiji has ever encountered –– the most urgent being the climate crisis. We are entering another cyclone season.
Because of climate change we expect extreme impacts, like cyclones and sea-level rise, to worsen. We expect the weather patterns to change. The science has projected this, and we have lived it and suffered it.
We must build a more resilient and sustainable economy as fast as possible, a future in which our communities can withstand the worsening impacts of climate change while sustaining growth, livelihoods, and development. A future in which we rely on our ocean in sustainable and responsible ways so that it is not left barren and lifeless for future generations. That requires a complex, co-operative, and cohesive national development strategy. We are paving that path together as a Government with our Provincial Councils. And you have seen the good work we have done together here in Ra.
Now let me address the subject of iTaukei land.
iTaukei land ownership is safe. No land has been taken under this Government because no land can be taken under our Fijian Constitution. Previous constitutions and previous governments allowed for iTaukei land to be converted to freehold land and be permanently taken away. Even though those governments talked big about the need for colonially-constructed institutions, like the GCC, they abided by an unjust system that allowed iTaukei land to be taken from landowners. They all talk and no action, and no protection. Under my leadership, that has never happened. The Fijian Constitution will not allow it to happen ever again. In fact, iTaukei land has never been more secure and more useful to its owners than it is today.
Through the equal distribution of lease monies, everyone listed under a landowning unit in the Vola ni Kawa Bula receives 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.
To date, 45 Million Dollars is currently being held by TLTB on behalf of Fijians from landowning communities below the age of 18. With the returns on investments, there are several young iTaukei millionaires-in-waiting who will be able to access their funds when they turn 18. Never mind what the politicians and critics say, because here is yet another truth: Because of our policies, there are young iTaukei who will receive an invaluable financial head-start in life. A nest egg that they can use to start a business, or buy a house or a car. That is a victory for the cause of equality and empowerment both.
Not only have we protected your land, we are finding ways to increase its value and to ensure that all community members –– including women and young people – enjoy an equitable share of the benefits of land leasing. A few weeks ago, I officiated at the ground-breaking ceremonies of three new subdivisions in Namata, Viseisei and Yadua. These are iTaukei lands, and the landowning units have benefitted from the free development and subdivision of their lands at cost to government.
The visionary landowners who partnered with us are now free to pocket all of the returns from the leasing of their land. I urge landowners in this Province to partner with us as well through our subdivision initiative, which is without parallel in history, to realize your land’s full cash-generating potential.
If you are not going to use the land for productive use for yourself, I urge you to renew those leases for cane cultivation, for other crops, or even for residential purposes. Remember that we have made an important change that allows cane leases to be renewed for other agricultural or residential purposes so that farmers can diversify and take advantage of other crops that may be more profitable.
And let me remain everyone that under our Constitution people must pay the market rate for all leases and all tenants must have security of lease –– a win-win-win situation for landowners, tenants, and the Fijian economy.
Taken together, the reforms my Government is implementing have provided opportunities to develop iTaukei land and put more cash in the pockets of landowners. We are raising incomes. We are raising land value. We are improving the prospects of generations of Fijians to come.
And we introduced reforms to ensure landowners can benefit from their resources and qoliqoli sustainably. This is why my Government limits the duration of our harvesting and the issuance of licenses. Yet my Government cannot do it alone. We will need to put our collective head and hands together to sustain community livelihoods, stimulate local economic activity and healthy environment for children. Without a concerted commitment towards sustainability, my grandchildren’s children and your grandchildren’s children won’t know the beautiful bounty found in your Province.
The global issue of inflation continues to affect us in the form of higher prices, which is why my Government announced and paid the 180-dollar-per-child payments for vulnerable families. As of 19 October, the Ministry of Economy has paid a total of 67.4 Million Dollars to 374,251 Fijians through this inflation mitigation initiative. We are keeping an eye on prices –– more support will come if need-be. And as of this month the national minimum wage increased to $3.67 per hour. This will increase again to $4.00 per hour by January 2023.
My friends, that is our record, and I am proud to run on it. There are no surprises here. You know what you get with my Government because you have lived it: stability, certainty, strength, and a genuine partner that wants what you want for your communities. Our opponents are not political parties–– we are opposed by a changing climate, rising prices, and a worn-out way of thinking that pits Fijian against Fijian. Those are the enemies I am focused on confronting as your Prime Minister. Those are the enemies we must take on together –– “Mae na Mae”.
On this note, it is my pleasure to open the 2022 Ra Provincial Council Meeting.
I wish you all the best in your deliberations.