Sa Vakaturaga saka i Caumatalevu, Na Gone Turaga na Tui Macuata;
Ni tiko na Masi ni Vanua;
Turaga kei na Marama ena Yasana Vaka-Turaga o Macuata.
Ni sa bula vinaka.
It is a real pleasure to be with all of you after returning from the United States of America, where I met the American Vice President, Kamala Harris. Last month, the Vice President joined us virtually at the Pacific Islands Forum at my invitation, where she made major new commitments on behalf of the U.S. Government to strengthen America’s engagement with Fiji and the rest of the Pacific.
In our in-person meeting last week, we discussed the finer details of how America’s new commitment of resources and expertise can best benefit our people and our Pacific Island sisters and brothers. That new American engagement can directly benefit Macuata, because there is much we can gain from America’s maritime might, technology and science. We will be better able to protect our waters through joint deployments that combat trans-national crime, including illegal fishing, which I know means a great deal for the beautiful stretches of reefs that fall under your communities’ protection. That is just one of many benefits of this stronger relationship.
But before we go on, let me first thank the people of Macuata for offering us your paramount chief, the Taukei Bolatagane, Turaga Bale na Tui Macuata, to be our President. We are honoured by his service to the whole of Fiji. He is a man of great vision who strives not just to produce benefits that we will see today, but to develop policies and structures that will bring about benefits far into the future—decades, or even generations-on from today. Indeed, I believe that is the greatest of his many noble qualities, and I have every faith that future Fijians will look on these years with gratitude for the commitment His Excellency shares with his Government to protect the natural world that surrounds us.
Friends, I have opened meetings such as this around the country to see first-hand how our communities are experiencing our recovery at the Provincial level. I am here today to do exactly that once again. The pandemic’s impact was felt across the whole of the country, and our response depended mightily on every Fijian’s commitment. So, as our economy gains strength by the day, we must ensure that its benefits reach every Fijian everywhere in Fiji, including here in beautiful Macuata.
First, I want to say thank you. When we urged your people to protect themselves through vaccinations, you gave us your full co-operation. Now, Fiji can lead the Pacific’s long-awaited recovery from the pandemic.
We have restored our freedoms to fully open our businesses, to gather together in times of celebration, but also in times of grief and sadness. For more than eight months, our borders have been open, and tens of thousands of Fijians are back at their jobs as a result. That is the most important thing to me, because it is the duty of the Government I lead to see that every Fijian feels the benefits of our great economic comeback.
This revival did not happen by accident. It is the result of a careful plan that my Government laid brick by brick, labouring side by side with the Fijian people. We supplied the only credible and sensible plan possible to deliver Fiji’s recovery, and we stuck with it. Even in the darkest and most debilitating days of the crisis, we never strayed from the path that we trusted would deliver our recovery. We never dithered in our decision-making. We never flip-flopped. We led when leadership was most sorely needed.
That is the level of commitment you can expect from me and my Government in times of crisis as well as in the day-to-day work of building a stronger Macuata and a stronger Fiji. And it is the level of commitment we saw in our last National Budget announcement –– a Budget that was as responsible as it was compassionate. We showed clearly that we Fijians do not have to choose between fiscal responsibility and caring Government. All in all, we have never passed a more important financial strategy for the country. Our latest Budget not only builds on the overwhelming success of the 12.4 percent economic growth projected for this year, it responds to the pressures we are feeling from the war in Ukraine and the shortages it has caused, which are forcing families to pay more for essentials like food and fuel.
The rest of my political opponents set themselves against our newest Budget without offering the nation any credible alternative policies. In a tacit admission of their total inability to make policy or lead a country, they blindly oppose everything the Government does.
Apparently they think the job of the opposition is to oppose the Government relentlessly. But their role is to scrutinize and offer criticism that is constructive—and to oppose when that fails. To do that, an opposition normally needs to offer alternatives. And to do that, they need a guiding political and economic philosophy that will help them develop alternatives. They don’t have that. And as a result, they never tell us what they would do if, God forbid, they ever entered government.
Instead, they have done everything they can to make this a moment to redouble their selfish pursuit of power. They wake up every day and think about how they can distract the country from the important work that we have at hand, drum up negativity, and subject the entire country to their bitter brand of politics. That is not how Leaders lead. You need a positive vision to create positive change in people’s lives.
My Government does not work against any Fijian. We serve everyone equally to the best of our ability. We build up communities everywhere because we serve all Fijians equally. We do not undermine our economy, we take it from strength to strength. We do not create challenges, as my opponents seek to do. We work to solve the very real issues that face Fiji so that we can secure a future that we can be proud of for our children and grand-children.
The worst of the pandemic is behind us. But ahead lie defining choices to the most serious challenges Fiji has ever encountered –– the most urgent being the climate crisis. Because of unchecked carbon emissions by the large industrialised nations, the world is getting warmer. The ice caps are melting, which causes the seas to rise and threaten the very existence of low-lying communities. Cyclones are becoming stronger. The warming of the ocean is bleaching our reefs. Changing weather patterns threaten our farmers’ livelihoods.
You can feel these impacts across your Province and within the waters you steward. When I press the world for climate action, I do so for the Villagers of Raviravi and Rauriko, just to name a few. I do so for vulnerable communities everywhere who sit at the frontline of climate impacts. And I do so for our children, whose future lies within our collective hands.
Here at home, we must build a more resilient and sustainable economy as fast as possible, a future in which our communities can withstand 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 Macuata.
From 2014 until last year, my Government invested around $170 Million Dollars directly into your Province. $42 Million Dollars has gone towards developing a resilient and reliable infrastructure that has connected your people to towns and city centres. It has helped children reach school, farmers reach markets, and parents reach their places of work. That work includes the two-lane bridges in Vesidrua, Korovuli and Korovula between Labasa, Seaqaqa, Nabouwalu and Savusavu; new rural roads from Dreketilailai to Lekutulevu with three new low-level crossings in Bulileka, Labasa, Lagi to Cawaro Village and Duavata Primary and Secondary Schools in Udu; and new low-level crossings at Taganiwaqa and Nakorotari in Labasa. A new Modular Bridge at Vuinakawakawa will be completed soon.
We invested over $7 Million Dollars in the Macuata Rural Water Scheme so that 66,250 households can now benefit from uninterrupted piped water supply. Mataniwai, Naividamu and Nakavika Villages were among those assisted.
We have invested over $55 Million Dollars in social pension schemes, poverty benefit schemes, and disability schemes to support the most vulnerable residents of your Province.
One of Government’s key priorities is providing electricity for all. Nationwide, we have invested over $237.5 Million Dollars in electrification projects such as solar home systems, grid extensions, house wiring, and EFL services. Through the assistance, families can connect to dependable electrical supply and experience all the comforts of a modern household.
In Macuata alone, we have invested $58 Million Dollars in grid extension projects to bring rural communities onto the national energy network. This work was never seen as a serious priority until my Government made it a priority. In total, we’ve completed 128 grid extension projects –– 128 communities that can access the life-changing benefits of reliable energy for the first time.
And where it is more practical, we have invested another $4 Million Dollars in solar home systems for the benefit of over 23,000 Fijians in Macuata.
You have seen it for yourself at the Seaqaqa and Balaga Electricity Grid Extension projects, Dreketi Electricity Grid Extension Project, Solove and Nubu Primary School grid extensions, Lagalaga and Kurukuru communities extensions, to name a few.
We also invested over $2 Million Dollars in waterways projects: farm drainage, coastal protection works, and irrigation maintenance schemes. Earlier this year, we commissioned the Korotari River De-Silting Works to ensure that farmers in the area are protected against floods so they can reliably supply farm produce to the Labasa Market.
I can go on all day and point out every dollar we have spent for the benefit of your Province. The philosophy that has guided this effort has been our commitment to ensure that every Fijian can access the same level of services no matter where they call home. I am not content to lead from behind a desk in Suva, and certainly not from a dance floor. Here, where I am sitting today, is my office of choice. This is where I prefer to be, working with you and listening to you to ensure that Fijians in Macuata have the same quality of life as your fellow Fijians everywhere else in Fiji. And all that I have listed does not even include the programmes and allocations that flow through our most recent National Budget.
Make no mistake – my opponents will come, tickle your ears, and vanish like a reed shaken by the wind. What I say and what I promise, I deliver. I will give you the facts and a practical view of what we can achieve today, tomorrow, and decades from now. No lies. No fantasies. No political talk. We have too much work to do together to waste time grand-standing.
And we have new challenges. Prices are rising, and we are responding. We first acted by raising the minimum wage from the current $3.01 an hour to $3.34 an hour on 1st July 2022. It will rise again to $3.67 an hour on 1 October 2022, and then to $4.00 an hour by January 2023. We also eliminated VAT on 21 basic food items which include sugar, flour, rice, dhal, tea, potatoes, onions, garlic, canned fish, cooking oil, salt, liquid milk, powdered milk, baby milk, sanitary pads, soap, soap powder, toilet paper, toothpaste, cooking gas and kerosene.
Through the 2022-2023 Budget, we are providing families with a combined annual income of $50,000 or less with 30 dollars per month per child –– making for a total of $180 per child for the next six months. A family with three children from your Province, for example, will receive $540 in cash support over the next six months. That is money they can use to cushion against the rising prices of food and other essentials. This assistance will begin to be paid out at the beginning of next month.
Social welfare recipients and those in the After Care Fund, Government-funded pensioners, and tertiary students will also receive a payment of $180 for six months. And Government has stepped in to pay ten percent of the bus fares for all members of the public as a hedge against rising bus fares due to rising fuel costs. Our opponents call these freebies. I guess that is because they don’t need the help, so they ridicule it—and therefore the people who depend on it. But we call it compassion. We call it a helping hand. Because prices are rising, we must rise up together as a nation to protect those most vulnerable.
To ensure that our teachers are constantly seeking to raise their game and provide our students with better education, we’ve also announced higher salary bands for teachers who upgrade their qualifications. We have also recommenced the rural and maritime allowances for both teachers and our nurses.
We cannot pass up any responsible opportunity to help our people create a better economic future for themselves. For example, our people are increasingly in-demand for high paying positions overseas, and it would be foolish and cruel to prevent our people from pursuing overseas opportunities to support themselves and their families back home. Indeed, we actively negotiate to expand these opportunities in markets like Australia. That said, we fully recognize that we also have a domestic labour shortage in some sectors. This is a major challenge for local businesses that we are working hard to overcome.
To ensure that we have enough Fijians working in our most in-demand professions, we are committed to filling in labour gaps by rapidly expanding access to high-quality education in priority areas.
In the 2022-2023 Budget, my Government has doubled the number of scholarships available to students to 1,200. We increased the National Toppers Scheme to 770 awards in areas vital to the national interest, including nursing.
What we all once knew as TVET will now be known as Skills Qualifications in recognition of the important skills these programmes build in their students.
We’ve also allocated 165 new scholarships for teacher training in Maths and Physics, Industrial Arts, Primary Education and Computer Science. The Scholarship Scheme for students with special needs will continue.
And awards for the In-Service Scheme will increase from 120 to 140. We’re also providing 200 grants for Fijians looking to pursue short-term courses. This grant funding will help them obtain qualifications through short-term courses to become tile layers, painters, cabinet makers and joiners, block layers, plumbers, and other skilled trades that are critical to the business of building the nation. Government is currently paying $100 a month in allowances to students completing industrial attachments under Tertiary loans and scholarship sponsorships –– in this Budget we go further to also provide that $100-a-month top-up to private students in work placements for the first time.
Our newest Budget extends assistance of $250,000 to large livestock commercial farmers nationwide who have not traditionally received Government assistance. We need to scale up this large-scale proven business model even further to meet local demand and export meat throughout the region.
For farmers, we allocated $7 Million Dollars in the new Budget to specifically ensure that you have access to land cultivation equipment through machinery outsourcing. This is good news for our producers of yaqona, ginger, dalo, rice and other crops.
My Government realized the impact of the rising costs of doing business faced by our farmers and has provided further levels of support through the Budget.
The price paid for sugar cane will remain at $85 per tonne. The price for dried copra will be $1,350 per tonne. A budget of $150,000 is allocated for the coconut farming programme.
My Government will support farmers’ ability to start and maintain profitable commercial farming businesses through the existing Agro Tourism, Agri-business and Engagement programme with Fiji Development Bank through its farmer’s equity package. And to support our women farmers, $300,000 has been set aside for Women in Agriculture programme. Women entrepreneurs can also access loans specifically for women entrepreneurs of up to $10,000 through the Fiji Development Bank and Government will contribute ten percent equity.
For the Northern Development Program, we will continue to support and develop micro, small and medium enterprises and co-operatives. Through the Ministry of Commerce, my Government will invest $500,000 by providing skills training and economic guidance to arm MSMEs in the North with the necessary knowledge to succeed in their businesses.
It does not end here. To achieve quality care to meet the growing demands in health services in the North, my Government will invest over $2 Million Dollars to upgrade Labasa Hospital.
My friends, those are promises you can count on. I won’t promise you the sky and everything underneath it. I will not peddle fantasies. I will tell you with precision where we are headed as a country and what is necessary to build a Fiji that is capable of overcoming our greatest challenges. And if we remain on the course we have set, we will break the very records for growth, for wages, and for job creation that we have set as a Government.
Natural Resource Owners Committee representatives from the 14 Provinces are now represented at the Provincial Council Meetings. This move will ensure that the environment and conservation are front and centre across Vanua decision-making.
Sound and visionary Provincial leadership is best guaranteed by filling vacant chiefly titles. In Macuata, of the 456 chiefly and customary titles, only 269 are filled. That leaves 187 vacant. As we continue to transform Fiji, 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.
Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a lie being circulated that the iTaukei are not benefitting from the use of their customary fishing rights. I have clearly corrected the record on this lie in the past, but I must do so again as this was brought up once again at the last Parliamentary session. Infact, it looks like I will have to correct this lie again and again and again. Some people must simply believe the old propagandist saying that a lie repeated often-enough becomes the truth. So the people behind this lie believe that they just need to keep repeating it, and eventually the people will believe it. They apparently believe Fijians are stupid. Or maybe they are just thick-headed.
In any case, the truth is this: The iTaukei Affairs Board (or TAB) manages the customary fishing rights funds, which was passed to them from the Ministry of Lands. Currently, TAB has $3.2 Million Dollars 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 for even longer. iTaukei land ownership is safe. It 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.
Since becoming Prime Minister, I’ve made my definition of national progress clear: Progress only counts when every Fijian sees the benefits. Not only the elites. That is why my Government enacted the equal distribution of lease monies in 2011.
This ensured that 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.
Todate, $45 Million Dollars is currently being held by TLTB 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 are eligible to receive that money. In some cases, there are several young iTaukei millionaires in waiting who will be able to access their funds when they turn 18. This was also brought up in Parliament by people who clearly have no understanding of how iTaukei land is valued in Fiji. Never mind them, 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 because they will receive funds that used to go entirely to the chiefs, who could choose to share them or not and in any way they pleased. That is a victory for the cause of equality.
I ask you, what kind of person would ever dismiss, misrepresent or ridicule a system that is so manifestly fair and so truly within our Fijian traditions.
Not only have we protected your land, we are finding ways to increase its value and ensure that all community members enjoy an equitable share of the benefits of land leasing are enjoyed equitably by your community members –– and that includes 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 major 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.
Now let me turn again to sugar cane and specifically cane leases. I understand that many cane leases in your Province are about to expire.
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. Labasa is on the cusp of a development boom, and we do not want anyone in your Province to miss out on it. So, please, take advantage of the reforms we’ve made. They make it easier for all those who reside here to continue calling this beautiful Province home.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as part of Government’s effort to sustain community livelihoods and stimulate local economic activity, we have introduced a regime for the sustainable harvesting and sale of beche-de-mer, or sea cucumbers. I urge you to please follow the careful rules we’ve established to ensure the sustainable use of this resource.
Finally, I’m calling on every member of this Province to make the climate and ocean action agenda a part of your lives. I know I don’t have to press very hard, because it is clear that you hold the health of the ocean and the land in your hearts. I urge you to take full ownership of this issue, because it will define the decades to come. Don’t litter. Respect fishing bans. Respect our forests. Help us save our oceans from further degradation. Help us protect our natural resources. If these abuses are left unchecked, my grand-children’s children and your grand-children’s children won’t know the beautiful reefs and oceanic bounty that define Macuata.
On this note, it is my pleasure to open the 2022 Macuata Provincial Council Meeting. And I wish you all the best in your deliberations.