Ni sa bula vina’a and a very good evening to you all.
Half a year has passed since you entrusted to us the future of our beloved nation.
We promised you that we would restore freedom, but the work of transforming our nation for the better is an ongoing challenge that we are determined to fulfil.
Our hope and collective effort have helped us attain our freedom.
Last month, the Coalition partners assessed our progress as a Government and the implementation of our Coalition Agreement. We have all been assured after that meeting, that this is a government determined and committed to serve you, as we had promised.
I am confident, that together, we will deliver our commitments to the people of Fiji.
Your coalition government is determined to be defined by three words: freedom, unity and progress in rebuilding Fiji together.
After sixteen years, our new-found freedom has made us impatiently optimistic about the challenges and opportunities before us.
There is no doubt, that we are going through a period of great disruption, unpredictability and global uncertainty.
Despite these challenges, we are determined to persevere and navigate our way through geopolitical shocks and shifts caused by factors beyond our control in rebuilding our nation together.
The escalating tensions in the Taiwan strait; the war in Ukraine; the technology gap; and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to pose risks in our effort in rebuilding our nation.
The relentless impacts of climate change have left our people vulnerable in spaces shrunk by rising sea levels.
All this uncertainty has forced the whole world to make necessary structural adjustments and Fiji is no exception.
Indeed, our economy is troubled, but it is our duty to rebuild our nation together; and together we can and we will.
To rebuild our nation, it will not be “business as usual”. It cannot be “business as usual.”
No other government since Independence has been faced with the kind of circumstances confronting Fiji and her people today.
The challenges, the difficulties and dangers are numerous.
We must manage the current unsustainable debt level, the largest Fiji has ever had since independence.
We must address a host of serious social and economic issues impacting virtually every aspect of our national life.
Together, we can collectively address these challenges, but our government will need “all hands-on deck” in navigating a way out of these challenges. That means all of us, not just the government, not just the business sector, but all our citizens must work together.
While we continue to move forward in hope, we must use the opportunity to write a new chapter in our national development effort, after years of mistrust, lack of confidence and disunity.
We must return to basic human values that our parents and ancestors taught us. Values like kindness, respect, hard-work and unity.
I call upon our friends in the Opposition to join us in our collective effort to move our nation forward.
We can take a bipartisan approach in our collective effort to rebuild our nation economically, socially and spiritually.
Our collective hope and resilience lie in our shared destiny and common heritage.
In our communities, it does not matter where a visitor is from, they are always welcome, and we share whatever we have with them.
Our progress and prosperity as a nation, crucially depends on unity, mutual cooperation and understanding.
Your Coalition Government is determined to improve the living standards of our people, but there are grave challenges confronting us.
Foremost, our debt burden.
Secondly, economic constraints and structural challenges that will take time to resolve.
The reality of our fiscal crisis demands that we “bite the bullet and take the bull by the horn.”
We know that we will continue to face greater turbulence in the near future. The economic headwinds will now intensify due to ongoing conflict in Europe, geopolitical rivalry and global uncertainty.
Therefore, your trust and support are critical to Government’s efforts to resolve our challenges.
At the beginning of 2020, just three years ago, the pandemic disrupted our lives. Many lost their lives and livelihoods.
Our people faced tremendous hardship due to border closures and travel restrictions. No one was spared. That period is one of the darkest moments in living history.
More than 120,000 people lost their jobs as a result and thousands of small businesses closed-down. Some remain closed to this day.
I pay tribute to those who have worked tirelessly to get the industry back on its feet. The last government had played an important role in its management of the crisis.
My fellow citizens, effects of climate change include more frequent and severe natural disasters. We have seen this since 2016 and this will continue to disrupt our lives.
As you know, we in the Pacific are the most vulnerable and therefore, we will bear the full brunt of climate change in times to come.
Today, the world is facing many more new challenges. The war in Ukraine is causing uncertainty and global geopolitical rivalry is playing out visibly in the Pacific.
As a nation, we are facing these challenges simultaneously.
Together we have worked hard to restore confidence and uphold the trust of our people, including our Pacific family.
Since our first day in government, we have worked tirelessly to improve relationships with our development partners.
Whilst our political rivals with their rhetoric is that we are too slow, I am proud to say our achievements over the past six months have been progressive.
Some may consider these achievements as minor, I firmly believe they are significant in building the foundation for the nation to progress as a truly democratic nation.
These include the following:
The main purpose of my travel is to build trust and restore regional solidarity, strengthen bilateral relations and enhance Fiji’s standing in both regional and international arena.
As Minister responsible for Environment and Climate Change, I travelled to Panama to join world leaders so that we can work together in addressing the biggest challenge of our time, which is Climate Change.
The meeting in Panama was organised to consolidate international cooperation for the preservation of our Oceanic resources.
The continued survival and sovereignty of our small island states in the Pacific is at risk. This requires our attention, not only at the regional, but also at the international level.
These are tasks that cannot be achieved in isolation. We must work with other nations for effective solutions.
As you may know, adaptation strategies are based on advanced science and technologies that we can only access through international cooperation.
We must also share our indigenous knowledge and wisdom in the area of climate mitigation and adaptation.
Most importantly, international cooperation is necessary to access climate change financing.
My first state visit was to Papua New Guinea last month.
The State Visit also coincided with a meeting of the Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation and US-Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ dialogue, both held in Port Moresby.
These important meetings are part and parcel of our commitment to the regional Development and Security agenda.
At the meeting of Pacific leaders with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Papua New Guinea, he announced a 12-point action plan to strengthen India’s partnership with the region.
Five of the twelve action points relate to health and medical services.
An important component of this is the plan for the construction of a 100-bed super speciality hospital for the region funded by the Government of India. That hospital will be constructed in Fiji.
Pacific Island Leaders also met with the U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken in Port Moresby to strengthen ties with the U.S to address shared challenges, bolster Pacific regionalism, advance economic growth and sustainable development, maintain peace and security in the Blue Pacific continent, and expand opportunities for mutual cooperation.
The most important outcome of the State Visit was to strengthen our bilateral relationship with Papua New Guinea as founding members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and Pacific Islands Forum.
We agreed to more collaboration on higher education, security co-operation, agriculture, climate change, trade and investment and promoting regional solidarity.
In addition, we agreed to visa free travel for citizens of our two countries.
Prime Minister Marape also handed over a 99-year lease and announced a grant of 15 million Fijian dollars for the construction of our Chancery in Port Moresby.
Earlier this month, the Government of Samoa invited me to attend their 61st Anniversary of independence. I consider that it was important to attend as a fellow Pacific leader to affirm our commitment to self-determination and Pacific unity. Hearing the accounts of the year-long celebration of their milestone 60th anniversary of independence, was inspiring to me as a patriot. During that year-long celebration, every village in Samoa commemorated their national independence, perhaps something for us to consider in Fiji.
My fellow citizens, my state visit to New Zealand affirms the importance of our long-standing bilateral relationship. It was a successful visit. I met with Prime Minister Hipkins and a number of government dignitaries, as well as the Fijian diaspora in Auckland and Wellington.
Through the Duavata Partnership Agreement with New Zealand, we have deepened our bilateral partnership. We have expanded areas of cooperation, including trade and investment, labour mobility, defence, climate change, humanitarian relief and disaster response.
Prime Minister Hipkins also announced additional funding of 15 point one million dollars for climate adaptation and mitigation programs including renewable energy and infrastructure resilience projects.
This is in addition to the ongoing direct budget support and official development assistance that the New Zealand Government generously provides Fiji.
Earlier this year, the Australian Prime Minister Albanese briefly stopped over in Nadi where we met at the Blackrock Facility.
In addition to the 542 million dollars in direct budget assistance to Fiji since 2020 to assist Fijians through the pandemic, Prime Minister Albanese announced an additional 120 point 3 million dollars in direct budget support.
This is in addition to the 197 million dollars in official development assistance to Fiji.
On the home-front – Northern Division Tour 3-12 May
Last month, in May, I made the first of my planned visits to all four administrative Divisions, to the Northern Division.
Throughout our term, I intend to meet and hear from those people directly on matters that affect their daily lives.
While visiting Vanua Levu I had the opportunity to reach out to 12 villages.
I also held discussions with civil servants.
It is quite clear from the visit that there is a need for better coordination amongst government agencies in providing basic services to the people.
On the other hand, there seems to be an environment of fear among civil servants due to short-term contractual arrangements and uncertainty.
The government has now abolished the appointment of civil servants on contractual basis, and increased the retirement age from 55 to 60 years.
At the same time, the Public Service Commission is implementing policies to foster collegiality and improve coordination for greater efficiency and productivity.
In addition, the following challenges were raised by the people in the villages I visited:
CURRENT STATE OF THE ECONOMY
The latest outlook for global economic growth this year by the International Monetary Fund has been revised downward from 3.3 percent to 2.7 percent.
The downward revision was based on the continuing war in Ukraine and tensions in the Taiwan Strait, which has impacted the global supply chain.
The Fijian economy has shown positive growth in the last 12 months after consecutive contractions since 2019. In 2019 the real output contracted by 0.6 percent, in 2020 by 17 percent and in 2021 by 5.1 percent.
In total, our economy contracted by more than 22 percent from 2019 to the end of 2021, in real terms.
However, you may recall, the economy almost came to a complete stop, at the height of the pandemic. The complete shutdown brought unprecedented hardship to our people.
In 2022 our economy is estimated to have rebounded by 15.6 percent, fuelled by recovery in tourism and associated sectors. This rebound in tourism catalysed the recovery of other sectors of the economy.
This year, the economy is projected to expand further by 8 percent and it is projected to grow by 4 percent in 2024.
The RBF revised its projection upwards to 8 percent due to the positive performance in some of the key sectors in the first half of this year.
The improvement has been boosted by high level of remittances from our friends and relatives abroad. Remittances in 2022 surpassed the One Billion mark.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank our citizens and former citizens overseas for their contribution to their families back home.
However, it is notable that other productive sectors particularly our resource-based sectors have remained subdued.
We must continue to incentivize our resource-based sectors so that they can effectively contribute to economic growth and support the effective participation of resource owners in the socio-economic development of the nation.
Some of these sectors need urgent government support to improve their performance.
Cabinet has approved some initiatives to improve performance in these sectors and the Budget announcement this Friday will include measures in this regard.
While electricity generation, rose in the last 12 months, gold, woodchip, timber and mahogany productions have declined.
The demand for labour has increased while seasonal employment schemes and the outward migration of labour, both skilled and unskilled, is a serious concern for Government and employers.
Sugar production is likely to improve slightly this year and we plan to expand sugarcane production beyond 1.8 million tons.
Extensive consultations are underway with our development partners to induct new innovative technologies to improve our productive capacity through value addition.
PAYE tax collection has grown in the last 12 months by approximately 20 percent, denoting higher personal wages and income.
This is encouraging but we need to do more since we are only just rising from the pit we fell into during Covid-19 and poor management of the economy by the previous Government.
My fellow citizens, I have tried to outline with clarity problems and challenges facing our nation.
Although our economy has shown growth in the last twelve months due primarily to the tourism sector, Government now needs to consider some hard decisions, to keep us on that trajectory.
Therefore, I plead for your understanding as this may require some sacrifices and our collective commitment.
BUDGET 2023-2024 ANNOUNCEMENT – 30 JUNE 2023
As usual, there will be anxiety and anticipation from different segments of our society on the day of the national budget announcement.
The business community will anticipate for some relief and support in the Budget so they can further improve their business and give them the confidence to invest.
Members of the public are eagerly waiting to see how Government will reduce the cost of living, address the plight of the poor and actions to be taken to improve basic services such as health, education, water supply and better infrastructure.
The most vulnerable members of society will be wondering whether there will be an increase in their social welfare allowance to support their needs.
Government agencies will be eager to know their allocations to carry out their respective core functions.
My fellow citizens, this will be the first budget of our Coalition Government and it won’t be “business as usual.”
On a number of occasions, I have said that we will have to take some hard decisions and sacrifices that will not be pleasant but necessary for the common good.
In my introductory remarks, I made it very clear that we are operating in an uncertain and unpredictable global environment. It is imperative that we make necessary structural adjustments to cushion against future shocks.
The 2023-2024 national budget has been prepared to:
• consolidate government finances;
• minimise wastages;
• address our high debt level;
• allocate resources to priority sectors; and
• to allow our people to have access to basic services.
In this context, I would like to assure the nation that the 2023-2024 budget will be balanced and restrained, while still delivering core services, investing in health, skills development and improve our infrastructure.
The budget will be people-centred, and adjustments will be made to ensure sustainable economic growth in the short and medium term.
Inclusiveness will be given priority to ensure fiscal sustainability, at the same time, ensuring a fair distribution of wealth.
Most importantly, in recognising the significant impact of geopolitical uncertainties and climate risk, measures will be put in place to ensure resilience, adaptation and mitigation measures and sustainability.
This will strengthen our resilience to future shocks and position our nation to be competitive to meet new challenges as well as to continue our journey to become a united, progressive and a prosperous nation.
I am pleased to report that extensive consultations were undertaken, and the Budget was formulated in the spirit of priorities identified in the fiscal framework endorsed by Cabinet earlier this year.
As I have said earlier, some hard decisions are needed to shift away from the “business as usual” attitude.
This means, the fiscal strategy covering the period FY2023-2026 is a critical one, where urgent steps need to be taken to address the high public debt situation.
One of the prime objectives of the fiscal strategy is to bring back fiscal discipline. This means cutting wastage to return to fiscal sustainability.
While taking a balanced approach we also must find ways to increase our revenue collection.
This may mean pain for people.
DEBT BURDEN AND FISCAL SPACE
As our current debt burden is extremely high at 85 percent of GDP, our revenue collection must be more robust.
The revenue policy reforms will be guided by principles of fairness, simplicity and revenue-adequacy.
The Coalition Government is also changing the way we do business with regard to revenue collection for the nation.
We are committed to transparency and genuine consultation with businesses and taxpayers.
We want to make it easy for all our citizens to pay their fair share of taxes.
These changes will be reflected in the new plan for FRCS and the new compliance improvement strategy.
We will also make the best use of technology and analytical tools to enable compliance with tax laws.
We must all play our part as citizens, and patriots to rebuild our nation, for improved health, education, infrastructure, including other essential services that have deteriorated over the years.
A key example of this in the Budget is that our taxation system will be instrumental in addressing the crisis caused by non-communicable diseases which is killing thousands of people every year, more than any other disease.
Policies will be implemented to reduce the intake of junk food and increase domestic and organic food production which will in turn improve the wellbeing of our people.
We have also demonstrated our willingness to engage and genuinely listen to you taxpayers and the community at large.
I am confident that we have clearly heard your views through budget consultations, the National Economic Summit and the work of the Fiscal Review Committee in identifying issues of national priorities that must be addressed with urgency.
Most importantly, our tax system offers extremely attractive incentives and customs concessions to support the growth and diversification of our economy.
These incentives will target key growth sectors including new tax-free zones so that the whole of Fiji can prosper and grow.
Our priorities must change to achieve better productive outcomes with minimum social cost.
The Budget will ensure sustained economic growth in the short to medium term. This will progressively address our debt problem.
Therefore, in the immediate term our fiscal deficit must remain close to 4 percent – preferably below 4 percent.
My fellow citizens, as I have said before, addressing our debt problem will require sacrifices – a painful structural reform of our social and economic system.
The economy needs to switch from being consumption-driven to production to ensure private sector growth and development. This means every individual must work harder and smarter.
My fellow citizens, let me present to you some of the key initiatives we are considering under this National Budget.
As I have said, the primary objective of the Budget is to address the problems and challenges we face as a nation.
It is not our intention, but this Budget may bring pain to some of you and your families.
This is why I humbly request your understanding.
It is critical and necessary that we must all come together to solve our problems, face the challenges, and rebuild our nation.
In our journey together we must be guided by the vision of our founding fathers and the basic values of our parents and ancestors, that is, kindness, mutual respect, and unity.
My fellow citizens, these values will take our nation a long way into the future where we seek happiness, unity, freedom and prosperity.
These basic human values will provide us the spirit and the will to persevere to rebuild our nation together.
There are many opportunities if we uphold and continue to manifest these basic values and support in rebuilding our nation.
Last weekend some 800 volunteers turned up to continue with the cleaning up and rehabilitation of the CWM Hospital. The Rotarians were also at Lautoka Hospital for the same purpose.
All these helpers are patriots dedicated to the good of our nation. They are nation builders and I salute them.
You can do your part to rebuild Fiji by joining the ranks of those who go out of their way to assist the poor and the needy. A basket of groceries means a lot to someone who is destitute or homeless. An elderly person, alone and lonely, will appreciate a visit from a friendly stranger.
When you offer counsel and moral support to an inmate trying to re-enter society, you are doing something not only for the offender but for Fiji as well.
Kindness to your neighbours is a public good. They are not just the family next door. Your neighbours are everywhere. I am your neighbour.
People of Fiji when your Coalition Government came to office, we knew Fiji was facing a uniquely difficult situation. I have touched on that tonight.
But we are not deterred. Our faith in this country and you, our people, is a driving force in our effort to serve you and it remains central to our mission of building a united and prosperous Fiji together.
Vina’a Va’alevu, Dhanyabaad, and Thank you very much.
May God Bless Our Beloved Nation, Fiji.
May God Bless Us All.