Sa Tiko Saka na iTikotiko Vakavanua o Koronubu na Nodra iTikotiko na Turaga na Tui Ba;
Na Vuvale Vanua e Ruasagavulu-ka-Tolu (23) ena Loma ni Yasana o Ba;
Kemuni Saka na Mata ni Vei-Tikina e Ruasagavulu-ka-Dua (21) ena Loma ni Yasana;
Na Mata ni Soqosoqo Vakamarama;
Na Mata ni Tabagone kei Kemuni Saka na Lewe ni Yasana o Ba.
Bula Vinaka and good morning.
It is my pleasure to be with you here today. Ba is the beating heart of so much of what makes Fiji the country that it is –– in sugar, in tourism, and in resource sectors, like timber.
Now that the worst of the pandemic is over, your local economy is recovering powerfully alongside the rest of the country. Your Government planned for this recovery from the darkest days of the crisis. We worked hard for it and so did each of you. As Provincial Leaders, alongside the people, you supplied the solidarity that brought our strategic plan to life.
I want to thank every one of you who got vaccinated. Your actions helped protect you and your fellow Fijians and created the confidence that ensured that when our borders re-opened, we immediately saw a tsunami wave of visitors and economic activity.
This was far from guaranteed to happen. In many parts of the world, this is still not happening. Some people still live under crushing COVID-19-related restrictions; others cannot even access enough food or sufficient fuel. Some economies are facing down a recession; others are still not open to the world.
Those are not Fijians and that is not Fiji, because, throughout the pandemic, we kept the bones of our economy strong. We know our recovery could never begin if the pandemic destroyed businesses and entire industries, like Tourism.
So, for almost two full years, Government stepped up to become the engine of the economy. We injected money and created economic activity that stopped many businesses from going under.
We stopped our national carrier, Fiji Airways, from going under. We stopped people from starving and losing their homes. And we put our economy in the best possible position to come roaring out of the pandemic.
My opponents fought us every step of the way. That was easy for them to do, because they had their jobs and they are not answerable to you. But I am answerable and so is my Government. I am here to serve all Fijians, including the 100,000 people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Those are the Fijians who are benefitting the most from the decisive measures we took to deliver the Bula Boom of tourism, business activity, and investment that we are experiencing today.
Since the success of our border re-opening, the economy is projected to grow by 12.4 percent this year. Tens of thousands of our people are back in their jobs and earning wages that support their families.
As a result of those people getting back to work, 210 Million Dollars in wages were paid in the first six months of 2022 compared to this same period last year.
That is not to say all our challenges are all behind us; far from it. The rising prices of food, fuel, and fertilizer brought pandemic-induced increases in freight costs, supply chain shortages, and the Russian war in Ukraine –– a war as brutal as it is unjust ––are being felt across the world and across our islands.
We first responded 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 1st 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.
This past Friday we went further, as our Attorney-General and Minister for Economy announced a new National Budget that is responsible, innovative, and compassionate. Through it, we will provide Fijian families with a combined annual income of $50,000 or less with one dollar per day per child, or seven dollars a week or around 30 dollars per month –– making for a total of $180 per child for the next six months. A family with three children, for example, will receive $540 in cash support over the next six months that they can use to alleviate the rising prices that they’re dealing with.
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 will be stepping in to pay ten percent of the bus fares of all members of the public to combat rising bus fares as a result of rising fuel costs. Our opponents call these freebies. We call it compassion. Because prices are rising, and we must rise up together as a nation to protect those most vulnerable.
And this comes in addition to the removal of VAT on 21 basic food items and the gradual raising of the national minimum wage that we announced earlier this year.
I was sent a rather ridiculous headline run in the Fiji Times over the weekend that supposedly quoted our AG as saying, “Government policies spared people from suffering”. My friends, the AG never said that. I know because, like thousands of other Fijians, was listening to him.
Media outlets like the Fiji Times and Fiji Village want you to believe that we are an uncaring Government, blind and deaf to the difficulties faced by ordinary people. That has never been true.
Let me be clear: Fijians, along with everyone else on Earth, experienced hardship and difficulty through the pandemic. It was not an easy, simple, or painless experience, in Fiji or anywhere else. But I believe that we chose the fastest and surest way through to the other side. We did it with you. And we are grateful to each of you.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our latest budget also continues funding the basics of nation-building. It invests in roads, bridges, and jetties, in water and electricity access, and in telecommunications. And it builds on the over $181 Million Dollars we have spent to develop Ba Province from 2014 to 2021.
Over that period, right here in Ba, my Government invested $59 Million Dollars in social protection support through the Ministry of Women, Children, and Poverty Alleviation. Those funds have shielded those most vulnerable from hardship; lifted people from poverty; and made for a more equal society. Those programmes all continue in the new financial year.
To ensure safe and reliable infrastructures for users, we have committed more than $37 Million Dollars to Ba Province through the Fiji Roads Authority to build bridges and jetties and make your communities brighter and safer.
We have dramatically reduced the time it takes to re-open roads after flooding. And we’ve made our coastal zones more resilient through erosion prevention.
We have allocated over $376 Million Dollars in the new budget for the construction, design, and maintenance of roads, bridges, and jetties nationwide.
A sum of 31.4 Million Dollars in the new budget will go towards the ongoing bridge construction for Naseyani bridge in Rakiraki, Vunikawa-kawa bridge in the Northern Division, Matawale bridge, Vuniyasi bridge, Yaqara bridge, most of which will be completed by September of this year.
Our road budget also includes the Nadi to Lautoka 4-lane road project. And it includes exploratory works on a Viti Levu cross-country highway. For decades –– for centuries, even –– opportunity on Viti Levu has been the domain of the coastal areas while the interior has developed at a more gradual pace. A cross-country highway would open the entire interior of our largest island like never before. Every Fijian would benefit, surely.
But no one will benefit more than landowners in Provinces like yours. Despite the doubts that I’m sure my opponents will express if they are not already, this is my promise to you: We will build that road. We will build it for the benefit of Ba, and we will build it for the benefit of every other Province in Fiji.
From 2014-2021, we’ve helped more communities turn on the tap through over $32 Million Dollars in water infrastructure investments in your Province. Every Fijian has a right to clean water –– our Constitution ensures it. We have made sure that important water installations are improved and supply capacity is maintained through targeted investments for Nagado, Vuda junction to Saweni junction, and the servicing of thousands of homes through Rural Water Scheme in your Province. You can ask the five hundred villagers of Nasivikoso in Magodro or 60 households in Waikubukubu Village in Savatu, just to name a few. They will attest that this Government does what it says it will do. We do not make empty promises – we deliver them.
To expand access to electricity across your Province, we have invested over $39 Million Dollars in electrification projects through the Department of Energy’s solar home systems, grid extensions, house wiring projects, and EFL services.
From 2014 to 2020, 159 electrification projects have been completed in Ba for the benefit of over 2,200 households.
In addition, grid extensions have also been completed in areas such as Navala and Namau, which were commissioned in 2019. We’ve also carried out work recently on the Vuda substation, transmission line towers from Nadarivatu Switchyard to the Vuda substation, and sub-transmission lines from Vuda to Naikabula and Vuda to Rarawa for the benefit of Fijians in Lautoka, Ba and Tavua.
Since 2014, we have invested over $6 Million Dollars in rural development in your Province through a public sector investment program for the Votualevu Health Centre and Nacula Water Project in Waya.
The funding also covers the Nagatagata Nursing Station in the interior of Ba and Self-Help programs, community access roads, footpaths and footbridges projects in Ba Province.
The Buruwa foot crossing in Nawaicoba, Nadi stands as a testament to this commitment. It links communities and schools, making life easier, safer, and more convenient for our students and teachers.
My Government is committed to providing better and quality education for all Fijians. On top of our funding of free education, subsidized bus fares, and free textbooks, my Government has invested over $3 Million Dollars that is expended on primary, secondary and early childhood education building grants and school capital projects in Ba since 2014.
To ensure our teachers are constantly seeking to raise their game and provide our students with better educations, we’ve also announced higher salary bands for teachers who upgrade their qualifications.
Our people are in high demand overseas, and that has led to some labour shortages domestically. We support our people pursuing overseas opportunities to support themselves and their families back home –– we actively negotiate to expand these opportunities in markets like Australia.
In the meantime, we must make sure we have enough Fijians working in our most in-demand professions. We ensure that through education. In our latest 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 impart to 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 micro-qualifications in a construction-related skill course over a period of two weeks to one month. Once that education is completed, they can go on to become tile layers, painters, cabinet makers and joiners, block layers, plumbers, and other professions 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.
Ba Province has reaped the rewards, literally, of our concerted investment and targeted assistance in the agricultural sector. More than $1 Million Dollars has been spent on programs for Crop Extension, Rural Outer Island and Livestock.
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 these large-scale proven business model even further to meet local demand and export their meats 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. This is good news for our yaqona, ginger, dalo, rice and other crop producers.
My Government realized the impact of the rising costs of doing business 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. My Government will support farmers’ ability to start and maintain profitable commercial farming businesses through the existing Agro Tourism, Agribusiness and Engagement with Fiji Development Bank through its farmer’s equity package. And to support farming women, $300,000 has been set aside for a Women in Agriculture programme.
My Government has always been a big believer in investing in sporting infrastructure. The hard-court in Kamikamica Park, Lautoka is one example. In the new budget, $500,000 has been allocated for the lighting at Churchill Park to assist the Lautoka City Council with internationally-accepted stadium lighting for night games That means we will be able to host evening matches for the Fijian Drua –– which means more attendees and more viewers.
And in the healthcare sector, Ba has benefitted enormously from our ability to innovate and attract good partners to undertake efficient and advanced gains in our healthcare sector.
Thanks to our public-private partnership with the Australian healthcare company, Aspen Medical, we’ve re-developed and opened the new Ba Hospital. Its combination of better-trained healthcare professionals, upgraded facilities, and new medical services is positioning Fiji as a hub of medical tourism and aged care.
I can go on all day and point out all we have spent and that we will spend on the environment, agriculture, forestry, healthcare and fisheries and other services. The bottom line is Ba has greatly benefitted from our time in Government. Simply put, the Province of Ba is now a better place to live. I’m proud of that fact, and you all should be as well. And because of our latest Budget, Ba Province will only keep getting better.
My friends, this latest Budget shows that we have not lifted our foot from the gas pedal. Yes, we’ve developed the country at a record pace. Yes, we’ve grown the economy at a record pace. Yes, we are now recovering from the pandemic at a record pace as well. But my Government does not settle for record-breaking. We will aim to break the very records that we have set. We know where we’re heading and it’s towards building a better Fiji for everyone. We have been doing it since the day we entered Government, and we will keep doing it.
We have no other choice. The challenges we face are far too great for any of us to rest on our laurels. Climate change is here and now, and you bear witness to its devastating effects every day. For some time now, Fijians in Tukuraki and similar villages in Fiji have been calling for action – and in their everyday lives, acting themselves. As one of the communities in Fiji that has been successfully relocated due to sea-level rise, Tukuraki today stands as a powerful symbol of a resilient Pacific.
We not only protect communities but our vital natural resources as well. Through the Ministry of Environment, which chairs the National Environment Council, we operate the Natural Resource Owners Committee (NROC). This Committee’s representatives from the 14 Provinces are now represented at the Provincial Council Meetings. The move will also ensure the full disclosure and total transparency of the management of natural resources in Fiji.
You cannot manage what you do not know or do not measure, which is why the community-based reporting from NROC members to document our natural resource inventory is so important. It helps establish the health of our biodiversity and protect our ocean resources.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is also imperative that we fill vacant chiefly titles. I have been reliably informed that of the 537 chiefly and customary titles in Ba, only 386 are filled. That leaves 151 vacant. As we continue towards a transformed 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.
Those individuals who have not been confirmed by the iTaukei Lands Commission in leadership positions have little or no mandate to speak for their Vanua. And I give you fair warning: Government will not allow the leadership void in the Vanua to be exploited by any self-serving group. Fill the vacant positions. Do it for your people. Do it for your Vanua. Do it for Fiji.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is a lie being circulated that the iTaukei are not benefitting from the use of their customary fishing rights. The truth is this: The iTaukei Affairs Board manages the customary fishing rights funds, which was passed to them from the Ministry of Lands. Currently, TAB has $3 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. 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 received 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, $40 Million Dollars is currently being held by TLTB on behalf of more than 45,000 Fijians below the age of 18. In the meantime, TLTB has invested this money for them until they turn 18 and receive that money. This initiative has created several young iTaukei millionaires, all of whom can access their funds when they turn 18 to give them a head- start in their lives; they can start a business, buy a house, or buy a car. Everyone is now receiving the same amount – chiefs and commoners alike.
Not only have we protected your land, but we are also finding ways to increase its value and ensure the benefits of land leasing are enjoyed equitably by your community members –– including women and young people. A few months ago, I officiated at the ground-breaking ceremony of two new subdivisions in Vuda and Tavua. These are iTaukei lands and the landowning units will benefit in a big 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.
The difference between my opponents and Government is we not only want you to be resource-rich but cash-rich as well.
To ensure our maritime communities have a reliable source of income, we have lifted the five-year ban on beche-de-mer and established a set harvesting window. This matters because this resource must be sustained over the long term.
Friends, the seas are home to life that sustains livelihoods and feeds billions. They keep our atmosphere habitable by sucking out vast amounts of harmful carbon. And their vast depths hold incredible untapped potential. But decades of over-fishing, pollution, and high carbon emissions are pushing ocean eco-systems to their breaking points. If these abuses are left unchecked, my grandchildren’s children and your grandchildren’s children won’t know the beautiful reefs and oceanic bounty that define your Province.
I’m calling on our beloved Province to make our ocean action agenda a part of your lives. Don’t litter. Respect fishing bans. Help us become the change we seek from the world to save our oceans from further degradation. Help us help our future generations.
On this note, it is my pleasure to open the 2022 Ba Provincial Council Meeting. And I wish you all the best in your deliberations.