My fellow citizens in Fiji and abroad,
Ni Sa Bula Vina’a and a very good evening to you all.
Our country is experiencing a great and joyful awakening. It gladdens my heart to be a part of it. And I am reminded of the heavy responsibilities I now bear. I bear this willingly for you and for Fiji.
Most of us eagerly waited for the final result of the 2022 general election, as the majority of the nation wanted a change. Although almost 58% of our voters voted for change, no one Party gained an outright majority.
This required negotiations which took about a week before my party, the People’s Alliance (PA), and our partner the National Federation Party (NFP), reached a historic coalition agreement with the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA).
This gave PA-NFP-SODELPA the margin required to form a government.
Politics is the art of the possible. We saw what could be done and worked hard to make it happen.
We are thankful to the SODELPA leadership for its decision to be a partner in our coalition.
The manifestos of the three coalition partners are broadly similar. Our arrangement for government draws on the principles of mutual respect and cooperation.
On Christmas Eve, I was sworn in as the Prime Minister by His Excellency the President following the vote in the House of Representatives in compliance with section 93(3) of the Constitution of the Republic of Fiji.
I immediately formed a Cabinet consistent with our agreement with the NFP and SODELPA. Its members are very able, well qualified and highly committed to the task of rebuilding Fiji together.
With 19 Ministers, Cabinet is larger than I initially planned. Some of you will be concerned about the cost. I confirm that in addition to the current 20 per cent reduction imposed since March 2020, I am proposing a further cut in the remuneration for all Parliamentarians.
I considered it necessary to appoint 10 Assistant Ministers to provide additional ministerial power needed for the enormous job of putting things right in virtually all aspects of our nation’s life.
There is much discussion about the outcome of the election.
Approximately 58 per cent of those who went to the polls wanted a change.
Opposition parties in total registered approximately 70,000 more votes than the FijiFirst Party.
The mood for a new government was evident wherever we campaigned.
There was a whole raft of reasons for this, including big problems with infrastructure and essential services; education, increasing poverty, abuse of rights, a climate of fear and a massive national debt.
All these issues represented our collective lived experience.
Despite this litany of woes, I made sure to follow democratic tradition and thanked the former Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama for his service to the country.
My message for FijiFirst is that we wish to develop a positive relationship with you, as part of a broader initiative to enhance national unity. We will always be prepared to consider your ideas carefully.
This is what the people would expect of us.
Ladies and gentlemen the awakening of the country after our victory manifested itself in an eruption of joy. In cities and towns and in rural areas, the air was filled with the sounds of tooting car horns, fireworks, drumming, singing and cheering.
You the people have spoken and now everything we yearn for is possible.
You totally rejected reckless attempts to create fear and disruption by spreading lies alleging racial persecution and harassment in the aftermath of the election.
One prominent proclaimer alleged something to the effect that the situation was “boiling” and linked me.
I had to make a statement of rebuttal and threaten legal action.
None of the tall stories worked. They were widely ridiculed and debunked on the street and in the media. The people themselves reported that peace prevailed.
I must add however, that one man reported on social media he had seen two ants fighting!
Tonight I repeat the assurance I uttered so often in the election campaign.
In a democracy the people are in charge. Elected representatives like me, and my parliamentary colleagues, do not lord it over you. We are your servants. We are here to listen to your concerns and respect your views.
I now turn to the crucial issue of Cabinet governance. I do this because for the last 16 years or so it has not been clear how the Cabinet worked. The people generally had no idea when it met, and what decisions it made.
In our Cabinet the Prime Minister will be the leader. We will let the public know when we are scheduled to meet.
The views of all Ministers will be heard. Robust debate is essential for the best outcomes. I will have a briefing for the media after each Cabinet meeting to explain our decisions, accompanied by other Ministers when this is appropriate.
You will have read or heard that one of my first actions in office was to make it possible for Dr Padma Lal to bring home from Australia the ashes of her distinguished late husband, Professor Brij Lal, Fiji’s most famous historian.
So now, not only will justice be done, but it will be seen to be done. The burden of oppression is lifted from Professor Lal’s family. The people and soil of Tabia await the remains of their famous son.
I have also cleared the way for the return of the exiled USP Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.
When Professor Ahluwalia returns from his exile in Samoa, the university’s leader will be where he rightfully belongs in directing the affairs of the USP at the Laucala Campus.
I have spoken with the Minister of Finance, Hon. Professor Biman Prasad, about sourcing the funds to settle our overdue payment to the USP. We’ll keep you updated on this important matter.
It is a priority of the Coalition Government to restore the “Pacific Way” in fostering trust, and understanding within and outside the region.
As your Prime Minister, I will now chair the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). My first priority in that role will be to engage in the diplomacy required.
Ladies and gentlemen, my government is now focused on initial strategies that will help set our course for the next four years.
We wish to be an example of political co-operation that crosses boundaries and creates a strong platform to support the restoration of Fiji’s position.
In our first one hundred days in office, we intend to convene a great citizens’ assembly involving Fijians from all walks of life and political persuasions.
Its agenda is to add to the manifestos and vision statements of our PA-NFP-SODELPA coalition. We will seek from the delegates their ideas and concepts to complement our plans for building a better, more prosperous and happier nation.
We intend to establish specialist reviews in four key areas:
The Constitution and legal reform;
Defence and national security, and
A forensic examination of the spending of the FijiFirst government.
Each review team will include people with expert knowledge.
The teams will report to the appropriate Cabinet member.
Of course a looming issue is the state of Fiji’s public finances. The government debt may now be above 10 billion dollars. That is a huge burden for a small economy like ours.
The Minister of Finance will soon be sharing with me and Cabinet, the exact nature of the problem. He will examine cash flow issues and structure of debt payment. This will be done in a way that does not impede our development.
Other specific tasks include:
A review of investments in land, especially the large areas administered by the i-Taukei Land Trust Board (iTLTB). There is wealth locked in the land that can be generated for the benefit of the owners and the country;
A study of various contentious laws to determine whether they should be repealed or amended;
An enquiry into the overall financial strength of the Fiji National Provident Fund and the impact of some of its decisions on individual members and pensioners;
A study of the new financial arrangement for the operations of the Lautoka and Ba Hospitals;
Disbursement of foreign aid money;
Concerns about certain media outlets receiving substantial amounts of public money, apparently in return for favorable, slanted coverage, of the last government.
I stress however, we have a total commitment to media freedom and the part it plays in our democracy.
Some months ago, I made a pledge to legislate for a Girmit Day public holiday to honour the settlers from India who began arriving here from 1879. They were starting a new life in an unknown land and stayed to become an integral part of our country.
I reconfirm my promise to inaugurate that new national holiday in 2023.
For reasons that are unclear, the former government decided to scrap the national holiday marking the life and achievements of our great chief and statesman, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna. We will reinstate Ratu Sukuna Day. The monumental work of this illustrious traditional leader on land reform has had a continuing beneficial effect on the landowners, the economy, the sugar industry, business and investment.
My fellow citizens, it’s not possible for me to go into detail of everything we are doing at the moment to eventually create the Fiji we all desire.
There is one initiative however that I wish to leave with you this evening. It is the policy we have called Let Love Shine.
It draws much of its inspiration from the great leaders Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.
They knew how to forgive, to deal with hatred and succeed through peace. Put all this together and you get love.
The idea of love as a mighty force for progress underpins our entire approach to politics and governance.
We say that love relates to those human virtues that help give a nation moral strength, compassion and unity. Through these values we will reach true nationhood.
In an ethnically and culturally diverse country, love is accepting that differences are part of Fiji’s national identity, and that we all belong here.
It is about showing malice towards none, forgiving our enemies, and being considerate neighbors. Our neighbors are not just the families next door. They are everywhere.
I am your neighbor; you are my neighbor.
To rule through love is to stand with the poorest of the poor and help them find new hope. Love embraces humility and empathy – the ability to share and understand the feelings of others.
Fear that has haunted Fiji since 2006 is fading now. Soon it will be gone. Love will ensure it never returns.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am honour bound to serve you with every fibre of my being.
I entreat you to unite with me, and my parliamentary colleagues. We can journey together free and equal, bound by our deep love for Fiji and our desire for happiness and prosperity.
Thank you. Vina’a Va’alevu, Bahut Dhaanyavaad and Good Night.
May God Bless Fiji now and forever.