Vakaturaga saka i Nakorolevu vua na Turaga na Vunivalu
Vakaturaga saka i Burenitu vua na Turaga na Railevu
Members of the Serua Provincial Council
Ladies and Gentlemen
Bula Vinaka. It’s wonderful to see you all again.
I’ve been to many places in Fiji since my return from Australia and I’ve heard and answered many questions everywhere I’ve been.
That is how I always prefer to be among the people, with both ears open. As leaders, I’m sure you all agree.
I appreciate the heartfelt concern and prayers that I have received from most everyone. Though I have heard a cynical few asking if I can continue governing and leading our country. They must be joking. The answer is yes, of course I can. I am feeling strong and hopeful as ever for the future we can create for Fiji together.
In fact, I believe the recovery I have made is not unlike the recovery Fiji is making now as we emerge from the pandemic. And I have every faith that the nation’s recovery will succeed just as my recovery has succeeded. We have accomplished a lot already, but we have a lot of work yet to finish, and, in both cases, I intend to see it through.
COVID-19 was the worst economic crisis to affect humanity in a century and I am proud that Fiji managed such a crisis better than most others.
We kept the virus out for a full year while death and misery affected much wealthier and more technologically advanced societies. We used that precious time to secure enough vaccines for every eligible Fijian. We then made the tough but necessary calls to save lives and revive our economy by vaccinating the nation through measures that were decisive and, most importantly, which worked. Virtually all adults in Fiji are now fully vaccinated and more are being boosted every day. Our policies came as a surprise to some other countries –– but they soon copied Fiji when they saw our success and sought it for themselves. And while we endured the pandemic together, we supported those who needed helping more than anyone; those who were already vulnerable and those who were made vulnerable by the brutal blow of the pandemic.
We refused to let the pandemic destroy the measures of social safety we built over years to aid these Fijians –– including the elderly, including rural pregnant women, including children, including those with disabilities, and including the newly vulnerable who had lost their livelihoods. We placed all of these Fijians at the heart of every part of our pandemic response and we kept them from falling into life-threatening destitution.
We focused and re-directed government revenues towards social support and secured funding assistance from our key development partners. We negotiated highly concessional loans at zero percent to point zero one percent interest rates from reputable financial institutions like the World Bank and from countries like Japan. We succeeded because those governments and multilateral development banks trust the FijiFirst Government to manage that money well.
We earned that trust through years of responsible fiscal management, and we validated it by managing those funds prudently throughout the pandemic. Those loans allowed us to mobilize hundreds of millions of dollars to directly aid the unemployed and those on reduced hours.
And even after two brutally difficult years of the pandemic, ANZ came out recently with an analysis that shows our debt levels remained sustainable –– a case that the Hon Attorney-General and Minister for Economy has made repeatedly in Parliament and to the people.
Thanks to that capable and scrupulous financial management, we were able to maintain measures of social support. We kept businesses going in every way we could, and we acted with firm determination to restore the full might of the Fijian economy.
Nothing was going to stand in our way to aid our people and put Fiji on the path toward recovery –– including my opponents who fought us at every turn. They opposed our vaccine mandates. They opposed businesses reopening. They opposed our international border reopening. They opposed our schools re-opening. It is obvious to everyone now that our critics were wrong each time —and when I say “everyone,” I am including those critics. They know; they whisper it among themselves, but they dare not say it aloud because to do so would be an admission that they are not fit to govern. But they know they were mistaken –– and so do the people of Fiji. When the nation faced a historic crisis, my opposition showed themselves to be timid fools. We should not let them forget it.
What distinguished our strategy from the demands of the opposition was that we saw further than they ever could. We had a vision while they simply played to the emotions of the day. We saw a future of our recovery while they saw only their desire for attention and for power. And now our vision has come to pass –– you can see that anywhere in Fiji. Life is back to normal. We are in a much better and stronger position than we were two years ago because we made it so. And I thank the Fijian people for their faith in their government to bring this recovery about.
They knew their government would see them through, just as we have countless times before, and I am proud to say we did not let them down. Together, we proved that we Fijians are the masters of our fate. And now we must continue to believe and work for the Fiji we want. Believe in the Serua we want; believe in the Vanua we want. More than ever, I am encouraged by what I see around me, as we all should be.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we talk about the Serua we want, let me review for you the resources the Government has dedicated to the people here, and how a Government that believes in getting things done for the good of the people has helped make Serua a better place to live.
From 2014 through 2021, I want to give you a snapshot of the development assistance we’ve provided you.
The Government has dedicated more than $43,350,000 to projects to benefit Serua directly. That was money spent right here in this community, including more than $20 million for roads, more than $10 million for telecommunications and connectivity, more than $5 million for schools, more than $2.6 million for electrification and more than $1 million for water and sewerage.
I can go on and detail all we have spent here on the environment, social welfare, agriculture, forestry and fisheries and other services. But the point is that Serua has benefited greatly from this Government. To put it more plainly, Serua is now a better place to live. The standard of living is higher, and it’s getting better all the time. Have we favoured Serua over other parts of the country? No. But we have made sure that Serua gets its fair share of Government resources. We have made sure that we hear you and remember your needs. That is my promise to you and every Fijian –– and it is a promise that has remained firm every year of my service as your Prime Minister.
Since I entered Government with that commitment, Fiji has moved forward in large and rapid steps. Government has set about methodically and with determination to transform our country–to make it more modern and competitive in the world economy, to guarantee that all Fijians are treated equally and have the same opportunities, and to improve standards of living for everyone. I have spoken a little about the funds that have come directly to Serua, but the fact is that the people of Serua have also benefited from every reform this government has made.
We have done what is best for Fiji and best for our future generations. We have listened to what the people have told us. We have heard their frustrations and their desires, and we have responded with action. We have levelled the playing field so that all Fijians can have better transportation, greater choice in the market, better health care, and better education.
We have ensured the equitable distribution of lease monies so that all iTaukei are bestowed with equal opportunity –– including women. Their fortunes were often tethered to the men of their community. Now, they are empowered financially to better their lives as they see fit. Children below the age of 18 also have their share, which is placed in a fund that is invested by TLTB and which they can access when they become 18 to build a foundation for their future.
We have made infrastructure a priority, finally building and repairing the roads and bridges that had been neglected shamelessly by previous governments. We have made education truly free for the first time. We are more resilient as a country and people. Our ability to recover from any tropical cyclone demonstrates our commitment to keeping Fiji safe and secure. And every resident of Serua reaps the benefits of these changes.
Fiji’s relations with our key allies continue to blossom. They continue to assist Fiji. The recent opening of the Black Rock facility in Nadi again demonstrates Fiji’s ability to attract that kind of cooperation. Our larger partners trust us.
They trust this Government to act responsibly and to be a reliable partner in security and defence. They trust us to be wise managers and stewards of the assistance and support they provide.
Unfortunately, the only thing that spread faster than COVID-19 during the pandemic were lies and rumours. I want to dispel a few now.
One question I have been asked before is if the FNPF will run out of money. I assure you that thanks to my government’s reforms and the FNPF’s prudent management, your savings are safe and the FNPF sits in a strong financial position.
The FNPF Act allows the Board under certain conditions to assist its members in times of need. It has done so before during serious cyclones and other disasters. COVID was worse for Fiji than any cyclone –– much worse. Unlike a single storm, its impact did not pass over the course of a single day, it hammered our economy for nearly two years.
As of 4 April 2022, 141,377 FNPF members have been assisted through the pandemic, receiving a total of $368.3 million. Out of this amount, $185.6 million was paid by government and $182.7 million came from the general accounts of the individual FNPF members.
It’s important to remember that members receiving relief could only access funds from their GENERAL accounts. Their PRESERVED accounts were not touched.
And if their general accounts ran out, Government stepped up to top up their accounts. In total, more than 45,000 members received a full top-up from Government.
And these millions of dollars do not include the $90, the two rounds of $50 and the two rounds of $360 payments that government paid to unemployed Fijians during this time –– that was separate.
This two-pronged strategy of government and FNPF assistance allowed the Fund to be prudently managed. As of today, the FNPF’s total assets are more than $8 billion of which cash and deposits are over $600 Million. The Fund also continues to provide other types of withdrawals for housing, medical, education and funerals, and, of course, full withdrawals upon reaching the age of 55.
And none of this accounts for the social welfare assistance the government continued to pay out to those most vulnerable during the pandemic.
It is the FijiFirst Government that had the moral courage to put money where it was needed–and that is in the hands of the least fortunate among us. Our Fijian tradition is to take care of the weak among us. We have done this for generations in our communities. We join together as a community to care for our elderly, our disabled, our children. And this is what we are doing on a national level – applying a Fijian solution. The challenge is the same one we have always faced, except that it is bigger, and is national in scope.
We have allocated almost $54 million for the Social Protection Scheme, which is targeted at persons above the age of 65 years who have not been part of any superannuation scheme. Each eligible person receives a payment of $100 per month, and more than 46,000 individuals are currently receiving this assistance. That is 49 % of Fijians older than 65. This includes people who have not worked formally for any company of organization and don’t have an FNFPF account –– such as those living in the villages, those who have a micro or small business, or those women, for example, who have never worked for anyone formally, attending to their own teitei.
Today, the Ministry of Women has a total of 86,715 recipients under the four major social protection programs that entail monthly allowance payments.
The programs are as follows and the capacity of individuals or families assisted within the financial year, at a cost of more than $112 million. The Poverty Benefit Scheme assists more than 22,000 families, the Care and Protection Allowance helps more than 8,700 people with children, the Social Pension Scheme assists more than 46,059 Older Persons, and the Disability Allowance helps nearly 10,000 people who live with Disabilities. This is money well spent, and it is money that goes back into the economy as these people buy the things they need. The elderly and persons with disabilities also have a greater ability to move about the country thanks to the Bus Fare Scheme, which benefits 40,000 people.
The point is that we cannot have a true democracy, we cannot have a modern economy, if we do not use the power of government to help the neediest among us.
In summary, the Fijian Government provides $112.5 Million budget for implementing programs targeted at assisting children, persons with disabilities, older persons, families as well as agencies that complement the work of the Ministry in not leaving the vulnerable cohorts of our society behind.
Education is another of any government’s most important responsibilities. We need to educate our children so that they can be responsible and productive citizens who can step in and do all the important jobs that our country will need. And we cannot afford to lavish resources on a few privileged families while disregarding others. And we must recognise through our funding, the special challenges faced by people in remote areas.
How do we make sure that students with high potential and low incomes are not shut out of opportunity? How do we make sure that the young people in those areas can get the education they need to reach their potential?
The answer was free education. But we knew we could do more.
The Tertiary Education Loans Scheme –– which we established in 2014 –– continues to assist thousands of Fijians with scholarships and loans. Since 2014, we’ve allocated $1.2 billion for TELS and Toppers for the benefit of over 53,000 students. These students, which include young people from Serua, have gone on to become doctors, nurses, civil servants, scientists, and leaders –– and we are proud to have played a part in helping these talented Fijians to realise their dreams.
This year, we’ve committed funding for an additional 8,609 new intakes –– which means we will push the total number of students assisted to beyond 60,000 within the first nine years of establishing the programme. Every one of them earned their way to merit-based support for their education.
There is a lie being spread in our communities that TELS interest rates are 20%. The highest interest rate for TELS is two percent, and that is in cases where the combined family income is above $100,000. Students with combined family income of up to $25,000 enjoy a zero interest loan, those with combined family income of $25,001 to $50,000 have 0.5% interest loan while those in the threshold of $50,001 to $100,000 have a 1% interest on the loan.
No financial institution will offer an education loan at such a low interest rate –– but your Government has done so, and we will continue to do so as long as the people entrust us with the mantle of leadership. And please remember that students do not begin repaying their loans until they are working, and are only required to pay back a small fraction of what they earn. If they stop working, the repayments are no longer required until they begin working again. And if they pay 50% of their loans earlier, we forgive the other 50% as an incentive.
We’ve also fully-funded 5,000 students through TVET. Government continues to give equal and escalating attention to TVET as it is key to rapid industrialization, entrepreneurial development, poverty reduction and wealth creation.
A pathway has been created so that year 12 students and people working in the private sector can also access TELS for TVET now apart, from year 13 students. Our workforce today is more qualified than ever before and that force of talent, ambition and vigour is the wind that will carry us forwards as our recovery progresses.
Our education revolution helped power us to nine straight years of economic growth prior to COVID. As our economy has grown, you have benefitted because we have freed our landowning communities from much of the corruption, inefficiencies, and the lack of administrative and political will that kept them on the margins of Fiji’s development. And as our recovery gains steam –– you will continue to benefit because of what we have done and what more we are prepared to do to extend prosperity to the rural parts of Fiji.
Some of you may remember that we issued a Ministerial directive to investigate the operations of all iTaukei Institutions to ensure all cylinders were firing efficiently. This review exposed discrepancies in both the financial management and operations of the Board and PCs. Past governments turned a blind eye to this mismanagement –– we did not. Stringent measures were put in place to ensure accountability and root out corrupt practices. For example, we ceased the staff loan and advances to the public programme which was rife with abuse and undocumented transactions.
Ending those abuses allowed us to use funds in better and more productive ways. We increased the Turaga-ni-koro Allowance twice since 2007 –– it now stands at $100 per month. Community Health Workers were recognised under the iTaukei administration structure as Assistant Turaga-ni-koro –– ensuring they were also paid allowances.
Our village profiling exercise has begun –– helping create the Integrated Village Development Plan; the next phase of which will be carried out next year.
The iTaukei Affairs Board now has the structure of a real and impactful organisation, allowing it to move away from its traditional secretariat role to an operational one and better deliver on its mandate of good governance.
We set up the Sauvaki ni Vanua Program and Provincial Training Team which hosts interactive sessions in villages that allow issues in the Vanua, in the village council and at the village level to be quickly resolved.
We audited the TAB and Provincial Council accounts for the first time since the late 1990s. As for the Serua Provincial Council, the Annual Accounts for 2000 to 2012 have been audited and the audit team is now working on the 2013 to 2018 accounts.
We created the first landowners affairs department to focus on the needs of landowners. We streamlined the TLTB’s operations in 2011 to focus on its core business of managing iTaukei land for the maximum benefit of landowners. And we have maintained that commercial focus through the years so that landowners can create value –– meaning cash –– from their assets and contribute more to Fiji’s development.
We’ve waived premium payments from lease offers, making it easier for landowners to own leases and access funds from financial institutions to develop their lands.
Government is also funding the subdivision of iTaukei land across Fiji for the benefit of landowners such as in Yadua, Namata, Vuda, and Wairebatia –– with two more to come in Tavua and Veiseisei. And through the Seed Fund Grant programme, we’re empowering landowners to develop their leased land directly.
We’re organized financial literacy awareness programmes for landowning communities so that they can discern genuine opportunity from scams and maximise the value of their land through their own ingenuity. And we’ve brought women into the fold in previously male-dominated sectors like agriculture.
But I did not come here simply to tell you what we have done. You deserve to know what we are doing –– you deserve to know “what is next”.
Our Revised Budget announcement is the blueprint for the next several months of our recovery. It was a compassionate budget that addressed the price-increase crisis affecting our people due to persistent pandemic supply chain constraints and Russia’s war on Ukraine. It removed VAT from 21 items: sugar, flour, rice, canned fish, cooking oil, potatoes, onion, garlic, baby milk, powdered milk, liquid milk, dhal, tea, salt, kerosene, cooking gas, soap, soap powder, toilet paper, sanitary pads and toothpaste. It laid out a timeline to responsibly raise the minimum wage to four dollars by the start of next year. And it removed the 20 cent fuel levy to counter the sharp rise in the price of fuel. It was an innovative budget that devised new ways to deliver services –– like healthcare –– to our people. It was a bold budget that paved the way to a business and landowner-led recovery.
It is a budget that does more than we have ever done to empower landowners to turn their constitutional right to own land into a constitutional right to make money.
Our budget’s policies are at work as I speak to clear the bottleneck of land awaiting survey. Fixing the issue demanded greater synergy among the TLTB, Ministry of Lands, Department of Town and Country Planning and the Ministry of Economy, which we have funded through a dedicated working group in this revised budget. No more working in isolation –– they share a mission of empowering landowners, and they work to realise that together. Soon these entities will be connected to the TLTB LDVC portal, which will make cooperation easier and allow them to track surveys to ensure that bottlenecks are identified and timelines are reduced.
We are also fixing the longstanding problem of landlocked lots by funding the development of access roads to all tenants. Some tenants had leased a plot of land that was completely blocked in by other parcels and had no access to a road ––that was unacceptable and needed remedying.
Let me tell you what that means for Serua and the Mahogany Industry that is vital to your local economies.
The survey of mahogany plantations at Galoa and Naboutini is aligned to the priority areas identified by Fiji Hardwood Corporation Limited in consultation with the Fiji Mahogany Trust. The two plantations cover a vast area of 12,249 hectares encompassing 21 leases.
The boundary demarcation and lease survey for Naboutini and Galoa Mahogany lease commenced in 2009 and the survey was completed in 2019. The objective was to survey the individual lease lot within each plantation to enable Fiji Hardwood Corporation Limited to secure a registered lease over the individual lot within each plantation. Through the survey, secure leases were obtained from the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB). Part of ensuring the ownership of land by landowners is ensuring the correct boundary demarcation –– that’s one reason surveys are so important to the mahogany industry in Fiji. The long term relationship between the FHCL and the land owning units (LOUs) is important to the ultimate success of the Mahogany industry. It supports security of tenure while protecting the rights of the lessee and the landowners, it generates revenues of landowners, and improves living standards.
For sand and gravel extraction, five licenses, all from Navua river, were issued from 2020-2021. And three foreshore lease applications were received – Naitonitoni, Yanuca Island, and Ravodrau. These are being processed.
In the revised budget, we deferred the groundwater drilling in the Naboutini Village. The Department of Mineral Resources will use that time to consult with the community on the works completed in 2015 as the community seeks an investment partner for a potential water bottling venture. There is no monopoly of bottled water in Fiji and we support Naboutini’s vision. Groundwater investigations for Vunalagi/Nakaroko Settlements are also deferred to the next financial year.
Of the 81 chiefly and customary positions in Serua, 49 are vacant. The cultural mapping programme for the 24 villages was completed in 2006 while the cultural verification programme was completed in 2014. Data processing is in progress and will be completed in May 2022 to help fill this void of leadership with reliable data.
Friends, we’ve done an enormous amount together, as partners, for the benefit of the people we are privileged to serve. There is more we can do; indeed, there is more we must do. We are coming out of the most difficult crisis Fiji has endured in our independent history. We have managed as best as we can by holding fast to the principles of compassion and common sense that you know you will always get from my government. We offer stability. We always offer decisive leadership, especially when it is needed most.
We offer consistent policies that build confidence. We offer strong friendships with our development partners, like Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Australia and New Zealand gave us direct budgetary support during the pandemic –– that has never happened before. And it happened because they trust our financial management. Now, the worst is over and that same steady hand of leadership my government offers is restoring our economy, our jobs, our way of life, and our livelihoods. We cannot fall from that path. I believe my government is the only government that can keep Fiji on that journey forward because we are the only government with a record of doing so before.
All of that progress, all of that trust, and all of that potential are at stake in the next election. Our people will have a choice between the future and the past; the future that all hard-working and decent Fijians want for their children, and the past of division, disunity and incompetence that we have worked so hard to put behind us.
As leaders, I ask that you encourage your people to register to vote. I ask that you continue your good work for the benefit of this beautiful province. I ask you to remember how far we have come together and all that it has taken to get where we are today. We have worked too hard to go backwards –– we owe future generations far better than that. As leaders, we must keep our eyes firmly fixed on the horizon, on all we have yet to achieve –– let us look to the promise of Fiji’s best possible future together. Our children are counting on it.