Vakaturaga i Nacolase na Turaga na Tui Tavuki;
Nakoroisoso na Turaga na Tui Naceva;
Koroinadave na Turaga na Tui Nabukelevu;
Nabala na Turaga na Tui Nakasa;
Namanusa na Turaga na Tui Ravitaki;
Nalavani na Turaga na Tudrawe;
Valededeiga na Turaga na Tui Yawe;
Natawalevu na Turaga na Tui Dravuwalu;
Nakoroijoma na Turaga na Tui Joma;
Naivibaji na Turaga na Tui Yale;
Koroivabea na Marama na Tui Vabea.
Ni sa Bula vinaka.
I am honoured to be here with you this morning. But more importantly, I am very happy to be back in Fiji, among the Fijian people and in the country I love. I just returned from two UN meetings abroad, and while I am happy to carry Fiji’s flag to these events, my presence is far more important than simply making sure that Fiji is among other nations. I attend these events because they are critical to defending and advancing Fiji’s most vital interests. The fact is that every Fijian needs a healthy ocean and climate like we need food to eat and air to breathe. All of our global advocacy is built around those over-riding objectives.
I participated in discussion and debate at the recent Oceans Conference in Portugal, where I spoke for the entire Pacific community as well as Fiji.
That conference is always close to our hearts because I presided over the first Oceans Conference in 2017.
We made several commitments with the solemn purpose of protecting our ocean. It is hard to imagine a more vital interest for our country than that. While I was there, I had Kadavu firmly in mind, because you depend so heavily on the ocean for your livelihoods. And having crossed the ocean from Suva to Kadavu this morning, the expanse of sea that I crossed reinforced my unshakable belief that every minute we spend challenging the rest of the world to stand up to its responsibilities to protect the ocean and combat climate change serves every woman, man and child in Fiji—and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For the past few months, I have attended eight Provincial Council Meetings—in Serua, Namosi, Cakaudrove, Nadroga/Navosa, Bua, Lau, Lomaiviti and Naitasiri. In all those meetings, my story has remained consistent: I lay out with facts and figures what the Government has accomplished in each place and what we will do next.
Although my opponents have criticized us at every turn, they have never offered an alternative. They have never offered a different vision. They have stood by and complained even while Fijians from all Provinces and all walks of life have reaped the advantages of a Government that has kept its promises. We promised equal treatment for all, and we delivered. We promised development, and we delivered. We promised free education, and we delivered. We promised improved healthcare, and we delivered. We promised to protect iTaukei land, and we have. We turned criticism into innovation. That enabled us to vaccinate an entire nation and carry Fiji through the worst economic crisis the world has ever seen caused by COVID-19. So let me turn your attention first to our economy.
We all know that COVID-19 hit us hard, and Fiji was one of the worst-affected countries. We lost a total of $4.6 Billion Dollars in GDP over the last two years – total GDP in 2020 was at levels similar to 2014. But COVID-19 took our economy six years back. We lost around $4 Billion Dollars in foreign exchange from tourism earnings.
Government tax collections declined by 50 per cent on average, losing around $2.8 Billion Dollars in tax revenues. Over 100,000 Fijians were either unemployed on reduced hours. Socio-economic conditions became challenging, and the Government had to provide around $500 million Dollars in income support.
We knew that our country had to recover as soon as possible. There was simply no room for delays. Yes, we did what most countries did during the pandemic; we borrowed strategically to safeguard our economy for an eventual recovery. We were able to do that at concessional rates because our lenders – the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and some friendly governments – were confident in our prudent financial management and sound macro-economic policies. We received direct budget support from Australia and New Zealand for the first time, which they do not easily give. But they believed in us then and they believe in us now.
Our timely access to vaccines and effective roll-out were vital to reopening the economy and international borders. Why did we have that timely access? Because we sought it aggressively and because the nations and organizations that could provide vaccines had faith in us—in our seriousness, in our ability to conduct a complex campaign, and in the quality of our medical professionals. None of you who have been vaccinated paid a single cent for those vaccines, and neither did Government because we strategically levered diplomatic support. We only paid the costs of administering the vaccines throughout our over 100 populated Islands.
As a result, Fiji’s economy is projected to grow by more than 12 per cent in 2022.
Our Tourism Industry has quickly gotten back to its feet.
By May 2022, visitor arrivals were about 55 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
We did well in our primary source markets in May. Australian arrivals were 90 per cent of pre-COVID, while New Zealand arrivals were around two-thirds pre-COVID. And June and July bookings look much better.
Fiji’s most productive sector and biggest strength is Tourism. We should – and we will – continue to build on it. We will not forget the other sectors, which we are also strengthening, but we need to keep that economic engine in tip-top shape.
The fact is that we were decisive, and we acted quickly and with imagination to secure Fiji financially and economically. My Government has always shown confident and decisive leadership. We listen to the Fijian people, we listen to the counsel of the best minds available, and we act. When I took up our country’s leadership, I said I would spend a lot of time listening. That’s what I’ve done over the previous fifteen years, and that’s what I’ve done at the last 8 Provincial Council Meetings as well.
That means listening to every person in Kadavu and every Fijian everywhere, not just to vested interests and the selfish pleas of a select and privileged few. We want to hear your opinions. We want to hear your frustrations. We want to know what you need. Your opinion matters. Your views are very important as we make every effort to reach and assist everyone, especially those who are farthest behind and need help most.
Fiji is a much better place to live than it has ever been before, and I venture to say that Kadavu is as well. We are more connected. We have a strong economy. We have more resilient communities, and we are making more communities more resilient every day. I tell you with all modesty that that is not a boast. It is an indisputable fact. And all along, we have been guided by the belief that Fiji belongs to all Fijians. That all Fijians should have equal opportunities. That we should lift up those who are less fortunate. And that Government should work for all the people.
And that is why my Government invested over $55.6 Million Dollars in your Province from 2014 – 2021. The major investments were focused on roads, bridges and jetty networks. We listened to your concerns on the condition of our roads and devoted over $23 Million Dollars. With these we are able to conduct a Monthly Routine Maintenance Cycle of existing road network for Tavuki, Ravitaki, part of Yawe District, Nabukelevu, Sanima District, part of Naceva District and part of Nakasaleka District.
We upgraded the rural road at Yawe District with the construction of the New Road from Nakorovou to Naqalotu and the Upgrade of Nabukelevu District from Kabariki to Nabukelevu-i-ra. Today, you can also enjoy the Vunisea Vacalea Access Road for Naceva District and Part of Nakasaleka District together with the Yawe Road Construction from Richmond Road to Nakorovou village.
But Fiji is a maritime nation, and it is not enough to fix the roads if we want to unite the nation. We recognized that maritime islands rely heavily on other means of transportation, and the jetties are as critical as the roads. That is why my Government installed Mooring Buoy at Vunisea Jetty, which keeps the community safe.
We believed from the outset that education is one of the keys to a modern, democratic society where knowledge is the key to prosperity. But our system of education was woefully unequal. So we have invested $8.63 Million Dollars in the Ministry of Education programs in your Province to provide free education, boat and engine assistance, school. Construction and building grants. Our young people are our most precious resource for the future, and we have always stressed that it is important to support their physical, intellectual and psychological development. Government has invested a total $1.6 Million Dollars for youth and sports initiatives.
We have invested in young people’s livelihoods in the Province through our Youth Farm Initiative program, which supports the need to develop and utilize land in the Province. In addition, plans are in the works to improve the Vunisea Sports Complex, which will give our young people better opportunities to develop sports skills, become more fit and adopt all the character-building traits that wholesome competition in sports encourages.
Building a smarter Fiji that empowers Fijians of all ages has also been a high priority for my Government. For the first time ever in Fiji, there is now free education from pre-school to secondary school. Gone are the days when children were sent home for not paying their school fees. Gone are the days when parents had to buy text books. And gone are the days when high academic achievers of modest income were shut out of university and other post-secondary institutions. That is why in 2014 we introduced a major tertiary initiative, the Tertiary Education Loans Scheme, which created a pathway to higher education for students that never before existed.
We have also strengthened our social protection system to assist with free education and increase the poverty benefit scheme and social welfare allowances. Through the Ministry of Women, Children & Poverty Alleviation, a total of $8.3 Million Dollars has been invested in the Province of Kadavu to assist families and individuals who are recipients of Social Protection allowances such as Poverty Benefit Scheme, Care and Protection Allowance, Social Pension Scheme, Disability Allowance that are administered by the Department of Social Welfare. In Addition to the Social Protection Programmes, My Government strongly believes in empowering women economically as entrepreneurs and business leaders. And we invest in women-led business endeavours here in Kadavu through Income Generating Projects funded by the National Women’s Machinery.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as I have mentioned, I am here today to show you how the Government has invested in Kadavu and what this means for real people. The dollar amounts only tell the expenditure; they don’t tell the human story. As an example, human beings need access to clean water.
In investing over $2 Million Dollars in the Kadavu Rural Water Scheme, we have made sure that villages have an uninterrupted piped water supply. Nabukelevu–i–ra, Muani and Tavuki villages are amongst those that bear testament to this.
We have also invested in Ecological Purification Systems to improve your access to clean water –– which is an obvious way to improve your health and well-being. Our investment of $200,000 installed purification systems in six villages – Kavala, Lawaki, Namajiu, Nakoronawa & Nakaugasele and Mataso to the benefit of 602 Fijians.
My Government has also seen the need to make it easier for people to access Government services. So we invested $1.2 Million Dollars for the construction of the Kavala Government Station.
You may recall at the commissioning that I had mentioned bringing essential services to you, so that the residents here could avoid unnecessary travel and the expense and inconvenience it entails just to get basic service from their Government. And we have delivered just that.
Of course, all these expenditures do not include the vast amounts we have spent after natural disasters for rebuilding schools, health centres and other public infrastructure. When communities have been battered by terrible storms, we have been there to support you, rebuilding 86 house frame after severe TC Winston, and another 576 immediately after severe TC Harold in 2020.
I don’t need to review all those investments because you can all attest to this. It is more important to speak about the future – on “what is next” for Kadavu and for Fiji.
We have all become painfully aware that the prices of certain foods and of fuel have increased. This situation affects everyone, and it has two major causes.
One is a lag in supply chains, which are still crippled in many ways due to the pandemic. The second is Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine together account for 30% of the world’s wheat supply –– from which we make flour, cake, bread, babakau, roti, and panikeke –– and that supply is now cut off by conflict or sanctions. Fiji has condemned the war as a matter of principle and basic morality. We see how devastating it has been for the Ukrainians, and as a small country we can sympathize with a country that is being bullied by a powerful neighbour. I know how hard this is for our families and for families around the world. I would like to be able to tell you that there is something we can do in Government to change this situation quickly, but I cannot. Fiji did not invade Ukraine, so we can’t end the war. But I tell Putin directly over a video conference call that his conflict is costing us all and that it must end. In the meantime, here at home, we are willing to do whatever we can to ease the burden.
We have begun by eliminating 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. Government will forgo an estimated $163 Million Dollars in tax revenues annually from zero-rating these items.
To cushion the blow of rising global fuel prices, my Government has removed the 20 cents per litre fuel duty that was introduced in the 2019- 2020 Revised Budget. We expect to lose around $56 Million Dollars in revenue annually from this measure.
We raised the minimum wage from $2.68 an hour to $4.00 an hour by January 2023 through quarterly increments.
Now I would like to return to Kadavu and Kadavu’s future. There is a great deal of untapped commercial potential here in Kadavu.
Farmers in the Province supply the Fiji markets with dalo, yaqona, and other commodities. And there is more that Kadavu can do.
This week we witnessed 54 year-old Taniela Kama from Tavuki who switched from using chemical to organic fertilizer. The Tavuki villager has been farming for the last 10 years and was assisted by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011 with a shed, 300 layer birds, and chicken feed to kick-start his poultry business, valued at $26,000.
Today, Kama supplies 150 eggs weekly to a supermarket in Kadavu. He is now focused on trying to meet the high demand for eggs in Kadavu and will be re-investing in his poultry business when he harvests his yaqona next year.
He is a good example of how people can find opportunities if they have a plan, offer quality and are alert to trends in the market. I want to encourage farmers in Kadavu to consider other commodities. We need to replace many of the products we can easily and efficiently produce at home.
Fiji imports around $20 Million Dollars of vegetables such as broccoli, capsicum, cauliflower, cucumber, lettuce, and tomatoes annually due to inconsistency in our domestic supply throughout the year. We should not have that kind of inconsistency in supply. We should be able to satisfy most of our domestic demand for these simple crops.
For example, lettuce is a fast-growing crop that represents an untapped market that our farmers can supply. But we are currently only meeting half of the local demand, so we import the rest. And that costs us foreign reserves that we can use to benefit Fijians. We recognize the need for farmers to sell at export price, of course. Rice farming is another possibility we’re exploring right here on Kadavu. And ginger is a highly lucrative crop and we should be growing more. We’re working on the outstanding quota issue with FRESPAC Ginger Limited so that Kadavu-based officers and farmers will be able to work together in ginger cultivation.
We are also venturing into more livestock production, particularly pigs, beef, goat and sheep. This is essential to Fiji’s nutrition security –– which measures calories as well as important nutrients like protein.
And to grant more of our young women and men the opportunity to better themselves and their communities, we launched a new Jobs for Nature programme that will employ thousands of our people –– including young people –– to protect, restore, and harness nature.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Of the 376 chiefly and customary titles in Kadavu, only 132 are filled. That leaves 244 vacant. It is very important to fill these vacancies to maintain the Vanua’s stability and allow for more thorough consultations 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 the leadership positions have little or no mandate to speak for their Vanua. And the Government will not allow the leadership void in the Vanua to be exploited by any self-serving group. Please fill the vacant positions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A lie being circulated is 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 $3.2 Million Dollars invested in term deposits, which are released on request from the Vanua.
Now let me address iTaukei land, because it has been the subject of a great deal of outright falsehoods. iTaukei land ownership 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.
What we have done is tackle the tough issues that previous governments weren’t bold enough or strategic enough to address. We’ve done this with you and for you to unlock your potential and to provide opportunities for your children and grandchildren.
Today, landowners across the country are enjoying 80 percent of royalties from resources that come from their land. This distribution of funds is enshrined in the law. We made specific legal provisions to ensure that the 80 percent share goes to landowners. No other Government administration did what we have now done regarding the royalties payment. And this comes in addition to the lease monies landowners are also paid.
My Government enacted the equal distribution of lease monies in 2011, which 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. $52 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 and will hold it for them until they turn 18. 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, further their education, buy a house, or buy a car. Everyone is now receiving the same amount – chiefs and commoners. Some do not like that, and there are no prizes for guessing who they are, because you know. They were the same people who had enriched themselves by short-changing or shutting out the people they were supposed to be looking after.
I ask you, what person who was taught the difference between right and wrong can possibly oppose the idea of fair distribution or rent monies? I urge you to be wary of anyone who opposes the principle of equity. Equality and fairness should not be radical ideas, but they were until not long ago. They should be what is normal and expected, because every Fijian citizen is entitled to fairness.
The amendments brought about by the changes in Section 12 of the iTaukei Land Trust Act, commonly known as Bill 17 and now known as Act 21, have also been distorted—and perhaps incorrectly understood by some people. So let me clarify any misunderstandings you may have.
Before land can be leased, five things must happen:
1. 60% of the community has to consent that the land can be leased;
2. The community must agree on the type of lease;
3. The community must agree on the term of the lease;
4. The community must agree on the premium that must be paid; and
5. The community must agree on the yearly lease payments.
That was the case before Act 21 and that is still the case after Act 21. Not a single aspect of this process has changed. What has changed is the administrative management of leased land by the TLTB, which was in sore need of reform. The changes brought about by Act 21 have done nothing more than streamline the processes with TLTB and other relevant agencies — and this is directly raising the value of iTaukei land; meaning more money in our landowners pockets. These bureaucratic changes allow tenants to have easy access to finance from the banks to develop their leased land more quickly and efficiently. It is hard for me to understand how anyone can oppose that. In fact, these reforms were so obviously beneficial that we made the very same changes for leases of state.
The rights of landowners are enshrined in our Fijian Constitution, and they cannot be taken away. Unlike previous constitutions, which allowed iTaukei land to be converted into freehold land. Act 21 has been the law for a full year. No land has been taken and no rights have been infringed. The lie my critics are spreading have been exposed by reality.
While they criticise, we continue to think of people’s well-being. We plan ahead. I am very pleased that the ban on harvesting, possession, shipment and commercialization of beche-de-mer, or sea cucumbers, is lifted with effect from 1 July 2022 to 31 October 2022. This is part of Government’s effort to sustain community livelihoods, stimulate local economic activity and help the national economy grow, while still preserving this precious resource.
Anyone who wishes to purchase and export beche-de-mer, or sea cucumbers, is required to write and submit expression of interest to a special Committee set up for the express purpose of ensuring the sustainable management of this resource. We want those who harvest this species to get the best price through credible and accredited exporters.
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 will always get from my Government. We offer stability. We always offer decisive leadership, especially when it is needed most. It is leadership you can trust because we keep our promises and serve the people.
In the spirit of development and progress I’ve spoken on today we also have several handovers planned ––a new 23-foot Fiberglass Boat and two outboard engines for Tavuki Village, and kitchen supplies and utensils for some local women’s groups.
It is my pleasure to open the 2022 Kadavu Provincial Council Meeting. And I wish you all the best in your deliberations.