E na Vanua Vakaturaga o Ra;
Uluda na Gone Turaga na Tui Navitilevu;
Nacobicibici na Vunivalu na Tui Nalawa;
Burelevu Vua na Ratu ni Natauiya;
Nakorotubu na Turaga na Nagonesau;
Na Liuliu ni Bose ni Yasana;
Members of the Ra Provincial Council Meeting;
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Bula Vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.
It is a privilege to be back with you to open the Ra Provincial Council Meeting. I was proud to open the newly sealed Vakasobu Road on the drive down to the venue. I remember you asked for the road to be tar-sealed at our Talanoa last year. I promised you it would be, and so it has been. It is another promise I’m proud to see delivered.
I do not take our time together today for granted. Due to the global spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, in most parts of the world a gathering like this could never happen. We’d all be wearing masks every time we went anywhere. Our children would not be in school.
Many of us would have said goodbye too soon to loved ones who were lost to the disease, adding to the one million lives that have been claimed overseas.
Thank God that is not the reality Fijians live with. Knowing we could never afford to let what happened in 1918 with the influenza epidemic and in 2020 with the coronavirus, we acted quickly to close our border, we contained the virus, we did everything possible to keep our people safe, and now they are. We have had no cases of the virus among the Fijian public for more than 170 days.
I’m sure some of us remember the instant experts who popped up back in March to prey on the anxiety of our people during that time.
We remember those would-be leaders stoking fear, warning us of the virus infecting us through trade- winds, and other made-up madness. Many of those same people told us we’d all run out of food and other essentials –– I’d wager some of those they duped still have a mountain of unused toilet paper stacked somewhere in their homes. Those critics are either very quiet these days or they’ve found something new to lie about –– whatever it is, you can be sure they will insist Government is to blame.
I could spend all day disproving their lies one at a time – but that’s not how I want to spend our time together. We can’t afford those distractions when there is so much work that must be done. I’d much rather stick with doing what my Government does best: Listening to your concerns and learning from your experiences.
But we won’t stop there – we never have. We will also see how and where we can work together to make life better for more of our people. Where we can, we are prepared to deliver new development. We can never promise everything, but what we promise we always keep.
In Ra Province last year:
Nearly 5,000 people received social welfare assistance, including senior citizens, expecting mothers, those living with disabilities, and disadvantaged children.
Education was free for every student in the Province, with another 1.3 Million Dollars given towards subsidising transportation to school for students who need it.
We’ve strengthened law enforcement with the recent completion of the around 600,000-Dollar Namarai Police Station which will soon be commissioned.
We opened the new Rakiraki Fire Station and the new Rakiraki Market, which is now a hub of the local economy and second home for the women vendors who travel great distances to sell their goods and produce.
We’ve invested in community security by installing street lights in communities, schools and health centres all along the King’s Road.
In August, I opened the Savusavu and Nausori Crossings worth 7 Million Dollars and also launched the Electrification at Nausori Village worth another 400,000 Dollars, and the Ministry of Waterways recently spent 1.6 Million Dollars in de-silting the Penang River to prevent flooding during heavy rains.
And we’re investing in expanding economic opportunity, supporting your agricultural sector and livestock production, including a future-facing focus on “aqua-culture”, with some of your communities opening up to lucrative new opportunities like black pearl farming.
So, yes, we have indeed delivered on our promises of new roads, police stations, and crossings, along with water and energy extensions and other hallmarks of modern life.
But our greatest promise of all is bigger than any single bit of infrastructure – it is the promise that all Fijians are empowered on an equal basis. In good times and bad, no Fijian will ever be left behind. Today that precious promise matters more than ever. Because while we may not be suffering a health crisis from COVID-19, the COVID-driven collapse of the world economy is hitting our people hard.
This year we expected nearly One Million tourists to come to Fiji, and we expected they would bring their wallets with them. We expected them to eat food our farmers grew. We expected them to go on tours with our guides. We expected them to buy handicrafts. We expected they would help create and sustain employment for our people. Obviously, that has not happened.
As Leaders to your communities, you each know the economic and financial burden our people have borne this year. We all know someone who has lost their job or had their hours cut. We all know someone who is having a difficult time fetching the usual prices when they bring fruits, vegetables and seafood to market. We all know someone who has moved back to the rural areas to ride out this economic crisis. And we know the strain that has been placed on communities seeking to accommodate them. No matter who we are, where we live, or what we do for a living, all of our lives have been affected. This is not a Fijian problem, it is a global problem, one that stretches from the desks of CEOs of the world’s biggest companies to homes in villages across this Province.
Nearly as quickly as the economic impacts of this pandemic set in, Government stepped up to cushion the blow. One week after our first case of COVID, we launched a COVID-19 Response Budget to provide assistance to those who had lost their jobs. We built on that assistance in our latest National Budget. So far, Government has paid out nearly 50 Million Dollars in direct financial assistance to Fijians whose jobs have been lost or who are on reduced hours. Even those working in Tourism who can now get work on the weekends are now able to access the full amounts of unemployment assistance.
We will continue to stand in solidarity with those who need our help, however, long it takes for this economic storm to abate. As Leaders, I ask that you stand with us.
Look out for those who are vulnerable, and do not always wait on Government to solve every problem. We need everyone’s ideas and innovation, we need everyone’s courage and creativity, we need every Fijian to act with care towards those who need a helping hand. That is the spirit of resilience which has defined our 50 years of independent history.
Together, we have come back from cyclones, we have come back from ethnically-charged political upheavals, and we will come back from the coronavirus pandemic as well. As we have so many times before, I know we will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.
I thank you for the warm welcome you’ve accorded me and my Delegation. I wish you all a successful meeting and I look forward to speaking with as many of you as possible.
Happy Fiji-50 Day! Thank you – Vinaka vakalevu.