Saturday, January 19, 2008

It all boils down to race

Frederica Elbourne
Friday, January 18, 2008

Negative impression ... It is hard to believe no one Fijian was qualified to be on the Commision, says Kotobalavu+ Enlarge this image

Negative impression ... It is hard to believe no one Fijian was qualified to be on the Commision, says Kotobalavu

A former senior civil servant who acted as advisor to four Prime Ministers since Independence in 1970 has described recent appointments to the Constituency Boundaries Commission as setting a "very bad constitutional and political precedent".

Jioji Kotobalavu says the non-inclusion of a Fijian in the three-member Constituency Boundaries Commission creates a bad precedent because it could, in future, backfire on Indians and other minority communities. Here he explains to Frederica Elbourne why this decision may be a recipe for disaster

WE all respect the fact that these appointments have been made by the President under his authority in the Constitution.

We also acknowledge that the individuals who have been appointed are persons of intelligence, experience and integrity, and no one doubts that they will exercise their State responsibility with seriousness and honesty.

Nevertheless, these appointments have obviously been made after consultations with the interim administration and reflect the nature of advice tendered to the President.

What is of concern is what appears to be that no serious consideration was given to the inclusion of someone from the Fijian community, who make up 57 per cent of Fiji's total population.

All three members of the Commission are drawn from the minority communities who, together, comprise only 43 per cent of the population. In fact, two are from the non-Indian minority communities who represent only 5 per cent of the population.

The negative impression this has inevitably created among Indigenous Fijians is that even though they number more than 500,000 as confirmed by the 2007 Population Census, not a single Fijian was considered to be suitably qualified for this Commission. This is very hard to believe.

The Compact chapter of the Constitution (section 6) lays down that the conduct of Government in Fiji are to be based on the equality of the rights of all citizens, full respect for the rights of all individuals, groups and communities, and full consideration of the interests of all communities.

Right from Independence in 1970, and starting with Fiji's first Prime Minister, Honourable Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, these constitutional principles together with basic considerations of fairness and equity, have always been the guidelines for advice tendered to the Office of the President on State appointments to be made under the Constitution. Underlying them is the view that long-term peace, harmony and stability in our country can best be guaranteed when all communities are treated with sensitivity, and fair consideration is given to their interests.

There is another aspect. The Constituency Boundaries Commission has a direct role in determining constituency boundaries and the number of voters in each constituency. Whilst the Commission will without doubt endeavour to carry out its task with total independence and with regard only to ensuring the right of all registered voters to free and fair elections, there will naturally be lingering concerns within the indigenous Fijian polity that the non-inclusion of a Fijian in the membership of the Commission was deliberately intended and the question that will be asked is, why?

The new Constituency Boundaries Commission may reflect the application by the interim Administration of its declared "non-racial" approach to governance. But to its political critics, the non-inclusion of a Fijian only serves to expose the lie in its accusation that the ousted Qarase-led Government was blatantly racist in its approach.

It is very hard to be persuaded to believe that no-one from the community that represents 57 per cent of Fiji's population, no-one from the 500,000 Fijians, was suitably qualified for appointment to the Commission.

The preliminary results of the 2007 Census have clearly conveyed the message that future elected governments will be led and controlled by indigenous Fijians provided they are politically united during national elections.

Given this political probability, the danger that arises from this "non-racial" approach that has now been adopted in important State and Constitutional appointments, is that future Fijian-led governments will do the same, and the unwitting victims will be our Indian and other minority communities.

So the bigger question that we need to consider is, what is the best approach that would strengthen long-term peace, harmony and stability in Fiji?

A "non-racial" approach, or one that is based on a careful consideration and balancing of the interests of all communities. Perhaps, this question can be an item at the top of the agenda of the proposed National Advisory Council on the Charter for Good Governance in Fiji.

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