Thursday, March 13, 2008


Land, chiefs, taxes, it’s one ‘hullabaloo’ after

Samisoni Pareti
Whether it was by design or not, it does seem obvious that the two main powerbrokers in Fiji’s military-led regime were whipping up a cloud of controversy over the past month.

Regime leader Frank Bainimarama attracted immense publicity, some positive but many not so positives over his new job as chair of Fiji’s re-structured Great Council of Chiefs (GCC).

This will be in addition to the several other hats he currently wears; prime minister, Fiji Military Forces commander, indigenous affairs minister, information minister and co-chair of the national council for building a better Fiji.

His finance minister and leader of the Fiji Labour Mahendra Chaudhry, on the other hand, was embroiled in tax evasion charges in mid-February.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned Fiji Times newspaper named Chaudhry as the minister in Bainimarama’s cabinet who was investigated for possible tax evasion offences by the local tax authority.

In so doing, the Fiji Times stole the thunder many say from its rival—the Fiji Sun—which had relentlessly published finer details of Chaudhry’s offshore accounts which at one time shored up to more than F$2 million, using information provided to it by a London-based lawyer and former Fiji journalist, Victor Lal.

The Sun though had not named the minister.

“Our story is based simply on the fact that he is the manager of the state’s finances,” the Times wrote in its editorial the day it named Chaudhry.

“This is about the principle of good governance for the people and the responsibility of those in power to ensure they follow the rule of law to the latter.

“Mr Chaudhry influences fiscal policy, he sets targets and goals for FIRCA.

“Yet he is the subject of serious and credible allegations about his personal taxes.

Personal integrity: “In his position, public confidence in his personal integrity stands for more than his apparent right to privacy over his tax affairs.”

Chaudhry thinks otherwise and his lawyers GP Lala had begun proceedings against the newspaper in what is poised to become a lengthy and expensive legal exercise.

The finance minister has also at the same time defied calls by critics to step aside.

What he did instead was to write to his prime minister, proposing that another investigation on his tax evasion allegations be conducted and the findings made public.

In revealing this at a news conference he called on February 24, Bainimarama didn’t say whether Chaudhry had in his letter also offered to resign pending the outcome of the investigations he was proposing.

‘Will you ask Chaudhry to step aside?,’ Bainimarama was asked at the press conference.

“I haven’t decided on that,” was Bainimarama’s response.

He did reveal though that Chaudhry had already been cleared by a Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority audit, which he as interim prime minister had ordered last year.

The finding of this report was however not made public, so it is unknown when this audit was actually done and whether it was prior or after the declaration of a tax amnesty by FIRCA that ended on December 31, 2007.

In commending his finance minister’s “commitment to transparency and good governance,” Bainimarama didn’t hold back from launching a stinging attack against journalists and critics he labelled as “opportunists and corrupt”.

“The usual power hungry people who have no qualms in dividing the nation for their own political gain took the opportunity once again to incite,” says Bainimarama.

“They did this by making seditious comments that were gladly lapped up by media personnel who have an axe to grind with the government.

“Despite repeated attempts by the government to explain the reasons for taking certain actions for the improvement of the nation, the media still misconstrues by deliberately ignoring the ethics of a responsible media organisation.

“These little tricks are getting out of hand.”

The coup leader had called the media conference a day after his return from India for a semi-private visit. It was during his absence that the story broke of his new appointment as chairman of the new-look council of chiefs (GCC).

Angry over the GCC’s rejection of his nominee for vice-president (who happens to be his foreign minister Ratu Epeli Nailatikau), Bainimarama dismantled the council, changed its admission rules (which bar some of Fiji’s high ranking chiefs who are also his strongest critics) and intends to convene a new one.

Lawyers for the old GCC however accused him of contempt, saying their application for a judicial review of his decision is still before Fiji’s high court.

Bainimarama remained unfazed however, saying getting him—as the current indigenous affairs minister—to head the GCC is nothing new.

“After independence, the chairman of the GCC was always the Minister for Fijian Affairs. So, since 1875 until 1999, the person presiding over GCC meetings has always been the minister or an equivalent.

“And for a good period of time, in particular during the colonial era, it was not even an indigenous Fijian, let alone a chief.

“The question again is where were these people who are now objecting to the minister for Fijian or Indigenous Affairs becoming the chairman?”

Equally intensive has been the controversy over a proposal to change land laws in Fiji, a debate that never fails to whip up a lot of emotions given the cultural significance land holds for the indigenous community.

The uproar perhaps is not so much about the proposal by an India-based consultant for native land, whose titles are held by their indigenous owners, to be used for sugarcane farming. But more so for the way this proposal was handled.

Shrouded in secrecy: It was shrouded in secrecy until a young Fiji Television reporter confronted Chaudhry with it as he exited a cabinet meeting last month.

Chaudhry at first attempted to brush aside the reporter’s question about the native land proposal, but was forced to admit knowledge of it when a copy of a letter written on the proposal by one of his senior staff members was thrust at him.

All this was captured on television footage including a visibly angry finance minister storming away from the camera and the woman reporter.

In a way, land, chiefs and taxes overshadowed several other controversial decisions of the military-led regime, including the turning away at Nadi international airport of a delegation from the influential International Bar Association (IBA), interested in studying the independence or otherwise of Fiji’s judiciary.

Bainimarama’s attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum had insisted the IBA was welcome to visit, but not at this time.

February also saw an attempt by a Suva-based NGO to organise a public forum on Fiji’s proposed 2009 general elections.

Opposition from the regime forced the Pacific Centre for Public Integrity to change it into a private forum, and even this was aborted halfway due to a bomb threat which later turned out to be a hoax.

By end of the month, ousted prime minister Laisenia Qarase was hauled to court by Fiji’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. He faces four charges of abuse of office related to share sales between 1992 to 1995 of Fijian Holdings, an investment company for indigenous Fijians.

February also saw the deportation of Australian citizen and publisher of the Fiji Sun newspaper, Russell Hunter.

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