Monday, October 27, 2008

Supreme and urgent - Joji Kotobalavu

Supreme and urgent
Monday, October 27, 2008

JIOJI Kotobalavu was invited to comment on the political forum which starts today and assess its prospects.

TIMES: As someone who has been an adviser to four of Fiji's Prime Ministers since Independence in 1970, what are your thoughts on PM Bainimarama's Political Forum and the issues it ought to cover?

KOTOBALAVU: The Forum is supremely important because the only way Fiji can return to constitutional legality and parliamentary democracy is through a political consensus on the holding of national elections. What has given added urgency to this political dialogue is the ruling by the High Court on the constitutional challenge case on October 9, 2008. It has, in effect, brought democracy in Fiji or whatever was left of it to an inglorious end.

We should all commend PM Bainimarama for his initiative. The PM has made it clear that no one should come with prior demands. However, what will ensure its success is a commitment by all, including the PM himself, to genuine democratic dialogue, based on open-minded negotiations, and a willingness to compromise and to reach consensus. Our leaders can draw inspiration from the outstanding example of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Mr S. M. Koya in their political compromise in early 1970, which made possible Fiji's Independence later that year. And there was, of course, the history-making agreement by Major General Sitiveni Rabuka and Mr Jai Ram Ready in early 1997, which eventually led to the adoption by Parliament of the 1997 Constitution.

On the agenda, we can assume that the PM will want to present his electoral reform proposals and the NCBBF's draft Peoples Charter as a whole. I believe that it would be most helpful to all participants in appraising these proposals with a critical but constructive eye if they could fully inform themselves first of the findings of three reports available at the Government's Bureau of Statistics. These are the 2007 Population Census Report, the Report on the 2002-03 Household Income and Expenditure Survey, and the Report on Gender Issues in Employment, Underemployment and Incomes in Fiji, the latter two by Dr Wadan Narsey.

TIMES: Why are these reports important?

KOTOBALAVU: Well, their findings are very relevant in telling us of the various considerations we need to bear in mind in devising political, economic and social policies, if we are to do the right thing for Fiji. Let me provide a summary of the significant findings.

In 2007, Fiji's total population was estimated to be 837,271. What is of particular interest is the geographical spread and the ethnic breakdown.

Fiji's urban population is now 51% of the total population and this projected to increase to 61% by 2030. Correspondingly, the rural population has declined from 67% in 1966 to 49% in 2007 and down further to 39% by 2030.

Of the total population of 837,271, Fijians comprise 57%, up from 42% in 1966, and this is projected to increase to 68% by 2030. Indians are now 38%, a decline from 51% in 1966, and this is expected to fall further to 26% by 2030. There are two other aspects that are also significant.

In two of Fiji's main cane growing provinces, Ba and Macuata, Indians have been the majority of the total population. But consider these findings of the 2007 Census. The Indian population of Ba Province will be overtaken by the Fijian population as the majority by 2014. Likewise, the Indian majority in the population of Macuata Province will be surpassed by Fijians in around 2016.

On the voter population of Fiji citizens 21 years of age and over, the updated figures in the 2007 Census are a total of 493,655 with 264,367 Fijians, 204,866 Indians, 6,131 Rotumans, and 18,291 Others.

Other findings relevant for our current purpose include the following: the nuclearisation trend in household size in Fiji is continuing and this has declined to 4.75 in 2007; the majority of Fijians still reside in rural areas, but Fijian household size and average household income are bigger and higher among urban-based Fijians; over the past 12 years , more Indians than Fijians have relocated to urban areas where the majority of Indian households now reside; out of Fiji's rural dwellers, the group with the lowest level of average household income has been identified as Melanesian non-Fijians such as those of Solomon Islands origin; the Northern Division has the highest proportion of households with the lowest level of income; females make up close to one third of the economically active in Fiji, but the rate of female labour force participation is a low 37% compared to 46% in a comparable country like Mauritius, and the average income earned by females is 19% lower than average incomes earned by economically active persons.

TIMES: Can you now show the relevance and usefulness of this information to the Political Forum's deliberations?

KOTOBALAVU: Let us begin with the proposed changes to Fiji's system of elections.

In the lead up to self- government in the mid-1960s and then Independence in 1970, the Fijian leaders were insistent that Fijians would not agree to a severance of constitutional ties with Great Britain if the Indian leaders persisted with their proposal for a common roll system of national elections. The Fijians were fearful of political domination by Indians in parliament and in government. This explains why Fijians have always preferred reserved communal seats as the way to safeguard their political interests.

Today, as the 2007 Census findings show, the retention of communal seats is no longer needed or justified, and their removal and the adoption of a common roll system as proposed in the Charter will harmonize Fiji's election system with the Bill of Rights provisions of our Constitution.

Fijians will be assured of victory in future elections provided they are politically united. Their biggest political enemies will be from themselves through a proliferation of Fijian political parties.

But one very important question that arises from the 2007 Census findings is what we must do to safeguard the interests of the Indian and other minority communities in Fiji.

We are all against racial prejudice and racial discrimination in any form and by anyone. We also know, however, that people derive a deep sense of security, belonging and well-being from their membership of, and socialization with, their ethnic and cultural communities. Why is it then that the interim Administration and the NCBBF are proposing in the Charter a vision of Fiji that we are a non-race-based society, united and vibrant. Are we to pretend that we are not in reality a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country and this in fact is the well-spring of our vibrancy? Are we to consider ourselves as no more than a society of individuals and all that is important is our individual right to equality before the law and our individual right to personal freedom under the Constitution?

Does the vision in the draft Charter mean that the Indian and other minority communities are to integrate or assimilate themselves into the majority Fijian community? Is it not better for the long peace and stability of our society that we should consider ourselves also as a community of communities where we take pride in the richness of our varied cultures and traditions but where we are also mutually commited to respecting each other and to caring for one another? This was indeed the vision that our first PM, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, had of Fiji when he said at Independence that we were taking on full responsibility not only for ourselves but also for each other. Is it not better and more realistic then that we should envision ourselves as a plural society; a country of varied cultures and traditions united by a commitment to a common future with equal access by everyone, as individuals and as communities, to development resources and opportunities?

I believe that it would be very helpful to the people in contemplating their position on the proposed Peoples Charter if the Political Forum could agree on a vision statement for Fiji.

The other point is that if we are concerned about the interests of all communities, including those often-forgotten Pacific Islanders, we need to ensure that the electoral reform proposals are not structurally prejudiced against the minority communities. Take the "Others" category of voters, for example. They number a total of 18,291 eligible voters . If they were to be split up to where they are resident in the three or four regional constituencies that are currently being proposed, there would be very little chance for the election of one or two of their members unless a closed list approach is adopted and not the open list option which is currently favoured. This is because under the closed list approach a political party will have a greater say on those to be elected from its share of votes cast for candidates on its list. In contrast, under the open list system, it is the voters who actually decide who gets elected from a party's list. However, if the open list approach is to remain, the election chances of someone from the "Others" category would be best if instead of three or four regional constituencies the whole of Fiji is made a single national constituency as is the practice in countries like Israel.

TIMES: What about the implications or inferences on economic and social policies?

KOTOBALAVU: The rapid decline in rural population and especially with more and more of our Indian cane farmers moving to urban areas spells doom for Fiji's sugar industry, and not only that, the wider consequences would be equally serious on current efforts to expand and diversify Fiji's exports. For the Fijian landowners, the non-renewal of leases invariably means reduced rental income. Since ALTA leases started expiring in1997, successive governments and parliaments have failed to agree on a long term solution. And it is surprising and disappointing that nothing substantive is included in the draft Charter to address this problem. The resolution of ALTA will doubtless have a huge positive multi-plier effect on the sugar industry, the economy as a whole, the relations between landowners and tenants and inter-ethnic relations generally. The 2007 Census findings on the rural-urban drift are warning us that we simply cannot afford to procrastinate any longer. It is time to act with vision and courage.

It would, therefore, be a very good move for the PM to task the Political Forum to agree on guidelines for resolving the future of ALTA leases. The interim Administration itself has pointed the way towards a viable solution in the initiative it has taken through the payment of a block grant to the NLTB for the landowners. Perhaps the ideal framework for this is a Compact or Social Contract between the people of Fiji and the Fijian community as the indigenous natural resource owners in the country. The Great Council of Chiefs can be the broker of this national accord. The late Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna laid the foundation for this when he publicly declared towards the end of the 1930s that the landowners had a duty of care not only to their own people but also to the other communities who need land for their livelihood, and to Fiji as a whole. Over the past decade, two leaders of the Indian community, first Mr Jai Ram Reddy and then Mr Mahendra Chaudhry, appeared before the GCC on their community's behalf to pledge their recognition and support and to ask for the goodwill and care of the Fijian people.

The 2007 Census tells us that our Indian population will decline to 26% of the total population within 22 years. Even without emigration their population will continue to fall because they have fallen below the threshold of natural increase. Clearly, this is a reflection of the many social factors that are negatively impacting on their daily lives. Our Indian community members are the main providers of education, they are the backbone of the sugar and retail industries, and they are the major providers of investment and employment.

Our national political pre-occupation over the past 37 years was in addressing the security concerns of Fijians. The 2007 Census is telling us that the national security paradigm has changed. Today, it is about laying the necessary framework to safeguard the security concerns of all minority communities in Fiji. And if the Army is to be assigned a national guardianship role it is to protect the country from the excesses of democratic majority rule, extreme ethno-nationalism, and racial bigotry and religious intolerance.

On the rapid increase in urban population, the policy implications for government are clear. It has to anticipate the increased resource demands for education, health, housing, water supply. Most urgent of all, it has to enable a positive environment for the creation of more jobs and other income generating activities. We are seeing more and more instances of working families with both husband and wife having to engage in fulltime employment to ensure their survival and well-being. More than anything else it is gainfull employment and a regular source of income that gives a person and a family pride and social stability.

We know what a government needs to do. For the economy to grow at a sustainable annual rate of 5%GDP, the combined rate of investment by government and the private tor has to be lifted from the current level of below 14% to above 25%GDP. To achieve this, government has to lift its capital investment expenditure to 30% of its total annual budget. Again, it is surprising that the draft Peoples Charter is limited to generalized statements of objectives and principles. The Charter, to be useful to future elected governments, has to include specific economic and social development guidelines and targets for them to pursue.

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