The Fiji government and the country’s only pension fund are being accused of deliberately targeting selected pensioners for pension reductions.

The lawyer representing the pensioners says newspaper advertisements placed by the pension fund show the pension cuts are politically motivated. The allegations come after months of controversy over plans by the military-backed government and the National Provident Fund to put pensions on a sound economic footing.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett ABC Australia Pacific Beat 
Speaker: Dr Shaista Shameem, principal of the Suva-based law firm ShameemLaw

GARRETT: The Fiji National Provident Fund is in trouble. Even without recent failed investments which saw asset writedowns of 160 million Australian dollars it has a big problem with unfunded pension liabilities.

The Fiji government and the pension fund management are determined to do something about it.

But their plans are being challenged in the High Court by 75-year-old pensioner David Burness, who stands to lose up to 64 per cent of his pension. Mr Burness wants to see a full independent inquiry into the problem before any pension cuts are implemented. Over the past four weekends the Provident Fund has been setting out its position in newspaper advertisements.

Mr Burnesses lawyer, Shaista Shameem, is concerned the pensioners case is being undermined by government censorship and she says the Provident Fund is going too far in making comments on issues that are before the courts.

SHAMEEM: These paid advertisements which are full page colour spreads in the dailies could be a subject of an action in subjudice because the matter, as you know, is already before the court and the problem is the pensioners are not able to put their own advertisements in the papers, so if there is any education of the public, which is what they claim, then surely it should be from both sides and the pensioners also need to have the alternative view put forward to the public. But because of censorship, we are not allowed to put any advertisements or we’re not even allowed to send news items and any news reports that we send or press statements that we made are not published, so clearly there is a guideline directed by the Ministry of Information, not to publish any of the material from our side, from the applicants side.

GARRETT: With a large unfunded pension liability and more people retiring every year the Provident Fund and the government are keen to take action. The newspaper advertisements describe the current entitlements of pensioners like David Burness, as an extraordinary windfall that is costing current wage earners dearly. Unions, business-owners, wage earners and pensioners have questioned the expertise of Provident Fund management.

Shaista Shameem says the Fund’s newspaper advertisements are misleading.

SHAMEEM: We have our calculations as well. We have an eminent economist who has done an annexure for David Benesses affidavit and he does a different set of calculations. So this is really just what it’s about. If it’s about doing sums, then I think we should have an opportunity to put our sums forward as well. And the proper forum for that is the court, because the matter is already in the court. It’s not in the newspapers, because the ordinary public doesn’t have the opportunity to see an alternative set of calculations.

GARRETT: You say that the pensioners who are being selected for pension reductions are being handpicked. What makes you say that?

SHAMEEM: Well, one of the things that we had noticed in the latest news items was that they had reviewed the selection process for the reduction in pensions, so originally there was no detail about exactly whose pensions would be reduced. I mean it was just everybody who was already on pensions. But recently we had noticed that they had said that people who were receiving, I think there was $800 cut off, monthly benefit cut off whose pensions would not be reduced. Now how the FNPF have arrived at this particular figure, nobody knows. How it decides what is the poverty line in Fiji or there’s no evidence before the court that this is why they’ve selected this particular lot of people. So the remaining people who  from the FNPF’s point of view’s calculations are above some line, they’re the ones who are now going to have their pensions reduced and that constitutes a very small group of people; and how have they decided that it’s this lot of people who are not going to be impoverished, and not another lot of people. So from our perspective, it’s definitely a situation where it appears some people have been handpicked for whatever reason known to FNPF and the government. And clearly this is something that ought to be put forward to the court, but, as I said before, nothing’s put before the court from the other side at all. We have our affidavits, but we have not received any affidavits in reply from the other side. They keep on making strike out applications from the bar table. We don’t even have anything in writing on that. So it’s just terribly one sided. The information going out to the public is not substantiated with any evidence or facts. It’s highly political. Clearly, they have made up their minds and they want to impose their version of calculations and truth on the public.