Shaista ShameemCommentary

Now that constitutional submissions have been made on the government’s draft constitution, it is time to reflect on what the issues may be for the people of Fiji to consider as campaigns get under way in preparation for 2014. 

Acquiescence of the people with the current situation is clearly doubtful. Somehow the Bainimarama Government, for all its expressed good deeds, has not been able to grab the hearts and minds of people as foreseen in 2006. In any political situation it is the imagination of the people that needs to be captured, and not just services to them. No amount of handouts or creating better facilities will automatically create an atmosphere of consent. People will recall 1999 when the new 1997 Constitution was embraced by the voters but the political leaders who brought it into being were rejected at the ballot box. That could easily be repeated in 2014. 

So where is Fijian politics failing? And can it be fixed? 

The first question: ‘where is politics failing’ can be answered very easily. Failed politics is evidenced by a crisis of confidence. The dictionary definition of ‘crisis of confidence’ is when ‘people stop believing that something or someone is good’. That is where we are in Fiji at the moment.

Why is there a crisis of confidence? The clear answer to that question is that there is lack of trust, which is not brought about by external influences as much as it is portrayed, but by the behaviour, mind-set, qualities, competences and attitudes of the people making decisions now. My conversations with ordinary people show that they are overwhelmed by an authoritarian and conservative leadership; staggered by the extent of red tape and bureaucracy interfering with simple businesses but not with multi-national companies still enjoying themselves in Fiji; frustrated by their powerlessness and helplessness in the face of lack of information which prohibits their ability to make plans for themselves and their future, and also the future of their children; and rendered speechless by the sheer hostility and venom expressed towards any alternative ideas or thoughts about governance or even the personalities seemingly holding all the cards right now. 

All this is not a solid foundation for a happy home in Fiji. 

The crisis of confidence is more seriously related to frustration with the apparent lack of competence of the decision-makers. The bureaucracy appears to be in a muddle and very slow; the financial situation is unclear but rumours are that the national debt is increasing; the security issue is worrying since burglaries still take place and prisoners still escape; and there is lack of imagination and creativity in governance. To top it off, foreign relations are fragile, tenuous and unfulfilling. The respect for Fiji in the international community is waning- fed by broken promises, missed steps and opportunistic attitudes which take advantage of voting blocs; not realizing that, in combination, all this does is bring disrepute to the people of Fiji as a whole.

What has caused all this? It is not 2006 events as the opposition to government likes to think- the pre-2006 political boat was sinking anyway with countless discriminatory policies being enacted as law.

The cause of the current malaise seems to be lack of political and economic philosophy of governance. The main platform on which governance was supposed to be based, that of eradicating racial discrimination, is found to be precarious: government has not put into effect the anti-racist guideline recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD Committee) delivered in 2012. 

As for the second platform, that of corruption, all that appears to have changed are the faces – the practices are reported to be the same. People can still get things done quickly if they ‘know somebody’ or are in ‘the group’. The definition of corruption, though, is more than money changing hands under the table- it has wider perceptions of unscrupulousness and ruthlessness of big business in the public environment which, if not recognized as being the case, builds up an atmosphere of mistrust which, again, would have an impact at voting time. 

The third platform, the provision of decent wages and a good standard of living, is also up for public scrutiny. Reports state that up to 50% of people may live in poverty in Fiji; even a conservative figure of 30% poverty would be too much for a country which has rich natural resources, fine weather, great primary industries, and is centrally placed to take global advantage of ‘the hub of the Pacific’. The problem is lack of imagination and creativity, not lack of investment. Fiji as its run now is just not interesting enough for people to even want to invest. Frankly, it has been made boring since 2009. The government has been so defensive about the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution that it has had no time to put into effect anything vaguely resembling a good decent wage which allows people to make a surplus to invest back into Fiji or to do creative things that would make the country vibrant and attractive. Part of the problem is the anti-fun nature of the leadership. No drinking, no dancing, no ‘funning’ (as we say in Fiji) makes the leadership very very dull indeed. Look at the outside colour of government buildings- gray and listless- does it reflect the colour of power in Fiji?

Next question: can it be fixed? For going it alone, I think that ‘fixit’ bus may have left the bus station, or the boat left the port, or the taxi gone from the taxi stand. It cannot be fixed because the serious deficit of colour, vibrancy and imagination is now woven into the very fabric of governance since 2009. It also cannot be fixed because a stalinist-type programming seems to be taking place in the minds and hearts of people. Sycophants and blind following are being encouraged by words such as ‘if you are not with me you are against me’ which is clearly silly and juvenile. Bloggers have become ranting mouthpieces for bureaucrats and advisers who love to keep robots as pets. 

Of course everyone once liked Frank Bainimarama, except the diehard few, because he brought a spirit of change and security to at least 35% of people, which is a significant minority in Fiji. The Qoliqoli Bill had really frightened that significant minority. 

But Frank is setting himself up to be unpopular because there are too many questions about his support group that remain unanswered- for example, we should ask- where is the competency in the legal advice you are getting because there is no evidence of it in the laws being decreed and in the draft constitution 2013? Do big companies, including multi-nationals, influence your policy-making and is any particular company getting favourable treatment and why? Would you disclose what salaries the cabinet ministers are getting, since they are being paid by public funds? Can you be transparent about public debt? Why are you so bad-tempered which makes people too frightened to ask you anything important? And, at age 59, do you think you should do a performance review on yourself both as a Prime Minister and as a personality? These are questions that people can rightfully ask of any leader.

Probably because he is now in campaign mode, Frank, like other politicians before him, will think he is invincible because he has to believe it. There is no room for doubt at this point as politicians need to be focused if they are to put up a good fight. And the opposition is strong as a combined force, no doubt. Moreover, the anger towards Frank and his support group cannot be under-estimated. This will be utilized fully because the politicians in opposition are old hands at the game and there are lots of reasons why they will mount a campaign to end all campaigns. 

But the same questions should be asked of the opposition or new parties, for example, what are your economic policies and how will you get Fiji out of debt? How can you make Fiji rich? How can you make everyone happy- not pretend happy like now, but real happy? What is your foreign policy? What are your social goals? Can you make use of some of the good things that Frank’s team has put into place and can you improve on them? Will you be more creative and imaginative in your leadership? Will you be nice to people instead of banging them over the head all the time making out they are stupid when Fijians as a whole are smarter than most, if not all, politicians or those in power and, finally,can you give a good reason why we should vote for you instead of Frank? 


Dr Shaista Shameem

May 14th  2013