Since 2006, it has become a popular pastime for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to malign the “bad old politicians” of Fiji, and this trend will no doubt become a frenzy as “new politicians” offer themselves.
Many who write thus to the media are perhaps too young or ignorant to know what the “old politicians” did or did not do, compared to the new politicians.
But one does not expect the same song from Sir James Ah Koy, himself an “old politician” who personally benefited from the political largesse of several “old politicians” and Prime Ministers of Fiji (and received a knighthood from PNG “old politicians”).
Of course, such a message about “bad old politicians” is useful propaganda for a government which strangely contains a couple of “old politicians” (like Bole and Kubuabola), yet still claims it is the “first” government to do anything worthwhile for Fiji.
Nevertheless, it is the solemn responsibility of the older generation to set the record straight about what the old politicians did or did not do, compared to what the new politicians are doing.
It is also useful for future voters to examine the political record of “old politicians” like Ah Koy, who was once a Minister of Finance in Rabuka’s Government, and who is offering himself up again as a “new” politician.
Ah Koy as “new politician”?
Some political historians might scratch their heads at how Ah Koy once entered Parliament as a Chinese “General” voter, then later managed to get elected as an indigenous “Fijian” MP for Kadavu, then rediscovered his Chinese roots to become Ambassador to China, and is now offering himself as a “born-again” new politician, ready to serve in Commodore Bainimarama’s Party-to-be.
Economic historians with nothing better to do, may scratch their heads as to how and why Ah Koy was appointed in the first place as Minister of Finance in Rabuka’s SVT Government, replacing a performing Mr Vunibobo.
But all economic historians (and future voters) must examine Ah Koy’s performance as Minister of Finance, and especially his disastrous decision to create the ATH telecommunication super monopoly, in order to sell Government’s shares to Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) at the inflated price of $253 million, thereby “coincidentally” covering the cost of the National Bank of Fiji (NBF) disaster.
Those interested can read about the mess Ah Koy created, here:
Ah Koy also convinced many members of the public to buy ATH shares whose values were destined to fall in the long term because of inevitable competition in the telecommunications industry (and they have fallen significantly to the dismay of their holders).
Another still ongoing negative effect is that FNPF, to recoup its massive investment, has had to exploit ATH’s monopoly power through higher telecommunication prices, thereby hurting not just ordinary consumers, but also holding back the telecommunications based industries for more than a decade, and stifling economic growth.
The same Ah Koy is today trumpeting that the current batch of unelected leaders are the “best politicians” this country has ever had, even though some of them, as Mr Ah Koy well knows, had their fingers in all the coups of 1987, 2000, 2006 and 2009.
But what do the facts say about the actual performance of the “old” politicians as opposed to that of the “new”?
What old politicians did
Of course, there were “bad old politicians” who were responsible for the military coups, or the NBF disaster or the several vote-buying agricultural scams we have had over the years under virtually every Prime Minister (except Bavadra).
But there also have been dozens of “old politicians” who have provided good leadership either as part of Government, or as the Opposition whose keen scrutiny helped keep governments in line.
Unlike the current “new politicians”, these old politicians were elected to Parliament or they were nominated to Senate by the elected Governments and Oppositions, to look after the interests of “their” electorates, whether communal or national, as lawfully defined by the existing constitution and electoral system.
We have had prominent names like Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, AD Patel, Ratu Penaia Ganilau, Ratu George Cakobau, Sidiq Koya, Karam Ramrakha, the Toganivalu brothers, Jai Ram Reddy, Doug Brown, Josefata Kamikamica, Mosese Qionibaravi, Charles Walker, Jone Naisara, John Falvey, Tom Vakatora, Irene Jai Narayan, Vincent Lobendhan, and even a Khaiyum, once my colleague in Parliament.
[Disclaimer: While I served in the Fiji Parliament from 1996 to 1999, I have been told by my legal adviser that I am not an “old politician”, being neither old nor a politician].
Many old politicians served their electorates, with great energy and dedication. Most made no personal fortunes themselves, when many could have made more money or had easier lives by ignoring politics altogether.
These old politicians helped Fiji to build roads, hydroelectric dams, ports, water and sewerage systems, schools, and health centers.
They presided over a healthy sugar industry with twice the current sugar output, grew a buoyant tourism industry, started massive mahogany plantations, fostered many other industries such as gold and fisheries, began the Fiji National Provident Fund, and built a Fiji economy which was the envy of all other Pacific Islands.
In partnership with private education authorities, their governments helped build an excellent education system, which staffed a good civil service for three decades, and even facilitated tens of thousands to emigrate and obtain excellent jobs and incomes abroad.
There were good “old politicians”, both in Government and Opposition, who guided our country through turbulent periods such as the military coups and financial disasters like the NBF collapse.
Many of our “good old politicians” (like Jai Ram Reddy) patiently guided the revision of the racist 1990 Constitution through peaceful democratic parliamentary processes, cooperation and the power of ideas and goodwill (not by brute military force, as being done currently).
Some old politicians, like Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, provided astute regional political leadership to the South Pacific countries (including a giant like PNG), while playing leading roles in international agreements such as the Law of the Sea and Lome.
Many old politicians, in the service of their people and Fiji, often neglected their families, who today cannot must feel deep dismay and pain that the “old politicians” are all being tarred with the same brush, and maligned so unfairly and ignorantly, by today’s politicians and brash political aspirants.
Facts on the “new” politicians?
This maligning of the old politicians is even more astonishing given the facts on the new politicians.
Under the “new politicians”, the Fiji economy stagnated between 2006 and 2011, with the sugar industry in ruins, formal sector employment declining, real incomes falling by more than thirty percent, and poverty correspondingly increased. The economy has grown since 2011, but it is barely making up for five years of stagnation.
The parts of the economy that have kept Fiji afloat (such as tourism and large foreign remittances which are twice the sugar industry earnings) owe nothing whatsoever to the “new politicians”, who daily give themselves salusalus and media attention, whenever the private sector or donors launch their successful projects, or tax-payers money is being prominently thrown around (of course, not as vote-buying scams?).
Yes, there are new roads being built currently, but they were also built before, except that no one today knows the current unit construction costs with tax-payers’ money flowing freely through the welcoming hands of the Road Transport Authority, while the public debt is increased astronomically.
The facts also show that none of the “old politicians” ever prevented Auditor General’s Reports from being published for six years, and none received unknown ministerial salaries paid through a private accounting company (even today).
None signed commercial agreements for large loans and other projects, whose details have been completely hidden from the public.
None secretly approved investor projects totally undermining the strict marine environment protection laws that exist today.
None ever trashed a Draft Constitution they had themselves commissioned, in order to design and approve another constitution granting themselves immunity for unknown criminal actions, stretching from 2000 till 2014, while simultaneously jailing a former Prime Minister over minor charges.
We can wait for Regime supporters like to list the positives emanating from the new politicians, apart from the dubious pleasure some seem to have of calling themselves “Fijians” and the farcical illusion of being “equal” to everyone else because of the new electoral system.
Loss of historical memory
Fiji, sadly, suffers from a severe loss of institutional and historical memory that allows unfair generalizations about the “old politicians” to be made with impunity and without public challenge.
This is partly because of the massive emigration of our intelligentsia and partly because of the intimidation of those remaining.
Partly also, the media (television, radio and print) has been forced by draconian application of the media decrees, to become instruments of government propaganda, which by any objective criteria of space and time devoted, is completely out of proportion to the few opposing views that are allowed to trickle through.
Nevertheless, it is the solemn civic duty of the older generation to defend, through whatever media is available to them, the reputation of the many “good old politicians” who they once elected to parliament, and who served them and Fiji, in an open, transparent and accountable way, whatever their faults.
Any society which does not defend its own former good leaders is guilty of selfish ingratitude.
They are also failing in their civic responsibility to remind the younger generations that the foundations of the quality of life they enjoy today were built by the older generations, led by the “old politicians” who are being gratuitously maligned today in an indiscriminate fashion.
Some day, the “new politicians” will find that “what goes around, will come around”.