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Down the cul-de-sac, again, with political confrontation rather than co-operation


[The Fiji Times, 14 Sep 2001]


Once more, theFijieconomy is being led down the garden-path.


The SDL Leader (Mr Qarase), with the approval of the President, has appointed a Government which does not meet the requirements of the Constitution.


He has included parties and individuals in Cabinet who did not qualify to be in Cabinet (they did not have the minimum of 8 seats).


Having initially asked FLP into Cabinet and received their reply, he has excluded the FLP, which had 27 seats in Parliament (which does entitle them to be included in Cabinet).


The decision is being challenged in court.


To independent observers, the legal challenge will almost certainly be successful, unless the court agrees that the FLP’s acceptance letter (which has not been made public yet) had “conditions” which, in the court’s view, justifies Qarase’s rejection of FLP.


Sensible people would have thought that even if the FLP, in their acceptance letter, stated their expectations about the running of Cabinet (a la the Korolevu Declaration) and the SDL did not like these conditions, then the next step should have been further discussions and some bargaining, and some “give and take”, before any decisions were made.


But no.  Mr Qarase simply rejected the FLP, the largest party that represents Indo-Fijians,  while including in Cabinet, other minority parties not entitled to be there.


Why do we get a feeling of deja vu about it all?


After the 1999 elections, the FLP interpreted SVT’s letter as rejection of FLP’s offer, supposedly because of conditions made by the SVT.


The FLP then excluded from Cabinet, the largest Fijian party (which had brought in the 1997 Constitution), and invited the smaller Fijian parties. And that decision was also supported by the President then, and backed up by the Courts.


And now the cycle continues.


The economic fall-out


While a few businessmen close to the SDL may be comfortable with this development, many investors and potential investors must be concerned about the future.


Already, unions unhappy with the SDL decision are talking of calling for trade embargoes, and international sanctions and pressure to be placed on the Qarase Government.

This cannot but lead to greater risk and uncertainty of doing business inFiji, and further discouraging investment and economic growth.


If the legal challenge is successful, in a few months, Mr Qarase may have to include a certain number of FLP members in his Ministerial line-up.


Investors will worry whether there will then be more changes in policy or decision-making in Ministries if the Minister is changed, of if Government is then going to be less decisive.


Mr Qarase will have to ask some of the current appointees to resign, creating political dis-satisfaction amongst some of the SDL and CAMV followers.


SDL has already made the political point to Fijian voters who voted for smaller parties, and to Fijian politicians who stood for smaller moderate parties: if you want to succeed in politics, go with the “winner” (definitely not the moderates at the moment).


Repeating the mistakes of 1999


Deja vu, again, but with boots on other feet.


Some 70 percent of Indo-Fijian voters have supported one party (which is being excluded from Cabinet), with a similar proportion of Fijians supporting the SDL/CAMV pairing in Cabinet.


Qarase  is prepared to convey the message that with the support of the majority of Fijian voters  (and probably also the GCC, the military, and the leadership in the police), he does not have to co-operate with the largest Indo-Fijian party, nor the smaller moderate Fijian parties.


Yes, all this contradicts the multi-party agreements embodied in the Korolevu Declaration, which the FLP is now appealing to.


The Korolevu Declaration


The Korolevu Declaration raises a number of issues, about which I have written previously (see my Fiji Times article of 9 July 1999- “Moving to the same beat”).


That article had then suggested that the FLP should address the Korolevu Declaration recommendations, which amongst others, had called for consensus decision-making in Cabinet and greater consultation by the Prime Minister with party leaders.


There are also clauses asking that Government back-benchers be given greater freedom to oppose Government in Parliament, so as to strengthen Opposition in Parliament (in case the largest parties all joined Government).


And that political parties must change their constitution to ensure that MPs were not unfairly sacked from parties (with the consequent loss of their seats in parliament) just because they carried out their proper responsibilities in parliament and Cabinet, but which was not liked by the party leadership.


Significantly, there is also a clause in the Korolevu Declaration which contradicts the Ministerial oath by which Ministers swear to maintain the secrecy of Cabinet discussions and decision-making.


The Korolevu Declaration advised that Cabinet Ministers should be given greater freedom to relate Cabinet decisions to their Party Caucuses, so that their policy stances were not seen to be compromised because they were part of Cabinet.


The FLP in their year of government did not address the issues raised by the Korolevu Declaration (their tenure was cut short by the coups), which remains a Parliamentary Paper, without any legal standing.


While the FLP is now appealing to the Korolevu Declaration to be followed by the SDL Government, it is possible that the SDL leadership does not wish to venture into this territory.


Especially when the FLP leader, in announcing his acceptance of the SDL invitation, said that the FLP preferred to be the “Opposition in Cabinet” rather than merely Opposition in Parliament.  And with FLP strangely preferring to have dialogue with the minority extremist CAMV party rather than with the majority SDL Party.


One might have thought that participation in Cabinet is for the purpose of co-operation and consensus decision-making, not “opposition”.  Be that as it may.


It may be noted that the SDL and the CAMV parties were not signatories to the Korolevu Declaration, which in any case, has no standing in law, other than being made a Parliamentary Paper.


But the SDL’s current position totally contradicts the spirit of the 1997 Constitution.


Why this lack of co-operation?


This economist is completely puzzled by this lack of meaningful political dialogue and co-operation on the part of our political leaders, which also seems to be what the voters want.


Many political commentators said that NFP and SVT both lost the 1999 elections, when Jai Ram Reddy (then leader of the NFP) and Rabuka (then leader of the SVT) decided to co-operate in the election campaign rather than compete.


Some NFP supporters had also suggested that for NFP to win votes, it should campaign against the SVT (as the FLP was doing), but then join up with SVT afterwards.


Mr Jai Ram Reddy was not in favour.  He had asked, how could the NFP and SVT campaign bitterly against each other during the elections, and then straight after, join up in multi-party government?


Jai Ram Reddy preferred that NFP political leaders should publicly demonstrate their spirit of cooperation and goodwill towards the Fijian political parties, their leaders and their people both before, and after elections.


And Mr Rabuka’s position on that issue was that political leaders had to lead by example, and not be led by the prejudices of their supporters.


Yet  the voters voted out both Jai Ram Reddy and Rabuka (as well as a bemused economist who had accidentally entered Parliament without campaigning).


And that indeed is the conundrum that faces the successful political parties and their leaders inFijitoday.


Having publicly confronted and vilified each other for a whole year (without any great opposition from the rank and file) how can they now sit down together and cooperate for the good of the nation?


Constitutions may be enforced by Courts of Law, according to the letter of the law.


But for the spirit of the multi-party government concept in the 1997 Constitution to work, the political leaders still have to sit down together, with genuine goodwill towards each others’ aspirations and anxieties, with enough of a spirit of compromise and “give and take”, so that both sides and the country can go forward.


It seems thatFijipeople and the economy will have to wait longer for that to happen.


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