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Our constitutional trauma: symptoms and causes.


[The Fiji Times, 17 Feb 2000]

Ordinary far-sighted citizens (and investors) must be quietly panicking.

A major Fijian political party, the SVT, is demanding fundamental constitutional changes, engineered from outside Parliament, to safeguard indigenous Fijian interests.

Government’s attitude is that the SVT statements, and the associated political moves, are simply attempts to destabilize and throw out the ruling Coalition.

But both sides are wrong in focusing on the symptoms of political dis-satisfaction, while ignoring the causes, which are very real, and have little to do with race.

Major weakness in electoral system

How quickly has it been forgotten, that the 1997 Constitution has serious electoral weaknesses, which have led to unfair political outcomes for major political parties.

The SVT, which represents the largest single group of indigenous Fijians, has far less (8) than the number of MPs it should have (14), given their share of the total national votes. The VLV should have had 7 seats instead of the 3 they have currently.  The NFP should have had 10 seats, instead of the devastating zero.

This major flaw, the lack of proportionality in the electoral system, has the potential to sink the entire Constitution.

This electoral weakness was made worse because the largest Fijian Party (SVT) was kept out of Cabinet, despite the Constitition’s provisions for Multi-Party Government.

On the basis of the 8 seats actually won, SVT was entitled to at least 3 seats in a 21 person Cabinet of Ministers and Assistant Ministers. On the basis of the votes they received, SVT could have expected 5 seats.

Yet SVT does not have a single person in Cabinet.   This result is a cruel denial of the spirit and the origins of the 1997 Constitution.

Co-operative Spirit of the 1997 Constitution

Under the 1990 Constitution, Rabuka and his SVT Ministers had exercised complete power.  There was no compulsion on them to share government responsibilities with other ethnic groups.

Yet, in a remarkable spirit of reconciliation, dialogue, consensus, and inclusiveness towards the other ethnic groups, Rabuka and SVT accepted a new Constitution.

They promulgated the concept of Multi-Party Government and Cabinet, empowering all Parties who obtained 8 seats or more in Parliament.  This was not even part of the Reeves Commission recommendations.

In the national interest, Rabuka and the SVT agreed to share political power with all major parties in the country.

What was the result?

Unfair exclusion of SVT

The SVT did win 8 seats in Parliament, which entitled them to 3 seats in Cabinet.

But, the stipulation of conditions in their acceptance letter, was interpreted as a rejection, and the SVT were totally shut out of Cabinet.

This exclusion was backed by the judiciary, who may have been correct on strict technical grounds.

But the exclusion of the SVT from Cabinet was not according to the spirit in which the 1997 Constitution had been derived- through dialogue, consensus, and inclusiveness.

Common sense suggests there ought to have been further discussions, as was indeed envisaged when the Korolevu Declaration was signed (before the election), by all the political leaders (including Rabuka and Chaudhry).

How cruelly ironic!

The very Party, which had compromised its own monopoly of power by agreeing to the 1997 Constitution, was totally shut out of the new Government, on a purely technical interpretation, ruthlessly applied.

Is it surprising therefore the Party representing the largest group of indigenous Fijian voters in the country, should feel traumatised?  Is it surprising that the SVT is bitterly agitating for changes to the Constitution?

Need to change electoral system

One might disagree with the re-emergence of racism amongst some of the SVT’s leaders and supporters.  One might disagree with the kinds of strategies which are being placed on the SVT agenda for change and re-empowerment of their leadership.

But surely, fair-minded people will agree the electoral system and the Constitution cannot be such as to shut out the largest Fijian Party from Government.  It is not just a question of race, because the NFP was completely annihilated from Parliament.

It is generally accepted by most Constitution experts, thatFiji’s current electoral system suffers from a fundamental weakness:  it does not incorporate an element of proportionality, such as to ensure that Parties are represented in Parliament, roughly according to their share of votes in the country as a whole.

This is nothing new.  Along with other critics, I had also pointed out (The Fiji Times of 1 and 2 November 1996) that the Reeves Commission recommendations had extremely weak advice on the electoral system envisaged for the 1997 Constitution.

I had then argued that were the electoral system to be proportional, with the introduction of a Multi-Party Government,Fiji’s demographic trend would guarantee full Fijian representation in Parliament and Cabinet.

Be fair and think long-term

I had then also warned (and I quote): “it is possible that the larger parties could act selfishly in order to protect their own interests now, to the detriment of the smaller parties and the national interest”.

Unfortunately, the larger parties then (the SVT and the NFP) were not interested in proportionality, probably because they were benefiting, to the disadvantage of the smaller parties like the Fiji Labour Party and the Nationalists. It is ironic that the boots are on other feet now.

But the FLP and FAP would be politically short-sighted if they  refuse to begin dialogue on further revisions of our electoral system, merely because the current one benefits them.

May I repeat what I had also written in the 1996 articles: “rigging the rules in current self-interest can have long-term unexpected results… A Constitution, which is a long-term document, is not a place for rule-rigging.  Political leaders will be judged by history for their service to the country over the long-term, not for how well they served themselves in the short-term”.

Sitiveni Rabuka and SVT, and Jai Ram Reddy and NFP, have assured themselves of an enviable place in the history ofFiji, for what they achieved in bringing about reconciliation, dialogue, consensus, and provisions for inclusiveness in the Government of this country.  Sadly, this was also at considerable personal cost, which they have borne with quiet dignity.

But the FLP today has an opportunity to emulate what the SVT did in 1996, by establishing a Joint Parliamentary Committee to discuss public grievances about the electoral system, the operations of Multi-Party Government, and possible revisions to the Constitution.

If  these legitimate concerns are not placed on the official Parliamentary agenda, it cannot be surprising if they are addressed outside of Parliament, as is happening currently.

Lastly, given the enormity and nature ofFiji’s problems (such as the expiring ALTA leases), one can only wonder at the political objectives and strategies of those (inside and outside of the current Government) who preferred to exclude SVT from Cabinet (and continue to do so, despite their Constitutional right to be in Cabinet).

Can Government change the political game from the old one of confrontation, vilification and “winner takes all” mentality, to one of dialogue, consensus, co-operation and sharing?   The ball is in Government’s court.

[Appeared as “The constitutional trauma”.  The Fiji Times, 17 February 2000].

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