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The GCC and the 1997 Constitution: do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.


[The Fiji Times, 13 March 2001]

The GCC is today making critical decisions on their attitudes to the 1997 Constitution.

Will they throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Will they throw out the all-important “rule of law” inFijiand the numerous other strengths of the 1997 Constition,  just because there are some minor weaknesses in the 1997 Constitution and particularly, weaknesses in its electoral system?

The 1997 Constitution is not set in stone and was never intended to be.  It may be changed, and changed in a perfectly legal manner.

The GCC has in front of it, a very legitimate path they can follow, in changing the unacceptable parts, perfectly legally, without abrogating the whole 1997 Constitution.

Not “all or nothing”

It is strange that there are so many advocates, in opposing camps, who wish to either defend the 1997 Constitution to the death (as if there are no weaknesses), or reject it in its entirely (as if it has no strengths).

Dr Brij Lal, one of the authors of the Reeves Report (on which the 1997 Constitution was largely based) claims that I am being “derisive” of the Reeves Commission when I wrote that it had “stuffed up” on the electoral system.

Perhaps I stuffed up when I used the words “stuffed up”.  But academics do resort to basic street language when trying to make boring topics interesting for the ordinary Fiji Times reader.

And who will dispute that today our country is “stuffed up” and may be “stuffed up” even more, if the GCC makes the wrong decisions.

I am not being derisive of the Reeves Commission and its work.   Dr Brij Lal knows very well that I am on record in defending their overall Report.

Unfortunately, Dr Brij Lal has consistently refused to acknowledge what Sir Paul Reeves and Mr Tom Vakatara already have- that the electoral system does have small weaknesses when applied to theFijisituation.

But these small electoral weaknesses have allowed political leaders and powerbrokers behind the scenes, to bring our country to its knees.

And it has happened twice over the last fourteen years, with tragic consequences for our people.

For our problems do not originate from the ordinary people.

Electoral systems can be major problems

Our problems originate from our political leaders, who are unable to co-operate amongst each other, in running the country.

Our problems have begun with electoral systems changing governments, and  marginalising the major indigenous Fijian parties and political leaders from central political power in the country.

This may not matter in other more homogenous countries.

In Australia Liberals may replace Labour as government; inUK, Labour may replace the Conservatives; in US, the Republicans may replace the Democrats.  Often the governing party may not even have the support of the majority of the voters.

But in multi-ethnic societies (likeFiji) political parties are ethnically based and racial divisions in economy and society are acutely felt.

Elimination of the major indigenous Fijian political parties and their leaders from Government, can be, and has surely proven to be, an unmitigated disaster.

It is a fact that large sections of the indigenous population have fears of being overpowered by other ethnic groups, and there are unscrupulous leaders who are quite prepared to inflame these fears, for their own agenda.

It is pointless to argue that an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister and an Indo-Fijian dominated Government, may have done more for ordinary indigenous Fijians (given enough time).  That may or may not be true.

It is also a fact that whenever the major Fijian political leaders have been marginalised from political power in this country, the  result has been political, social and economic trauma for our ordinary people.

We cannot allow our electoral system to play russian roulette with our peoples’ lives. The electoral system, through some statistical quirk, cannot be allowed to marginalise the major indigenous Fijian parties and political leaders.

As my Fiji Times articles  (of 5 and 6 March), and that of  Dr Fraenkel (6 March) point out, this can so easily happen (and has happened) with the Alternative Vote system and the first-past-the-post system.

Often, and this is the statistical quirk, only small changes in voter preferences, can result in massive changes in parliamentary representation.

Brij Lal’s myopia

This electoral flaw may not be important to one sitting in the enviable comfort and security of a Professorial Chair in an AustralianUniversity.

But it is vital to us, who have to live daily with the traumatic consequences of that flaw.

To my knowledge, Dr Brij Lal, in his numerous spirited defenses of the 1997 Constitution, has never acknowledged the electoral weakness of the current system.

Neither has Dr Brij Lal ever responded to the substance of the criticisms that have been made by myself (in the numerous Fiji Times articles I have written)  and many others (see the contributions of Professor Yash Ghai in the CCF Reports, or the recent articles by Dr Fraenkel).

Dr Brij Lal merely asserts again (FT 12 March) that the Reeves Commission’s electoral recommendations are both “intellectually coherent and cogently argued, and they underpin the spirit which formed its work”.

No doubt, the Reeves Report is intellectually coherent and cogently argued.  But their recommendations may still be unsuitable in parts, for ourFijiof today.

And it is also quite wrong to claim that the electoral system underpins the spirit of the 1990 Constitution.

If anything, an electoral system which always has the disastrous possibility of marginalizing major Fijian parties, goes against the very fundamental spirit in which the  1997 Constitution and its concept of multi-party Government was created.

This was the great value and significance of the Rabuka-Reddy partnership, that the major ethnic groups and their leaders, share and co-operate in the governance of the country for the good of all- under indigenous Fijian leadership as Prime Minister.

It is tragic that other political leaders, driven by their leadership ambitions,  are unable to show the same spirit of co-operation and compromise.

Dr Brij Lal’s response that the Reeves Report is coherent cannot also be taken to imply that it should be accepted in its entirety; or that the 1997 Constitution does not have any weaknesses which need to be ironed out.

Unfortunately, the Reeves Commission also claimed (somewhat egotistically and erroneously) that all the parts of their Report formed an integral whole, and had to be accepted in its entirety.

This blind defence of the totality of the 1997 Constitution, just like the blind calls for its total rejection and abrogation, is not correct.   Such extreme uncompromising positions do not helpFijiin these critical times.

Options for the GCC

The Great Council of Chiefs may wish to consider that the 1997 Constitution does not have to be abrogated, in order to address the vital concerns of the indigenous Fijian political parties and people.

The President can recall Parliament, appoint a Prime Minister who is able to form a Government of National Unity, drawn from both the House of Representatives and Senate, acceptable to all the major political parties.

The primary mandate of  this GNU, would be the ironing out of any major differences over the Constitution and educating and preparing the country for fresh elections in good time, without hurry.

Rejecting the Rule of Law is not the answer.  It will merely open up another Pandora’s Box which we opened in 1987 and closed in 1997.

Sending the country to fresh elections without revising the electoral system, is also not the answer.

Our current crop of political leaders, who show little goodwill towards each other, will still have to co-operate after such elections.

Why don’t they do so now, for the sake of our people?


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