Why we need a referendum for our Constitution
[The Fiji Times, 11 March 2001]
The Great Council of Chiefs is still discussing what “decisions” they should make, in order to take the country forward.
But already, there are murmurings on the side, complaining that the GCC did not follow proper procedures and rules, when selecting participants to their meeting, and later, the all important Chairman and Deputy Chairman.
But was the decision-making transparent and according to what rules and procedures?
And how can there be any “rules” when the rules clearly derive from the 1997 Constitution, whose validity itself is being discussed by the GCC?
Is the public going to be told, further down the line, that “decisions” taken by this GCC are not legitimate, because some nameless “leaders” hijacked the GCC for their own agenda?
IsFiji’s “culture of silence” still allowing “decisions” to be made, which down the line are going to be disputed, at great cost to the nation- as we have seen over the last thirteen years with our all-important constitutions?
Our Constitutions were adopted in 1970, 1990 and 1997 apparently with the support of all the relevant institutions in the country: The Colonial Legislative Council, theFijiParliament (House of Representative and Senate) and the Bose Levu Vakaturaga.
Elections were held under the constitutions, and governments formed.
But in 1987, 1990, and traumatically in the year 2000, allegations were made that these constitutions had not received “the approval of the people”.
And this alleged lack of the “people’s” approval, was used to justify coups, violence and general lawlessness.
But why haveFijipeople never openly taken responsibility for these great national issues?
AreFiji people lazy when it comes to politics? Do we use the “culture of silence” as an excuse not to be responsible for outcomes?
Or is it thatFiji people really have a “cargo cult” mentality when it comes to their political leaders?
DoFijipeople (and politicians) all too readily, totally unquestioningly, make their political leaders into saints- as long as the saints deliver the lollies and the goodies.
And the sameFiji people (and politicians) will crucify their political leaders should things go wrong (and the lollies stop coming). Even if the political leaders have tried their best.
The crises that we have gone through over the last 13 years, and the one we are so dismally going through today, suggest that it is time thatFijicitizens grew up, and took responsibility for decisions which decide their destinies- through a referendum.
Our pathetic record on constitutions
Fijihas never had a real referendum on any of our three Constitutions- the 1970, the 1990 and the 1997 one. And our political leaders have not learnt from our mistakes.
When the 1987 coups took place, Ratu Mara, Koya, AD Patel, Jai Ram Reddy, and others were alleged to have sold out their community’s interests over the 1970 Constitution, and the 1976 ALTA legislation.
When Fijiwas in the middle of the discussions leading up to the 1997 Constitution, I wrote then (Fiji Times, 2 November 1996) (and I quote):
“The major political parties have agreed that a Joint Parliamentary Select Committee will, through confidential discussions, arrive at some consensus on the changes to be made to the 1990 Constitution.
There will not be any opportunity for other public inputs into the review process, and probably not even for final approval through a referendum. This is unfortunate from two points of view.
Firstly, there may be a number of legitimate views in society, which may not be conveyed through party political channels, especially if the views are not the same as the party views.
It should not be ruled out that in a few years’ time, other pressure groups could emerge among the population, claiming that the Select Committee only represented the major parties, whose leaders in 1996 allegedly “sold out” their community’s interests.
This type of argument was used to partly justify the 1987 coup, against the 1970 Constitution, which had also been decided after discussion and agreement between the leaders of the two major parties then, the Alliance and the National Federation Party….
There should be a referendum to provide the final national stamp of approval on the proposed revisions (to the Constitution). This could help protect current political leaders from carping minorities”.
But our political leaders were driven by other timetables. Perhaps they did not trust their communities to make the right decisions. Political leaders, who had been elected on totally different platforms, thought they also had the mandate to decide, for their voters, on the constitution. Not so.
Five years on, we are again in the same mess, and political leaders of yesteryear are again being blamed.
For the last year, vociferous groups in our society have claimed that the 1997 Constitution was not approved by this group or that group.
The political leaders (Sitiveni Rabuka and Jai Ram Reddy) have been accused by their respective communal detractors, of having sold out their respective community’s interests.
But we all know that when these processes were going on, these political leaders probably did the best they could to balance everyone’s legitimate interests, in the given circumstances, and the prevailing perspectives of the times.
But the dissident groups have resorted to violence, and devastated this country politically, socially and economically, supposedly with the backing of some “silent majority”. Yet no one has a clue what the so-called “silent majority” think.
And the silent majority are not coming forward either. They were certainly nowhere to be seen (bar a maverick few) when “their” MPs, “their” Government, were held hostage. They thought that their responsibilities ended when they put a slip of paper in a ballot box.
When things were going well, their leaders were blindly idolised, with no questions asked, and no leader held accountable for questionable decisions.
In fact, the bulk of our people then (and now), made little personal effort to understand or contribute, to what was being decided, and passed by Parliament.
Our people are quite happy to daily spend hours drinking grog, watching escapist Indian movies, rugby, and Shortland Street. While the “Leader”, the Big Chief, netaji does the dirty work.
Until things go wrong. Then the political leaders cop it.
Let us learn from the past and do better
We have had a traumatic year.
The vital organs and institutions that are at the core of our society- Parliament, Government, judiciary, police, military, the civil service- have all been under threat.
Many of us (even so-called educated ones) have not understood what roles these institutions should play, and whether we should defend them. For instance, despite the importance of our voting systems for or political and social stability, our people make little effort to understand them. It is too complicated, we say!
But we have been to the brink of catastrophe, and now we know only too well, how vital these institutions are. We can so easily (we almost did, and still could) slide into anarchy and chaos.
In the face of their evident laziness, our people must be forced to give their full commitment to the backing of these vital institutions.
The responsibilities of these institutions are set out in our Constitution. Every citizen must be made to understand what is in our Constitution (the current or revised one).
There must be translations into the vernaculars.
The major media, including the powerful television media, must be roped in, with imaginative programs which convey in an entertaining way, the importance of our constitutions, including the nuances of different electoral systems.
Our citizens must then be asked, in a referendum, to give a full formal endorsement of the agreed upon Constitution, at the next general election, so that the entire country’s commitment can be roped in.
Insist that at least 75% of the voting public must ratify the Constitution (in today’sFiji, this percentage will also ensure that at least 50% of the indigenous Fijians are in approval).
Let us then, as a united nation, defend this Constitution against all-comers, including any future attacks by opportunistic and socially irresponsible elements of our society.
Let the constitution buck stop with the “silent majority”- through a Referendum.
[Appeared as “The culture of silence”, The Fiji Times, 11 March 2001]