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“The Constitution Review debate”. The Fiji Times, 29 July 1995.

14/03/2012

 

In recent public submissions to the Constitution Review Commission, there has been an extraordinary amount of emphasis on ethnic issues, and in particular, imbalances in parliamentary representation.  These are no doubt important, and is commented on in a later article.

 

However it is equally important that theFijipublic do not lose sight of two other serious imbalances that currently exist.

 

These two inequities, also affecting the Fijian electorate, are created by the gross under-representation of urban Fijians and of Western Fiji.

 

Both these inequities are undesirable not just on political grounds, but also because of the resulting economic injustice.

 

The public also need to consider that the current system, based on ethnic boxes and constituencies as the only way into parliament, discourages Government decision-making in the interests of the nation, and discourages the selection of the best “national managers”.

 

The public need to be reminded that while there is much discussion about ethnic representation, the actual ethnic proportions of Fiji’s population are changing so rapidly, as to lead to a strong possibility of ethnic tensions (political and economic) being defused in the future because of reduced numbers of Indo-Fijians, at all age groups.

 

Gross Inequality of Parliamentarians

 

In the Constitution and in decision-making inFiji’s Parliament, each parliamentarian is generally (but not always) assumed to be the equivalent of any other one.

 

Thus any parliamentary vote is decided by simply counting the numbers of parliamentarians supporting and opposing the motion.

 

The underlying assumption is that if the majority of parliamentarians vote in one direction, this indirectly represents the wishes of the majority of the voters of the country.

 

Yet, how many voters does each parliamentarian represent and how “equal” are these parliamentarians?  Or are some parliamentarians and constituencies “more equal” than others?  The ethnic issues are considered in the later instalment.  Here we consider the geographical issues.

 

The reality of Fiji’s current electoral system is that many constituencies have political power grossly out of proportion to their actual number of voters.  This applies not just to ethnic groups but Fijian groupings, and geographical groupings.

 

If one compares the “Voters Per Parliamentary Seat” (effective votes per parliamentarian) across constituencies, at one extreme, there are two parliamentarians from Namosi (Fijian Provincial) representing 2167 voters, or a mere 1084 effective votes per parliamentary seat.

At the other extreme, is the Tailevu/Naitasiri Fijian Urban seat, with a massive 16,221 effective votes, or sixteen times the size of each Namosi seat.

 

It is surely quite unreasonable that a mere 1084 voters from Namosi should have exactly the same vote and importance in Parliament, as 16,000 Tailevu/Naitasiri Fijian Urban voters!

 

This is not an isolated example: such differences are to be found right across the country.  The primary reason is the massive differences in sizes of constituencies, affecting all ethnic groups.

 

What Deviations to Expect?

 

It is to be expected that there will be some variation in the number of registered voters per constituency, given geographical difficulties in having ideal boundaries.  But how much deviation should be tolerated?

 

One measure is by finding, for each constituency, the percentage difference between the number of registered voters per seat, and the national average of 4716 voters.

 

In the 1987 election, the number of registered voters in each communal constituency for the Fijian seats, showed less than 34% deviation from the average, while for Indo-Fijians, the maximum deviation was 20%.

 

For the 1994 election, the percentage deviation for Fijian seats went from minus 77% for the small seats, to a massive plus 244% for the larger seats while for Indo-Fijian seats, the deviation went from minus 68% for the small seats to plus 117% for the larger seats.

 

These deviations are unacceptable because they result not only in individual injustices, but also, when aggregated across the country, in significant geographic unfairness.

 

Individual Injustices

 

The gross discrepancies in the sizes of the constituencies have had the inevitable result that quite a few politicians, despite large electoral support, failed to win a seat while others with considerably fewer votes, “got in”.

 

The inconsistency in the system is obvious in the Fijian Tailevu/Naitasiri constituency where a losing candidate obtained 2,509 effective votes, which was higher than that received by 48 “winners” in the 1994 Parliament.

 

The losing STV candidate for Nadroga had 1651 effective votes, which was more than that received by 20 “winners” in 1994.

 

The three losing ANC candidates for Ba had around 1500 effective votes, again more than that received by 18 current parliamentarians.

 

Unfairness to Parties

 

When the votes of such losing candidates are aggregated for parties, the large disparities in constituency size make it more likely that parties with significant national support may not receive their fair share of the seats in Parliament.

 

The usual focus has been on Indo-Fijian parties, and the argument certainly applies to them.  However, the unfairness applies also to predominantly Fijian parties.

 

Thus both the ANC and the Fijian Nationalists should have received at least 2 additional seats in Parliament, given the total number of votes they received nationally.

 

Unfairness to Urban Fijians

 

One clear bias in the electoral system is the distribution between the rural and urban peoples.

 

In 1994, each Fijian Provincial parliamentarian represented a mere 3,500 voters, while each Fijian Urban parliamentarian represented more than 9,000 registered voters.

 

At a national level in 1994, more than 22,000 urban Fijian votes were “wasted” or effectively denied a parliamentary voice.  This is quite illogical on political grounds.  It is grossly unfair on economic grounds.

 

Urban Fijians are far more likely to be involved in the cash economy, to be helping to create the national cake, to be paying taxes which are spent by Government, and in general, being part of public life in the country, than would the average rural provincial Fijian.

 

Instead of urban Fijians being treated as politically more important,Fiji’s current electoral system actually grossly discriminates against and marginalises them.

 

Urban Fijians, given their numbers of registered voters, ought to be electing an additional 5 parliamentarians, redistributed from the smaller Fijian provincial constituencies.

 

Unfairness to the West

 

Comparing the numbers of registered voters by region, makes clear that there is a serious unfairness to Western voters.

 

Taken together, the constituencies in the West have far more registered voters than would be expected if sizes were based close to the national average.

 

With an excess of 17,400 voters, the Western constituencies would in fairness be entitled to an additional 4 seats.   The opposite adjustment would need to be made in the Eastern constituencies, representing the small islands andVanua Levu.

 

The existing bias is also unacceptable on economic grounds.  Western Viti Levu, as the locus of the sugar, tourism, gold and pine industries, is the foundation and engine ofFiji’s economy.  It is surely totally unacceptable that this region should be politically under-represented.

 

In other countries, regions with economic clout are usually given more importance, not less.

 

Conclusion

 

How these inequities have been created would be an interesting study for political scientists.

 

No doubt, there will be some individuals and groups who stand to lose if the recommended adjustments are made.  However, in any country in the world, political unfairness is guaranteed to lead to periodic agitation on the part of those discriminated against.

 

Every such agitation requires an enormous amount of politicking and energy from those agitating for change, as well as those fighting to resist change.  This must detract from nation building, while creating social turmoil and uncertainty which undermines development and growth of the economy.

 

Constitutional reviews do not come often.

 

It is in the interest of the nation that the Constitution Review Commission RECOMMEND that EACH PARLIAMENTARY SEAT SHOULD REPRESENT AROUND THE SAME NUMBER OF ELIGIBLE VOTERS (within some reasonable deviation- say 33%).

 

It is in the long term interest of the nation that those currently holding political power accept such a recommendation.

 

[Next part: What is wrong with the total focus on constituencies and ethnicity]

 

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