“The nation’s interests, not ethnic groups”. The Fiji Times, 31 July 1995.
Most submissions to the CRC seem to ignore that parliament and Government is largely about the better management of the country’s economy, which is increasingly a market economy, with economic interdependence between all ethnic groups.
Inefficient government financially hurts all citizens in the country, including indigenous Fijians. On the other hand, good government and management may rest on any individual from any ethnic group.
Is there any sense, therefore, for the ruling SVT Party to be applying ethnic criteria to all issues in the public arena: the Constitution, the electoral system, Government services and the composition of Government itself? Are the interests of the many (including indigenous Fijians) being sacrificed for the benefit of the few?
The public must recognise that there is an urgent need to have parliamentarians who can be part of a Government, acting purely in the national interest, unfettered by obligations to small groups of supporters from narrow ethnic groups or constituencies.
The current electoral system, by its complete focus on constituencies and ethnic boxes, however, discourages politicians from being responsive to national interests; it discourages good management and government.
Constituency or the Nation?
In the existing electoral system, parliamentarians can only be elected by voters in particular constituencies. These voters understandably feel that “their” parliamentarian should fight for “their” interests, and “his/her” constituency.
The same pressure is place on the parliamentarian if he/she is given ministerial responsibility for national policies, such as in education, health, roads, etc.
The Minister who ignores the interests of his constituency voters, may well face difficulties in getting elected the next time around. On the other hand, in a good Government, a Minister who does not adequately address his national responsibilities, would be under pressure in the next Cabinet reshuffle.
To lessen this contradiction it is strongly recommended that there should be a significant number of all parliamentary seats elected by proportional representation at the national level.
Each political party’s candidates for these seats would be those persons most likely to be part of the Cabinet, were that Party to form or be part of Government.
This would also ensure that a political party does not see the undesirable situation that a good candidate is asked to contest a marginal seat (in order to improve the chances of winning that seat) but if he loses, becomes unavailable for Government (unless he is brought in indirectly, through Senate, to the dissatisfaction of the alleged “winners” who also want that Cabinet post).
Why Calls for “Ethnic Unity”
In a multi-ethnic community such asFiji, there will always be extremist elements demanding racial discrimination, and such elements may at times even have major political clout.
However, many members of the public are dismayed when those who are supposed to be, or aspire to be, national leaders, call on their particular ethnic groups to stay “united” as ethnic groups. Even the media applauds such calls or moves for “ethnic unity”.
But who are the ethnic groups supposed to be uniting against? Disturbingly, the only answer is the other ethnic groups.
Appeals for “ethnic unity” by key political leaders, while no doubt responding to sectional ethnic pressures, grievously undermine nation building, are totally at odds with the economic inter-dependence of all ethnic groups inFijiand also undermine economic fairness in public policies.
Pure Ethnic Divisions in the Economy?
Surely, there are no pure “ethnic” boxes in the economy of the country, from the point of view of economic relations between the participants or in terms of the distribution of benefits.
There are extremely well-off large Indo-Fijian business interests who are doing very well even under the SVT rule, contributing generously to the key power-brokers. Their children have no difficulty getting scholarships or jobs or other opportunities, despite the 1990 Constitution.
If an Indo-Fijian businessman rips off a government-guaranteed bank, they are not ripping off the Fijian managers of the bank, or the SVT Party running the Government (as one businessmen hinted to me). They are ripping off the general public, which also includes all Indo-Fijian tax payers in the country. It is not an ethnic affair, whatever may be the appearance.
While commerce in the country may be dominated by Indo-Fijian businesses, the vast majority of Indo-Fijians are workers (alongside indigenous Fijian workers).
The irony of theFijieconomy is surely not totally lost on the public, that it is an indigenous Fijian Government which has been promulgating labour market policies assisting mainly non-indigenous business interests, sometimes against the interests of the workers, who include large numbers of indigenous Fijians.
As in the labour market, so also for many development projects such as roads, or electricity generating dams: Government simply cannot physically limit the benefits (or costs) to any one ethnic group.
Is there any economic sense in having ethnic political boxes in a market economy, where the average consumer (including indigenous Fijians) does not really care whether the engineer, the architect, the factory owner or hand, the doctor or nurse, the teacher, etc. etc. is of any particular ethnic group. A worker is a worker; an employer an employer.
When indigenous Fijian Government Ministers want good medical treatment or education for their children, they do not insist on being served by indigenous Fijian doctors or teachers.
Increasingly, indigenous Fijian investors are looking at non-indigenous managers and personnel for their own private investments.
Why therefore should anyone insist that ethnicity be the determining characteristic for deciding on who are likely to be good “parliamentary managers” of the country?
Economic Leadership and Political Leadership
One of the interesting aspects ofFiji’s history over the last hundred years has been that political structures have never corresponded to the economic realities of the country.
For Fijians, the political leadership has usually been provided by a traditional chiefly structure, even though the environment in which the Fijian chiefly system operated two hundred years ago is totally different from the Fijian capitalist market economy of today.
The Fijian society now needs entrepreneurs, engineers, accountants, business managers, and professional parliamentarians. There is nothing to suggest that any individual from a traditional chiefly lineage will possess any of these skills.
The reality which has to be faced up to is that after one hundred years of colonial rule, and leadership by traditional chiefly systems (assisted by colonial advisers), the economic condition of the average Fijian has failed to keep pace with what was being achieved by other racial groups, through their own individual efforts.
On the other hand, recent history has shown that amongst indigenous Fijians, commoners have become leaders, through performance alone, in the political, social, economic, and for some, military spheres.
The economic reality also is that the economic well-being of the nation, including that of large numbers of indigenous Fijians in the cash economy, now depends on “economic chiefs” and “management chiefs” who are largely derived from the non-indigenous ethnic groups, or commoner Fijians: the Punjas, the Lees, the Reddys, the Samisonis, the Ah Koys.
While the Great Council of Chiefs and the Bose Levu Vakaturaga have crucial roles in the 1990 Constitution, there is no comparable place for the country’s “economic chiefs” who have proven their entrepreneurial skills in the market place.
While some individuals may be called upon to assist in Government, this is on an ad hoc basis, and many are ignored because of their ethnicity.
Any Constitution and society which emphasises race and “high birth”, and nomination to office from the top, rather than selection by people on the criterion of performance in the market, must discourage those with ability, ultimately undermining national welfare.
Fijian traditional social structures, instead of thinking of intensive training of individuals from a limited number of family lineages (as recently advised), may do better for ordinary Fijians by selecting those for leadership and high office (including indigenous Fijian commoners) who have proven their merit in the market place.
As recent Fijian history clearly indicates, this would probably also include many from chiefly families who have also amply demonstrated their leadership qualities.
An interesting pointer to the future may be found in Kadavu, where “economic chiefliness” and ability to help a community materially, coincided with enough of right ethnic ancestry, to legitimise registration in the VKB, a “Fijian” label, and the opportunity to contribute to the nation as a Cabinet “ministerial chief”.
Similar historical developments in the membership of the British House of Commons and House of Lords may provide interesting studies for those investigating future options for leadership of indigenous Fijians.
The Pervasive Costs of Bad Governance
The unfortunate reality forFiji’s economy is that making the wrong appointment (on ethnic or any other grounds) frequently means that the interests of the many are sacrificed in order to satisfy the politically influential few.
In the education system, where Fijian education faces major problems, the interests of hundreds of students are sacrificed in order to appoint one Principal or Head of Department, on ethnic grounds.
In statutory organisations, and enterprises in Government control, the interests of all tax-payers are sacrificed in order to appoint key managers and administrators on ethnic grounds.
However, if Government wastes even $10 millions of public money in propping up a mismanaged bank under government guarantee, that is $10 millions less for education, health, social welfare services for all, including hundreds of thousands of indigenous Fijians who will suffer unnecessarily because there aren’t enough medical supplies or doctors and nurses in the hospitals.
With ethnicity the over-riding factor, Government sacrifices the interests of the many in order to satisfy the few at the top.
This is also economically unjust to those being discriminated against.
Economic Contribution and Political Justice
The current electoral system has a strong predisposition to marginalise Indo-Fijians from the exercise of Government responsibilities and power. This is economically unjust and economically irrational.
Generations of Indo-Fijians have toiled in this country, paid their taxes, and underwritten much of the development that has occurred and which is benefiting all in the country.
They continue to labour and generate the largest part of the public revenues that are used by the current government to finance development expenditure in rural areas, the salaries and perks of ministers, the preferential subsidies to Fijian businesses and education, and other government expenditure.
Their taxes are also used to financially prop up a range of inefficient government controlled enterprises mismanaged by indigenous Fijians appointed on racial grounds, while non-indigenous Fijians (with different shaped eyes) are called in by the same Government to clear the mess.
This has nothing to do with being given the label of “Fijian”, to be only achieved by non-indigenous people through the better understanding of indigenous Fijian languages, culture or leadership styles, as a recent adviser to Fijians claims. It is a question of economic rationality in government policies.
The criterion used by Government for its discrimination against Indo-Fijians is “ethnicity” which for any citizen in the country is totally due to the historical accident of his parents’ ethnicity, and/or their ability to register the individual in the Good Book.
Individuals or families may possess these characteristics, yet throughout their lives may not contribute a single cent towards the public revenue which is spent by the Government on indigenous Fijian education, health or development.
Yet those non-indigenous Fijians who do contribute to the national cake (shared by all) are denied equitable access to education scholarships, public sector jobs and responsibilities, and the opportunity to share in the national decision-making as to how the fruits of their labour is to be nationally allocated through Parliament and Government.
The Government and the SVT feel no pressure to address genuine Indo-Fijian grievances in these areas.
To some extent, this is partly because the current electoral system, by forcing parliamentary candidates to be responsive to only the voters of their own alleged ethnicity, does not require them to be responsive to the legitimate needs of other ethnic groups.
The public at large would gain if the CRC were to recommend that the electoral system have some form of cross-voting constituencies whereby voters will be required to vote for candidates of other ethnicity
Part of the explanation for the failure of the SVT to respond to Indo-Fijian needs is no doubt the worry that equal treatment of the Indo-Fijians will lead to Fijians not being able to obtain an adequate share of public resources, and eventually, the perpetual political and economic domination by the others.
This argument is surely no longer valid, given the current demographic trends.
[Next Article: Fears of Ethnic Domination are not justified].