Time out, Fiji, on the Amnesty Bill [The Fiji Times 25 July 2005].
In some fast sports, like basketball, where the scoring can change the result in seconds, the opposing teams are allowed a number of “time outs” at crucial points in the game.
The game is halted and coaches huddle around with their players.
Sometimes the time outs occur when scores may be close, and a change of strategy may just turn the game around or help defend some narrow margin.
Sometimes the time outs are taken when coaches think their game strategies are going awry, perhaps temperatures have risen, players are hitting the panic buttons, and generally everything seems out of control.
The latter sounds like the current state of play with the “Bill”, doesn’t it?
Political panic stations
Major political parties are vehemently opposed to the Bill as are the military and the police; the Fiji Law Society is deeply opposed (bar a member or two); NGOs are blasting away; the corporate types (bar the odd one or two) are panicking; full page advertisements are flying all over the place; while our partner countries have diplomatically voiced their concern (and quietly go on full alert).
The SDL Government maintains “full steam ahead”, citing the mandate from the last elections, and is raking up the “support” of provincial councils.
Oddly, the Attorney General has even staked the future of the SDL at the next elections, on this one Bill.
But are the SDL Government and Party, all their Ministers and parliamentarians, wise in asking the electorate to judge their entire performance from 2001 to 2006, and re-elect them for the next five years, on the basis of this “one-off” Bill?
Or is this an issue which even SDL ministers and parliamentarians would like to leave to the voters to decide, as a completely separate issue?
Can the SDL and the FLP agree on a “Referendum Bill” which will allow the voters to vote separately on this PRTU Bill in a year’s time, at same time as they vote at the national elections?
Can our politicians give Fiji timeout for a year?
A nation deeply divided
The world knows that Fiji has deeply divided over the PRTU Bill.
The FLP which was illegally and violently removed from government, is totally opposed to the Bill which it wants withdrawn. One would have thought that the Government would respect the wishes of the primary victims of the 2000 coup. But no.
The military is vehemently opposed to the Bill and gone to extraordinary lengths to express their disapproval. They remember that in the 2000 mutiny, innocent soldiers were killed, there was even an attempt to murder the commander, and the very heart of military discipline was undermined.
It is understandable that the military fears the horrible impact that this Bill and its amnesty provisions will have on military discipline. Yet the Government rejects the military’s request for the withdrawal of the Bill.
The Fiji Law Society, with all the legal expertise of the country behind it, has rejected the Bill as totally undermining the rule of law in the country. And they have warned that if the Bill is passed, they will challenge its constitutionality in court. Yet the Government presses on regardless.
An elected government’s mandate is limited
It is natural for governments to think that when they are democratically elected, as the SDL was in 2001, they are given the authority and the mandate to rule the country for the five years, determine public policy and pass necessary legislation.
This cannot be disputed.
But the mandate can only be legitimately held to cover the public policies which governments are normally responsible for, and which are usually the issues on which the political parties campaigned.
It is stretching the case to argue that once a government is elected, it therefore has the moral right (mandate) to pass any legislation on any issue it wishes.
And the SDL certainly did not campaign in 2001 on the PRTU Bill with its amnesty provisions.
And even if the 14 provincial councils give their “approval” or “support” for this Bill, by no stretch of the imagination can that be used to conclude that this gives the Government a national mandate or even the indigenous Fijian mandate.
For one, the provincial councils have no mechanism for establishing what all their constituencies think about this Bill.
For another, the views expressed by the provincial councils do not necessarily represent the views of the majority of all the citizens of the country – indigenous Fijians, Indo-Fijians and Others.
In fact, the SDL Party hierarchy might like to consider that there are many indigenous Fijians who support the SDL because of their policies on Affirmative Action, or qoliqoli rights, or rural development, but are deeply opposed to the PRTU Bill (because of their fears about the likely impact on law and order). Some of these include senior corporate Fijians who are even friends and advisers of the SDL Ministers.
So is the SDL wise in putting all its election eggs in one basket, by telling voters: accept us or reject us at the next elections on the basis of this Bill?
For that is really the message going out.
And it need not be the case.
A new Referendum Bill
The Attorney General has stated (correctly) that Fiji does not have provisions for a National Referendum.
Neither should we waste massive resources on a special National Referendum on the PRTU Bill here and now.
But please consider: it would be relatively costless to have a referendum on this PRTU Bill simultaneously at the next elections, in a year’s time.
Effectively, every voter would be given one more slip of paper to tick: FOR the Bill, or AGAINST the Bill.
(The normal ballot papers would of course be used separately to vote for the candidates and parties, to serve in parliament for the next five years).
This surely would take the pressure off the SDL government, by genuinely leaving it to the country to decide on what is essentially a one-off issue.
Getting the national view: only a referendum will do
This procedure of using the national election time as an opportunity to get a true assessment of the national view on particular issues, is followed in many countries.
It is used where difficult national questions (such as legalising abortion, lowering the voting age, new taxes etc) require a non-party approach, with voters left to decide on their own consciences.
One can think of a number of issues in Fiji, which Governments and political parties may rightly be uncomfortable with, which could similarly be left to the voters to decide.
And then, regardless of each one’s personal views, the country then has to live with that decision, simply because it is the national decision.
SDL and FLP co-operation
The legislation that would be necessary to authorise a national referendum on a particular issue at the national elections, should not take long to formulate and pass.
The SDL Government would surely get the full co-operation from the FLP for such a new enabling Bill (and once started, who knows what else they may start co-operating on?).
A great advantage would be that the fate of PRTU Bill could then be left to the nation’s voters to decide in a year’s time.
This would give plenty of time for all interested parties and groups to convince the voters of their views, thereby reducing the national temperature all around.
We have coped with the effects of the 2000 coups for five years. Another year won’t make much difference.
And surely, our poor battered Fiji people deserve this time out.