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Election Issues Bulletin 10 Voters’ preferences, sports funding, and angry Health Ministers: who will pay for dinner?

03/05/2014

Election Issues Bulletin 10
Voters’ preferences, sports funding, and angry Health Ministers:
who will pay for dinner?

Professor Wadan Narsey
3 May 2014

 [This is a slightly revised version of the article “Who will pay for sports” which appeared in The Fiji Times, 3 May 2014]

Introduction

This Election Issues article focuses on three questions, which also have general applicability to a few other elections issues:

Q1        What do voters really want their taxes to be spent on?

Q2:       Why should a good Health Minister watching national television for the last two weeks been absolutely angry?

Q3        Who is going to pay for dinner?

I will link these three questions together in one elections issue, the financing of sports.
What do voters want taxes spent on?

Naturally, political parties, leaders and candidates have been talking about jobs, incomes and cost of living as the important issues for the September elections.

Some are talking about land and qoliqoli rights, the environment, their pensions, a sense of national identity etc.

But what is it that bothers our voting public most, according to their “revealed interests” (very similar to the economics term “revealed preferences”)?

Look at the numbers of Letters to the Editor: 90 percent or more are written about rugby sevens, fifteens, soccer, netball, athletics, day after day, month after month.

Are Editors deliberately censoring out the serious letters and feeding the population a diet of sports as the ultimate “opium of the masses”, more powerful than religions?  If so, there are no public protests about this censorship, if it exists.

Look also at the extraordinary amount of space given in newspapers and the amount of television time given to sports (and of course, to Bollywood and Hollywood, another issue).

Yet despite this intense interest of voters (and tax-payers) in sports, our national sports do not get adequate funding at all, however important the public might think it is.

Instead, the public see most of their passionately loved sports lurching from one financial crisis to another, year after year, with total instability and inadequacy of funding from tax-payers.

Most times, because of the lack of government funding, sports organisations look to corporate sponsors (we won’t discuss the disgraceful court cases over contracts).

More importantly, corporate sponsors expect that their products will be marketed through the events they sponsor, even if they end up working at cross-purposes with the core good health objectives and initiatives of the Ministry of Health.

Once upon a time, the contentious issue was tobacco products, until their advertising was banned.

One of these days, when the Ministry of Health develops some backbone and seriously tackles at source, the socially destructive effects of excessive alcohol consumption, the pervasive alcohol advertising in our media (especially radio) will take centre stage.

For the purposes of this election issues article, I focus on fizzy drinks and the national athletics competition.

The opposed stories on bad health and good athletics

On national television these last three weeks, there  have been two kinds of stories, which concerned sensible people should link together, but have not.

The first “good news/bad news” item was the excellent coverage given to dedicated Ministry of Health personnel such as Dr Isimeli Tukana, pointing out the grave dangers posed to the health of the nation, by the hugely increasing consumption of “fizzy drinks”, which are usually loaded with sugar (The Fiji Times, 28 April 2014).

For several years now, Dr Tukana and his Ministry of Health colleagues have been properly highlighting the massive costs to the  nation of Non Communicable Diseases like diabetes, partly caused by over-indulgence in processed foods and drinks (and also of course, changes to a sedentary lifestyle).

Not only do the affected people suffer (costs of medication, and for hundreds, amputation of limbs), but tens of millions of the Ministry of Health budget is wasted dealing with diseases which are essentially avoidable lifestyle diseases.

At the same time as this health issue, for several weeks, the television viewers (and no doubt radio listeners) have been flooded with not just advertisements, but so-called “news items”,  on a quite worthwhile national athletics competition, but named after a fizzy drink.

Of course, one by-product of this media exposure and incessant marketing has to be increasing consumption of this fizzy drink and profits for the company concerned- otherwise why would they sponsor the sport event?

Health experts, including the World Health Organisation, the Health and Education Departments of virtually all developed countries (including our neighbours Australia and NZ),  associate this particular popular fizzy drink with the problem of diabetes amongst children and young adults, and actively try to discourage it consumption and ban its advertisement with school children.

Of course, the company concerned will say, it is up to schools, parents, and the children themselves to consume sensibly and not be controlled by law.

But the reality is that advertisements, and sports advertisement in particular,  are an essential part of the very successful advertising strategy for this drink, not just in Fiji but the world over, as this company is an incredibly successful, powerful and profitable multinational.

The paradox is that in Fiji, the authorities have allowed this company to financially sponsor the national athletics competition, which is prominently named by this product.

This fizzy drink is therefore mentioned every time there is a news item about the national sports competition which is a national mania.

The salary of an athletic sport official has been paid by this company for several years now.

In the run-up to the actual competition itself, a company representative, wearing the colours associated with this drink, has been on national television every single night, not just talking up the games, but also advertising his product by using the name in virtually every sentence he is shown uttering on national television.   (I have nothing against this person- he is just doing his job.

On television every night were also the images of the Fizzy Drink Games “torch” being carried around from school to school, with children lining up during school hours, in adulation of the torch.

There has apparently been no objection from the Permanent Secretary or Minister of Education that an undesirable product was also being actively advertised amongst school children.

Where is the angry Minister of Health?

Why has the Minister of Health not been publicly angry that this fizzy drink sponsorship of national athletics, is actively undermining  the attempts by his own Health officials like Dr Tukana, to discourage the consumption of this item which is strongly associated with a major and costly health problem in Fiji?

Why has he not been telling the Minister of Sports that he should stop this corporate sponsorship of national athletic?

Probably because the Minister of Sports would tell him, where is the money to replace the corporate sponsors?

Why has the Minister of Education not been telling the Minister of Sports that he does not want school children to take part in this national charade?

So why are the Minister of Health and Minister of  Sports not going to the Minister of Finance to tell him that he should make available the money to adequately fund not just the national athletics, but also rugby, soccer, net ball etc, which every year, are scrounging around for money to fulfil their  basic objectives?

Because the Minister of Finance will probably ask them: where is the money going to come from?

Who is going to pay for dinner: a general question for the elections

Whenever any candidate, political party, or Party Leader promises some lollies to the voters, the first question that the voters must ask: where is the money coming from?

It is quite a sad indictment of the quality of programs being put on by our media, that such penetrating and intelligent questions are not being asked, nor being pursued when less than clear answers are given.

In a recent talk back program, the host asked a political candidate and Party Leader to explain how the huge revenue shortfall would be made up if VAT was reduced from15% to 10%, as the candidate was promising if he were the Minister of Finance.

Unfortunately, the Talk Show host, a pleasant enough fellow and a old friend of mine, did not have the economics knowledge to question further when the candidate stated, on very doubtful grounds, that economic growth would take care of it.  It will, in the long run, but certainly not over the next three years.

The lack of sound economics knowledge among media hosts of elections debates and presenters, is going to be a perennial problem during the elections campaigns when candidates  and parties promise the earth (in terms of lollies and policy changes) to voters.

In our case, given the popularity of sports amongst voters, they can demand from candidates and political parties, that given that sports is what they care most passionately about, the future Minister of Finance must find the money to adequately support our national sports, and not depend on corporate sponsors who effectively undermine our national health objectives and the Ministry of Health.

Voters can demand that the Minister of Finance could reallocate funding, for example from military expenditure to sport.

Or the Fiji Roads Authority could easily do without $50 million a year from their excessive allocation of $500 million annually, and probably not even notice it is gone, and probably even reduce their waste.

Or why not increase corporate taxes and income taxes to the higher level of 30% they were before they were recently and very unwise reduced, for no good cause whatsoever.  This might also improve social justice and income distribution in our society.

But of course, these measures to raise revenue or make revenue available for what the people want out of tax revenues, might be extremely unpopular with some powerful interest groups, which is why candidates who want to please everybody will not make the difficult statements during election campaigns.

But eventually, if voters are insistent enough, and helped by knowledgeable, honest, inquisitive, and challenging media representatives and hosts of debates, they will have to make the difficult choice between statements that can get them hundreds of thousands of votes from the ordinary citizens, and losing a few hundred votes from the corporate sector voters.

Of course, regardless of the legal decrees about the financing of political parties and candidates, you can bet your bottom dollar that most of the corporate interests in Fiji, whether they are local or expatriate, whether Australian, NZ, American, or Chinese, they will be financing elections candidates and parties  who might be of use to them in the future, and some will hedge their bets by financing all sides.

Brown paper bags filled with newly printed coloured paper, leave no audit trail.

But of course, some socially irresponsible political parties can always say that they will keep increasing their borrowing, increase the Public Debt and get the future generations, to pay for all the goodies that the current generation want to enjoy without themselves paying for them. Some do it very quietly, while taking all the credit for the goodies they are handing out left, right and centre.

The burden of the Public Debt ought to a major issue in this coming elections (as I have pointed out in an earlier Bulletin).

 

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