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“Statistics delayed is truth denied” (The Fiji Times, 7 March 2015)

07/03/2015

Statistics delayed is truth denied
Professor Wadan Narsey

In the legal world there is an apt saying quoted by lawyers and judges alike: “justice delayed is justice denied”.

Fiji does indeed have many legal cases which drag on for years for a variety of unacceptable reasons: “judges cannot be found” or “evidence has not been presented” or “the schedules of defending or prosecuting lawyers are too busy” or “witnesses failed to turn up”, etc.

But the public hardly ever questions the government of the day on the non-publication of annual accounts of the numerous public enterprises (PEs) in which tax payers’ funds have been invested (until it is too late and the damage has been done, as was the case with the National Bank of Fiji twenty years ago and as is happening now with some PEs).

It is tragic that there is no popular public outcry at the inordinate delays in the publication of some reports by the Fiji Bureau of Statistics (FBS), because Cabinet approval is now required before publication, and it has not been given, thereby undermining the autonomy of FBS and the credibility of its statistics.

The public and parliament need to urgently take up these issues if tax payers’ funds in public enterprises and confidence in the FBS statistics, are to be safeguarded.

Annual Reports of Public Enterprises

Massive amounts of tax-payers’ funds have been invested in some public enterprises, whose sacred duty it is to report their annual accounts in a timely manner to the public.  Many do not do so.

The Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) not only has received large amounts of tax payers’ subsidies but also a large $100 million loan from the Fiji National Provident Fund, but the FSC website shows the last annual report to be for 2011, some four years ago.

Why is the FSC board and management not taken to task by the Minister?

Another public enterprise in the news is the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (FBC) which apparently made a loss of seven million dollars in 2013, according to the 2014 Auditor General’s Report.

The FBC receives large annual grants from government, not given to the other private sector competitors, as well as large loans from the Fiji Development Bank under guarantee from the Fiji Government and Fiji taxpayers.

The taxpayers have a right to know why the FBC is making such large losses while its competitors are making profits.

But, there are no annual reports or annual accounts on the glossy FBC website which might give the taxpayers some indication of why their tax subsidies are going down the drain. Why is the FBC not taken to task for this?

There are annual awards given to public sector organizations on the quality of their annual reports, but there is no reporting on which ones are badly failing to give annual reports.

There is no analysis of the quality of the content of annual reports, most becoming glossier and glossier and outsourced, with less and less real information.

Often public enterprises (even universities) deliberately structure their accounts to hide failures of managements and financial scandals.

Here is a fantastically rich and socially useful research topic for accounting, economics and management Masters or PhD students.

Delays in FBS Reports

Twenty years ago, university academics and other end users of census data, were extremely disgruntled when the 1996 Census Reports were delayed by three years- i.e not published until 1999.

But some 2007 Census Reports have been delayed by more than seven years now, apparently because Cabinet approval has not been given, for unknown reasons.

Census reports contain goldmines of critical information on age structures, fertility rates, internal and external migration, labor market skills, education levels, housing, water, sewerage, to just list a few.

This information is vital for all development stakeholders, including government ministries, NGOs, donors, academics and others, for policy formulation on infrastructure (roads, electricity, water, sewerage), health, education, labor market training, care of the elderly, etc.

It is tragic that there has been no public concern, except a Letter to the Editor (Fiji Sun, 31 October 2013), while the FBS is already planning the 2017 Census.

Equally scandalous is that a report on the 2010-11 Employment and Unemployment Survey (Fiji Women and Men at Work and Leisure) which I had completed for publication by October 2013, has still not been published, because Cabinet has failed to give its approval, again for reasons not declared (but which can be guessed at).

This 2010-11 EUS Report is a gold mine of information on national employment, unemployment and underemployment, income patterns, unpaid household work, time spent per week on religious activities, sports, and kava consumption.

The report also examines all these variables for gender, age, rural/urban, formal/informal sector disparities, with many interesting results, all useful for policy formulation by the Ministries  of Labor, Education and Sports, Health, Women and Social Welfare, to name just a few, as well as all NGOs, donors and academics.

Public and Parliament to act

Over the years, the FBS has been questioned, usually unreasonably, over their estimated rates of inflation (which unions believe are too low) or estimated GDP growth rates (believed by Opposition parties to be too optimistic).

But if the autonomy of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics is undermined by requiring the permission of Cabinet before publication of reports, then the Fiji public have every reason to doubt the truth and accuracy of the FBS statistics, whether it is the CPI or GDP growth figures or investment levels.

If public enterprises continue year after year, to not publish their audited annual accounts, or if they publish grossly misleading information (as happened with the National Bank of Fiji), then the public, parliament and government are denied the truth about their health and use or misuse of taxpayer funds, often until it is too late to take remedial action.

All Fiji parliamentarians (including the relevant Ministers) must demand the timely publication of annual reports by the public enterprises and a full account of those that are not reporting or reporting badly.

A Sub-Committee of Parliament should be immediately charged with this responsibility.

The Fiji parliament must also call for the prompt publication of all reports by the Fiji Bureau of Statistics, as well as the removal of the requirement that Cabinet must approve their publication.

Statistics delayed is truth denied to the Fiji public.

 

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