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Qarase’s elephant in the room (ed. in FT 16/5/2020)

16/05/2020

Qarase’s elephant in the room (FT 16/5/2020)

 Since his sad passing, there have been many genuine heartfelt tributes given for the late Laisenia Qarase, his fundamental integrity and unwavering commitment to Fiji and the rule of law. There has been virtually no criticism of his performance as a Prime Minister.

While we all know that eulogies tend to go overboard, my personal assessment as a critical observer of (and sometimes participant in) Fiji’s national politics over the decades, is that most of the tributes had little exaggeration.

But they also raise two huge “elephant in the room” questions.

International observers would know that after the 2006 elections (and as required by the lawful 1997 Constitution), Qarase had formed a historic Multi-party Government, a partnership between Fiji Labor Party (which obtained more than 80% of Indo-Fijian votes) and SDL (which won more than 80% of indigenous Fijian votes), hence together obtaining more than 83% of Fiji’s voters, a massive majority by any standard.

So such international observers would be dumbfounded enough to ask: how could this popular, ethical, hardworking Prime Minister, also passionate about the development of the indigenous people of Fiji, and his Multi-Party Government with 83% support, be removed from office by Fiji’s military (comprising mostly indigenous Fijians) with the Police force (mostly indigenous Fijians) idly standing by.

Just as importantly, why did the massive majority of people of Fiji (83% after all), ultimately, just stand by while “their” Prime Minister and government were removed from office, without any widespread popular protest or uprising?

These are the two “elephant in the room” questions that this article (Part 1) tries to address with respect to the late Laisenia Qarase.  Part 2 of this article (next week) widens the questions to other Fijian leaders who have suffered the same fate as the late Laisenia Qarase.

Prime Minister Qarase 2001-2006

As many writers have related, the late Laisenia Qarase was not a career politician but pulled into politics by being appointed as Interim Prime Minister by Commodore Bainimarama, after the RFMF had regained control following the 2000 coup.

For the 2001 Elections, Qarase bravely chose not to ride on the SVT bandwagon but formed a new political party (the SDL) which surprisingly won the majority of the seats with FLP coming a close second.

For any number of reasons, including Qarase’s offer of unimportant ministries to FLP, a multi-party cabinet with FLP was not formed.

But I can personally vouch as a senior USP economist, that PM Qarase ran a solid and honest Government which consulted widely and was always open to alternative views and evidence.

At his request in 2001, I prepared a major paper on “Financing Fijians in Development” which can be read on my website:

https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/financing-fijians-in-business-suggestions-to-the-qarase-government-taskforce-for-accelerating-fiji-business-development-2001/

In 2005, I gave a presentation to the Qarase Cabinet on national development projects which could be fostered for the good of Fiji and also indigenous Fijian entrepreneurs (this paper is Reading 3 in my book The Challenges of Growing the Fiji Economy, available at Hot Bread Kitchen outlets throughout Fiji).

At the request of the Board of Indigenous Fijian Business Council, I gave a keynote presentation at their AGM in Sigatoka in March 2006, again on key strategies to finance indigenous Fijian development.

Around that time, I presented to Qarase’s Cabinet some of the key findings of the detailed poverty analysis that I had conducted for the Fiji Bureau of Statistics based on a solid national household income and expenditure survey, which I thought should inform their poverty alleviation policies, including  the better targeting of Affirmative Action policies, while being fair to all communities (this was also published as my Fiji Times article of 11 June 2007).

First, the hard evidence indicated that by far the “most poor” (i.e. percentage wise) by ethnicity and region were rural Indo-Fijians of whom 47% were below the Basic Needs Poverty Line. I reiterated that Government could not ignore this problem.

Second, in terms of the total quantity of poverty alleviation resources required to lift the poor above the poverty line (the “Poverty Gap”) some 54% of the poverty alleviation resources would deservedly go to indigenous Fijians (who were  now the majority of the poor) while the Indo-Fijian poor would receive a lower 43%. In other words, there was no need at all for poverty alleviation policies to be based on ethnicity while still satisfying the  objectives of “affirmative action”.

But third, I pointed out that if you compared the two ethnic groups, it was only at the top 10% of the income groups that indigenous Fijians were really lagging behind the other ethnic groups.

Hence, however much such a recommendation would rankle with the purists, the government had to “make rich Fijians richer” at the top 10% if society was to close the economic gap between indigenous Fijians and others.

Of course, I pointed out that this did not mean giving the elite Fijians handouts, but helping indigenous Fijian entrepreneurs and business people wherever possible and helping them to overcome whatever constraints they faced as entrepreneurs and business persons.

In all of these presentations, the late Laisenia Qarase showed great understanding and willingness to consider views which did not totally coincide with his own.

Qarase’s Government also appointed me to the Board of FRCA where I served until it became difficult because of unacceptable management politics.

Largely because of the many unresolved “loose ends” (yes, I know it is a shocking euphemism) resulting from the 2000 coup and mutiny, Qarase’s Government had a stormy five years until the May 2006 Elections, by which time Qarase had matured as a politician and was more cognizant of national interests.

The Multi-Party SDL/FLP Government of 2006

It is a tragedy that it is not recognized enough that the Government that was removed by the 2006 coup was not Qarase’s SDL Party alone, but a Multi-Party Government with the Fiji Labour Party as a partner, holding solid ministries.

That may partly be due to the “strange choice” of the Leader of the FLP (Mahendra Chaudhry) to remain outside Cabinet, to try to become Leader of the Opposition (while his MPs were in Cabinet), and eventually to join Bainimarama’s post-coup government as Finance Minister (after the Presiden of the FLP had publicly called on Banimarama to the coup he was threatening).

Nevetheless, Qarase with his understandably strong desire for affirmative action for indigenous Fijians in business, had the total support of powerful Fijian institutions like the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church (both proven by Bainimarama to be toothless tigers, with no courageous power at all).

History records that the Commander of the RFMF (Bainimarama) had little difficulty in conducting his military coup in December 2006, with the Fiji Commissioner of Police (Australian Andrew Hughes) having to flee with his family back to Australia.

Bainimarama justified his coup by alleging that there was widespread corruption in the Qarase Government but to date, no such evidence has ever been provided to the public of Qarase’s Multi-Party Government being corrupt in any way.

What the public saw was that the late Laisenia Qarase was convicted for alleged “abuse of office”, for failing to disclose publicly that he, his family and village had financial interests in projects that he fostered in his official duties in the nineteen nineties, as General Manager of the Fiji Development Bank.

But I also pointed in a paper I wrote for Qarase’s Defence Counsel during his trial (which you can read on my website here:

https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/making-rich-fijians-richer-contextual-statement-for-defense-counsel-for-mr-qarase/

that it was irrelevant of the prosecution to argue that some of Qarase’s policies while General Manager of FDB were only helping elite Fijians. I pointed out using FRCA tax statistics (generally available then) that these “rich” Fijians were still nowhere as rich as the Punjas, Tappoos, Patels, Yees, Lees, etc.  They still had to be assisted if the gap at the top 10% of Fiji’s income levels were to be closed for all the ethnic groups. To no avail.

Jailed by Fiji’s transformed judiciary for two years with the sentence reduced to six months, the late Laisenia Qarase served his time with great dignity and integrity (as Matt Wilson’s account poignantly describes).

But the  2013 Constitution imposed on Fiji by the Bainimarama Government “coincidentally” ensured that the “conviction” prevented Qarase (and also Chaudhry convicted of a tax misdemeanor) from standing for the 2014 elections.

The glowing tributes but…

Of course, one would not expect there to be any glowing tributes to the former Prime Minister from the Fiji First Party and the Bainimarama Government, for obvious reasons.

But, sadly, there was little acknowledgement either of the passing of this former Prime Minister who had served Fiji for six years during troubled times.

To its credit as an objective and courageous national newspaper, Fiji Times has printed many glowing tributes to the late Prime Minister.

Some were from those that Qarase was closely associated with, such as with Sakiasi Ditoka (his Press Secretary at the time), Matt Wilson (a major speech writer at the time) and Jioji Kotobalavu (his Permanent Secretary at the time).

Ditoka wrote (FT 25/4/2020) of Qarase’s deep commitment to God, family and education which he saw as absolutely vital for indigenous Fijians if they were to achieve economic parity with other races in Fiji. Qarase saw that this economic parity was the best guarantee of reduced political tensions and civil unrest that Fiji had been plagued by for decades. Qarase believed in merit driven public service policies and absolute commitment to disciplined hard work for himself and his ministers. While Qarase freely delegated authority to his Ministers, he refused to approve any unnecessary overseas trips for any of them, and he applied the same rigid standards to himself.

Jioji Kotobalavu pointed to Qarase’s huge contribution to the advancement of indigenous Fijians in business through the incredibly profitable Fijian Holdings Limited (which was returning more than 12% in annual dividends to its shareholders including and all the provincial councils as well as individual Fijians) and the Methodist Church  of Fiji (which became debt free for the first times in its history).  Kotobalavu noted that “iTaukei and Rotuman communities showed their appreciation to Mr Qarase and his government by giving them more than 83% of their votes in the general election of May 2006”. What a pity that their “appreciation” did not go further.

Matt Wilson (FT 25/4/2020) wrote that Qarase despite being fundamentally quiet, reserved and shy eventually became an “astute, visionary and reforming politician who won the confidence of large sections of the populace”.

Sadly, there are those in a section of the Fiji media who do themselves little credit by trying to discredit such tributes as coming only from those whose bread was buttered by being associated with the former Prime Minister.

For no one could accuse Leadership Fiji of bias. Its CEO (Sharyne Fong), no doubt with the approval of its apolitical Board, gave out a statement  that the former Prime Minister  “inspired young Fijian leaders to build loving and kind relationships in the communities they served in… [his] humanity extended to his family, friends and anyone else who knew him… was a great leader and son of Fiji ..his legacy will live on with our leadership alumni and fellows and all our leaders who he had inspired to do good for our communities” (Fiji Times 26/4/2020).

Similar tributes also came from politicians who also did not benefit personally from the late Prime Minister.

Mahendra Chaudhry (Leader of the Fiji Labor Party Leader and former Prime Minister), while pointing to Qarase’s strong commitment to indigenous Fijian development, said that Qarase “had strong moral principles” (FT 22/4/2020).

The undeniably neutral Professor Biman Prasad, leader of the National Federation Party, noted that the late Laisenia Qarase “was always transparent and conducted  himself ethnically in all his dealings. He accepted constructive criticism and alternative ideas both as CEO and as PM. … [and he led] a genuine power-sharing [government] for the first time in our independent history” (FT 22/4/2020).

In addition to the above tributes let me also add that the late Laisenia Qarase, when Prime Minister

  • never stopped Auditor Generals’ Reports for his six years highlighting lack of accountability for expenditure of hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds (another did for eight years and then stacked the overseeing Parliamentary Committee with his stooges);
  • never feathered his own nest as Prime Minister; he did not boost up his salary by massive amounts (as another did); neither did he grant himself massive per diems  for the few days he was out of the country (while another seemed to be needed more overseas than in Fiji, paying himself a per diem several times higher than that given to the over-paid UN officials or even the Australian Prime Minister;
  • never appointed undeserving family members to high posts (as others did with impunity).

Unfortunately, and a clear indication of the the climate of fear prevailing in Fiji, none of the glowing tributes to the late Laisenia Qarase dared to ask the “elephant in the room” question:  why then would such a good Prime Minister and his presumably equally good  SDL/FLP Government be illegally removed from office?

Matt Wilson wrote only that “it was Fiji’s tangled, divisive and often toxic politics”. What a euphemism for “treason”.

Sakiasi Ditoka demanded more when he wrote (Fiji Times, 25/4/2020) that the late Qarase “trusted that the laws and institutions of the nation would protect democracy and the people’s government. His trust unfortunately was misplaced and I believe that Fiji owes him and his wife, Leba and their family its apologies”.

But I would suggest far more than just “apologize” and move on, Fiji needs to do some deep honest and painful soul-searching about their own sad behavior when their leaders are illegally removed.

Where were Qarase’s followers?

Of course, as Ditoka has pointed out, the fundamental institutions of state (the military, police and the judiciary) were found wanting at the illegal removal of a lawfully elected government and prime minister.

“Wanting” is a terrible euphemism for these three once respected and revered institutions which have been reduced since 2006 (a process starting with Rabuka’s 1987 coup) to hollow disgraceful shells serving their political masters and  not the 1997 Constitution which it was their sworn duty to protect and uphold.

Perceptive cynical observers would note that a police department which failed to protect their Prime Minister when he was alive and in office, allegedly “protected” his coffin on its way to Nausori Airport while the All-powerful Government gracefully gave “permission” for his body to return to his home island. What a sad state of affairs has Fiji been reduced to.

But there is a second and just as important “elephant in the room” question that all Fiji must ask today:  where were all the 83% of Fiji’s voters whose two parties (SDL and FLP) were in the Multi-Party Qarase Government that was removed by the 2006 military coup?

Did they think that their responsibilities ended the day they put their pieces of paper into the ballot box?

Did they think that they had no responsibility to defend the government they elected who served them so well?

While the much publicized 2006 coup was in progress and Prime Minister Qarase was besieged in his house, I expected there to be widespread social protest and hundreds of thousands of Qarase’s followers, including the powerful Methodist Church, would march to his home and confront any bunch of RFMF soldiers who dared to “arrest” their  elected Leader.

But there was no such popular uprising among the followers of Qarase.

They were “followers” as long as the “goodies” kept coming but they promptly charged to the next winning bandwagon when the late Qarase was gone from the reins and corridors of power.

Among those “mobile followers” you can include quite a few of the corporate giants of Fiji who were once buddies of the late Qarase when he was Prime Minister, and soon after became “buddies” of the new Rulers who replaced Qarase.

In Part 2 of this article, I suggest that Fiji’s sad treatment the late Laisenia Qarase is not an isolated phenomenon but a debilitating cancer that has eaten away at Fiji society for decades, still preventing the creation of a true, accountable and honest democracy, in which a revered people’s constitution is a symbol to be defended through thick and thin, and not chucked out at the convenience of a new Ruler.

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