Asia-Pacific

Controversies surrounding the Fiji Government

Regime wolves circle the Fiji National Provident Fund.

There have been regular articles on the blog sites Coup 4.5 (www.coupfourandahalf.com/) and Raw Fiji News (rawfijinews.wordpress.com/) on the problems facing the military regime in Fiji. Recent ones have concerned moves by the Fiji government to reduce pension payments following a series of bad investment decisions by the Fiji National Provident Fund and to curb the rights of the workers through the Essential Industries Decree. Both these reforms have struck a nerve. Even among the regime's most staunch supporters, there are concerns that Fiji is heading into an economic wilderness.

However, a more interesting development has been the emergence of organized anti-government graffiti attacks and reports of the rise of the Viti Revolutionary Force (VRF), which is concerned over the moves by the regime to force a change to the current Methodist Church leadership. Despite a flurry of criticisms of recent Fiji government policies and decrees, the Lowy Institute released a controversial survey during the 40th Pacific Islands Forum Meeting in Auckland in which 66 percent of those sampled supported Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

The Fiji National Provident Fund

On July 1 the Fiji government changed the Fiji National Provident Fund Act to guarantee the viability of the superannuation scheme following a series of bad investment decisions. The fund has announced changes to the pension structure with proposed cuts to returns from 15 percent to about 9 percent.

The reforms were announced following the fund's $178 million dollar write-down due to failed investments in the Momi Bay and Natadola Bay Resort projects. Fiji's Pensioners Association protested that the proposed changes would have a cost-of-living impact on their members who are struggling to keep pace with rising food prices and increases in electricity and water rates.

In an attempt to gauge public opinion on the matter, Fiji National Provident Fund executives Aisake Taito, Alipate Waqairawai, Jaoji Koroi and Tevita Nagataleka organized a series of public meetings where members of the public raised concerns over the status of the fund and called for accountability and transparency on investment decisions, including a stronger voice of members in the appointment of the board.

The Fiji Island Council of Trade Unions (FICTU) and the Fiji Bank and Finance Sector Unions expressed strong reservation on the proposed changes, with the FICTU calling on the government to suspend all changes. The public fury over the reforms led to a court challenge by pensioner David Burness, who sought legal protection against unfair discrimination on the grounds of age based on the review of the Fiji National Provident Fund Pension Scheme.

As the debate on the changes to the National Provident Fund waged on, two former general managers of the Fund, Foana Nemani and Olota Rokovunisei, were charged with extortion by public officers and abuse of office following investigations by the Fiji Island Anti Corruption Commission. The two were alleged to have defrauded the Fund by approving payment of responsibility allowance to the sum of $F70,000 ($39,403) without authorization in 2006.

Essential National Industries Decree

On August 3 the Fiji government disclosed Essential National Industries (Employment) Decree 2011, which aims to protect targeted industries from industrial bargaining because of its importance to GDP.

The Decree requires unions to re-register and overturns all existing collective agreements and orders non-management union representatives. Those found in breach of this Decree face heavy fines and even imprisonment. The Decree provides the prime minister of Fiji with the powers to determine internal organization of unions in workplaces, including the composition of bargaining units, which can be overturned via the intervention of the employer.

The most controversial aspects of the Decree are that employees of the designated industries have no right to overtime payment, employers are not required to deduct union fees, and all strike actions require written authorization from the prime minister. Failure to comply with this rule could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Furthermore, all decisions made under the Essential Services Decree by the government of Fiji and by employers cannot be challenged in any court, tribunal, commission or any other adjudicating body.

Concerned by the clauses in the decree, a number of union leaders travelled overseas to seek assistance from their counterparts, mainly in Australia and New Zealand. The Fiji government labelled the overseas trip by the union leaders a deliberate misinformation campaign, and private meetings by union officials have been suspended under the Public Emergency Decree, which has been in effect since the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution by late President Ratu Josefa Iloilo in April 2009.

On Aug. 4 the two union leaders, Felix Anthony and Daniel Urai, were charged with unlawful assembly for organizing a meeting to discuss the impact of the Decree, as the ILO Director General Juan Somavia expressed serious concerns about developments on the industrial relations front in Fiji.

Graffiti attacks

Reports have come from Suva that there has been a series of anti-Bainimarama graffiti. These graffiti have been quickly cleaned up by the military, but this particular form of a protest has started following calls by the former 3rd Infantry Regiment Commander Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba Mara for protests against the Fiji government.

It is alleged that the graffiti attacks are carried out by a group of Fiji dissidents who have formed VRF with an agenda to force the current Fiji government to hold elections under the 1997 Constitution and stop moves to intimidate the Methodist Church.

The Methodist Church annual conference scheduled for this year was suspended by the Fiji government, the church is banned from holding any internal meetings, and there is a ban on church leaders from travelling overseas. Church President Reverend Ame Tugaue and Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu were charged two years ago with holding a meeting without government permission under the Public Emergency Regulations.

Meanwhile 100 local and international members of an Indo-Fijian Methodist Fellowship were allowed to converge at the Dudley Church in Suva for a three days of worship (Aug. 28-30), sharing and discussion on the topic "The Roots and Fruits of Mission: Revisiting the Legacy of Indian Mission."

The inconsistency in the application of the Public Emergency Regulations has been criticized by VRF and many in the indigenous Fijian community overseas. However, the Fiji government is insistent that the Methodist Church leaders are secretly involved in politics and are working with their international counterparts to bring back the deposed SDL Government.

The Lowy survey

The Lowy Institute of International Policy in Sydney published a controversial survey in which 66 percent of the 1,032 randomly selected adults gave a strong approval rating for the performance of Commodore Bainimarama as prime minister. The poll also revealed that only 53 percent of those polled supported democracy, and 52 percent stated that the government was doing a good job. However, 95 percent supported free speech, national elections and a free media.

Anti-Fiji government blogs have criticized the survey, but the Fiji media had been largely supportive of the result. On Sept. 9, senior lecturer in politics at La Trobe University in Australia Michael O'Keefe told the Australian that it was time for the Australian government to engage with Fiji. The debate as to whether engaging with Fiji would mean legitimizing the Bainimarama government has been raging since the December 6, 2006 coup.

The blog site of retired Professor Crosbie Walsh (http://crosbiew.blogspot.com/) has been calling for constructive engagement by Australia and New Zealand, and joining him are Dr. Steven Ratuva, senior lecturer at Auckland University; journalist Graham Davies; and more recently the Director for the Melanesian Program at the Lowy Institute Jenny-Hayward Jones.

Groups opposed to any dialogue with the Fiji government and strengthening of sanctions include the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement; former 3rd Infantry Regiment Commander Ratu Uluilakeba Mara; University of the South Pacific academic Warden Narsey; and academics at the Australian National University including Professor Brij Lal, Dr. Jon Fraenkel and Jone Baledrokadroka. Oxford academic Victor Lal has recently called for direct intervention.

The answer to the debate may lie in the middle-ground approach: not to impose trade sanctions or normalize relationships, but to open up channels of dialogue so that Australia and New Zealand can influence democratic outcome. It is not clear how opposition voices will be integrated into Fiji's constitution-review process, and the Fiji government should place a moratorium on decrees that have caused concerns among human rights activists and unions.

One of the essential preconditions for any form of consensus building is to remove all forms of regulations and create an environment where free and frank discussions can take place in Fiji. As a start, the Public Emergency Regulation should be lifted.

Dr. Sanjay Ramesh is an associate fellow at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. His email is sanjay.ramesh@sydney.edu.au.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Sanjay Ramesh.

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