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Opinion, Opinion

PM: THE NUMBERS DON’T LIE

PM: THE NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama
July 10
13:25 2018

 

I thank you, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker, I proudly rise today to deliver my own response to Fiji’s 2018-2019 Budget. As Prime Minister, I fully recognise that the thoughts which I share in this august Parliament over the next 20 minutes will attract a great deal of attention. And as the leader of the FijiFirst party, I am also keenly aware that this spotlight shines even brighter during an election year.

Madam Speaker, the words that will be spoken by Members of Parliament today and throughout the week will be amplified louder and projected further than any year in Fijian history. My Government’s targeted investments have vastly and permanently expand­ed telecommunications all through­out Fiji, even in our most deep-rural and maritime communities. Paired with booming economic prosperity that has put technology in the homes and hands of Fijian families through­out our country, our nation’s access to information is at an all-time high. But

Madam Speaker, unfortunately even the proudest of accomplishments can be abused by irresponsible actors; with great access to information can come the great spread of falsehoods.

Madam Speaker, I know that many Fijians put their trust in me, as Prime Minister, to cut through that fog of falsehood to find the truth. Many, Madam Speaker, look to me more than anyone to provide a straightforward and honest assessment of the state of affairs in Fiji. This humbling respon­sibility is not one I take lightly. And with more Fijians than ever watching on their TV or smartphone, listening on the radio, and getting news in the papers and online, this is a duty that I very consciously carry on my shoul­ders this morning.

Responsible budget

Madam Speaker, to those Fijians who are seeking my judgement of the 2018-2019 National Budget, it is quite sim­ple: the Budget is responsible. Madam Speaker, even the Leader of the Op­position has endorsed the Budget. You’ll probably find, Madam Speaker, that she’s already changed her mind. One thing that the Opposition is well-known for is their inconsistency in everything they talk about.

But this is a Budget that will move our nation forward. This is a Budget for all Fijian families. By the breadth of my experience, and through the wisdom this experience has blessed me with, I can say this with full con­fidence. Because, Madam Speaker, this isn’t a one-off Budget during an election year; it is all part of my Gov­ernment’s visionary plan. It is one building block on top of the great pil­lar of progress that we have already constructed.

This Budget, Madam Speaker, has been expertly engineered by the Attorney-General and Minister for Economy to further raise the qual­ity of life for Fijians of all ages today, while also preparing our nation for to­morrow. I applaud the hard work and many gruelling hours put in not only by him, but by all those who contrib­uted to ensuring this Budget was care­fully crafted. From the public and pri­vate sector input, but most especially from his staff –– the Permanent Secre­tary for Economy and her officials. It is a remarkable achievement that we should all be proud of.

Madam Speaker, when it comes to putting together a Budget or running an economy, the moral compass of any Government should be guided by one defining virtue, and that is responsi­bility. This is a theme at the core of my remarks today; it is how we can distinguish whether politicians are governing for their people, or govern­ing for themselves. It is the difference between long-sighted leadership and short-sighted spinelessness. Because, Madam Speaker, true leaders are con­cerned with preserving prosperity far after they’re gone. False leaders are concerned only with preserving them­selves.

Criticisms, Opposition

Madam Speaker, I want to take this opportunity to address the criticisms of the Opposition head-on. First, it is important to note that valid and fair critiques of Government are in­valuable to a democracy; they ensure that our elected officials remain self-aware and accountable, and they can add constructive perspective that bet­ter informs our policy and decision-making. Meanwhile, Madam Speaker, there is a fundamental difference be­tween criticism that is just, versus the blatant and desperate lies that we have seen coming from the Opposition.

Madam Speaker, the worst offender is the leader of SODELPA, Sitiveni Rabuka. In a desperate bid to re­claim power, he has quickly resorted to spreading falsehoods as his only political strategy –– it’s the only po­litical strategy that he knows of. It would seem that the only truth that has come out of Rabuka’s mouth in re­cent weeks was when, just last week, he described his own party’s leader in Parliament as “irresponsible!” And SODELPA’s infighting only seems to get worse.

Madam Speaker, if Rabuka wants to see the height of irresponsibility, he need only look into a mirror. The lies that he tells –– his falsehoods –– are intentionally designed to confuse and scare the public.

A prime example of this, Madam Speaker, is when he chose to lie in front of the world on an Australian news programme–– a calculated move that he hoped would make Fiji look foolish and weak, all for his own celeb­rity and political benefit. In his typical dramatic fashion, he declared to the cameras that Fiji risked “selling our souls” by handing over control of Gov­ernment assets like our ports and jet­ties to the Chinese. But as it turns out, Madam Speaker, the real assets being handed over are Rabuka’s. We learned just last weekend that he himself sold off his personal estate in Vanua Levu to a Chinese businessman. Madam Speaker, you can’t make this stuff up! But while we may laugh, no one should see his irresponsible lies and hypocrisy as comical. Fijians need to see this behaviour for what it truly is: it is a pattern. It is outrageous. And it is dangerous.

While Rabuka’s sensationalisation makes headlines, it certainly doesn’t make good leadership. If SODELPA knew a single thing about responsible fiscal management, they would know that Fiji stands absolutely no risk of losing our economic independence to China, or to Japan, or to any other country for that matter that they try to use for their fear-mongering tactics.

Profit, or operation surplus

Madam Speaker, as the Honourable Attorney-General has pointed out, we actually have a profit or operating sur­plus, taking in more revenue than we spend, when it comes to the day-to-day running of Government. Every extra dollar we take in is spent on capital in­vestment for the benefit of our people, which is then complemented by stra­tegic loans for further capital projects.

Absolutely every dollar, every dollar borrowed by Government is used to in­vest back into our people. We use it for infrastructure spending, we use it for climate adaptation, expanding educa­tion, and providing medical services. If we were not to do this, our people would suffer, and Fiji would forever remain underdeveloped, left behind in a global economy.

Recognising the need for this infra­structure spending, international in­stitutions and financial experts have praised our Budget as responsible; just last week, ANZ International Economist Kishti Sen said that our continued growth streak is remark­able, especially considering how often we are hit with economically-devas­tating tropical cyclones like Winston, which caused over $1 billion in dam­age.

These international bodies, from ANZ to World Bank to IMF and Moody’s, aren’t driven by a political agenda; they are driven by objective facts. And that’s a concern, Madam Speaker, because this morning the Honourable Radrodro talked about how this side of the House, especially the Minister for Economy, is manipu­lating the figures. Our figures are tak­en from IMF, the Reserve [Bank], the World Bank–– I don’t know where [the Opposition] gets their figures from. I hope it’s not from under the table somewhere, because that seems to be the norm for the Opposition.

Rabuka factor

But, Madam Speaker, when you look at the charts, one factor stands out as having an even more devastating effect on the Fijian economy than cy­clones. That factor is Sitiveni Rabuka. The Fijian economy suffered its big­gest blow in history after his 1987 coups. It contracted by 6.4 per cent.

Yet Rabuka chooses to manipulate Fiji’s statistics to his advantage, with flippant disregard for the facts. But Madam Speaker, while desperate poli­ticians may lie, numbers don’t.

The false economic figures that Rabu­ka touts are, at best, a gross manipula­tion. He openly brags that the Fijian economy grew by 4.2 per cent under SVT leadership. Meanwhile, when you do the math, the average growth dur­ing full years that SVT was in power, the rate stands at only around half of what he claims: 2.3 per cent. I think, Madam Speaker, he should stop rely­ing on bad economic advice from second-rate former civil servants.

Madam Speaker, SODELPA’s eco­nomic ignorance extends further, as they spread misinformation about Fiji’s inflation rate. Rabuka has sug­gested that our domestic inflation is somehow out of control, harming the purchasing power of Fijians. Again, this is a flat lie. His shameless hypoc­risy is exposed again, as SODELPA campaigns for an immediate jump to a $4 minimum wage with no regard for the inflation it would ignite. Where did $4 even come from? Between this and NFP’s $5 proposed wage, the Op­position seems to be pulling numbers out of thin air, with no regard to the 130,000 Fijians working in the infor­mal sector and consequential infla­tionary impact.

But like when it comes to selling as­sets to the Chinese, Rabuka need not look farther than his own back yard to find the real truth: his irresponsible actions and terrible economic mis­management are the single biggest contributor to domestic inflation that Fiji has ever seen.

Madam Speaker, after he executed his coups in 1987, the Fijian dollar was hit with two large devaluations, drain­ing the pockets of Fijian families everywhere. And a third devaluation came under his SVT regime in 1998. Combined, the three Rabuka curren­cy devaluations wiped off more than half the value of the Fijian dollar. To the many ordinary Fijians who saw their life savings go up in smoke, this, combined with the collapse of the Na­tional Bank of Fiji during his time, will go down in our nation’s history as Fiji’s single largest financial disaster.

Chorus of lies

And now, Honourable Radrodro is talking about changing the perfor­mance of the FNPF. This would kill the FNPF. He knows little about what the FNPF does.

Madam Speaker, SODELPA’s chorus of lies is joined by Fiji Labour Party and the National Federation Party, as they all are guilty of manipulating facts to mislead you to think that the poverty rate in Fiji stands at around 50 per cent. This distortion is despic­able. The reality is that poverty has been on the steady decline over the past decade, shrinking from 35 per cent to 31 per cent to 28 per cent in 2014. A new survey will be conducted this year, with all signs pointing to that rate to continue its downward trend. And while the backdated sur­vey that the Opposition selectively quotes, their scare tactics completely ignore the significant economic pro­gress that Fiji has achieved in recent years. To suggest that poverty is on the rise when, every day, we see more Fijians joining the job market and buying homes and cars is blind to the reality of our ongoing progress.

And sadly, Madam Speaker, these are just the lies that the Opposition is will­ing to say publicly; but behind a bowl of grog, or disguised by a fake profile on Facebook, their true character is exposed. We know that when certain parties are off-the-record and trying to win votes with fear instead of facts, the lies are much uglier, much more toxic, and much more openly racist and religiously chauvinistic.

Madam Speaker, when their lies about the Budget or Fiji’s economic performance fail to gain any trac­tion, the Opposition seems to rely on a common fall-back: rambling on about “hand-outs” to anyone who cares to listen. Honourable Biman Prasad thinks he can see far into the future, Madam Speaker, because he had al­ready labelled this year’s Budget as a package of hand-outs long before it was announced.

I’d like to put an end to this, Madam Speaker. If the out-of-touch Opposi­tion would take the time to look up from their plate of buttered lamb chops and beer and actually see the needs of Fijian families, they would realise that calling Government’s ini­tiatives “hand-outs” is an insult to Fi­jian families. It is irresponsible, and it is wrong.

Madam Speaker, as our critics are speaking to a camera or typing behind a computer screen, it is both cowardly and irresponsible for them to portray Fijians who receive assistance as lazy, as less-than, or as dependent on Gov­ernment’s teat. But I have a feeling that if they visit with Fijian families face-to-face, their tone would quickly change.

Birthday cake

Madam Speaker, I understand there was some cake shared last night. It is Honourable Gavoka’s birthday; we were informed by the Minister for Economy that it was celebrated last night, and we were hoping some piece of the cake would come –– but obviously not. But speaking of cake, Madam Speaker, I get the impression that the Opposition wants to have their cake and eat it too. They are complaining about the Budget, how much we spend, the hand-outs that are supposedly given to the public at large, but they are not telling them­selves to move away from handouts. They are not telling their families to move away from freebies. They are not telling their supporters that they should get away from free school fees and free bus fares.

So really, Madam Speaker, they are a bit inconsistent in what they want to talk about when they talk about our economy.

Madam Speaker, to the 70-year old vegetable farmer from Sigatoka whose livelihood was washed away by TC Josie’s floodwaters, I dare the Opposition to call the fertiliser and seedlings he received from our Farms-CARE programme a “hand-out”.

To the Fijian schoolgirl living in deep-rural Vanua Levu, the first in her family’s history to receive a for­mal education, reading her free maths textbook under the light of Govern­ment-subsidised electricity, I dare the Opposition to call the opportunities at her feet “hand-outs”.

To the grandmother living with dia­betes in Lami who is struggling to meet the cost of her treatments, I dare the Opposition to call the Govern­ment-subsidised dialysis that she will receive at one of Fiji’s soon-to-open kidney centres a “hand-out”.

To the mourning widow in Lautoka whose financial struggles would have once forced her to choose between a proper burial for her husband or Christmas gifts for her children, I dare the Opposition to call the pay­ment she received from Government’s new Family Insurance a “hand-out”.

To the tertiary student studying en­gineering in Suva who comes from a low-income family, relying on his in­creased bus fare subsidy to get to and from class every day and accessing his assignments online using a new, free Wi-Fi hotspot, I dare the Opposition to belittle his Government assistance as a “hand-out”.

To the mother of a newborn boy in Nadi who would have once needed to worry about taking unpaid time off work to care for her baby, and who would struggle to pay for nappies and formula, I dare the Opposition to call her extended maternity leave and a Parenthood Assistance Payment a “hand-out”.

To the Fijian in Nausori who was able to break through the genera­tional cycle of poverty by turning her green thumb into a nursery business that now employs three staff, I dare the Opposition to call the plants and tools she purchased with a Micro and Small Business Grant a “hand-out”.

To the young Fijian boy living with a disability in Labasa who strug­gles to move his wheelchair from the bedroom to the bathroom, and whose house, constructed without his needs in mind, never truly felt like a home, I dare the Opposition to call the new ramp and structural upgrades he re­ceives from the Budget a “hand-out”.

To the family in Ba who saw their home and all of their possessions destroyed by a mudslide during Cy­clone Keni, I dare the Opposition to call the construction materials they purchased through Homes-CARE a “hand-out.”

Madam Speaker, I think I’ve made it quite clear: my Government, and this Budget, doesn’t give hand-outs. It gives Fijians of all walks of life a leg up. It helps Fijian families to help themselves. As I have said, it is a building block in a larger vision for a prosperous Fiji.

Madam Speaker, it takes a profound amount of skill to put together a Na­tional Budget that maintains a deli­cate balance of fiscal responsibility, while still providing the most ben­efit possible back to the Fijian peo­ple. This Budget accomplishes that balance with prudent craftsmanship and economic experience. And Mad­am Speaker, this responsible, family Budget is a Budget that could only be accomplished by FijiFirst.

This Budget is a clear example of how my Government leads, and how we will continue to lead to ensure all Fijians have a brighter future. All Fi­jians must consider this fact during this week’s debates, and in the critical months ahead.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

 

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