Opinion

PM: Whatever Our Political differences, There Is A Higher Cause

This is the full speech of Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama in response to the President Major-General (Ret’d) Joji Konrote’s speech at the opening of Parliament on September 12.    
27 Sep 2016 08:16
PM: Whatever Our Political differences, There Is A Higher Cause
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.

This is the full speech of Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama in response to the
President Major-General (Ret’d) Joji Konrote’s speech at the opening of Parliament on September 12.

 

 

Madam Speaker, I rise to acknowledge and commend His Excellency the President for his address on 12 September formally opening the 2016 session of the Parliament.

In his speech, His Excellency referred to the disproportionate role that Fiji is taking in drawing global attention to the urgent need to confront the challenges of climate change.

But, madam Speaker, this is only the most prominent aspect of Fiji’s international engagement across a broad front. In that respect, I have spent the past week in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, playing a key role in the global frameworks and agreements that Fiji has, in many ways, helped to influence.

As you know, Fiji has assumed the presidency of the General Assembly for the first time under Ambassador Peter Thomson and it was a very proud moment for our nation and the other Pacific Island countries.

In my address to the General Assembly, I highlighted the urgent need for a more radical response by the international community to deal with the effects of climate change.

And in particular, the extreme weather events like Tropical Cyclone Winston, that I said had given Fijians a terrifying glimpse into the future that awaits us all because of global warming.

Madam Speaker, we are facing the prospect of more frequent and more intense cyclones like Winston, that have the potential to kill many more of our people and wipe out our economy in the event of a direct hit.

And Pacific island nations are pressing the global community to put a cap of 1.5 degrees on global warming over the pre-industrial age, rather than the two per cent agreed to under the Paris Agreement of last November.

Madam Speaker, I also stressed to the other 192 member countries of the UN the importance of the High Level Conference on Oceans and Seas that Fiji is co-sponsoring with Sweden in New York next June.

We must reverse the current threat to our seas posed by pollution, overfishing and the loss of marine habitats.

And we must do it as a matter of urgency for the sake of our coastal communities in Fiji and around the world that depend on the sea for their food and their livelihoods.

Madam Speaker, as well as addressing the UN General Assembly, I also spoke at a side meeting of the Commonwealth and at special sessions relating to the Oceans Conference, the flow of refugees and migrants and climate change.

Along with the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, I was one of only two world leaders to address a UN special event encouraging other nations to ratify the Paris Agreement.

Fiji as you know, was the first country in the world to ratify the Agreement and lodge the ratification instruments. And we are taking a lead in the effort to get other nations to do the same so that the Agreement finally comes into effect. And we can all begin to make the significant cuts in carbon emissions that are needed to avert the crisis we are facing.

Madam Speaker, in addition to these events, I also had formal meetings with the UN Secretary General, the Australian Prime Minister, the British Minister responsible for the Asia-Pacific, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and the leaders and foreign ministers of a number of other countries, including Indonesia, Guyana, Hungary and Ethiopia. I also had informal meetings with the foreign ministers of Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Barbados and my fellow Pacific Island leaders.

Never before has Fiji’s voice been heard so strongly in the world. Never before has that voice been so respected. We continue to punch above our weight in global affairs – whether it is through our contribution to UN Peacekeeping or our lead role in the fight against climate change. And it is something every Fijian can be proud of.

Madam Speaker, His Excellency the President also emphasised national unity and his appeal for Honourable members to behave with honour was most welcome.

“Let us all be worthy in public life of the ordinary men and women who have put us here and given us their trust”, he said.

“Let us set an example in this Parliament for young Fijians, who look to us to build a future worthy of their dreams and aspirations. Because it is by setting a standard of excellence here that we can inspire them to excellence ourselves. And be powerful role models in the quest to make Fiji great”.

With that statement, Madam Speaker, His Excellency reminded us all of our most important obligation as elected representatives of the Fijian people. Which is to set an example for young Fijians of the highest standards of conduct in public life.

They were inspiring words on a day of inspiration, that included our Head of State acknowledging Naomi Lewakita, the 11-year-old girl from the Fiji School for the Blind who had inspired us all on Constitution Day when she read out the rights of the disabled from the Braille version of our Constitution.

Many of you were also present at State House in the evening where to the surprise of everyone, Naomi sang to us all. It was very moving to hear the voice of a girl who is refusing to allow her disability to hold her back. We could all feel Naomi’s spirits soar as she sang and our spirits soared with her.

Madam Speaker, these are the moments that inspire me to redouble my efforts to improve the opportunities for young people like Naomi. She told the media that being here with us in the Parliament made her think that one day, she might also be able to make a contribution to public life. And I am certain that she will.

Madam Speaker, it was a powerful reminder of the trust our children are placing in us to build a better world.

A world of opportunity in which we take everyone with us on our journey forward.  And it was a powerful reminder of the sacred duty we owe our young people to uphold their trust and do everything we can to serve them. To provide them with the opportunities they deserve.

Madam Speaker, as his excellency the President said in his speech, he has big shoes to fill as Head of State. His predecessor, his excellency Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, is a tough act to follow. Soldier, statesman, diplomat and HIV Aids campaigner. A man of high status and great accomplishments who has never lost his common touch and empathy with the people.

Following in Ratu Epeli’s footsteps was always going to be a challenge for anyone. Yet his Excellency, Major-General (Ret’d) Jioji Konrote, not only filled those shoes when he came here two weeks ago. He wore them with distinction. Our Head of State fulfilling his ceremonial duties with dignity, authority and wisdom.

As a soldier and military hero – the holder of one of the highest awards for gallantry, the Military Cross – Major-General Konrote is known to be tough and decisive. As a former diplomat and government minister, he is known for his ability to bring people together. As a man of strong religious faith, His Excellency is known to be compassionate, especially towards the more vulnerable.  As a leader who is comfortable in the presence of young people, His Excellency knows that it is their futures that matter most of all. And as the first non-iTaukei ever to hold the office of President of the Republic of Fiji, he is a symbol of our strength in diversity and the fact that we all belong and we are all Fijians.

So it is a great shame, Madam Speaker, that one of the opposition parties wasn’t present to hear His Excellency’s words of wisdom. Not least because they might have learned something.

The decision by the National Federation Party to boycott the opening session of the Parliament was an insult to our Head of State, an insult to this Parliament and an insult to the nation. It came on top of the NFP refusing to attend our Constitution Day celebration. The leader of the NFP told Pacific Beat Programme on Radio Australia that Fijian Constitution Day was a sham.

But, Madam Speaker, tell that to Naomi Lewakita and the other young people who took part in this occasion and read extracts from the Constitution with such feeling.

Madam Speaker, the opening of a session of Parliament is, no ordinary session. It is a State occasion, a non-political event. It is our Head of State reminding us that whatever our political differences, there is a higher cause. Which is our duty to our nation to act in the best interests of every Fijian.

It is the duty of every selected representative of the Parliament to be present. Yet rather than take their places for this solemn occasion, the National Federation Party chose to stage a cheap political stunt in this opening session. In a deliberate snub to his Excellency the President, the Head of the Fijian State, our Parliament and the Fijian people.

Madam Speaker, I noticed the NFP Leader giving an interview in which he questioned the legitimacy of our Constitution and described our democracy as a sham. No, Honourable Leader, it is the leadership of your party that is the sham.

You happily stood for the 2014 election under the terms of the Constitution you now reject because you undoubtedly thought you could win and form government. But having lost, you turn on the very document that brought you here like a child who wants the rules of a game changed after it has finished.

You had every opportunity at the last election to win over the electorate. Twenty nations declared that election a free and legitimate expression of the will of the people. And what did you get? A mere three seats out of 50.

The people spoke but you still can’t get over their decision. And ever since then, you have been poor losers, displaying no respect for the will of the people and no respect for our institutions.

Madam Speaker, it is not our democracy that is a sham, nor our Constitution. The real sham is the once great National Federation Party. The party of such great figures in Fijian history such as AD Patel and Siddiq Koya now reduced to a grumpy rump. And crying foul because the Fijian people don’t share the high opinion its members have for their supposed brilliance. A party that displays contempt for our Head of State and contempt for our democracy.

Madam Speaker, let me turn to another part of His Excellency the President’s address when he evoked the words of his predecessor and said this:

“Let us promote unity rather than division. To think beyond parochial interests of ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status or where we come from in Fiji. Not to peddle false information to create fear among ordinary people”.

In this context, Madam Speaker, I want to draw the attention of the House to an absurd claim made recently by the NFP party president and suspended member, the Honourable Tupou Draunidalo.

I almost fell off my chair when I heard her say that the iTaukei are disadvantaged in Fiji. And I almost fell through the floor when I heard her plead with Indo-Fijians to support the iTaukei to reverse this supposed disadvantage.

Madam Speaker, what disadvantage? There is none. And it is astonishing that an educated person like the suspended Member – a lawyer as well as president of the NFP – would make such an outrageous claim. Astonishing and irresponsible.

Because, Madam Speaker, the Honourable member is doing precisely what His Excellency the President appealed to us not to do – peddle false information and create fear among ordinary people. There is no justification whatsoever for her statement. And fortunately, the days when such an outrageous claim takes hold and becomes widely accepted are over.

The overwhelming majority of iTaukei are far too smart to be swayed by this crude scare mongering. They know the Honourable Member is not telling the truth because they can see for themselves all around them that their position has never been stronger.

They know they have ownership of 91 per cent of the land in Fiji. And that ownership is guaranteed in perpetuity by our Constitution, which also guarantees the protection of iTaukei customs and traditions.

They know that more iTaukei young people than ever before are benefiting from our education revolution. Whether it is the free schooling this government is providing for the first time or the tertiary loans and scholarships that are enabling all Fijians to get a higher education in our universities and technical colleges.

They know that more iTaukei than ever before have access to such things as health care, water, electricity and our first pensions. They know that more iTaukei than ever before have jobs – good jobs, sustainable jobs. Because we are managing the economy better than ever before and are in our seventh straight year of economic expansion.

So Madam Speaker, why is the President of the NFP peddling this false information? Trying to create fear among ordinary iTaukei when there is no cause to fear anything at all? There is only one possible answer given the complete lack of evidence to support her claim. Because she thinks they are stupid. She insults their intelligence just as her party insults our democratic institutions and our Head of State.

Madam Speaker, let me inform the nation of the truth. And it is what Fiji’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva told the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council about the rights of our indigenous people in a statement six days ago. And I quote:

Fiji is privileged that its indigenous- the iTaukei…are well protected under the Constitution. Our Constitutional Preamble acknowledges at the outset, the unique position they hold in Fiji. Fiji is acutely aware that the iTaukei culture is unique to Fiji and is the foundation stone of the survival and growth of our Indigenous community.  Land is especially protected with 91% of Fiji’s land being held in trust for the Indigenous population. The rights of children, the right to health, education, housing, water and sanitation, the rights of persons with disabilities are all guaranteed in our Constitution together with the right to economic participation and right to work with a just minimum wage. Fijian citizens under our Constitution enjoy the right to a clean and healthy environment. All these rights are protected for all persons regardless of ethnicity. Unquote.

Madam Speaker, I repeat: the iTaukei are not disadvantaged in any way at all and to say otherwise is a lie. The rights of the iTaukei are guaranteed in the Constitution more than ever and for all time. And at the same time, it upholds the rights of all Fijians on the fundamental premise of all democracies, which is equality of opportunity. Of everyone being taken on our journey forward in a spirit of unity and inclusion.

Madam Speaker, let me be very clear about the difference of opinion on this issue between those of us on this side of the House and those opposite. Those opposite in SODELPA and their suspended fellow traveller – the President of the NFP – believe that the iTaukei should be given special advantages, special privileges, over other citizens. Whereas we believe in the concept of universal advantage – of every Fijian getting the best possible level of service and assistance the Government can afford, irrespective of who you are or where you come from in Fiji. And on the basis of need, with the most help going to the most vulnerable. Low income earners, the disabled, the elderly, the sick, and women and children.

Let me again read from our submission to the Human Rights Council because it goes to the heart of what we believe in over here as opposed to what they believe in over there. And I quote.

Indigenous rights cannot be used to justify a monopoly over power. Nor must indigenous rights  be used to create a community of privilege which survives only out of a sense of entitlement. Fiji does not want a society made up of the “creamy layer” of privilege based on birth. Poverty and disadvantage, in Fiji’s experience, cut across all ethnic and cultural groups. They must be defeated by free and equal access to education, and by the creation of a meritocracy which rewards performance, and ability. Unquote.

Madam Speaker, that is the new Fiji and there is no turning back. Not because the Government says so but because it is the will of the Fijian people. Freely expressed at the last election and enshrined in the Constitution on which that election was held and that the people also endorsed.

I appeal to those opposite to heed the words of His Excellency the President about the need to promote unity rather than division. I especially appeal to those individuals – and you know who you are – who use every opportunity to sow ethnic and religious division. Because the nation is watching and is no longer in any mood to tolerate your behavior.

Madam Speaker, a wonderful thing has happened since we last gathered in ordinary session. Our Rugby Sevens Gold medal win in Rio has united us as a nation as never before. And it has fired our imaginations about what is possible for a small nation that thinks big. Whether it is on the rugby field, taking our Fijian Made brand of goods and services to the world or leading the fight against climate change.

In my extensive travels throughout Fiji, which I will continue to do, I get to meet ordinary Fijians and sit down and discuss their everyday opportunities and challenges. And I can tell you one thing, Madam Speaker, they are not interested in petty arguments or political point scoring. They are interested in service delivery overall.  They talk about their needs, their wants and demands and about where service delivery can improve. They aren’t interested in unscrupulous politicians who try and create divisions for their short-term political gain. They want competent service delivery. They want long-term security, stability and sound economic development. They want to be connected and they want to be involved and be the beneficiaries of our nation’s progress.

As His Excellency the President said in his powerful message to us all: “the nation calls on you to do all you can to harness the spirit of our Olympic win. To tap the wonderful sense of unity that has descended on our beloved Fiji. To leave aside petty squabbles, rivalries, division and grandstanding and personal and political gain. To use this Parliament as a force to propel us forward to the greatness we glimpsed in Rio. And which with Almighty God’s help, will be our nation’s future”.

Madam Speaker, I commend these words to the House and thank His Excellency for his wisdom and guidance.

Thank you Madam Speaker.

 

 

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