CCF Calls on Fiji’s Interim Government to Re-Consider

Postdate: 25/ 06/ 2007

The Interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama I believe should re-consider the directive to issue a Persona Non Grata to H.E. Michael Green the New Zealand High Commissioner.

The implications of this action to expel Michael Green is serious particularly when Fiji has always enjoyed good relations with New Zealand.

The relations in our view were just beginning to improve and there were hopes for some sanctions to be lifted.

It seems that Michael Green has not done anything that envoys are not expected to do  in keeping up communication with a range of opinions and all parties including the Interim Government in order to update themselves about how these local stakeholders view the developments here.

This was never seen as a improper activities by previous post coup governments.

Fiji more than New Zealand has more to lose and we therefore call on the Interim Government to re-consider and move towards speedy normalization of relations with New Zealand and other countries.

We are talking about a long-term undertaking, requiring a comprehensive strategy with an array of elements included in it. An anti-corruption agency may be one element, but the proposal needs to be considered in the context of elements already in place in Fiji, as well as others yet to be introduced. We already have the offices of Ombudsman and Auditor-General, for example, both of which are directly concerned with investigating allegations of corruption in government. Then there is the Human Rights Commission, the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament (responsible for dealing with reports of the Auditor-General) and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, with the power to prosecute corruption-related charges before the courts. We should not forget the Public Service Commission, either, with its disciplinary procedures. All of these are anti-corruption agencies already in existence. Is it not important to analyse the weaknesses in these existing institutions before we set up a new one alongside or to replace them? If it is possible to strengthen the agencies we already have, then in my view this should be done before a costly new agency is established. Closely related to the strength of our existing institutions is the urgent need to bring about greater transparency or openness in the way government is conducted in this country. It is well-known that corruption thrives in an environment of secrecy, and yet two elements of Fiji’s anti-corruption strategy that are directly concerned with transparency have been awaiting introduction since at least 1997. These are the proposed Bills for a code of conduct for high public office bearers, and for a Freedom of Information Act. The Code of Conduct Bill (by whatever name it might be called) could legislate such basic measures as a requirement that Government Ministers, other parliamentarians, CEOs or permanent secretaries, and other statutory appointees must complete a disclosure of their financial interests on assumption of office.

These disclosures would then be filed in a register, for use in determining any later complaint that the office bearer concerned was experiencing a conflict of interest – or, in other words, to determine whether he or she was at risk of acting corruptly. The Code of Conduct Bill could also provide guidance to high public office bearers in conducting their personal affairs, and a disciplinary procedure tailored specifically for dealing with corrupt practices. A Freedom of Information Bill should be directed at turning on its head the culture of silence that currently prevails in Fiji’s public service. Such a law could require government agencies to regularly publish information concerning the services they provide, where their offices are located, their upcoming activities, and so on. It could also entitle members of the public to access information held by government agencies on request, unless a legitimate reason exists for withholding that information. A Freedom of Information Bill would help to combat corruption by exposing government activities to greater public scrutiny. Many agencies would need to start keeping better records, and corruption would become more difficult to hide.

The Citizens’ Constitutional Forum has been pushing for the introduction of a Code of Conduct Bill and a Freedom of Information Bill for the past 10 years. We believe they should be seen as critical elements in Fiji’s strategy for combating corruption. Each one has its associated costs, but neither necessarily requires the establishment of a new government agency. A final element, with which these Bills should be combined, is a campaign of public awareness-raising, to inform ordinary people of what corruption means, how it works, and the true costs of corruption to them as taxpayers and as consumers of government services. These are the kinds of measures that the CCF believes Fiji needs to address the “root causes” of corruption. A new anti-corruption agency may have its place, but at a time when the government is tightening its belt, the costs of the new agency may be prohibitive, and there are several other strategic elements that have been awaiting introduction for years, and which offer the potential to bring about a deeper and wider change. I am not saying the CCF opposes outright the establishment of a new anti-corruption agency. Rather, we believe that setting up such an agency will not solve all of Fiji’s corruption problems. It should be seen – at best – as a small part of the larger solution.

In addition, experience from around the world tells us that a specialised government agency will only be a part of the solution to corruption if it is designed and resourced to be independent, impartial and expert. I close with some comments on independence and impartiality. “Independence” of government agencies is a relative concept, with several different aspects to it. One aspect relates to who selects and appoints officials to the agency – especially the top officials. The UNDP report cited earlier suggests the powers of “hiring and firing” should be shielded from personal whim or favour by making the appointment of anti-corruption officials a shared responsibility of more than one institution. Another aspect of independence relates to funding of the new agency. Concerning impartiality, two aspects are again central. First, in order for the new agency to be impartial, it should be led by people who come into their positions without preconceived agendas or personal grudges. The problem of personal grudges looms large in a small country such as our own. Anti-corruption officials overseas are frequently accused of bias in the conduct of their investigations, and how such accusations are dealt with can determine whether the agency gains or loses public credibility. Secondly, the anti-corruption agency should be subject to oversight by one or more other institutions to ensure it does not abuse its powers. International best practice appears to be to require multiple lines of reporting by anti-corruption agencies, and to have their reports considered by bodies that are broadly representative of the community. In most cases, one of these bodies is the national Parliament or a parliamentary committee. The obvious difficulty for Fiji right now is that we have no Parliament to which a new anti-corruption agency could report. A tempting alternative is oversight by the Interim Government, but that would compromise the agency’s independence. It is always important to limit and separate coercive powers of the State, and to avoid concentrating them in the hands of a few individuals, no matter how well-intended those individuals may be.

This is especially true of powers that can destroy reputations, careers, and even lives. The CCF encourages the Interim Government to develop institutional arrangements for its anti-corruption agency that are not only within the nation’s limited financial means, but will also protect the agency itself from corruption by vested personal, political or financial interests.

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