The Commonwealth, Parliamentary Democracy and Qarase

Postdate: 5/ 09/ 2005

I attended the Commonwealth Parliamentarians and NGOs Workshop where Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase addressed the meeting last week Monday 29th August. The Prime Minister forgot to welcome the overseas participants, especially the Parliamentarians from the Pacific. Mr Qarase chose to address us on subjects, such as the RTU Bill and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, and not on the theme of the workshop which was about the roles of Government and Opposition in Fiji’s democracy. Then he made a number of contestable statements about the history of Fiji, Fijian culture, parliamentary democracy and human rights.

At the end, the Prime Minister apologized for not talking on the subject because he admitted that he had run out of time! I wondered who wrote his cliché ridden partisan and inelegant speech. These shallow statements caused embarrassment amongst us Fiji participants. I will comment only on some of his questionable observations. Mr Qarase could have learnt something had he listened closely to Sir Paul Reeves’s speech on Leadership. Sir Paul made two important points. First, “character is what makes the office work for any office holder”. Second: “Wisdom is about balancing competing interests within a Constitution and arriving at practical steps to achieve the common good”. Character and working within the Constitution to achieve the common good have been missing from Qarase’s tenure as Prime Minister. In his speech Qarase started by accusing foreign governments of having a simplistic understanding of the 2000 coup, when they condemned it at the time. My recollection is that it was the Qarase interim government that was ignorant of the legitimate reasons international opinion condemned the coup. The Commonwealth Secretariat was quite clear about the breach of the Harare Declaration and the actions required in Fiji, consistent with the Millbrook Action programme. It gave Fiji a deadline for return to Parliamentary democracy. Contrary to this requirement, the Qarase’s interim regime wanted to stay in power for at least 3 years and to introduce another racist Constitution. The Qarase regime was dragged kicking and screaming into compliance with its Commonwealth obligations by the restoration of the 1997 Constitution through the action of civil society in the Chandrika Prasad case.

It is laughable to see five years later Qarase persisting with this simplistic accusation showing up his leading adviser as still not learning any lessons from Fiji’s international relations in the 21st century. He is still in the rut of the state sovereignty doctrines he learnt at the diplomacy course in the UK over thirty years ago. Qarase acknowledged that the Constitution requires Parliament in its law making functions to “have regard to customs, traditions usages value and aspirations of the Fijian people”. However, he claimed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in vesting individuals with equal rights, was directly opposed to the hierarchical social structure of indigenous Fijian society. He did not describe which indigenous social structure he was referring to, nor explain specifically how individual rights are in conflict with his notion of hierarchical Fijian society. Our Bill of Rights (copied from the Universal Declaration) had been in existence since independence and, for 17 years up to the 1987 coups, no one had argued it conflicted with Fijian social structure. If the speech writer of Mr Qarase had studied the Universal Declaration, he should have known that many of the other rights, besides the civil and political rights, are consistent with Fijian communal obligations and indigenous notions of collective rights. Our Bill of Rights defines the rights of individuals in relation to the state. It protects individuals against the powers of the state that can be abused.

The Bill of Rights encourages educated people like Qarase as well Fijian chiefs to rise to positions of leadership and prosperity. Indeed he is a good example of exercise of individual rights leading to success. Unlike his predecessors, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, Sitiveni Rabuka and Mahendra Chaudhry, who sought the Council of Chiefs approval first before they took their Reconciliation Bill to Parliament, Qarase did the opposite. He put his RTU Bill into Parliament and then asked the Provincial Councils and BLV to endorse it, without giving time to them for proper consultation. He has continued this practice of manipulating Fijian institutions to justify his more controversial government decisions. So in practice, Qarase has found no inconsistency between his individual right and ambition and his notion of hierarchical Fijian social structure. At the infamous FHL Board Meeting in 2000, Mr Qarase expressed no opposition to the idea of dethroning the paramount Chief newly appointed as President, if it was necessary to secure his position as interim Prime Minister. Nor have we heard any words of regret from him and Kotobalavu about the unjust removal of their Paramount chief, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Both these Lauans opportunistically rode to power on the back of Ratu Mara’s demise, without any regrets.

Mr Qarase referred to racial polarization as “self segregation of ethnic group”, ignoring the fact that communities in Fiji are interdependent economically and in many other ways. This interdependence is usually submerged by the confrontational and racial politics of his Government. The lack of understanding of this vital interdependence, especially amongst extreme ethnic nationalists that Mr Qarase panders to, is now threatening our collective future. A good example is the Government’s policies on land. There are a very few barriers to social interactions and integration and there is no enforced segregation evident in where people live, go to school, hospitals, shops and generally access to all other services. The ethnicisation of politics in Fiji partly originates from our colonial history that our political leaders have been so reluctant to divorce. It is evident in the weight of our communal electoral system and constituencies that reinforce the discourse of politics adopted by politicians like Qarase, who choose to emphasize racial justification for their policies. Linked to this is his refusal to have respectful and constructive dialogue with the political leaders of other communities on major issues that affect all communities, to develop common policies that address problems shared by all. In the Senate, Qarase’s nominees like Senators Mitiele Bulanauca, Asesela Ravuvu, Apisai Tora and Rev Tomasi Kanailagi continue to make racist, homophobic and bigoted statements about other religions, despite an agreement with the Opposition to prevent and discipline Members of Parliament on both sides. The PM has done nothing to restrain his friends. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ratu Epeli Nailaitikau, in his speech to the same seminar pointed out another weakness in the government’s confrontational and uncompromising approach. Bipartisan constructive co-operation in the Parliamentary Committees has not developed because the Qarase Government has never accepted any ideas from the Opposition, or Civil Society, on practical changes to the Bills it refers to these Committees for public hearings. Indeed the Committees have often agreed on recommendations but these are stymied. Attorney General Qoriniasi Bale, who is unelected, but sitting in both Houses is the most powerful Parliamentarian in Fiji. He never accepts any good consensus amendments to his Bills. Few people ever ask publicly why this once disbarred lawyer is allowed to have such major negative influence over our Parliament and the political culture of our nation. The RTU Bill is another example of Bale’s corrupting influence over our political and legal system. There is widespread belief that the Government will not accept the soundly based objections of the critics of the RTU Bill. Whilst the Parliamentary Committee on the RTU Bill is still holding public hearings, Bale’s department is not waiting for the Committee’s recommendations which may conflict with what the AG wants. It seems he has already decided what he can accept and what he will reject. Notwithstanding the latest announcement by Commonwealth Secretary General Malcolm McKinnon that he had been assured there will be major changes to the RTU Bill, I do not believe this provision for amnesties for example will be removed. Opponents will again be compelled to go to the court to get this country off the wrong track that Bale is leading us down towards. A significant indication of where we are heading is the employment of nationalist extremist Tavenisa Diri at the AG’s Office is the researcher on the RTU Bill.

The Prime Minister also failed to mention the provision for multiparty government in our Constitution. His government (again on Bale’s advice) had undermined it, in not following the ruling of the Supreme Court on the practical meaning of it. The politicians from other countries who attend the Commonwealth Workshop are interested in learning from the Prime Minister his explanation for his failure to implement this provision in the Constitution. Multiparty is about dialogue, and working together to reach agreed solutions in the interest of all communities in Fiji. Had his government followed the Supreme Court Judgment, Mr Chaudhry would have been in his Cabinet instead of campaigning against him at the Commonwealth Parliamentarians meeting and now in India before the PM arrives. The multiparty provision is an adaptation of the Westminster Parliamentary democracy. Qarase avoided this opportunity to explain why his government believed it failed in Fiji. His Government is a dictatorship of a minority coalition (36% of voters support) that consistently refuses to find common grounds with other political parties, especially those that are not Indigenous Fijians, on issues of collective well being. The key to understanding this is February 2000. The interim Prime Minister Qarase sent a letter to the Court of Appeal, which was read out in open Court, promising to implement the Judgment of the Court if his Interim Government lost its appeal. This breach of a promise to the Court set the precedent for later evasions of Court rulings. When the Chandrika Prasad ruling was handed down, Qoriniasi Bale was one of the group of Fijian lawyers advising Qarase to answer the Court with total abrogation of the Constitution. I have the documents to prove this. But let us get back to the Commonwealth Workshop. A week later (September 5th) Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi said to the 500 delegates at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that concepts of the rule of law and human rights had yet to be fully accepted in Fiji. He did not realize that he was talking about his own Prime Minister as a prime example. But Mr Qarase is not an example of excusable ignorance on these issues.

He is well educated and highly experienced. In his case it is a matter of what is politically expedient. When the rule of law stands in the way of political ambition, then the law is incompatible and must be circumvented. The RTU Bill intention is to grant amnesties to people who committed crimes because of their political desires. This is an example of the Qarase Governments’ belief that politics must always trump the rule of law. His interim Government had promised in 2000 to introduce a new Constitution. This promise remains in the SDL Party’s last Election manifesto, despite the fact that the great majority of people in Fiji accept the Constitution. The international community as well accepted the Constitution, as evident in the acceptance of Fiji back into the Commonwealth after the passing of the 1997 Constitution and in 2001, after the Chandrika Prasad case. Not to mention the increased aid of the European Union, India, and other donors to Fiji. It seems the fallback position now is to have a Commission to review the Constitution early next year before the General Election. Presumable he will then ask people to reelect the SDL/CAMV if they want to change the Constitution.

Mr Qarase also gave up this opportunity to explain to his Parliamentary colleagues from other Commonwealth countries why his government remains unsatisfied with our form of Parliamentary democracy and the role of the Opposition since May 2000. He claimed the idea of a Parliamentary Opposition being paid by taxpayers was strange to the Fijian mind. Well we have had this system in Fiji since 1965 – about forty years. Qarase has been around for most of that time. Presumably Mr. Qarase would prefer the Opposition not to be paid at all in their role? He argued that Parliamentary democracy as too adversarial, yet rejected the alternative of co-operative multiparty government. This alternative could be justified as more congruent with the traditional inclusive and consultative based leadership system of indigenous Fijians. So what is Qarase’s alternative to the Western Liberal Parliamentary democracy that he is fond of denigrating. Permanent Government rule by one party consisting exclusively of one ethnic group? That is political apartheid by another name.

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