This week as Fiji celebrates the life and legacy of one of our greatest sons Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, conversations around the Yellow Bucket has turned to the review or as apparently the terms of reference for the review calls it, the “revamp” of the Great Council of Chiefs.
Fiji Village’s Straight Talk interview with chair Dr Jone Baledrokadroka and Turaga Roko Tui Bau Ratu Timoci Tavanavanua is revealing and puts to rest concerns in our mind that this is just a rubber stamp process driven by traditionalist elements of iTaukei society seeking to personally benefit from a revived, rather than a revamped GCC.
The facts around the current state of the chiefly system in Fiji are ugly. Of the 6,290 titles available, only 2892 are filled - that’s 47%! While there will be many reasons YB suggests that the underlying one is apathy. The previous Government dismantled the land rental system that distributed a portion of income to chiefs replacing it with equal distribution to individual landowners.
The move was understandably popular, but it left those in chiefly positions in a very difficult financial position. They still had various customary obligations, that cost money, but no income.
It means that unless you were lucky enough to be part of a wealthy mataqali or had some other means of income, a chiefly position is prohibitively expensive, so it is no surprise, so few are putting their hand up for the job.
However, as Dr Baledrokadroka admits in his interview with Vijay Narayan, the problems run deeper than that. In the lead up to Bainimarama’s dismantling of the institution, the GCC’s mana had been damaged by becoming caught in the political swamp that led up to the George Speight 2000 takeover of parliament. The chiefs inability to resolve the crisis and the ignominious dismissal of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, supported by many of them, proved just how powerless and corrupt the institution had become.
It was no wonder that when Bainimarama finally made his move accompanied by his infamous, “drink home brew under the mango tree”, statement that the expected outcry raised barely a whimper.
Sixteen years on one must wonder whether there is any real level of interest from an iTaukei majority leave aside the rest of the population, in a revamped Great Council of Chiefs. From our observation the “traditionalists”, as Dr Baledrokadroka referred to them, are clearly present but there seems to be an absence of younger people and women in the discussions though the Chair assured Vijay that a wide variety of views have been received and it’s not over yet!
It raises an interesting political conundrum for the Peoples Alliance and Sodelpa who both made restoration of the GCC a key part of their manifestos. Analysis of FijiFirst support over the last three elections suggest that they received the bulk of their votes from the Indo-Fijian community and from iTaukei living in the tourist belt. In earlier elections this was inflated further by wage earning urban iTaukei from other areas. The “traditionalists” have never come close to voting FijiFirst and while this GCC move panders to them, YB suspects it will be viewed by the more important “swing” iTaukei voters with more scepticism.
As to the rest of the community, well the bulk are wondering why this is such a priority when hospitals, schools, roads etc etc are falling apart.
That said there is no doubt, as was highlighted in Straight Talk, that as an indigenous people the iTaukei face serious challenges both economically and culturally. ALL Fijians need to be concerned as the culture of our first people is an inherent part of what we are as a nation. This is underlined by the fact that iTaukei make up approximately 60% of our population!
At the same time “same old same old” will clearly not work and so it is encouraging that there appears to be a message already coming from the committee, that they will stress the need to “politics proof the institution”. The Chair quite rightly pointed out that this is easier said than done. YB shares his disdain for the term “apolitical” and whether any person or organisation can truly achieve this state, but clear guidelines need to be set if the GCC is to regain the trust and respect of the nation.
The other encouraging theme was the need for the revamped GCC to be “inclusive rather than exclusive” with the need to focus on civic nationalism as opposed to ethno-nationalism. This was reinforced by the invitation for an Indo Fijian dance group to be part of opening celebrations for the GCC meeting on Bau. All great sentiments but it is perhaps more important to ask the hard question, just what a revamped GCC is going to offer to the people of Fiji that is different from their elected Government?
Ratu Sir Lala famously referred to Fiji as being a three-legged stool, Vanua, Church, and Government representing each of the legs. This would explain our recent very wobbly history! We are told that the GCC “revamp” committee will present their report on July 31st, and we await it with real anticipation wondering whether it will revive at least one of those legs??
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