The year that was - Part Two

The year that was - Part Two

By Yellow Bucket
Wednesday 27/12/2023
[Image: File]

Public discussion in the first half of the year was, understandably, dominated by the economy as the new Government began to open the economic cupboards to find them, as expected very bare! The inclusive approach by DPM and Minister of Finance Professor Biman Prasad was welcomed by most and after extensive consultation he presented a budget that most recognised as fair considering the state the economy was in. We won’t go into the pros and cons of various policies, these are tweaks, but finally there is a plan and more importantly a general economic philosophy that can be understood and relied on.

As the year unfolded the impact of the exodus of Fijians to Australia and New Zealand started to bite. We all knew it was happening, but it took a while for the full implications of losing 15% of the workforce to hit home. It impacted on most parts of the economy hard, but YB suspects the Public Service was the worst hit with startling numbers of teachers and other critical workers leaving. Those that didn’t migrate shifted to the private sector or to the booming donor agencies (more on this later). Some departments reported 50% turnover and that’s a huge loss of human and intellectual capital. This left the Coalition Government, featuring an understandably inexperienced Cabinet, without an effective public service to implement quick change in tackling the multitude of infrastructure and service issues facing the nation. Add to this they inherited a brow beaten public service who for 16 years have been unable to act unless on receipt of direct orders.

On the flip side of this exodus was a boom in remittances. As 2023 came to a close, these topped $100 million per month, TRIPLE previous levels. The impact of this cash being injected directly into the pockets of Fijians could be seen across the economy. The full effect will need to be monitored closely. YB suspects it is having an impact on productivity with some Fijians choosing dependency on hard working overseas relatives rather than working for a living themselves.

One of the more innovative moves was the establishment of the Finance Review Committee under Chair Richard Naidu. This was initially formed to gather information pre the Economic Summit. It has now morphed into a think tank for Government under the new title the “Growth Re-set Committee” tasked to get things moving in critical areas of Government. Recent change in immigration is one example of action taken.

The Coalition’s greatest failure has been an inability to effectively tackle a critical element of the Coalition’s election manifesto, the restoration of independent rule of law and efficient administration of justice. Despite Mr Sayed-Khaiyum’s extraordinary protestations, most thinking Fijians recognise this as the FijiFirst’s greatest crime. Quick action was expected, and while it would be unfair to say nothing has been achieved, it has certainly been a mixed bag.

A lot of this must lay at the feet of the Attorney General Siromi Turaga. Remember the AG’s office post Sayed-Khaiyum, holds extraordinary power. The judiciary, after struggling for many years under weak leadership needed quick action. Sadly, the AG and his Government’s response was to look backwards rather than forward, as reflected in many (not all) of the early judicial and legal appointments. In turn, this resulted in a failure to act on critical infrastructure and procedural changes required to clear the massive backlog of cases that clog up our judicial system. In addition a number of key appointments look like they may face similar issues and challenges to the ones that prevented his replacement.

His record as chief legal advisor to the Government was also patchy resulting in a number of embarrassing climb downs. However there were some early wins. The quick disposal of the media legislation was a triumph as was the repeal of the “name change” legislation that caused such an

uproar in the lead up to the last election. However, urgent change is needed, YB suspects it will be high in the agenda for 2024.

The Government also came under attack for the continued use of Standing Order 51. This was a favourite of Mr Sayed-Khaiyum and was used to fast track legislation through parliament. In fact it became so bad that it became standard practice. Having fiercely criticised this practice in opposition, some commentators felt it a bit hypocritical that the Coalition Government use it so frequently when in power. Their defence was that it would only be used to rapidly overturn unjust legislation that had been passed without proper scrutiny. Fair enough…. but this wasn’t effectively explained or “sold”.

This inability to articulate or manage the Coalition Government’s message was a glaring weakness in year one. The dismantling of the expensive spin doctoring apparatus built by the American political PR firm Qorvis left a vacuum that the new Government struggled to fill. It meant they repeatedly failed to get their message across even when the news was good.

This highlights a tendency in the Prime Minister to recruit people around him on the basis of past loyalty and personal connections rather than competence. This has come back to bite repeatedly. Early on many highly qualified Fijians watched in despair as appointments were made to important statutory boards that were clearly made to satisfy political obligations rather than deliver all important public services. This did start to change later in the year but quite a bit of damage was done in those early days. As one observer close to the Coalition put it “there is a feeling amongst many who were shut out of public life for 16 years that it’s our turn now”. YB understands that in any democratic nation there will always be some political “jobs for the boys” appointments but when it comes to repair and rehabilitation of critical public service entities, politics need to be set aside.

Fiji became the darling of the Western nations and the South Pacific region with the election of the Coalition Government and all this international “love’ has been a blessing and a curse. It meant Suva was reborn as the “hub of the Pacific,” with a flood of new embassies and international organisations arriving. Great news for owners of high-end properties and for the coffee shops of Suva.

It has also meant lots of opportunities for our politicians and Government officials to get on planes and travel to far away places. This has become a bit of a joke and has undermined some of the credibility established by the Coalition Government. This criticism is a little unfair, it is important that Fiji reestablish itself on the global stage and as a leader in the region. That’s understandable in year one but going forward a more disciplined approach is needed especially as the absence of leadership and experience in the Public Service requires a steady and present hand on the wheel if anything is going to get done!

For the People’s Alliance and partner SODELPA, the passing of legislation re-establishing the Great Council of Chiefs was an important election promise delivered. Now it is upon the GCC and Government to deliver a credible organisation that delivers a return to taxpayers. The review committee established earlier in the year heard impassioned pleas, particularly from women, of the need to avoid falling into the trap of the previous GCC where it became a place of indulgence and privilege, rather than service.

In summary, it has been a busy year and we have only scratched the surface in conclusion a quick “shout out” to the following.

Tourism: If it wasn’t for this industry, 8% economic growth would never have been delivered. The issue will be where does it go from here. Operating on full capacity and fully priced it is hard to see much growth and there is a fear that it may have peaked.

Rugby: Thank whatever deity you believe in for rugby. The Drua and the Fijiana women’s teams thrilled us early in the year and then came the Rugby World Cup. What more can be said. As for Sevens ummm next subject please.

The BPO sector: This is already contributing significantly to economic growth, the acceleration in numbers of jobs is quite mind blowing and it has only just begun. The Google announcement, that they are installing a new transpacific cable that will pass via Fiji, added to the excitement. Having access to multiple transpacific cables is critical if this industry is going to grow. Watch this space in years to come.

As we close off a tumultuous year, we want to end by acknowledging our amazing, beautiful, exciting, and colourful home, FIJI. A tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific that is ready to have a go whether on the rugby field or at global forums around the world. Yes, we have a lot of work to do to deliver on “the way the world should be” slogan but at the same time there is a lot to be proud of so just take a moment over Christmas to give thanks!

Opinion Note

Long time fijivillage users may remember the Yellow Bucket opinion column that ran in the years leading up to the 2006 coup. Well following the repeal of the MIDA Act we are delighted to announce that YB is back!

The Yellow Bucket is something of a Communications Fiji Ltd institution…. Yes it exists…. A real Yellow Bucket that the CFL team and visitors gather around after work to drink grog and discuss the day. Legend has it that every Fiji Prime Minister has at some stage enjoyed a bilo from the bucket.

The YB column ran from 2003 to early 2007 when it was shut down under extreme pressure from the military government. Later the MIDA Act specifically forbade any use of nom de plums or pseudonyms requiring every published article to have a named author.

So why the pseudonym. The YB column was and will continue to be a product of group thinking and discussion, so it would be impossible and a little unfair to attribute it to a single author.

It will continue to provide fact-based opinion offering context to the complex and constantly unfolding story, that is our home Fiji. We stress, FACT BASED…. No rush to judgement here ….. Our aim will be to run weekly but that could change depending on the situation.

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