Two million PEOPLE or bust !!
Listening to our Prime Minister speaking at a recent event about the need to drive economic growth through investment in tourism, the business processing sector, creating a hub for medical tourism, age care, commercial agriculture etc. YB got wondering about whether we have the people to deliver this growth ???? Yes, education and building the skill levels in our work force will help, but that takes time. The real issue is do we have enough people living in Fiji to deliver on all this potential.
Last count Fiji’s population stood at around 920,000 with growth flattening dramatically. With the recent exodus of our educated working classes to Australia and New Zealand plus the increasing mortality rate due to NCD’s, one has to wonder if the resident population hasn’t started to decline.
This leaves these exciting plans, all requiring skilled people, looking very unlikely after all the number one issue facing employers in Fiji right now is………finding people!
It raises an even bigger question, to deliver long term sustainable economic growth and the kind of lifestyle the people of Fiji aspire to, WHAT IS THE PERFECT POPULATION SIZE FOR FIJI?
In YB’s opinion to deliver the above, Fiji needs to double its population to two million people at the very minimum. We have the land, the water and with a lot of work we could deliver the infrastructure. It can be done!
What’s stopping us? Population growth and demographic change has been the proverbial political hot potato since the turn of the 20th century. Politicians from both sides of the communal fence have struggled with this idea.
On the itaukei side, the focus has been on rebuilding numbers to fend off the perceived political threats from other communities with the subsequent impact it might have on land ownership. Interestingly, the idea of increasing the size of population has also been resisted by many Indo Fijian leaders fearing that their position would be undermined by new arrivals. They have in the past masked this paranoia by saying we needed to protect jobs for locals.
All very well throwing a number like this out there but is that kind of population growth achievable.
When you think about it, the answer is … maybe but it requires immediate action in three key areas.
The first and quickest strategy is to open our doors to new migrant workers. This has been happening on the quiet for a while now with Filipinos, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshi’s and Indian workers taking up a wide range of positions from Judges right through to tradespeople. This process needs to be accelerated in an open and transparent manner and we need to once and for all lose the notion that migrants steal jobs. Experience the world over has proven that inward migration drives economic growth.
To prove that, have a look at the long-term impact of earlier attempts to open our borders. Second generation Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and Indians (recent arrivals) and of course the much earlier arrival of Chinese migrants is making positive contributions right across our society. Yes, YB acknowledges a small criminal element but that is what happens when the process is not transparent and vulnerable to corruption.
Next strategy should be to persuade the Fiji diaspora to return home. The recent passing of what started out as the Vola ni Kawa Bula amendment to the Immigration Act has opened the pathway to descendants of Fiji citizens to enter, reside AND WORK in Fiji. Let’s not kid ourselves, it is a bit
unrealistic to expect the Fijian diaspora resident in developed western nations to just sell up and return home BUT it is highly likely that a number will be interested in returning to Fiji for a period of time or even sharing their lives between Fiji and their new home. This is happening already and the impact it is having is very positive.
It has been assumed that those returning would be first generation migrants often seeking to come home as they approach retirement. However recent conversations with the second generation i.e, their children reveal that many are intrigued by the idea of rediscovering their roots at least for a limited time secure in the knowledge they can always go back to their respective “lands of milk and honey”. This group can return at least “part time” reversing the brain drain that has afflicted Fiji in the past. Remember the old notion of “migration” being one way or permanent no longer applies especially if they can shuttle back and forth using Zoom to manage their respective lives and businesses.
The final critical piece in this puzzle is citizenship. We need to restore a visible, realistic, and transparent and speedy path to citizenship. It came as quite a shock when the previous Government, in one of their guerilla raids on the parliamentary process, announced they were increasing the time required for applicants to be resident in Fiji from five to fifteen years. It was a bizarre announcement that included the introduction of a new permanent residency status. Truth was that the citizenship application process had become increasingly politicised and had effectively stopped sometime before this announcement.
The good news is that the new Government has quietly reversed all of this having discovered that the proposed changes had never been legally formalised and so the old regulations did in fact still apply. This means a return to the old requirement of having to prove residence in Fiji five of the previous ten years.
Think about the impact this will have on attracting global talent. It means that migrant workers can work in Fiji on work permits secure in the knowledge that if they like Fiji, and don’t disgrace themselves, they can become citizens.
That’s the good news, the problem is thanks to the freezing of the process in recent years, there is a huge back log of applications. This means Immigration officials already overwhelmed providing passports to current Fiji citizens are currently unable to handle new applications, hence the softly softly approach.
There is a desperate need to take urgent action to fix the citizenship issue and to free up the work permit process so the private sector can get on with the job of delivering economic growth.
Fortunately, the Ministry of Home Affairs is in good hands with a strong Minister in Pio Tikoduadua and a very competent PS Mason Smith so watch this space.
Think about it, doubling the population maybe a stretch but think of the impact if we added 100,000 skilled tradespeople and professionals, one exception NO LAWYERS we have way too many of them already!
Analysis of the flood of Fijians leaving our shores for Australia and New Zealand would be interesting. YB believes they fall into three main categories, professionals and skilled workers getting permits to
work and reside, semi and unskilled workers going for labour contracts and so called “students” taking up study visas.
YB understands that with the dramatic decline in Chinese students entering Australia, private colleges and institutions offering various, sometimes dubious, study programs turned their focus on Fiji to fill the gap. A typical offer is that in return for a 25% deposit on fees, “students” get a visa with the promise they could work part time to pay off the balance. In one case, YB is aware of the fees to be $15,000 AUD for year one. While the education industry in Australia has many legitimate players there are more than a few dodgy ones leaving these “students” vulnerable to exploitation starting with the fact that fees are typically only fixed for the first year.
What is often not considered by these “students” is the cost of living in big city Australia, the availability of work and the fact that this doesn’t represent a guaranteed pathway to residency. Many seem to feel they will get by camping with relatives. You can imagine the issues that come with surviving in a tavale’s garage in the outer suburbs through a southern winter!
YB can see horror stories on the horizon reinforcing the need for Fiji and Australian authorities to invest in educating applicants on what this step really means making sure they go fully informed and prepared.
Last week, YB discussed identity and we raised the issue of revamping the national anthem. Dr Paul Geraghty, as he usually does, raised an interesting issue in the Letters to the Editors column recently.
He pointed out that the itaukei translation of the national anthem isn’t correct, in fact as he explained, it’s ugly. That just reinforces YB’s call for a rewrite of our national anthem!
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