OPINION: Fear must end; And why I’m voting NFP
10 December, 2022, 1:17 pm
Fear is the common thread of Fiji’s last 16 years.
The fear has changed over that time.
It began in December 2006 with fear of “the barracks” or “the camp”.
Now the fear is more subtle.
Fear, if you work for Government, of being “sent home”.
Fear, if you are in business, that “they will target me”.
Fear they will cancel my scholarship.
Fear “my organisation will lose its grant.”
A generation of us has grown up thinking this normal – that the Government is an authority figure to be feared.
It can target you.
It can take things away from you – and it has the legal right to.
We do not think of the Government as a group of ordinary humans, just like us, who we pay (quite a lot of money) to work for us and of whom we can ask hard questions.
We are told we have “true democracy” now.
But that just seems to be the chance to vote once every four years.
Then, the current government seems to say, ‘thanks, now we will do what we want and we will talk to you again at the next election’.
We will pass our laws without letting you see them or discuss them or criticise them first.
We will make rules about what your name should be on official records.
We will make up economic policy on our own, no need to ask you what you think.
We will throw money at our preferred newspaper and TV stations.
They will tell you that we never do anything wrong and we never make a mistake and anyone who criticises us is “political”.
We won’t answer questions from news organisations we don’t like.
We will pay ourselves the highest salaries ever paid to ministers of the government – but you should be grateful because “never before” have things been so good.
Your hospitals might be going to hell and no water may come out of the taps but these problems were all caused by “past governments”.
You have not had your own elected town or city councillors for 16 years because we are “reforming the Local Government Act”.
We now just think of these things as normal.
We don’t really want to think about it too much.
Because even though maybe we should we are just a bit too busy today.
There’s this work we’ve got to finish, there’s this party we’ve got to plan and there’s an IRB Sevens tournament this weekend… So, if I am right and your “true democracy” only comes around, like the World Cup, once every four years, then this is the time to think.
No, this is not normal
It doesn’t have to be like this.
And take it from an old guy like me, it has not always been like this.
These times in Fiji are the exception, not the rule.
These times might feel normal to some of you – but they do not to me.
Was life perfect before the 2006 coup?
Of course not.
Was their fear after the 1987 coup?
And after the 2000 coup?
But, after those events, slowly (though never fast enough for me) Fiji was able to work its way back.
Things returned to normal.
We returned to the democratic rules we were used to.
The Government got back to working for everybody.
It didn’t have a hate list.
The Government made mistakes.
It took the heat in Parliament, the media and the Courts, where it was challenged.
It suffered criticism (though surely not gladly).
The Government did not have a media law which threatened a newspaper editor with jail time if he forgot to publish a journalist’s byline.
The Parliamentary Select Committees travelled around Fiji and listened to people about proposed new laws on taxation, on human rights, on land transport – whatever.
We did not have ridiculous arguments with the University of the South Pacific, hold back our cheques, kick out its Vice-Chancellor in the middle of the night and mess with its work permits.
In the Tripartite Forum we would all argue publicly about wages and labour rights.
Women’s groups demonstrated vocally about domestic violence, discrimination and human rights.
We went to public meetings with ministers and government officials who listened while we vented our frustration with them on critical issues.
In 2004 I joined the last Fiscal Review Committee.
This committee, made up of people outside the Government, would be appointed once every 10 years or so.
It listened to views from all over Fiji about how the Government should raise and spend money.
Many of its recommendations are now part of our tax laws.
This group was not selected for their loyalty to then PM Laisenia Qarase – because if that was the test, I wouldn’t have been chosen.
But why was all this democratic stuff important?
Did it really improve things for us?
Did it put food on the table?
It’s not always easy to make the connection between accountable government and daily life.
But maybe we should just look at where we are now.
Why are our hospitals such a mess, with nurses leaving now speaking out?
Overseas and retired doctors of course.
Government’s own doctors fear losing their jobs if they speak up for sick people.
Why is there no water in the taps?
Why is the power always suddenly going off?
Why is doing the simplest thing, even getting a birth certificate for a child, such a bureaucratic nightmare?
Here’s one possible answer.
Because a government that relies on fear doesn’t have to listen to you.
But consultation and dialogue build certainty and confidence.
Confidence builds investment.
Investment builds economies.
Economies build our personal incomes.
These simple rules are what connects all of that stuff to our well-being.
Fear is corrosive.
Fear erodes confidence.
We can pretend for a while, on borrowed money, that we are building a successful economy.
But sooner or later, that economic house of cards will come down.
The USP debacle is also about confidence.
It has not just damaged our own people.
It has seriously damaged trust in Fiji.
If we are to host regional organisations (and benefit from all their money), we must be a trusted and respectful host, able to rise above small arguments.
Which regional organisation would trust us now?
How I’m voting
It’s no secret I will vote for an NFP candidate.
I think NFP has good policies, a good political partner and the right attitude to government.
But that’s not all.
I admire the sheer courage and persistence that NFP, and particularly its leader, Biman Prasad, have shown over the last eight years.
People think of politics as something you pick up on a whim.
Certainly if you join a party throwing around pretty easy.
Joining an opposition party in Fiji’s toxic political environment is hard enough.
Agreeing to lead one takes real courage.
Nine years ago Biman Prasad sacrificed a $300,000 USP professor’s job to rebuild a party with no parliamentary seats, no money and – many said – no future.
After two elections, repeated arrests and harassment, personal attacks and fake news on social media, he would be entitled to say “I have done my part, I will go back to an easier life.”
Instead he has continued to build NFP, bringing in new blood and new talent (no space here sadly to talk about some great people) and turning the party back into a potent force.
Some are quick to criticise Biman.
Criticism goes with the job and he knows the rules.
But do not forget where he started, how hard he has worked and for how long – and the personal toll that this all takes, and continues to take. Which of us, in his position, would have done that?
Take it or leave it – but to me, in the climate of fear and pressure he and his team work in every day, that is real leadership.
This is your own World Cup – your once-in-four-years democratic event.
It’s time to take your shot.
Don’t stay in bed.
Think carefully about the last 16 years and whether you want more of the same.
Or whether it’s time to get back to what at least some of us remember.
• RICHARD NAIDU is a Suva lawyer. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.