PM’S RIGHT OF REPLY

Madam Speaker, let me begin by again thanking His Excellency the President for his speech opening this session of Parliament. All throughout this week, we have seen how the principles and values set out in his vision for Fiji have served as a guiding force in our deliberations and, at least on this side of the House, have set out high standards of conduct that we have strived to meet. Those standards, that we, as elected representatives, be “worthy in public life of the ordinary men and women who have put us here” should always be at the forefront of our minds and at the centre of every decision that we make, most especially when in this Parliament. Because our being here can never be seen as an opportunity to serve ourselves, but rather it is an honour bestowed upon us to serve our people. Unfortunately, it was as if members of the Opposition chose to ignore entirely the noble aspirations outlined by His Excellency in his speech. Unfortunately, they chose not to head his words to promote unity, rather than fear and division. They could not keep their comments focused on the issues that matter to the Fijian people, on the delivery of essential services and on the development of our infrastructure. And they, most unfortunately, could not place the interests of the Fijian people ahead of their own political ambition. While I had hoped that this session might be an opportunity to improve the relationship between the Government and the Opposition. And while I wished that we could depend on the Opposition to take a serious and appropriate approach to governing –we saw clearly during this first sitting – in dealing with a racist and derogatory outburst from the Opposition ranks – that this is simply not the case. The Opposition’s outbursts have been offensive on the basis of gender, and then ethnicity, and now religion. And as we endured the latest, I could only think of the words of Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, He said, “For great men, religion is a way of making friends; small people make religion a fighting tool.” As I said yesterday, as a legislative body, we had to take firm action to sanction the kinds of statements we have been hearing in this House, or we risk becoming accustomed to them. And then we risk losing our civility altogether. But what was most concerning, Madam Speaker, was that as we sought to confront this blatant demonstration of prejudice, the NFP, once again, choose the path of least resistance. It was truly sad witnessing the mental acrobatics on display as they attempted to justify their confounding allegiance with SODELPA’s leadership. I could not believe that Hon. Prasad could completely ignore what happened to our country in 2000, 1987 and even earlier that was a result of the exact same attitudes articulated by Hon. Tikoca. Instead, he attempted to paint a rosy picture with his fellow bed-mates, he chose to pretend our history of racial vilification and violence never existed. Let me assure him, the traditional support base of the NFP is watching, those who recall the noble legacy of the NFP are watching, and they must know that the NFP have, again, let them down. Madam Speaker, another deeply troubling aspect on the part of the Opposition has been the disregard for the loyalty and patriotism that His Excellency so eloquently called for in his opening address. We may all come from different political parties, we may come from vastly different political perspectives, but there are certain things – certain principles – that we must share. Certain actions and statement must remain taboo in our political discourse. For example, you don’t run down your country for personal gain. You don’t take sides with unscrupulous companies, or other groups seeking to undermine Fiji’s progress and then use them as tools to do the same. You don’t seek to further your own ego and engage in short-term political point scoring at the expense of undermining the confidence in the country and of the Fijian people. These are lines that elected officials simply should never cross. We are all Fijians in this House. We all need to be patriotic. We all need to remember that it is for the betterment of our nation that we are privileged to even sit here. That is the level of commitment that is expected. That is the duty we all owe our people. So, Madam Speaker, imagine my disappointment, when the old SODLEPA reared its old ugly head in the form of the intemperate and truly ignorant ramblings of Hon. Salote Radrodro, who appears to inhabit a parallel universe where imagination and anger trump reality. I imagine many Fijians must have scratched their heads and asked themselves if she had perhaps been possessed by demons or had fallen on her head. For surely, no Honourable Member of this House would cite a supermarket conversation as evidence that the Judiciary is not independent. A serious legislator would surely gather facts before spouting such nonsense. Madam Speaker, I need not defend the independence of the Judiciary because it does so on its own, every day, by its actions. The officers of our courts guard their independence jealously. the Judges, the Magistrates, everyone. And, Madam Speaker, I need not defend our Constitution or our democracy against the ridiculous charges, because it is clear that the Opposition have a different vision of democracy, one where some people are treated more favourably than others and everyone else settles for the crumbs that fall from the table. This attitude is the same one of past Governments that crippled Fiji and our development for far too long. And it is an attitude that must never again come to pass. Madam Speaker, American President Ronald Reagan once famously said in refuting an opponent’s charges, “Facts are stubborn things.” Indeed they are, so stubborn that they have completely eluded Hon. Radrodro’s incomprehensible imagination. She went on to reveal her ignorance of contractual disputes and the rule of law, defending people who have violated the terms of their agreements with Government entities and who, we have on strong authority, threatened this country. It is, indeed, the facts that seem to routinely be the undoing of this Opposition. How many times have we witnessed the spectacle of Opposition members yelling and screaming across the aisle whenever this side of the House brings actual facts to the table? Do you know why they make such a scene? Because to them, the facts are too much to digest. They prefer their own fantasies. And we are all too happy to splash the cold water of reality in their faces from time to time. Madam Speaker, this Parliament must represent the people, and the fact is, despite the fantasies peddled by the Opposition, Fiji has never been more united than it is today. We are united because of our Constitution. We are united because of my FijiFirst Party. We are united because we came together as a people in the face of a tragedy, Tropical Cyclone Winston. We are united because we came together in the pride and sheer exhilaration of our Gold Medal Olympic win in Sevens rugby. And we are united because we are more equal than ever before. In this sense, the people are leading us and showing us the way. Equality requires us to look at our own personal lives, to look at our family life and the communities we live in, to look at our political parties and take proper action, not just recite the words. Equality is not an incantation, Madam Speaker, to be intoned at convenient times; it is a way of being, a civic vocation that must be taught, shared, believed and lived. The Opposition continuously raises issues of division and raises issues that are irrelevant in an attempt to create division. We do not need to create division where it does not exist. Instead, we should be seeking to find the commonality between us and to lead by example in promoting equality where differences do exist. This requires strong, decisive and principled leadership. The leadership that I and my Government are delivering. Sowing fear and distrust has no place in a society based on equality, simply because equality requires respect and a will to understand and care for each other. We need tangible equality, true non-discrimination. In the same way, Madam Speaker, we can’t just tick the boxes of justice and proclaim our society just; we need substantive justice, justice for the poor, for the marginalised, for those in rural and maritime areas–for women, children, the elderly and the disabled. That is the mission we must keep before us. The Opposition takes any small thing that happens which they don’t like – things like adhering to rules and processes they don’t like, newspaper articles, positive events in our country, or actual facts – they claim that there is no democracy, they claim there is no rule of law. Madam Speaker this is not leadership. This is not patriotism. Such attitude shows their ignorance and their incompetence to be the alternative government. Of course, not everyone in this country has clean drinking water yet, not every place has good roads yet, but under my Government, as His Excellency said, we have never had such a focus on building up our infrastructure and increasing access to essential services. And under my Government we do have the highest rate of connectivity and the highest rate of infrastructure development ever achieved in such a short period of time. And if past Governments had done their job, we would not have to play so much catch-up. Every Fijian knows that the level of infrastructure, the number of people connecting to electricity and other essential services has never been higher under any other Government. And that is because we have never had such a drive for justice, equality and service delivery. Madam Speaker, there is much to be done in Fiji. We are a developing country that faces many challenges, and this Government is confronting those challenges on a broad front. The path ahead is clear: We are moving steadily towards better healthcare, better education and better infrastructure. We cannot recreate—or even correct—the shortcomings in all sectors overnight, and we can always point to gaps or to areas that can improve. But choices must be made, and limited resources must be applied. And the decisions are not always easy. But if we keep before us the ideals of justice and equality, and if we discuss our needs and debate our priorities with respect, civility and relevant and rational arguments, the decisions will build on each other, year after year, until we have the essential services and infrastructure that all Fijians deserve. Madam Speaker, as the Government makes decisions and establishes priorities, we keep before us always the need to bring the marginalised closer to the centre of national life. That has been at the heart of the education reforms and the health reforms His Excellency referred to—providing equal access to education and relieving hard-working parents of the costs of schooling, and making medicines more accessible to the people who can least afford them. It is at the heart of our unrelenting commitment to support small and medium-sized businesses—and particularly micro businesses. These programs are a way for my Government to reassure the people that we believe in them and that we will help them find the means to improve their standard of living, create new wealth for themselves and their families, and live fulfilling lives. Madam Speaker, all Fijians must have the chance to participate in the economy in a meaningful way. And if the economy rewards them for their hard work, if it encourages them to take charge of their lives, if it shows them that they can give a better life to their children, and if it encourages them to have big dreams, then their participation will be meaningful. Whether people start their own businesses, work the land, or choose to work for salary or wages, they must believe that the economy works for them, that the playing field is level, that laws protect them and that they can sustain their livelihoods for the long term. Government is not only committed to ensuring good working terms and conditions, but also to making sure that new jobs are created and that the jobs that people have today can be sustained over the long term. And if we do that—and we are, Madam Speaker—we will create the new jobs in the modern economy that will keep our young, talented, ambitious people in Fiji. Our young people need opportunities, and it is Government’s job to create an environment—through laws, sound economic policies and the creation of investor confidence—that will give them these opportunities, whether they want to get a job or become entrepreneurs who create jobs. Madam Speaker, I was truly moved when His Excellency mentioned what a “privilege” it was to hear Naomi Lewakita from the Fiji School for the Blind read out the Rights of the Disabled from the Braille version of the Constitution on Constitution Day. His Excellency was proud of Naomi, but also proud of his country, because he knew that her participation was not just a gesture; it was a milestone on Fiji’s road to equality, justice and inclusion. Madam Speaker, it is that same commitment to inclusion that was, again, so clearly lacking from the Opposition throughout this sitting. Members on that side of the House made it very clear that they do not believe they owe their duty to all of the Fijian people, but rather to their own select provincial interests. In true SODELPA fashion, they have catered to a favoured few, rather than address the interests and welfare of all Fijians. From Hon. Nawaikula we heard only of Cakaudrove, from Hon. Kiliraki we heard only of Naitasiri, from Hon. Gavoka we only heard of Nadroga and from Hon. Leawere we heard only of Serua. From that side of the house, we again heard only narrow-minded, selective leadership, and Madam Speaker, I hesitate to call it leadership at all. I want to make something very clear. As Prime Minister, I stand for the interests of every Fijian no matter where they are in Fiji, who they are, what religion they follow or what province they come from – I am for every Fijian. I’ve said this many times, that who you are or where you reside makes you no less a part of this country and no less deserving of the services and infrastructure that drive economic advancement. My Government understands that our success hinges on involving as many of us in our economy as possible. We understand that our responsibility extends beyond any one area, and that is a responsibility that we embrace and will continue to meet. Madam Speaker, in serving all of our people we will take a serious and sober approach to the legislative agenda that His Excellency outlined for us. It is an ambitious agenda because we have so many laws and regulations that need updating to meet the country’s current and future needs. But we also know that it is not always possible to satisfy everyone. We want to be sure that these laws are discussed in a constructive spirit, not in the atmosphere of a bazaar or a boxing ring. Elections naturally are about differences, but governing is about reason and compromise. And most importantly, it is about keeping the common good of all Fijians uppermost in our minds. Madam Speaker, We experienced in Fiji a great national low and a great national high within six months. The low, of course, was Winston. The high, of course, was our great Olympic rugby victory. That victory would have been a cause for celebration in any year, but in this year—this terrible year of Winston—it lifted us all and gave us greater hope and confidence. That is where we are now. There is a spirit of confidence and hope in the country, even in the face of the significant work that still needs to be done to recover and return the country to normal—to give people back their lives. His Excellency reminded us that we are facing a challenge of unprecedented scale and a shortage of materials needed to rebuild. This is our highest priority and will remain our highest priority, even while we continue to do the things that Government must do to keep the country moving. Our friends are still with us, and our Olympic spirit is driving us. Madam Speaker, I urge my colleagues in this Parliament to join with me as we confront all the challenges His Excellency pointed out, as we enact new legislation, set our priorities, oversee the delivery of critical services, and recover from Winston. I ask that we keep before us the principles of equality, justice and patriotism, and I ask especially that we do so by promoting the interests of all Fijians. Madam Speaker, I thank His Excellency the President for his most gracious speech and we look forward to his continuing leadership as the Head of our State. Vinaka Vakalevu. [Source: Fijian Government]

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