Postdate: 14/ 08/ 2003
On Wednesday night I listened to Prime Minister Qarase on the Talk Back Fijian programme from 8pm to 10pm. It was obviously that Mr. Qarase had not really taken time to read the Judgment of the Supreme Court because a lot of what he said showed misunderstanding of the Judgment. He obviously had all this time relied only on what his advisers said the Judgment meant. A good example of the ‘Prime Ministers’ ignorance was his repeated stressing of the point that the Constitution had oddly altered “democracy” and his government wanted to change the Constitution to return to true democracy, which is the Westminister system as they have it in Britain. The Supreme Court had actually discussed the traditional Westminister system and observed it “has always been an evolving system” that was “frequently modified before being adopted elsewhere”. The Court said there was no longer an ideal type of Westminister model and that “it is not permissible to adopt and apply and ideal type of Westminster model which leads to strained construction of the words of the Constitution”. Even the British Labour Government has Constitutional reforms on the agenda, that may radically alter the model. Prime Minister Qarase is not aware that the most common type of democracy today is multiparty system and many countries have evolved towards consensus democracies. New Zealand, which used to be regarded as an ideal type Westminster system, in the 1990s changed to multiparty consensus democracy because of majority public demand. New Zealanders were sick of the Westminster system of electoral dictatorship, where parties won Elections without majority mandate and implemented policies that promoted only the interests of a small minority. The Fiji Constitution reflects the desire of all communities for a more consensus and less racially confrontational style of political leadership, implementing policies that are broadly supported.
A multiparty Cabinet also affords opportunities for all participating parties, and especially minority parties, to have their most important policies implemented by agreement with the other parties. Sometimes this may involve minor trade offs. Practically it would involve sharing Ministries in a way that ensures that the policies of each party in Cabinet are accommodated within the relevant Ministries and sometimes the Minister appointed is from the Party to whom that Election Policy was a priority to the supporters. Fiji can learn a lot from the New Zealand experience in this regard where parties with quite different policies are able to have agreements that ensure the implementation of their priority election promises, and their differences resolved smoothly through agreed procedures. This alternative, of negotiated, Multiparty Government can be contrasted with the present uncompromising approach of the SDL led unconstitutional Government. In answer to a question from a listener who did not want the FLP in Cabinet, Prime Minister Qarase said that at the first Cabinet Meeting formed with the FLP, if FLP accepts his offer, his side is going to present its Bills for Amendment of the Constitution and for removing the Agricultural Landlords & Tenants Act (ALTA) as an entrenched legislation and they are going to ask FPL to support their proposals. Apparently, this is intended to break up the Cabinet as early as possible. If the Prime Minister is serious about this, one must ask what is the purpose of the Talanoa Dialogue Committee that has been meeting over time for the last few months to find and recommend consensus solutions to the issue of land access, leases expiry, sugar industry restructure, Constitutional changes and so on?
What will the Government achieve by trying to impose on the FLP its own policies when he himself also admitted on the same programme that FLP support will be needed to pass any Constitutional amendment and changes to ALTA! If in the first instance they are strategizing for the FLP ejection from Cabinet, how sincere then is his promise to implement the Supreme Court Judgment? Haven’t we already had enough racialist division since 1987 or May 2000 for that matter? Mr. Qarase says he wants to resolve the major problem of the insolvent sugar industry, on which the future welfare of all communities in Fiji depend, but he is not going about it in common sense manner by the way he is treating the FLP, which represent the interests of the majority of farmers in the industry. Qarase is treating them as if they are irresponsible errant and demanding children that need to be caned severely and expelled from school. Such attitude seems so inconsistent with the public character of Qarase who we know to be a rather shy, retiring, polite but sensible and industrious person. Quiet people often have very stubborn streaks I suppose. The PM also said to his Fijian listeners that he had asked Chaudhry to give him a list of 15 FLP MPs from whom he will select those who are to be given Ministries. He said he had already decided who from the FLP he will appoint. But Mr. Chaudhry has somewhat already beaten Qarase to the gun by asking for either a 26 or 22 Members Cabinet and suggesting a division of Cabinet responsibilities between SDL and FLP that appear to be a well thought out compromise. It appears practical because Chaudhry had put some thought into dividing portfolios in ways that would enable both Parties’ to have Ministries that will best promote their two Parties major policies.
Thus avoiding unnecessary conflicts and building the basis for better cooperation and therefore real collective responsibility in Cabinet. The Chaudhry proposal again can be contrasted with the demeaning and financially costly proposal of Qarase for a 36 members Cabinet with FLP taking marginal Ministries. This is obviously the work of Qarase’s advisers, who have not even bothered to consult the Public Service Commission on the financial and human resources logistics of such a proposal. Mr. Qarase also told his Fijian listeners that he could not agree to a 22 member Cabinet because it would mean breaking up his Coalition. He said if he asked people who had been loyal to him to resign and make way for some FLP Ministers; it will result in division and instability. He implied that some of his colleagues would then no longer be loyal to him if they lost their Ministries. Qarase’s sense of loyalty is admirable and indeed a rare quality in politics where loyalty can be very fickle.
However, he had expressed this concern after about four Ministers had said they were willing to step down if Qarase asked them to and also after the CAMV Party had pledged its continued support for him as Prime Minister. Qarase, unlike Rabuka and Ratu Mara, does not have the courage to test the loyalty of his colleagues. Because after all that is one of the hazards of getting into politics. A leader must be prepared to take hard decisions that may involve removing Ministers, for a higher purpose of good governance. A listener also asked Qarase why he could not adopt the Korolevu Declaration as a basis for multiparty government. He again made the obvious point that SDL and CAMV were not party to it. He depicted the Korolevu Declaration as “batinisiwa” of Chaudhry – that Chaudhry was like a fisherman who wanted to hook and catch a big fish with the Korolevu Declaration but unfortunately the fish would not bite! Qarase said he still believed, despite the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court rulings, that Chaudhry had made acceptance of the Korolevu Declaration by him a condition for entering the multiparty government. It was a condition that was unacceptable to him and that justified his rejection of the FLP in September 2001, and presumably also now. The Courts had decided that Chaudhry had only made a reference in his letter to the Korolevu Declaration and that it would have been unconstitutional to place conditions on invitations and acceptance from both sides. So this was a matter that could only be considered after an unconditional invitation had been made and an unconditional acceptance given. Prime Minister Qarase again did not understand the meaning and consequence of the Courts’ Constitutional interpretation. Qarase also dismissed the Korolevu Declaration as unacceptable to him because it would reduce his power as Prime Minister. The news media probably needs to publish the Korolevu Declaration in full because I could not find anything in it that reduces the Prime Ministers’ powers. Reading the Korolevu Declaration, I could only come to the conclusion that it is a very reasonable and practicable basis for making the Multiparty Cabinet and Parliament workable.
Here is a sample of the Content of this neglected Agreement: President Section 98 of the Constitution gives the President power, acting in his own judgment, to appoint the Prime Minister. This does not preclude the President consulting with leaders of political parties represented in Parliament in order to enable the President to make an informed judgment as to who can form a Government that has the confidence of the House of Representatives.
The size of the Cabinet
- (a) In determining the size of the Cabinet, consideration should be given to cost-effectiveness and equitable representation of all parties entitled to sit in the Cabinet.
- (b) Membership of the Cabinet should be in proportion to the number of seats held in Parliament by those parties participating in the Cabinet.
- (c) A full portfolio should only be held by Cabinet Ministers Prime Minister
The powers of the Prime Minister in appointing and dismissing members of the Cabinet.
- (a) In appointing or dismissing Ministers and allocating Cabinet portfolios, the Prime Minister should consult with the respective party leaders with a view to seeking agreement, to the extent possible, before such decisions are taken. In the event of dismissal, the Prime Minister should fill the vacancy with a member from the same party if that party agrees to remain in the Government.
- (b) Any party that participates in a Cabinet position is deemed not to be in the Opposition Cabinet
The manner in which the Cabinet conducts its business
- (a) Cabinet decision making in Government should be on a consensus seeking basis especially with regard to key issues and policies.
- (b) Parties represented in the Cabinet may express and record independent views on the Cabinet decisions but Members of the Cabinet must comply with the principle of collective responsibility.
- (c) Consensus seeking mechanisms in Cabinet should include the formulation of a broadly acceptable policy framework, the establishment of Cabinet committees to examine any major disagreements on policy issues and the establishment of flexible rules governing communications by Ministers to their respective party caucuses.
Conclusion Nonetheless, Mr. Qarase asserted, he had exhausted all avenues through our Courts for a verdict that the Korolevu Declaration was an unreasonable document and failed to get it. He told his Fijian listeners on Radio Fiji that the only Court he could appeal to now is in Heaven. Well, he will have to wait for a bit longer before he will have that opportunity to enter the Pearly Gates and appeal to the almighty Judge. The citizens of this country can’t wait for that long because we are not going to be dying on the same day as him. As I was concluding this article, an English couple now on holiday in our country, who had served at the British High Commission here over a decade back, entered my office. They described the Constitutional merry go round between Qarase and Chaudhry as a CHARADE! I could not agree more.
Jone Dakuvula – Director of Programmes Citizens’ Constitutional Forum