Postdate: 31/ 07/ 2003
(Printed in the Sunday Times, 27th July 2003)
This article attempts to discuss two important elements in the multiparty Government debate, that of Cabinet proportionality and SDL’s mandate to rule as claimed by some party insiders these last few days. Of particular reference is Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s address on 23rd July informing the nation about his invitation to the Fiji Labour Party to join the SDL in a multiparty Government and his perceived difficulties in working with the FLP. Qarase’s address has a number of misleading statements. Some of his assertions equally, need to be placed in their proper contexts. Cabinet Proportionality Should the relevant Constitutional provisions be followed to the letter, in particular Section 99(5), then the Fiji Labour Party with a total of 28 seats in the House of Representatives will be entitled to 46% of Cabinet posts, as opposed to 38% as claimed by Qarase in his address on 23rd July. The SDL Party, as the only other constitutionally qualified political party to be in Cabinet will make up the other 54%. We could say that the FLP has 28 seats (and not 27) in the House of Representatives if one works on the basis that the FLP should be able to retain with ease the Labasa Rural Indian Communal seat, which became vacant recently through the death of the late Hon Mohammed Latif Subedar. The SDL and FLP are the only two political parties that managed to secure at least 10 percent of the total membership of the House of Representatives and as such, are the only two political parties that have the automatic constitutional right to be in a multiparty government.
It is rather misleading of Qarase to say that the extra costs for increasing the size of Cabinet from the current 22 to 36 members is “the price we must pay for meeting the requirements of the Constitution”. Qarase does not need to increase the size of Cabinet at all in order to satisfy the relevant constitutional provisions. If Qarase wants to maintain his current Coalition partners within the new multiparty Cabinet then he can allocate Cabinet positions to them from the SDL entitlement as Section 99(6) instructs. In other words if Cabinet is maintained at 22 then the SDL will be entitled to 12 cabinet posts and the FLP with 10. From its 12 Cabinet posts, the SDL party can then allocate 2 of these to its coalition partners and retain the other 10 portfolios. Equally, the FLP could do the same with its entitlement of 10 Cabinet posts if it wants to include minority parties in the multiparty cabinet, with the view of forming some kind of government of national unity. Qarase will therefore be unnecessarily increasing the cost of running government thus piling extra burden on Fiji’s taxpayers if he insisted on an inflated 36 member Cabinet.
The long suffering Fiji public will probably not be so surprised if Qarase chooses the more expensive option considering the wastage of public funds and hand out mentality that have come to characterise both his interim and current administration. What will be the monetary cost to taxpayers should Qarase opt to keep his coalition partners happy and goes for an inflated multiparty cabinet of 36 members? For each of the 14 new cabinet ministers one will have to add an Office Salary of $48,000 on top of their individual parliamentary salary of $21,605. In addition to this each new Cabinet Minister will have to be provided with free housing or housing allowance if government quarters are not available, free telephones, official car with a driver, overseas travel and accommodation, an expense allowance plus very flattering medical benefits. Current government expenditure is already out of control. Within the last two years the present Government has already returned to Veiuto at least a couple of times to force through supplementary budgets to pay off unauthorised government overspending. Should the 36 member Cabinet option goes ahead then we are talking about another wastage of millions of dollars of public money over the remaining 3 years of this current Parliament, money that could be better spent on education, health care, employment creation and for the provision of other basic What is most disappointing of Qarase’s July 23rd statement is the fact that he continues to peddle the same arguments that have been categorically and conclusively dismissed by the recent Supreme Court ruling. He needs to stop contradicting himself by saying on the one hand that he will follow the Supreme Court ruling and on the other hand lamenting on how difficult it will be to say goodbye to his Coalition mates and his perceived difficulties in working with the FLP. For the latter he does so brilliantly in the Fijian vernacular, away from the prying eyes and ears of international donors and partners. What Qarase should realise is the fact that his current coalition government is illegal under the Constitution. He will be doing us all a great favour by returning the running of this nation, finally, into the fold of legality and constitutional democracy.
There are a number of other able leaders within the SDL Party like Kaliopate Tavola and Ratu Jone Kubuabola for example, who are capable of constructive dialogue with the FLP and are more inclusive in their outlook rather than championing sectional ethnic interests only. If Qarase cannot work with MPs from other races, then he definitely is not the right person to lead a multiparty Government. Members of the SDL Party who hold dearly the collective interests of our nation at heart should take time off this weekend to reexamine their conscience. The “follow the leader” stance that have taken this nation nowhere during these last two years of unconstitutional joyride may not be so apt anymore. SDL Policies and the Supreme Court Judgment. One should not assume either that the SDL manifesto will automatically become the policy basis of the new multiparty Government. The policies of the new government should be arrived at after dialogue and negotiation between all the partners. In delivering the Supreme Court ruling last Friday Chief Justice Fatiaki reaffirmed that power sharing under a multiparty Cabinet does not require prior agreement about policies and political agendas before it can be implemented. He added that “the two parties need to negotiate in good faith and (this) requires honest dealings on both sides. Even without a multiparty requirement, Cabinet government involves the management of conflict and disagreement between ministers so that effective government can be achieved. This is even more so in the case of coalitions”.
As Prime Minister and leader of the majority party in the new government, Qarase has to abide by the Supreme Court ruling when deliberating on policies. Qarase’s work, as leader of the new multiparty government, should also be guided by the Compact Chapter of the 1997 Constitution. Section 6(h) and (i) which were reaffirmed by the Supreme Court decision instructs that “in the formation of a government, and in that government’s conduct of the affairs of the nation through the promotion of legislation or the implementation of administrative policies, full account is taken of the interests of all communities; and “to the extent that the interests of different communities are seen to conflict, all the interested parties negotiate in good faith in an endeavour to reach agreement”. One notices therefore that nowhere in the Constitution does it suggest that the policies of the SDL party or the majority partner will automatically become the policies of the new multiparty Government. Rather the very opposite is encouraged, that of healthy and constructive debate, dialogue and consensus building.
The SDL party also does not have an unassailable mandate to govern so as to make its policies take precedence in a multiparty government. It secured only 50 percent of valid indigenous Fijian votes during the 2001 General Election. This figure decreases further when one takes into account the 21% of the electorate who failed to vote and, decreases even further when one considers the exceptionally high rate of invalid votes, that of close to 12%. Thus the SDL party managed to pool around only 34% of eligible indigenous Fijian votes during the last election. Even if you add to this figure the proportion of indigenous Fijians who voted for the CAMV party, SDL’s main coalition partner in this current government, their total votes amongst indigenous Fijian voters comes up to only around 47%. We ask then how about the other 53% of indigenous Fijian voters who did not vote for the SDL or the CAMV? Or the other 64% of total voters, including Indo Fijians and General Electors who did not vote for them? Are their views insignificant and redundant from the outset that they should be sidelined during deliberations of the multiparty government? It will not only be unconstitutional to ignore the views of political parties that represent the interests of other communities in Fiji.
As current paralysis shows, to do so will be to continue undermining national efforts towards rebuilding the economy, provision of infrastructure and social services, and improving race relations in Fiji. Our nation, it is worth remembering, will never fully realise its potential if its people are being continually denied their constitutional right to fully and actively participate in government.