Fiji Coup Supplement
(Ministry of Information, Suva)
14 September, 2000
Interim Minister for Information and Communications Ratu Inoke Kubuabola speaks with Fiji Sun journalist Jillian Hicks over his views and concerns of these uncertain times.
How are you finding work in your new ministry?
I have held these two portfolios before and, hence, I am familiar with both the nature of the work as well as the staff. The policy objectives are clear and the staff are pleasant and dedicated and I am looking forward to the work ahead. My approach to work is that one must perform with commitment and strive for excellence.
Did you expect to be appointed a minister in the interim administration?
I had no such expectations. When I was approached I responded positively because in the situation we face it is the responsibility of every citizen to assist his country. As I was an elected Member of Parliament I had an added responsibility to respond positively.
What do you think of this interim administration?
We have a very dedicated and genuine Prime Minister who is very professional in his approach. The interim administration comprises successful professionals as well as politicians who were either elected to the House of Representatives or lawfully appointed to the Senate. We have a good cross-section of experienced and qualified people capable of achieving the goals set.
What are your objectives as Minister for Information and Communications during your term in office?
This is an interim administration and our objectives are limited. Essentially we must have economic recovery and return the country to democratic rule. The Millbrook Accord derived from the Harare Declaration allows a Commonwealth country two years to return to democratic rule after an overthrown of its government by force. That we will achieve as we have already chalked out a path. The policies ad programmes of this ministry will have to bear those requirements in mind. My first task in Information is to ensure an effective and accurate message to the public of what the administration is doing. I also need to respond to our critics and correct them. In Telecommunication, I want the services to improve without additional costs to the consumer. My hope is to have as many telephones in as many homes, particularly in the rural sector.
That will help the spread of internet, which I want more widely and more readily available as it is an excellent and indispensable learning tool today - information is knowledge, and knowledge means success and a better standard of living.
I would like to see internet available to all our schools, secondary and primary, at affordable rates.
Criticism has been levelled against the interim administration for its role in bringing about changes such as decrees and in working towards reviewing the Constitution, despite the fact that this Government is just an interim one, not elected and to some extent has been labelled illegal. Do you think those criticisms are warranted?
Those criticisms are unjustified. The interim administration has the task of good governance that means formulating and implementing sound policies. Decrees are laws; they are essential to the establishment and maintenance of the rule of law, and that is a part of the democratic process.
I served in a previous interim administration and its positive economic policies left the country on a firm foundation - our garment industry and export orientation approach derives from that administration. We have to do likewise; revive the economy, safeguard what we have that is beneficial, and take initiatives that leave a firm base for economic growth and diversification. At this stage we are the legal government and therefore have at our disposal all the legal devices necessary to achieve our objectives. We will utilise their help judiciously.
Your inclusion in the interim administration has been a question mark by critics from day one. You were openly seen to be supporting the overthrow of the last Government. What do you have to say to this?
In the present situation accusations are cheap and plentiful. Supporting evidence, however, is often non-existent. I was not part of any overthrow of any government. You will recollect what Poseci Bune recently said on Close Up that when he looked at me as the gunmen took-over the government in Parliament, there was surprise on my face. I had no foreknowledge of what occurred on May 19th in Parliament.
As Leader of Opposition I had a very capable and effective team in both houses and we were doing very well. We did not need to take part in what was unlawful. We always did our research on issues, prepared our speeches and had an impact on parliamentary debates. We were successfully highlighting the government as inadequate as is the task of a good opposition.
The People¹s Coalition has alleged that you were actively involved in attempts to overthrow the People¹s Coalition Government, as taken from a series of meetings held by the SVT and VLV Parties. How do you justify these allegations?
Those are all allegations without substance and even contradictory. If you saw the BBC interview of Chaudhry you would have noted Tim Sebastian telling Chaudhry that there was widespread opposition to his government and they slept on their job in ignoring this opposition which was growing all the time among Fijians outside Parliament. The Coalition Government must accept blame for neglect and indifference. One of its first acts was to remove the Fiji Intelligence Service, that gap was not filled, Chaudhry must be blamed for that; it was his action. The meetings we had were about Fijian unity. The minutes are translations and require a close perusal to determine their meaning and context. They are not about unlawful action. The VLV was a partner in Chaudhry¹s Coalition, and if it was engaged in an overthrow of the Coalition then Chaudhry was either being kept uninformed or misinformed by his own ministers, his own allies. He might ask why. That is something he needs to resolve with his own coalition partners. It is easy to blame the SVT, and Chaudhry¹s Coalition partners seemed very ready to resort to this cheap approach, to save their own neck.
Very quickly after the 1999 General Elections, Fijians began to see the real objectives of Chaudhry especially as he hassled and shifted Fijian civil servants, resorted to nepotism, and became stubborn regarding land policies affecting Fijian land.
At the same time the drift began back into the SVT camp of Fijians who regretted Fijian disunity and wanted discussions on uniting their people. SVT was the party they turned to, as we were the largest Fijian party, and the party with links to the BLV/GCC. That was their natural course, back to SVT. Such discussions are normal in any democratic process and that is what we were doing. These are part of on-going meetings that occur, during, as well as before and after our tikina and provincial council meetings, even on Sundays before and after church services. Sadly, Chaudhry and his FLP understood very little of Fijian protocol, dialogue practices and kinship bonds. Even more sadly, Chaudhry¹s Fijian ministers did not educate him to appreciate Fijians. We were not interested in overthrowing a government, which was self-destructing all the time from the beginning.
The VLV ministers were out of touch with their party and people; they were going in different directions. The VLV Cabinet Ministers were with Chaudhry while their party faithful had a Fijian agenda, contrary to Chaudhry¹s. The FAP throughout was divided; most of its MPs were not with Chaudhry, only the ministers were. And for much of the time while Adi Kuini was away, FAP was leaderless. She could not and did not lead, and refused to give anyone else the opportunity, so they went elsewhere - some with Speight in the end. Her failure was a major factor in Chaudhry¹s downfall.
Do you think the 1997 Constitution does not protect the interests of the indigenous Fijians? If so, in what way? Please explain.
There are several areas that we have now found inadequate. I will dwell only on some. First the electoral system; Chaudhry had fewer than two percent of the Fijian votes, and became Prime Minister. Fijians are 51 percent of the population, so how can anyone say that the Constitution respected the special position of Fijians, our indigenous people. The SVT won 38 percent of Fijian valid primary votes and could capture only eight seats while FAP took 11 seats with 19 percent and VLV got three seats with 18 percent. Obviously there is something wrong with a system that lacks consistency especially as in several decisive cases it allowed the least popular candidate to be elected. Moreover, the electoral system was confusing and not understood. People especially Fijians, felt cheated. So did Indians when you consider that NFP with 32 percent of the vote failed to win even a single seat.
Second, the social contract has not worked in practice. We shared political power but there was no means established of sharing the economic cake whose greater share and benefits excluded Fijians who are 51 percent of the population and own 83 percent of the land but are among the poorest in the country. Third, and linked t the second, the social justice provisions were too loose to effectively help Fijian upliftment the provisions in the 1990 Constitution were much better and honest. Fourth, the role of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga was weakened; its members for instance could not initiate legislation or programmes in the Senate. It made the Bose Levu Vakaturaga a merely reactive/negative element instead of allowing it a pro-active position role.
Fifth, there are the broader issues of indigenous rights, the role of Fijian leadership; matters of paramountcy of Fijian rights and interests as guaranteed in the Deed of Cession and deliberated in the 1997 Constitution.
These need to be brought in line with the latest thinking on the international scene and landmark decisions in courts of law abroad.
Sixth, issues affecting Fijian land the entrenched clauses look good on paper but there are no safeguard against sharp or devious administrative practices which can circumvent intentions through interpretation in policy making and policy implementation. We have been aware of this aspect through some of the games Chaudhry was playing.
Seventh, the rights of minorities such as Pacific islanders, European, Part-Europeans, Chinese and Muslims, these groups needed genuine recognition and representation not just in Parliament but also in the public service.
Eighth, the genera need to have a constitution that recognises our cultural diversity and accords it due recognition. We need to note cultural differences, and not try to impose uniformity. We need t recognise the role of customary law.
Overall, we should consider new ideas as in constitutional making, taking into consideration existing structures such as tikina and provincial councils so we can have genuine participatory democracy not impose on ourselves Western models designed for homogenous societies. We are heterogeneous and that needs recognition.
You were sitting on the Government side when the 1997 Constitution was promulgated with the NFP and SVT playing a major role in the whole process. Are you saying now that you (the SVT) made a mistake by allowing the 1997 Constitution to go through?
We learn as we go along. Fijians have a habit of being trusting and acting in good faith - that we did. In our willingness to concede, we were at time less discerning then we might have been. We conceded under pressure to hasten the process/ There was too much pressure and we made too many concessions. And having seen the Constitution in operation, we must admit that we also erred. We should have gone back to the Provincial Councils and discussed Fijian concerns in detail and paid heed to the advice given eight of the 14 provinces were firm in their rejection, and the remaining six also had concerns.
The BLV/GCC also had concerns and demands. The Indian parties resisted and we conceded. The Provincial Councils as well as the BLV/GCC had the views of qualified and experienced professional Fijians and we should have given due weight to their views. We should have involved Fijian lawyers in the private sector more in our deliberations.
The advice given to us about international norms and conventions was not accurate, especially those concerning indigenous rights and minority rights. I have outlined the flaws on my previous answer. The issue is not one of fault and blame, it is the necessity of correcting weaknesses and devising what is appropriate and hopefully lasting.
The consequences of throwing away the 1997 Constitution altogether would result in sanctions imposed by Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the European countries. As you are aware of countries such as Britain and Australia have a lot of influence on European countries and the Commonwealth and the effects these sanctions have on people are devastating. Are you worried?
Your question suggests an inadequate understanding of the international system on your part. You are selling a bogey, a false one.
The Commonwealth allows a country two years to restore democracy after its government has been illegally overthrown. We are following that path. Our lines of communications are open and both sides are receptive.
Pakistan has very generously been given that time framework and in a recent visit there the Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon said that he would not ask Pakistan what cannot be done. So why should we be discriminated against? If Pakistan is getting two years so must we be.
Australia has made it clear it does not wish to destroy our economy. So it is reasonable, and we need to provide it with proof of our genuineness.
With New Zealand we need to explain more. Britain is part of the European Union. The European Union is awaiting a report from its ACP delegation led by Sir John Kaputin. That delegation recognised our situation though it pressed the case for democracy we do not disagree with it. We do not anticipate sanctions of the kind you are suggesting because we are taking steps which are possible and we are genuine in our approach. We are working to avoid sanctions. To go back to 10am on May 19 or attempt that will cause more turmoil and more upheaval that is not desirable and I do not think the world will impose the impossible upon us.
They will certainly keep their pressure upon us; they will try to push us in various directions of their choice. We need to keep explaining our position and what we are doing. We have friends who understand our position and will help us. The ultimate contest is here, if the outside world imposes unreasonable pressure and causes turmoil then all the people of Fiji will suffer. The fate of Fiji will ultimately be decided by the people of Fiji. We want a peaceful resolution.
Fiji is already feeling the effects of sporting sanctions especially netball and rugby. Are you looking at it seriously?
Yes we are. That is why we are constantly speaking to our neighbours, to other countries and organisations. Our embassies are playing their part in our efforts to explain and convince nations and international organisations of the need for reasonable and of the value of appreciating our situation.
There have been calls for a return to democracy and the restoration of the Chaudhry-led Government. In your view, can you see this happening/do they have a chance of returning to power?
You would have noted that Tim Sebastian of BBC told Chaudhry that while the British government wanted a return to democracy it did not necessarily suggested his return at the top. Even the Fiji Labour Party recognises that there is no going back in entirety to what was overthrown. They are talking of alternatives, some even going without Mahendra Chaudhry.
I understand that there are moves by some Cabinet members to form a Government of National Unity, allegedly spearheaded by the Agriculture Minister Apisai Tora. Are you involved in any way and what do you think of a Government of National Unity?
I am NOT involved in any such discussions. We are a Cabinet chosen by the Prime Minister with the concurrence of His Excellency the President who was appointed by the Bose Levu Vakaturaga. Any changes must come from the initiative and approval of the Prime Minister. We are not free agents to talk about establishing another administration.
We already have a type of government of national unity. There are six members of the House of Representatives drawn from five parties, FLP, FAP, VLV, SVT and two independents one with the SVT and the other with FLP. There are also seven Senators including the Prime Minister. There are others with close links with other parliamentarians. Two are spouses of elected members who were part of the Coalition. In addition we have experienced Fijian professionals from the private and public sectors and there are give women as well four of them parliamentarians.
Membership in the administration is the prerogative of the Prime Minister, not of anyone else.
There have been talks of the formation of a separate government in the Northern Division. Do you support this idea and how viable would it be?
There has been talk of both Western and Northern governments. We must understand and appreciate why these views are articulated. We have to find ways of accommodating the differences and diversities that exist in our society. We cannot ignore regional, ethnic whether cultural or religious concerns for representation. Where these interests are recognised, there is peace and stability. Similarly, if the North and the West feel neglected or inadequately represented or ignored, we must find ways to satisfying such needs where they are genuine. That in itself is a reason for a review of the Constitution. We should be accommodative so that they do not become disgruntled and seek separation and secession or resort to fragmentation/ We should bring them all together, recognise the existence of the various and diverse strands and weave them towards unity.
As Information Minister would there be changes in the Media?
As I explained earlier, as an interim administration, our objectives are limited and we must stay focussed on our priorities. Where changes or improvements are necessary, consequent upon earlier agreed policies, we will move in that direction, but whatever occurs will be the result of wider consultation. Nothing will be improved, no freedom will be infringed. Relationships are a two-way process; I am always responsive and willing to provide answers and information. In return, I expect that the administration¹s views and policies are adequately covered. I am seeking fairness.
What is your view of the standard of journalism in the country?
The standards are improving; we are getting more university trained journalists who are also better informed and have greater analytical skills. We have more and more experienced journalists that is good for us. There is better understanding of issues and greater sensitivity to local values, protocol and wishes that augurs well for us. But there is always room for improvement, we cannot be complacent.
I am happy with the journalists with whom I have contact and I am very pleased to be able to work with them. They will find me helpful and supportive.