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Visions for a better Fiji

Swani K Maharaj
Thursday, May 17, 2012

As Fiji prepares for the 2014 elections, obviously, the most important item on the agenda is once again a new constitution. We have had all sorts of debates about what would be a perfect constitution and this has been going on from the pre-independence days.

From the time of its inception, the core demand of the National Federation Party was "one person, one vote", that is equal value for vote through the common roll. However, this was not achieved mainly because of the untimely death of A.D. Patel. His successor, S.M. Koya, was a moderate; felt that independence from Britain was a priority. In retrospect, we may assume that Fiji was not yet prepared for common roll because the Fijians of Indian descent outnumbered the indigenous Fijians.

Out of this fear, came the 1970 Constitution, with a voting formula which sought to ensure that political power would remain in the hands of the indigenous people.

After the 1987 coup, a new constitution was adopted. Sadly, it also contained the system of voting on ethnic or communal lines and this was the basic flaw that created the opportunities for the perversion of the democratic process after the adoption of the 1997 Constitution was that it perpetuated.

Today, the demographic position is quite the reverse: comprising 56 per cent of the population, the iTaukei are in a secure position. Considering their lower birthrates and higher migration rates, the non-indigenous Fijians can no longer be considered either an imminent or a potential threat. Therefore, in order to guarantee a secure and progressive democratic Fiji, the best option is to ensure that the new constitution has provisions for a common roll.

In fact, this is the only option we have if we are to survive and take our rightful place as the most prosperous and progressive Pacific nation. We have to take the race ratio out of the voting.

Today, the iTaukei are a majority of the population and therefore have nothing to fear from the common roll, although unscrupulous and regressive politicians will try to convince them of the opposite.

After all, at the time of independence, the NFP did forego their demand for the greater good of the nation. Now the time has come for the indigenous people to rise to the occasion. And it is time for both groups to change the mind-set, to focus on the economic empowerment of all the people of Fiji rather than manipulate the common people to obtain a seat in Parliament.

The architects of the new constitution have been selected and they have a solemn and momentous duty to the nation.

The panel comprises reputable individuals whose capabilities are unquestionable. We pray that they will give us a constitution that will not only end the coup culture but also help Fiji's people to reconcile for the common good rather than be forever blinded by the blinkers or racist politics.

In this respect, three vital aspects must be at the centre of their efforts:

Firstly, the Constitutional Committee will need to consider that common roll should replace the communal voting system and the Reeves Report can be revisited in order to make a start in this direction. The 1997 Constitution was born out of the Reeves Commission Report. However, few people know that the core recommendation of the Reeves Report was the provision of 45 Open (Common Roll) seats. It had an excellent proposal for phasing out racial voting and eventually achieving common roll.

However, in the 1997 Constitution, this recommendation was reversed by the ethnic political leaders of the SVT, the NFP and GVP to create 46 Communal Seats.

The pre-election coalition of the SVT/NFP/GVP which had ensured the passage of the 1997 Constitution was virtually wiped out, clearly indicating that the constitution, although acclaimed worldwide, was not acceptable to the people of Fiji. By voting on racial lines, the people of Fiji had made an unequivocal stand:

* that they were not willing to transcend the racial divide; and

* that the 1997 Constitution provided them with the perfect vehicle to vote on racial lines.

Secondly, the Constitutional Commission must consider the needs of the minorities. The minorities cannot be relegated to becoming the "opposition for perpetuity", they need to have their political rights, and equitable say in the running of their country. Therefore, minorities will need to be given proportional representation. Furthermore, there must be provision for guidelines in regard to race relations something that has been long overdue; no government has made any serious effort to improve this through adequate legislation and public education. There is also a need to make provisions for the protection of minorities and their culture.

Thirdly, the new constitution should have the blessing of all the people of Fiji. This means that the new constitution should be accepted through a referendum. The Reeves Commission Report was deliberated and debated by parliamentarians and their parties before it was passed by Parliament. But at no time was there any form of voter consultation organized by any political party: in hindsight, we might consider this to be a serious omission.

In addition, there was never any positive education or awareness programme, at the grassroots level, on the 1997 Constitution. There were translations in Fijian and Hindi for distribution to the populace, but there was no organised education project.

Perhaps the most democratic way, and the ideal, would have been to go for a plebiscite. But the political leaders at the time decided to impose the 1997 Constitution on the people of Fiji without their explicit mandate.

There has been a suggestion that the new constitution would be ratified by a "Constituent Assembly", which would be appointed by government and comprise representatives from NGO's and other segments of society. Given Fiji's current political status, passing the constitution through a "Constituent Assembly" would not be the best option. It could possibly be the worst option. We must learn a lesson from the 1997 constitutional process and put the new constitution to a referendum.

The current government has worked diligently to achieve Prime Minister Bainimarama's vision of a better Fiji, free from ethnic biases. This sincere effort should not be tarnished in any way. A referendum would have the stamp of public acceptance and in future the people and political parties would not have any grounds to question either the intentions or the processes followed in ratifying the new constitution.

The 1997 Constitution which was passed through Parliament, which comprised the elected representatives of the people this gave it the required legitimacy. The new constitution cannot follow this path: therefore, a referendum would be the best option.

The fate of the Great Council of Chiefs has caused much trauma in many quarters; therefore, it would be advisable to consider the history of the GCC. The GCC was not a part of the 1970 Constitution, but it was imposed as a political entity with the adoption of the 1990 Constitution, after the first coup. When the 1997 Constitution was negotiated, it acquired a national status and political clout instead of being a part of the Fijian Affairs Act/Regulation as it had been in the 1970 Constitution. This fact needs to register otherwise there will be an emotional cloud blurring the reality pertaining to this body.

* Swani K. Maharaj is the president of the Business India Council; immediate past-president of the Fiji Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Fellow, Australian Institute of Management. The views expressed are his and not that of this newspaper.

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