Bula Vinaka and good evening. I'm pleased to be here to celebrate an important milestone—the 20th anniversary of the Prime Minister's Exporter of the Year Awards.
For me, this is one of the most significant events on the national calendar. Because one of the most critical aspects to Fiji's prosperity is to have a thriving export trade.
A country's exports are its currency in the world. The quality of the goods and services we offer and the price we get for them is vital for the health of our economy.
It helps determine the value of our dollar. It brings us the foreign exchange we need to buy goods from elsewhere and helps us reduce our trade deficit.
Our national brands also bring us prestige. If the Fijian Made tag is synonymous with quality, then Fiji itself stands tall.
When customers the world over see the word Fiji, they should know that there is a certain quality that stands behind it. They should know that what they are buying is solid, reliable and represents value for money. So it's impossible to overestimate the importance of our exporters to the lives of every Fijian. It's not only the jobs that are created here but the overall economic growth that our export income provides.
As your Prime Minister, I want to pay tribute tonight to all of you for your hard work, determination, and innovation. The winners naturally get the glory but every one of you deserves congratulations.
Penetrating international markets in a highly competitive global economy isn't easy, but you have done it. We are proud of you, and on behalf of the nation, I extend to you my thanks.
You deserve special commendation over the past year for maintaining your performance in the face of some major setbacks at home.
The catastrophic floods we experienced dented our economy but didn't damage it as badly as we feared and our exporters deserve a huge amount of credit for that.
My Government firmly supports businesses because we believe that providing people with jobs is the surest way to lift them out of poverty.
By helping businesses to grow and take risks, we are creating opportunities for our people-to find jobs and start their own small businesses.
In achieving this objective my Government has a holistic approach. It also has and will not hesitate to review structures and relations that have been an impediment to sustained economic growth and creating sustainable livelihoods. These impediments have fostered corruption, an uneven playing field, cronyism and a jaundiced system.
The FNPF reform is one such initiative. Some so-called "prominent economists" and those who benefitted from a skewered system criticised the reforms. Those very reforms have now resulted in international recognition of and award to FNPF as a leading superannuation fund.
Similarly, the Essential Industries Decree creates a rational approach to labour relations in identified critical economic sectors.
Unreasonable and unrealistic labour relations do not help workers. They do not help employers. They do not help investment. They do not help families. In fact, they hurt them all. Only a privileged few benefit from a skewered system, whose only long term objective is to protect those privileges.
Air Pacific (soon to be Fiji Airways), a winner of this award not long ago, was saved because my Government made the appropriate decisions, which included the application of the Essential Industries Decree to Air Pacific.
And now, our national airline has made a remarkable turnaround. Instead of closing down or cutting jobs, as many other airlines throughout the world have done, Fiji Airways/Air Pacific is buying new aircraft. It is rebranding. It can add more routes. This will create more jobs for Fijians. It will expand our ability to bring more tourists to our shores. All of this will lead to more growth in our economy. All of this has been done without a single job lost or exploitation of its workers.
We believe in hard work, not handouts, and want a strong partnership with the business community as we work to overcome our economic challenges.
As we all know, business needs consistency from Government when it comes to such things as land availability, access to labour, application of the law, the supply of raw materials and access to markets.
So as stated, we take a holistic approach to development and have adopted a long-term view as we strive, with progressive policies, to consolidate Fiji's strength as an exporting country. Notably, we have opened up new markets with our "Look North" policy, which has launched a global diplomatic campaign to engage with all nations.
We are promoting our goods and services with initiatives such as "Buy Fijian—Fijian Made".
We are reforming the Civil Service to make it more responsive to the needs of business. We have to do a lot more to remove the frustrating red tape that often gets in the way of dealing with government. We want the Civil Service to do what it's meant to do—serve.
We have introduced a range of incentives to assist your export efforts. These include zero-rated duty on plant and machinery and competitive tax rates to encourage further investment.
We are also taking bold steps to address one of the major issues that are limiting growth and development in Fiji—the state of our roads. We are adopting a completely new approach to the way our roads are managed and maintained. The Department of National Roads has become the Fiji Roads Authority. Simply put, there was too much inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption. And there was also too little knowledge and expertise. There was a lack of understanding of the causal effect between roads and economic growth.
So we have called on the private sector to work with us to provide the necessary skills to modernize our national infrastructure.
This means that many workers will have to move from the public sector to the private sector. And I am confident that many of the Fijians who worked at the old Department of National Roads will be employed by our new partners.
They will also have the opportunity to learn new skills and expertise from the many training initiatives of my government for alternative livelihoods.
Ladies and gentlemen we need to do better—and we can—to set our objectives and deliver the economic growth we owe to our people and especially the young. They look to us to provide a proper framework to provide them with the jobs they need to have hope for the future. We must not let them down.
In essence, my Government sees the private sector as a leading force in achieving economic prosperity for Fiji, with Government supporting and supplementing your efforts.
As a symbol of the partnership between the private and public sectors, I want to thank our principal sponsors tonight—Vodafone (Fiji) Ltd and Westpac Banking Corporation - along with all the other sponsors who have made this event possible. Vinaka vakalevu. It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge and reward our best exporters. These are the people who take Fiji to the world.
They're raising our economic performance, opening up new markets and creating new opportunities. Congratulations to all of you.