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Our new flag ...

Richard Naidu Is A Suva Lawyer. The Views Expressed Here Are His And Not Of This Newspaper.
Saturday, June 20, 2015

THERE appears to be a furious consensus against the Government's new flag choices. Little wonder. Our 45-year-old flag, whose symbols reflect Fiji's unique history, is about to be replaced by an insipid collection of clipart pictures. Well, that's my opinion.

But lost in the debate, so far, is the despotic law the Government intends to use to protect the flag it wants. Under the National Flag Protection Bill:

* we may not use the flag while criticising the Government;

* if we commit an offence (and there are many) we are guilty unless we ourselves prove otherwise; and

* only a 75 per cent vote in a referendum will let us change the new flag.

Few of us — even members of Parliament — have the time or the interest to read the dense wording of draft laws. That is why the Bill's explanatory notes are important. They are there to, well, explain it. But the Bill's explanatory notes say nothing about these things.

Amid the jumble of symbols we are asked to choose from is a three-star combination. According to the Attorney-General, "three represents the three independent arms of government as a strong and vibrant democracy under our constitution".

In a strong and vibrant democracy, people have a right to criticise their Government. Their Government has to prove them guilty of an offence. And, if we want to change our flag again, the majority opinion is the one that should count. The new law will prevent or restrict all of these.

The first question is why we need a law at all. For 45 years, we have not needed one. We carry our flag with affection. We see it waved all over the world at rugby matches. We point it out with pride when we see it in other countries. We respect our flag because we want to, not because we are told to.

Section 5 of the new law says "the Flag shall be respected". What does that even mean? Can we have our backs to it? Can we roll our eyes in front of it? Can we criticise it? We need to know because when we are taken to court for not respecting it, we must prove we are not guilty.

If we choose to display the new flag in our home or office, it must be displayed in a "place of prominence". What does that mean? Because if the Government decides it is not in a "place of prominence, we are guilty until we prove otherwise. The new Bill has a long list of "dos" and "don'ts". Break one of these laws and we are guilty until we prove otherwise.

The reversal of the burden of proof is probably the most absurd and despotic part of this new law. It goes against the right of every citizen of a civilised country. A good law requires the Government, before it puts you in jail or fines you, to prove to a court that this is what you deserve. But under this law, it is us who must prove to a court that we deserve to stay out of jail.

The Bill says that we may not associate or use the flag with any form of expression which criticises the Government or any member of the Government.

So if the flag is part of your Facebook page, you must never say anything against the Government or any of its ministers or MPs.

Or you are guilty until proven otherwise. (You can, however, criticise the Opposition as much as you want).

So the new flag (and the old flag too) will belong to the Government's propaganda machine. The Government may use the new and old flags on its press releases or its Facebook page to criticise or attack others. But anyone who wants to criticise the Government may not.

When people demanded a referendum to test the popularity of our current flag, the Government refused it. But the new flag — the flag nobody seems to want — can only be changed by a referendum. In that referendum, 75 per cent of all voters (that is all registered voters, not just the voters who turn up) must vote for changes to the flag.

So, let's say we have 500,000 registered voters.

Let's say in a referendum for a new flag, 400,000 people turn out to vote and 100,000 don't bother. Out of the 400,000 voters, 360,000 people — 90 per cent — vote for a new flag. The referendum will still fail. A small minority of people can stop the flag from being changed. This, then, is our "vibrant democracy".

Parliamentarians will soon have to vote on the National Flag Protection Bill. We have to assume that the FijiFirst party will herd its MPs into a "yes" vote.

Those MPs may want to pause and reflect on the anti-democratic law that they are voting for, and ask themselves if they really are putting Fiji first.

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