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Sugar sector analysis: Caught up in cobwebs

Professor Biman Prasad
Saturday, March 04, 2017

ON February 10, 2017, the FijiFirst Government trampled upon a National Federation Party motion in Parliament calling for the establishment of a bipartisan parliamentary select committee on sugar to collectively overcome challenges facing an ailing industry so that it remains a vibrant industry in future.

The ramifications of what transpired in Parliament that day as well as the rhetoric and logic used by Government in rejecting outright a motion that would have been a sound and sensible way forward to resuscitating an industry that is already staggering towards its demise, will be felt throughout our cane belts.

Government accused Opposition politicians of being responsible for the industry's demise describing them as spiders weaving cobwebs. Government members of Parliament also claimed their leader Voreqe Bainimarama was a saviour for growers in the past 10 years (after the December 2006 coup).

"Madam Speaker, when we want to get rid of the cobwebs, we have to get rid of the spider.

"Unfortunately for the sugar industry for a long time, we were just trying to dust off the cobwebs but the spider was well alive and active and doing all the damage that it was doing.

"Madam Speaker, Government got rid of the spider so that we can get rid of the cobwebs… To me, this bipartisan approach is what I call crocodile tears." — Inia Seruiratu, Minister for Agriculture, Rural and Maritime Development and National Disaster Management — Parliamentary Hansard, February 10, 2017.

Undoubtedly Mr Seruiratu, like his FijiFirst colleagues who spoke and opposed the motion for the establishment of a parliamentary bipartisan select committee on sugar that was moved by National Federation Party's parliamentary whip Prem Singh in Parliament on February 10, 2017, was rubbishing the motion that was eventually and not surprisingly defeated by Government.

The basis of FijiFirst Government's rejection of Mr Singh's motion was that the industry had been heavily politicised before Voreqe Bainimarama's military coup of December 5, 2006 removed politicians and politics from the sugar industry.

All FijiFirst MPs who spoke against the motion adopted the same theme — Prime Minister Bainimarama has been the saviour of the industry and canegrowers for the past 10 years and therefore there was no need for the establishment of a bipartisan select committee on sugar.

Simply, FijiFirst did not want any politician from the Opposition to have a say in determining the future of the industry and canegrowers. So what is the record of the Bainimarama-led governments of the past 10 years and who actually has been the spider weaving cobwebs?

Myopic view and painful reality

The truth is that the views of the FijiFirst MPs were myopic. In truth, statistics of the industry's performance in the past 10 years (that necessitated Mr Singh's motion), prove that the spider that weaved and got entangled in the cobwebs was the interim/military and FijiFirst governments headed by Mr Bainimarama.

This is the indisputable truth and the painful reality that FijiFirst MPs must accept.

The statistics speak for themselves. Statistics prove that sugarcane production declined by a massive 1.84 million tonnes or 57.14 per cent in 2016 from 2006. Sugar production (despite improvement in TCTS) declined by 170,638 tonnes or 55.02 per cent in 2016 from 2006.

The number of active canegrowers decreased by 5764 in the past 10 years. FijiFirst is claiming that a vast majority of sugarcane land leases have been renewed.

If this is so, then why are canegrowers exiting the industry in droves?

FijiFirst is either deliberately avoiding addressing this issue or is simply clueless as to why this is happening.

But FijiFirst thinks that plummeting the sugar industry and the livelihood of canegrowers to record low levels is good riddance of influence of politicians and a sure sign that the industry is vibrant! This goes beyond the pale.

Mr Prem Singh rightly stated while moving his motion that, "in the last 10 years there has been no politics in the sugar industry. So this Government and the Honourable Prime Minister cannot blame the politicians but the blame lies squarely with his Government. This Government, led by the Honourable Prime Minister both in his capacity as military commander and elected PM, has been the judge, jury and executioner as far as the industry is concerned because they have total control of the industry.

"Madam Speaker, the industry's best hope of recovery 10 years ago was derailed by the December 2006 coup. The military government deliberately sacrificed the injection of a $350 million grant to the industry by the European Union.

"Had this materialised, Fiji from 2011 onwards would have been producing a minimum of 4 million tonnes of cane and 400,000 tonnes of sugar, using more efficient methods than we are using now.

"Sugar is a 'lifeblood' industry. It is far too important for it to be allowed to die.

"But this government, both as a military regime and now as the FijiFirst administration, instead of providing both theoretical and practical solutions, has been adopting a firefighting approach, which in reality just like most fires witnessed in the country in the last two years has destroyed the properties it was supposed to protect.

"So again Madam Speaker, it is clear where the fault lies. Not with the politicians, but squarely with this Government, which has politicised the industry like never before. People who cannot tell the root of a cane plant from its top are tasked with making decisions to the detriment of the growers and the industry as a whole."

Exodus of growers

Despite FijiFirst Government allocating millions of dollars so far for cane planting, production declined steadily and the exodus of growers continued. This is not likely to change.

And this factor, together with questionable management practices in Fiji Sugar Corporation under the leadership of Bainimarama in the past 10 years until recently has led to FSC being technically insolvent and unable to even advance a special payment of $2 per tonne of cane to growers at the beginning of this year.

I believe the problem is that this Government has miserably failed to instil confidence in growers or implement concrete solutions to boost their income on the face of rising cost of production, harvesting and delivery of cane to the mills.

The cost of producing, harvesting and delivery of one tonne of cane averaging $45-$50 and if the price averages $75 per tonne, some 9000 growers who produce less than the average 150 tonnes of cane earn a nett income of $4500 in a season.

This is $11,500 below the tax threshold of $16,000. That is why growers are in debt in perpetuity.

This low income declined even further last year — 9000 growers producing an average of 150 tonnes would have received $4029 as nett income for the 2015 season minus the average cost of production of $45 per tonne of cane.

This is almost $1400 less than the paltry $5428.80 earned annually by a worker on the meagre minimum wage rate of $2.32 an hour.

The need for bipartisanship

That is why Mr Prem Singh told Parliament on February 10 that with the abolition of European Union sugar production quotas on September 30, 2017, our industry will be doomed unless cane production is significantly boosted.

He rightly stated that Government must realise its reforms are unworkable and furthermore, its plans and reforms for the industry has been an exercise in futility, driving growers out of canefarming and making the FSC technically insolvent because the four mills do not crush sufficient cane to remain profitable.

"It is still not too late for this Government to reconsider our proposal that was flatly rejected last year.

"A kind and caring government, which FijiFirst professes to be, will gladly embrace any realistic and constructive solution proposed by anyone, even the Opposition, to fix problems that it has failed to resolve for 10 years.

"Despite bitter acrimonious debates, bipartisanship worked well in the past. We can do the same Madam Speaker — 200,000 people are looking at us for solutions. We cannot and must not wait any longer.

"A joint parliamentary select committee involving bipartisanship is the only way forward," Mr Singh said while commending his motion to Parliament.

A joke

The attitude of FijiFirst towards a motion to save an industry that had been the economic mainstay of this nation for more than 100 years until the turn of the century is best illustrated by the contribution to the debate by PM Bainimarama, who is also the Minister for Sugar.

He described bipartisanship as "getting together of two parties". And the PM said in the spirit of Valentine's Day (which was four days later on February 14), NFP and SODELA should get together.

The laughter from FijiFirst MPs in response to their leader's comments confirm the low opinion they have of canegrowers.

Here was a motion seeking co-operation and collective effort to overcome the challenges facing an industry that directly and indirectly impacts the lives of about 200,000 people of our nation.

Parliamentary Hansard will prove that SODELPA was genuinely concerned about the plight of growers and fully supported the motion by both through their contribution to the debate and as well as voting for the motion.

Not the FijiFirst, especially MPs who profess to be representatives of growers, hail from the cane belt or are average growers themselves, as proven by their cane production statistics that we have obtained.

But they too chose to be entangled in the cobwebs and weave half-truths from scripted notes provided to them, as has been the case since resumption of parliamentary democracy in October 2014.

Half-truths

PM Bainimarama, deliberately or otherwise even erroneously stated that former NFP president, Roko Tupou Draunidalo, boycotted the visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi (on November 19, 2014).

He was replying to Mr Prem Singh who had quoted Roko Draunidalo's contribution to a debate on changes to the Sugar Cane Growers Council (Amendment) Bill on August 25, 2015 in Parliament, highlighting the positive role former NFP leaders and the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara played in making the industry the engine room for our nation's growth and prosperity. Correspondence and the Secretary-General to Parliament will prove beyond any doubt that Roko Draunidalo conveyed her apologies because she was travelling to Wellington, New Zealand, to speak at Victoria University.

Her apology was conveyed to the Business Committee of which the PM is a member.

To distort facts and especially try and denigrate a person who is not in Parliament to defend him or herself is most unbecoming and unparliamentary of any MP, worse still if it happens to be the Prime Minister.

Misleading answer

That the PM in his own words was being economical with the truth, stated on February 6 when he was questioned by Mr Prem Singh as to why he did not authorise a special payment to growers in January.

The PM replied he wasn't requested by anyone to do so.

We ask him to deny whether or not:

* the Sugar Cane Growers Council made a request on behalf of growers for a special payment to enable growers to meet the school needs of their children on January 6, 2017?

* the FSC declared its inability to make a special payment because of the lack of funds?;

* the PM's representative met with industry stakeholders and conveyed his (PM's) refusal to authorise a special payment?; and

* the publication of news reports by the daily newspapers The Fiji Times and The Fiji Sun declaring FSC's inability to make the payment during meetings with growers in Ra and Tavua in the presence of the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Sugar?

Bipartisanship

Bipartisanship means co-operation between two sides of Parliament — Government and the Opposition — not two parties.

Our history since independence is full of examples of bipartisanship when it came to upholding national interest.

And the success of the sugar industry in overcoming challenges, until the 2006 coup, has been a shining example of bipartisanship despite bitter and acrimonious debates across the political divide.

Sadly however, the only example of bipartisanship or extension of a hand of co-operation from Government came on September 29 to increase allowances or parliamentary emoluments.

PM Bainimarama's definition of bipartisanship as being co-operation between two parties maybe arises from the voting trend on September 29, 2016, when he led his party to vote for hefty increases to parliamentary emoluments and allowances. And in the PM's case, a 300 per cent increase.

Only the NFP opposed and voted against and refused to accept the increase because we were not going to be part of MPs who voted for an increase for themselves.

But when it came to national interest, to try and resuscitate an industry that shaped and grew our nation from its infancy, bipartisanship was meaningless for FijiFirst Government.

But then maybe, climate change affected PM Bainimarama and FijiFirst's definition of bipartisanship from personal interest to national interest, forcing it to be entangled in cobwebs and therefore clouding its vision of national interest.








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