When they could cross the floor

IT WAS moment that defined where they stood and whose alliance they camped with. On November 19, 1976, The Fiji Times reported the famous crossover of votes by the National Federation Party to support the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Ordinance amendment Bill (ALTO) put forward by the Alliance government. After months of acrimonious debate, eight Opposition members of the House of Representatives defied the Leader of the Opposition, the late Siddiq Koya and voted with the government.

The bill just scraped up the minimum of 39 votes needed for it to pass through the House of Representatives. If it hadn’t been for the vote by the Speaker of Parliament the Bill would have foundered one vote short of the constitutionally specified 75 per cent majority needed by land Bills of its type.

“The Bill’s passage was greeted with a burst of applause from Government and some Opposition members who opposed it. Only one vote was cast against it, by independent Fijian member Sakiasi Butadroka, who in doing so shouted out: “I came with a black tie on this morning to bury Fijian land if the Bill goes through” it was reported

The late prime minister at the time, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara described the voting of the Bill as “a great relief for me”.

“In the whole of the last five years this is one of the best efforts we have made in trying to solve difficulties with ALTO.

“It may make the next five years much happier as far as land is concerned.” he added. He said he believed the Bill would get through its next hurdle, the vote in the Senate, where it also needs a 75 per cent majority, including the votes of at least six of the eight chiefly members. The ALTO Bill aimed at increasing from 10 to 30 years the minimum period for which agricultural land could be leased. It had fixed rent assessment methods and set limits on how much rent could be charged for farmland. As such the Bill would affect about 30,000 tenant farmers, including about 25,000 tenants of Fijian landowners at the time. “The new Bill provoked two distinct responses from the Indo-Fijian tenant community,” said Fiji historian Dr Brij Lal in his book Islands of Turmoil:Elections and Politics in Fiji.

“One section accepted it as the best terms they could obtain in the circumstances; the other saw it simply as an extension of the existing uncertainties,” he wrote. “Opposition Leader Koya, also president of the Federation of Cane Growers, opposed the bill, while KC Ramrakha and Irene Jai Narayan along with eight others crossed the floor to support it.”

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