Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps.
The respective Chairs of the Fiji-Australia, Fiji-New Zealand, Australia-Fiji and New Zealand-Fiji Business Councils,
Our exporters and importers, businessmen and women,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all,
Fiji treasures its close links with the people of Australia and New Zealand – our deep and longstanding friendships and our economic ties. So I’m delighted to join you all today to formally open this tripartite forum of the Fiji, Australia and New Zealand Business Councils.
You are the glue that binds our economic relationships together through the trade you conduct and the investments you have made in Fiji. And increasingly, the trade and investment that Fijian companies conduct in Australia and New Zealand.
Last year, the combined value of Fiji’s trade with Australia and New Zealand reached one-point-six-six-eight billion dollars ($1.668). This represents 27 per cent of our nation’s total trade with the world in 2015. And we place the highest importance on increasing this trade for our economy and the prosperity of every Fijian.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as you all know, I am assuming the position of Foreign Minister on Saturday on top of my duties as Prime Minister, Minister for Sugar and iTaukei Affairs. I intend to give Fiji’s relationships with Australia and New Zealand the high level of attention they deserve. And I intend to work closely with my Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism, the Honourable Faiyaz Koya, to put trade at centre stage of our diplomatic efforts and streamline some of our existing processes.
I intend first of all to strengthen the relationship between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism. Too often, trade hasn’t been given the importance it deserves in our diplomatic relations with other countries. So I will be insisting that the two ministries work more closely together. And for our diplomatic missions overseas to be more focused on facilitating trade, with particular emphasis on promoting the Fijian Made brand of quality products and services.
I am convinced that there are significant opportunities that still haven’t been tapped. And my message to our Heads of Mission – High Commissioners Yogesh Punja in Canberra and Filimoni Waqabaca in Wellington – as well as our Trade Commissioner in Sydney Zarak Khan, is to redouble our efforts to boost our performance and take it to another level. Both our High Commissioners and Trade Commissioner are in the room today and I urge you all to engage with them personally as we move forward together.
Minister Koya will be speaking to you later about the finer details of the trading relationship, including clarifying Fiji’s position on the PacerPlus negotiations. But I want to use my own address to explore the wider parameters of our relationship and the political framework in which it takes place. And especially to give you all a detailed briefing of Fiji’s position on the events of the past week that have again produced a hiccup in our diplomatic relations with New Zealand. It is something that does not affect our trade or our people-to-people exchanges in any way at all. But it is definitely something we need to work on in the interests of our wider relationship and future cooperation.
Let me begin by saying this: in common with most Fijians, I have a great deal of affection for Kiwis and Aussies as people. I appreciate their down-to-earth, unpretentious natures; their irreverent sense of humour; and especially their eagerness to come to the help of their mates when they are in trouble.
In common with other Fijians, I will never forget the way New Zealand and Australia responded so quickly and so generously to our desperate need after Tropical Cyclone Winston struck these islands seven months ago. We are neighbours and friends and always will be. But we must work harder to align our sometimes testy political and diplomatic relationship more closely with the warm personal and vibrant commercial ties we share as people.
It is the message I will be giving the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, when I meet him face to face in New York next week during the United Nations General Assembly. And it is the message that I bring to you all today.
There is – to put it bluntly – a great deal of room for improvement in the quality of the relationships between our countries. We all know that New Zealand and Australia did a great deal after the events of 2006 to damage Fiji. From our perspective, we believe both countries fundamentally failed to grasp the reasons why we needed radical intervention to finally produce a level playing field for all Fijians and create a strong foundation for our economy. But as I told the New Zealand Prime Minister to his face when he came to visit us in June, we have delivered on our promise to return Fiji to parliamentary rule with our first genuine democracy of equal votes of equal value. And we are eager to let bygones be bygones and move forward together to a greater level of understanding.
That requires a greater degree of mutual respect in the conduct of our relationship than we are currently witnessing. In particular, I have been very disappointed over the past week about what I regard as the highhanded manner in which Fiji has again been treated by New Zealand.
You may have noticed the other day John Key saying that he hoped the Fijian Government wasn’t going to be quote – silly – about enforcing the provisions of our Public Order Act. With due respect to my Honourable Friend, I don’t think “silly” was the appropriate word to use in the circumstances. Just as I don’t think it was appropriate for him to say last year that I was, quote, “mouthing off” about the Pacific Islands Forum.
Being “silly” or “mouthing off” is what a parent might say about a wayward child or a teacher might say about a problem student. It doesn’t suggest a relationship of equals. On the contrary, it carries a distinct tone of superiority. Some might even call it patronising or condescending. But I certainly don’t think it shows appropriate respect for a sovereign nation and a democratically elected leader who is acting in the best interests of the Fijian people and Fijian economy. And let me explain why.
Anyone with more than a superficial knowledge of Fiji knows that we have had a history of civil unrest at various stages of our development. Both in the colonial era and after Independence 46 years ago.
In 1959, under British rule, a bitter industrial dispute led to rioting in Suva in which shops were looted and a military curfew was imposed. During the coup of 1987, rampaging extremists, egged on by politicians, attacked ordinary people on the streets and in their homes. In the 2000, our capital was trashed when police stood by while crowds looted central Suva and set fire to a number of buildings. And we are determined that such outrages will never happen again. It is not good for human dignity and it is not good for business.
It was the British who introduced the Public Order Act and this Act – with various amendments – continues to this day. It exists to preserve public order and safety. It is there to protect the interests of every citizen. Because in each of these instances over the years, civil unrest damaged the economy and damaged people’s jobs.
The Public Order Act then and now requires anyone wanting to hold a public meeting to apply to the Police for a permit. So the Police are aware of what is happening and can allocate the appropriate resources to cover any eventuality. Because many of our problems in the past have had their origins in such gatherings, when people have been incited to cause trouble.
On Monday of last week, a group of mainly politicians held or attended a meeting in Suva without applying for a permit. Without a permit, any such meeting would be viewed as an unlawful gathering and the police acted accordingly.
Several people were detained for questioning. Their human rights were respected. No one was beaten and no-one was manhandled. They were able to obtain legal counsel. They were fed and by their own accounts to the media, were well treated. And they were released within the 48-hour period that the law allows someone to be detained without having to be produced in court.
They are now free while the police file goes to the independent office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for a decision of whether they should be prosecuted. And our courts will also deal with this independently if the DPP decides to prosecute these individuals. It is precisely the same standard of due process as in New Zealand or Australia.
I note that even John Key says the process has been lawful. So why has this become an international incident? Why is the spotlight being turned on Fiji simply because it insists on its laws being upheld? Why all the unwarranted “expressions of concern” from foreign governments and organisations? The baseless allegations of human rights abuses? The absurd motion against Fiji introduced in the New Zealand Parliament? When all we are doing is enforcing a statute that our history tells us is not only necessary but vital to our national interest and economic well-being.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I will not apologise for doing whatever it takes within the law to keep our people safe and our economy stable. We have had a record seven years of economic growth, with all that entails for the prosperity of our people. And nothing must be allowed to get in the way of providing them with the opportunities they deserve.
I promised the Fijian people that the nightmare many suffered in the past arising from the successive breakdowns of law and order will never be repeated. And I intend to keep that promise.
The rule of law must be upheld. And while any law remains on the statute books, the Police have a solemn duty to enforce it. It is only the democratically elected representatives of the people in Parliament who can change it now that we have returned to parliamentary rule.
As it happens, His Excellency the President announced when he opened the Parliament on Monday that the Public Order Act will be among a range of laws to be reviewed in the coming session. And if Parliament eventually decides that it is time to change the law, that’s when it will happen and not a moment before.
My message to the New Zealand and other governments and to our other domestic and international critics is this: Let the Parliament do its work and please respect the law as it stands.
Until now, we haven’t lectured you about the allegations of human rights abuses in your own countries. These include the extreme disadvantage suffered by indigenous people in New Zealand and Australia and in the case of Australia, the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. We also refrain from commenting on the stark double standards of nations that preach to us yet fail to criticise the flagrant human rights abuses of their larger and more powerful allies. So please do us the courtesy of respecting our own processes and allow our elected representatives to do what is necessary in the interests of the Fijian people and Fijian economy as a whole.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Government is determined to provide you with the confidence – the certainty – that your investment in and trade with Fiji is safe. And given Fiji’s history, we can only maintain that confidence if we display zero tolerance for civil unrest or other forms of disruption. No more coups. No more mutinies or rebellions. A nation at peace with itself and eager to reach out to the world.
We have put an end to the lost years in Fiji when everyone wondered what would happen next. Whether their businesses or their homes would be threatened again. When their jobs might suddenly vanish.
We are more secure as a nation because we are more unified as a nation than at any time in our history. Everyone with equal opportunity, with a deep sense of focus on the economy and everyone a Fijian. And riding a wave of tremendous optimism in the wake of our Rugby Sevens gold medal winning performance at the Rio Olympics.
We are supercharging our economy by investing more in improving our infrastructure than at any time in our history – better roads, better airports and more efficient ports. Our telecommunications have also been elevated to global standards. And we are continuing, with our education revolution, to improve the skills of our people, who already comprise a talented English- speaking workforce at the hub of the Pacific and the crossroads to other markets.
Above all, we are a nation that has come to terms with its past, is unquestionably on the move and has a wonderful future ahead of it.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Fiji is open for business. And on behalf of the Fijian people, thank you all for the contribution you are making to help us to build a more prosperous future. I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible this morning. And now have the great pleasure to declare this joint forum of our respective business councils open.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.