The Right Honourable Prime Minister of New Zealand,
The Honourable New Zealand Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Honourable cabinet ministers,
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula vinaka and a very good evening to you all.
Any visit to Fiji by a New Zealand leader is always going to be an important occasion. But never more so than yours, Prime Minister, at a time when our official relationship is being reinvigorated and redefined after a period of estrangement.
I intend to work with you to strengthen that relationship to match the friendship that has always existed between our peoples. And so I’m delighted – on behalf of every Fijian – to welcome you and your delegation to Suva. You are among friends as long as you choose your words carefully when it comes to rugby.
But seriously. Our mutual love of “the game they play in heaven” is just one of the things that binds our nations together. And our people-to-people ties have never been stronger than in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston.
Prime Minister, I want to begin by expressing the heartfelt thanks of the Fijian people for the way in which hundreds of your servicemen and women came to our aid during those dark days three and a half months ago. Amid all of the heartbreaking destruction – on Vanuabalavu in particular – the arrival of your warship Canterbury gave our people hope. And the smiling faces and “can do” attitude of your men and women in uniform lifted their spirits and gave them both the will and the means to begin the task of rebuilding their homes and their lives.
The prompt response of our Kiwi friends across the seas – along with those of other nations – gave Fiji the helping hand it needed at one of the most critical points in our history. The goodwill – the affection – that ordinary Fijians have for New Zealanders has never been greater. And as we work together to rebuild our nation, the Fijian Government also wants to rebuild our official relationship. And that means recasting it to match the changes that have taken place in Fiji in recent years and our relations with the rest of the world. Redefining Fiji’s ties with New Zealand.
Prime Minister, the Fiji that you come to in 2016 is a vastly different place compared to the Fiji that the last New Zealand leader to visit us, Helen Clark, found in 2006. Ten years ago, some Fijians were more equal than others. Their votes carried more weight than others. They enjoyed a range of privileges that others didn’t share – such as special access to jobs and to education.
When the last New Zealand prime minister was here in 2006, the term Fijian – an English word – was reserved for one ethnic group and other citizens were deprived of a common identity and equal citizenry.
When the last New Zealand prime minister was here in 2006, the then government wanted to inappropriately exaggerate the ambit of indigenous rights to absurd proportions by introducing laws that would have undermined our tourism industry and turned us into an economic basket case.
When the last New Zealand prime minister was here in 2006, the then government did not want to address or even recognise systemic corruption. They refused to ratify the international anti-corruption convention.
When the last New Zealand prime minister was here in 2006, the then government wanted to undermine the independence of the judiciary, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and other independent institutions so that it could free those responsible for bringing our nation to its knees in the rebellion of 2000 and the subsequent mutiny in the military.
When the last New Zealand prime minister was here in 2006, we had higher levels of poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor was wider, than what it is today.
Prime Minister, history records that in December 2006, a group of us decided that the steady marginalisation of not just one ethnic group but many ordinary and everyday Fijians had to stop. The repeated attempts at nation building in Fiji were constantly being eroded by sectional interests and the elite, who sowed ethnic, provincial and religious division to maintain their grip on power.
We had lost tens of thousands of our best and brightest people, who had given up hope in Fiji after the coups of 1987 and 2000.
The same elites – with their potent mix of ethnicity, religious chauvinism and provincialism – had coalesced again and were posing another grave threat to national unity. And so we embarked on a revolution to create Year Zero in Fiji. To finally provide every citizen, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, province or social status, with a level playing field. To create a common and equal citizenry. A common identity. Everyone a Fijian. And the constitutional, political and social framework for every citizen to move forward together as you have done in New Zealand and which every country is entitled to do. One nation. One people.
Prime Minister, history also records that New Zealand and certain other nations objected to that revolution because it was achieved by undemocratic means. Yet they ignored the indisputable fact that Fiji’s institutions at the time were already inherently undemocratic, including a parliament chosen not on the basis of equal votes of equal value but an ethnic and provincial gerrymander. The basis of which was against all internationally accepted principles of fairness and equal suffrage.
This parliament- elected on the enforcement of ethnic categorisation and provincialism – was never going to evolve into a truly democratic institution. And only by decisive and radical action – a revolution – could equal opportunity be finally achieved and the national compass reset. The introduction of a genuine democracy, not the sham democracy that existed in Fiji at that time.
Prime Minister, the rest is also history. We introduced a constitution that for the first time, established a common and equal citizenry, guaranteed equal opportunity under the law and provided every Fijian with an unprecedented array of social and economic rights. And then on the basis of that constitution, we fulfilled our promise to return Fiji to parliamentary rule – true democracy – at a national election in September 2014 that was also the first in Fijian history to be conducted on the basis of equal votes of equal value.
Prime Minister, on the basis of that vote – endorsed as credible and free by an observer group of 20 nations – the FijiFirst party that I lead gained just under 60 per cent of the vote. And it is on that basis that I stand before you tonight. Not as a coup maker or dictator – as some in your country would still have it – but as the popularly elected, freely chosen leader of Fiji. Our revolution, our constitution and our political movement all having gained the endorsement of the Fijian people in an act of free will.
Prime Minister, I say all this because there appears to be a substantial body of opinion in New Zealand – led by your generally hostile media – that what has happened in Fiji somehow lacks legitimacy. That somehow, I lack legitimacy and my government lacks legitimacy. This is simply not borne out by the facts. We have moved on but it would appear that the New Zealand media has not.
By finally creating an electoral system based on equal votes of equal value, democracy in Fiji has never been stronger. And permit me to confront head on any suggestion that the events in our Parliament last week indicate otherwise.
Prime Minister, no parliament in the world, no government in the world, can tolerate attempts to create ethnic discord, sow ethnic hatred. The sad fact is that one of our MPs did precisely that last week when she falsely stated on the floor of the House that our Education Minister had made a reference to “dumb natives”. It was a concoction, a lie. And it was clearly aimed at smearing an Indo-Fijian minister with an outrageous falsehood – that he had cast aspersions on the intellectual ability of our indigenous people.
It would not have been tolerated in the New Zealand Parliament. Indeed no one in your Parliament would have said such hateful, divisive and inflammatory words. Let alone attributed them to someone who had never uttered those words.
Well we did not tolerate it either. The stakes in Fiji are arguably much higher given our history. Because the entire stability of our nation, its prosperity and direction, and economic well-being requires zero tolerance for any attempt to again sow ethnic and communal discord.
For decades, we have been held hostage in Fiji to such attitudes. Our national development has been retarded. Tens of thousands of our people have been forced to find new homes elsewhere, including New Zealand. They left in many instances because they weren’t given jobs or positions simply because they didn’t belong to the right group.
Many innocent people have also been beaten or had their homes invaded; our capital city was looted and burned.
We cannot allow this to ever happen again. So in common with countries such as New Zealand and Australia, we will not tolerate any attempt to divide us along ethnic or religious lines. We will not allow anyone to incite hatred against any person on the basis of ethnicity or religion. So a harsh penalty was recommended by our Parliamentary Privileges Committee last week and then endorsed by Parliament. And rightly so. Because in Fiji, the stakes are too high to be lenient and we make no apology for it.
Prime Minister, let me also confront head on the issue of media freedom and more particularly, the right of access to Fiji by certain of your journalists. No-one who reports on events in Fiji fairly and in a balanced manner is excluded. Any journalist is free to criticise my government or me in an opinion piece or report criticism made by others in their news stories. But we cannot allow the willful propagation of false information that damages the national interest and undermines our vulnerable economy. And that is what has happened in the case of certain New Zealand journalists and others from Australia. Incidentally, no journalist from any other country has been banned from Fiji.
New Zealand television ran footage of tanks in the streets of Suva when our military does not own any tanks. They had been interposed from other sources. A claim was made that Fijian children were starving and were eating grass. These are egregious examples of willful bias and misreporting. As a great British newspaper editor once said, comment is free but facts are sacred. Yet certain journalists in New Zealand and Australia – along with certain journalists in Fiji – think nothing of dispensing with the facts if they get in the way of the politically weighted narrative they want to tell. And we are saying to the news organisations that employ them: send someone else. Someone who respects the facts and the right of people to know the truth. Not some twisted concoction.
Prime Minister, I am coming to our talks tomorrow in a genuine spirit of engagement. Of letting bygones be bygones and setting our relationship and that of our nations on a new course.
You have said that what has happened in the past is ancient history and you are looking for a more positive engagement yourself. It is a sentiment I welcome. Because Fiji and New Zealand have had far too long a friendship and we are far too close geographically to allow this opportunity to pass. Friends can also say things to each other that others can’t. So I hope you will excuse me if I close by saying this:
For all our closeness at a people-to-people level, Fiji seeks a new political relationship with New Zealand that is more equal. More rooted in mutual respect. More understanding on New Zealand’s part of our own priorities – whether it is on the trade front with the PACER Plus negotiations or our desire to reform our regional architecture to give Pacific Islanders a bigger voice.
The strains and irritants that have marked our political relationship in recent years are a textbook lesson on how not to conduct friendly relations between neighbouring governments. They must be replaced by genuine cooperation and understanding. And I ask you and your government to work with us to create a better framework in which to conduct our affairs. Less prescriptive. More consultative. More understanding of the challenges we face.
We are not New Zealand. We have different challenges and priorities. We are not the New Zealand democracy. Evolved and robust. We are the Fijian democracy. Finally genuine yet still in its relative infancy and with institutions that need to be strengthened. And we are not the New Zealand economy. Our economy needs to have its fundamentals protected and strengthened to empower all Fijians.
I appeal to you to work with us to build those institutions, strengthen our democracy, work with us to improve the lives of Fijians and other Pacific islands. Help us build strong institutions without political bias or interference. Help us build our resilience to climate change and access financial facilities we need to do so.
Your aid must complement the implementation of our policy agenda, not undermine it. After all, we don’t always want to be dependent on aid. And this can only be achieved if we work in a collaborative manner. Work with us because there are many lucrative business opportunities for New Zealand companies given the liberalisation and modernisation of the Fijian economy under my Government.
Prime Minister, a great partnership is possible, one based on mutual confidence and trust. So I look forward to our talks tomorrow and once again, welcome to Fiji. It’s been a long time between drinks, as they say – 10 years since we last had a New Zealand Prime Minister here, even though we now welcome over 100,000 Kiwis every year. We hope that like them, Fiji will be where happiness finds you. But just don’t talk about the rugby.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.