The Honourable Attorney General and Minister for Finance,
Honourable Ministers and Members of Parliament,
My Fellow Fijians,
Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
I have come to see you all to explain face-to-face what we are doing to solve some the challenges our industry is facing. And in particular, to counter some of the lies that are being spread in our sugar cane growing areas about what is happening and what the future holds.
But before I do, I want to say as Prime Minister how pleased and proud I am to be here in Rakiraki with some of the most hardworking people in Fiji – our sugar cane farmers.
Like so many Fijians, many of you in Ra are still recovering from the impact of Cyclone Winston five months ago. I know, because many of you have told me, that you are grateful for the Help for Homes initiative that has helped you rebuild your homes. This initiative has never been done by any other government and we have so far spent $88-million. We have allocated another $20-million in the new budget year to help those who may have missed out in the first round. We have also allocated, in the new Budget, $205-million to rebuild all the schools, health centres and public facilities and for agriculture and fisheries rehabilitation.
Friends, I am here today to talk to you about a number of issues that affect you – both personally and as cane farmers. And I do so as someone who takes great pride in improving the circumstances of ordinary Fijians like yourselves.
In order for you to participate equally in the Fijian economy, you first of all had to be treated as equal citizens of our country. And this is what my Government has given you. Because under the 2013 Constitution, you are no longer second class citizens.
I know many of you are descendants of the Girmit, who were subjected to the harshest of conditions. The prejudice Indo-Fijians suffered stretched through colonial times and into independent Fiji.
Many of you suffered a great deal during the coups of 1987 and 2000. But I’m proud to say that those bad days are gone. Through the Constitution, we have a common and equal citizenry. And enjoying equal rights has been very important for human dignity and the lives of every Fijian.
Now that everyone is equal in the eyes of our supreme law, when you give people assistance, it also has to be given equally. On the basis of merit. On the basis of need.
To improve the lives of every Fijian, my Government is spending a great deal of money on roads, on water, on electricity and other services. I know some of you may still not have access to electricity or piped water. But many of you now enjoy these services for the first time. And my Government will continue its program of extending them as many people as possible across the country.
We have also provided a lot of money for education – free schooling and scholarships and tertiary loans to enable many more of our young people – your children and grandchildren – to gain access to higher learning. These qualifications are opening up all sorts of possibilities for these people to get better jobs, start their own businesses and participate in wider our economy.
We have also given low income earners access to free medicine and given the elderly pensions for the first time. So we are producing a fairer society, a more equal society, in which even the poorest family has an opportunity to improve its circumstances.
When it comes to the sugar cane industry, there was no question that it was in steady decline until my Government intervened to put it on a better footing. For example, the amount of cane needed to produce sugar has been drastically reduced by making the process more efficient. The TCTS just a few years ago was about 13 or 14. Now it’s just over eight.
Friends, before my Government took office, our sugar mills were literally falling apart. If you remember, the previous government had engaged some Indian companies to refurbish those mills but the result was not good. So we had to direct additional resources to save those mills and make them more efficient.
To ensure the renewal of sugar cane leases, we spend about nine million dollars a year to assist those farmers whose leases have expired or are expiring. And we are paying a top up of 4 per cent above the six per cent paid to the TLTB to provide landowners with an incentive to renew those leases.
Friends, I know there’s been a lot of talk about not enough being done for sugar cane, especially in the wake of the two new bills that are now before a standing committee of parliament. Certain opposition politicians and former politicians have been spreading a lot of misinformation about what is in these bills.
They claim the bills will take away the rights of cane farmers. They even say they are forcing farmers into another Girmit – a ridiculous notion that insults the memories of those who genuinely suffered when they were first brought to Fiji.
These people who have come before the Committee have been making all sorts of wild comments. They have caused a great deal of misunderstanding about what is it these bills and they have done it in a manner that is very irresponsible.
Unfortunately, I have to say to you today that a lot of the comments that have been made by people like Mahendra Chaudhry, Biman Prasad and others are completely false. As usual, they are trying to politicize the sugar cane industry. And they are trying to use you for their own political gain. In particular, they are using you to try to drive a wedge between you and me – to create distrust. To create uncertainty.
It isn’t going to work. Because Friends, you know I have always been there for you. I have always served your best interests. And I want to assure you all today that I will never use you in the way that they are using you – for my own political gain. I will never exploit you. And I will always be straight with you. If something cannot be done, I will tell you so. I have and will be honest with you always. And I can assure you that these bills will not adversely affect you as individual cane farmers. And remember that your rights will always be protected under the Constitution.
There are a couple of amendments that I will bring about in the Bill. For example, registered growers will no longer have to pay a fee for having their farms registered or changing their records. That provision will be removed.
In relation to the Cane Growers Council, I know some of the politicians have been pushing for elections. But as you know, that has been very detrimental to the interests of the industry. Instead, we will expand the membership of the Council. I’m sure you will all agree that a Council that is not politicized will perform a lot better. So I will be increasing the membership of the Council by ensuring that each district will be represented on the Council. Furthermore, this expanded Council will be required by law to consult all the growers through their sectors and districts on a regular basis.
One of the requirements that we want to put in the amendment to the bill is that the Cane Growers Council must – on a regular basis – go out and consult all the growers.
Friends, the other significant aspect of the Bill that we are going to change is to remove the section on industrial disputes. As you know, since 1984, a provision was put in place to treat farmers like employees by bringing them under an industrial dispute mechanism. This was like going back to the colonial times and the law has been in place since 1984. Unfortunately, this provision was carried though in the Bill but I will take it out. This means that if you decide not to plant or harvest your cane, that will be your choice. Whether it is a protest or not, we are empowering you to make the decision for yourself. If your neighbour wants to harvest and cultivate, that will be his choice.
So, Friends, these are some of the changes we are making. I know some politicians are claiming that the Tribunal is not independent but that is simply not true. The tribunal is appointed by the Chief Justice.
Some people are also claiming that the current Master Award will be changed as soon as the bills become law. Take it from me, it won’t. The current Master Award will continue. However, in any further negotiations regarding the Master Award, the Growers Council must have an input. The FSC must have an input. The public must have an input. And the law forces the Minister to make sure that a new Master Award cannot be implemented without the consent of the Growers Council and the FSC. So all these protections are there for you in the law.
Friends, let me now announce some of the other initiatives that we will be undertaking over the next few months to help you as cane growers.
As Chair of the TLTB, I have directed the TLTB and also the Lands Department to ensure that for all leases that are expiring, the lessee must be told five years in advance whether the lease is to be extended or not renewed. No longer will you be in danger of finding out just before the lease expires that you have to leave. This gives you certainty and enables you to make proper plans to find somewhere else to live. It is about giving leaseholders security and peace of mind – to enable them to properly manage their affairs and their lives.
I also want to announce that the TLTB has set aside half a million dollars – to be matched by the Government with another half million dollars – to assist tenants who are disadvantaged, are behind in their rent and are facing financial hardship. This includes the elderly without pensions and who are ill, tenants of all ages with a chronic illness, those who have lost their jobs or those with disabilities. There is specific assistance for elderly cane farming tenants above the age of 60 with no other source of income other than cane proceeds. We will pay their leases for them.
The I’Taukei lands Board – of which I am the chairman – has also agreed to set aside another million dollars to assist those people who hold leases and who have been affected by Cyclone Winston. This will go towards the payment of their leases and more details on this will be released in the next few weeks.
I also want to announce today that Government will provide replanting assistance to those farmers who have been affected by Cyclone Winston. As you know, my Government has allocated $11-million to the replanting effort and cyclone victims will be given first priority. Upon finalization of the total hectares damaged, we estimate that about $2000 a hectare will be given to each recipient. Based on current figures, we are looking at about $9-million being given to cane farmers who have been affected by Cyclone Winston. This money will also be used to assist other cane farmers for their replanting on existing cane fields, not just fallow land.
Friends, I know one issue of great concern to many of you is the future of the Penang Mill, which was severely damaged by Winston and had to be closed. We are currently assessing whether the Penang Mill should be rebuilt as a syrup mill or the full sugar mill that it was before the cyclone. Many sugar producing countries now have smaller mills that produce only syrup. It reduces the time it takes for crushing and the syrup is taken to a bigger mill where it is crystalised into sugar.
We have been given some assistance by the Indian Government to assess the best course of action and we will be making a decision on Penang in the next two months. But whichever way we go – a full mill or a syrup mill – it will not affect your ability to supply cane. And the work will commence immediately when the assessment is completed.
Regarding the damaged bridge at Penang, that is part of the reconstruction effort by the Fiji Roads Authority and will be completed before the next crushing season.
As you know, while the Penang Mill is out of action, we are providing the transportation costs to Rarawai for those growers who used to supply their cane to Penang. And this is costing the FSC more than 2-million dollars.
Friends, the burning of cane is also a growing problem and we are responding to the needs of those farmers whose crop is burnt. If you are targeted, you can now report the burning to the nearest police post and that report will be actioned from that post. You previously could not do that but now you can. The FSC will also come to your assistance by working closely with you to take your cane to the mill as quickly as possible.
I know there is also concern about the condition of cane access roads. With the increased allocation in the Budget and together with the EU assistance, we are going to upgrade many more of these roads.
Friends, we have been very fortunate to secure the services of Mr. Vishnu Mohan to take over as Chair of the FSC and assist the CEO and the FSC Board. He will also work very closely with farmers. Mr Mohan is a distinguished banker who headed the Pacific regional operation of the ANZ bank. He has also had experience as a commodity trader. And he’s a familiar face in Fiji, having been the Chairman of the Fiji Public Service Commission.
I know some people have said: “Oh he’s only a banker, what does he know about sugar cane?” But the modern day sugar cane industry isn’t just about production. It’s also about marketing. And we need to make a bigger effort to find new markets and give our growers the best possible return.
It’s also about running our mills efficiently. I’m convinced that Mr Mohan has the skills to take our industry to another level. Part of his job will be to preside over an improvement in the way the FSC deals with people in the industry. And I look forward to him starting in his new role on the 8th of August.
So Friends, with these announcements, I want to assure you all that the sugar industry is here to stay. Please don’t get carried away with the negative stories the critics are peddling. I hear they are having pocket meetings and spreading a lot of misinformation. But take no notice. We are here to support you and we are determined to do so.
My new Permanent Secretary, Mr Yogesh Karan, will be working very closely with the Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Mr Jitendra Singh. Because as you know, there are great opportunities for other forms of food production in our sugar producing areas.
Friends: Unlike my opponents, I don’t talk the industry down. Never has talk been so cheap than when it comes from the lips of some of these has-beens and opposition MPs. They have the same basic speech. Blame Bainimarama. Blame the Government. Blame anyone but themselves. But It has been left to us to take up the challenge and we intend to meet it. It is my obligation as your Prime Minister to do so. We are ending decades of neglect and mismanagement in the sugar cane industry, decades of racial politics, decades of manipulation by opportunistic politicians of ordinary cane farmers.
My Government is working as hard as it can to turn our industry around and guarantee its future. Guarantee your future and the future of your families.
Thank you for the opportunity to address you this morning and I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.