Ni sa bula vinaka and good afternoon to you all. And my best wishes for a happy 2016.
I am happy to see that you already started the New Year with three new classrooms and new furniture and equipment. You are already enjoying the new schoolrooms, and we are now putting the finishing touches on this project.
Two new teachers’ quarters will ensure that the teachers who dedicate themselves to teach in this village have a suitable place to live. The new washroom facilities ensure that a proper level of hygiene is maintained, and the generator means that you can now read and study at night and enjoy access to other amenities.
I made a personal commitment to this improvement, which cost a total of nearly $170,000, all funded by the Office of the Prime Minister under the 2014 Small Grant Scheme Project.
When we have better facilities for students, we make it easier for them to learn. And when we have proper facilities for teachers, we make it easier for them to teach. The students and teachers who work so hard at this school deserve the best support we can offer. The learning environment that we create makes a big difference, and when we create the right physical environment, we as a people are telling our children and teachers alike that we want them to succeed.
But education is more than that. Our Constitution uses very specific language to guarantee every Fijian the right to an education. That makes it the government’s responsibility to make sure that resources are distributed fairly and that we pay very strict attention to the needs of children in all parts of Fiji.
My Government has a plan to improve the quality of teaching, to improve the quality of the materials and equipment for students and teachers, and to improve the quality of our school buildings. This will not be done overnight, but it will be done. And it is a shame that some civil servants in the Ministry of Education failed to ensure that our children receive their text books from day 1 of the new term in the New Year. This is a serious matter. First, it not only deprives children of the books they need, but it infringes on their constitutional right. Second, it undermines the people’s faith in the institution that is charged with guaranteeing that right. And that is why we have launched an investigation into the matter. We want to make sure that this kind of inexcusable failure—or anything similar—never happens again. I am happy to announce that we have made special arrangements and therefore all text books should be ready for distribution, at the latest within 4 weeks.
And speaking of improving the quality of teaching, I would like to say a few words about the teachers here today and all teachers who teach in rural areas—areas that are underserved and marginalised: Thank you. Thank you for your commitment. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for the love you have shown these children. Thank you for simply being here, where you do more good than you can possibly imagine. These children will remember you with affection and respect all the days of their lives. We have also, as you would be aware, started paying an additional allowance to those teachers serving in remote parts of Fiji. I have been visiting many schools recently—in Vanua Levu earlier this month, and now throughout the West. I can think of no better way to spend my time and use my energy than to improve education in this country. I have said many times that I want to be remembered as the Prime Minister who finally made education free in Fiji—and not just because education is valuable in its own right, but also because it is the key to true equality. Education gives us the ability to overcome challenges, and to reject limitations. When we are educated, we have the world and all it offers before us. That is what I want for these children.
I often wonder what took us so long. Why previous governments never had the foresight to make education free. Free education is not a new idea, after all; it is practised in some countries also. Why didn’t previous governments see it? Why didn’t previous Ministers for Education fight for it—fight for the children of Fiji?
Fortunately, we will never go back to those days.
We came to government brimming with idealism and the drive to reform Fiji and correct what was wrong—to replace privilege with equality, to replace indolence with energy, and to become a country that produces—produces goods, produces ideas, and produces future generations that will lead this region and show the world what kind of people we are. To do that, we need to be one Fiji, where all citizens are equal regardless of ethnicity, religion or occupation—without regard to whether they lived in the capital or the most remote island community, and whether they were rich or poor.
So if Fiji is to be governed by merit instead of privilege, if we are to build a society that provides opportunity to a people who know how to seize that opportunity, we need to be smarter, and equal before the law and in each other’s eyes.
When we took the burden of payments off the backs of families—constant payments to schools, unforeseen payments to schools, never-ending demands for payments to schools—we put all schools on an equal basis. And we replaced that system with a system that allows government to distribute grants to the schools. Today, the resources available to children no longer depend on how much their parents can pay. And the new facilities at these school are a result of that policy.
So you see some concrete results of a new Fiji right here in your community, in this village. And soon you will see a new symbol of our nation, a symbol that I hope you will help us discover.
I am talking about our new flag, and I am asking for your help and support in deciding what that new flag should look like.
I have known our flag all my adult life, and I have served under it with pride as a military officer and your Prime Minister. I know it is precious to you, too. But I would like us to have a flag that takes us into the future—to where we are going rather than from where we have been. So we need to let the old flag go, with our love and admiration. The new flag—always with our beloved Fiji blue—can stand for the kind of people we are, the kind of nation we aspire to be, and the kind of country we will leave to these children.
We have established a transparent process to select a new flag, and I ask you all to participate. We are accepting design submissions until February 29, and then we will select five designs to put before the people. There will be a national consultation during which time you will be able to tell us which design you like best.
Whichever design we choose, it will signify the dawn of a new day. It will tell the world that Fiji is on the move. It will be our banner. We will have created it.
I believe we will love whichever design we choose because we love our Fiji.
So to our teachers, keep up the good work and enjoy these new upgrades, and to our students, keep working hard and listening to your teachers. And to everyone in this community, remember that we build a better Fiji – village by village. All of the work you do to educate your children and to earn a better life makes Fiji a better place.
Thank you, Vinaka vakalevu.