Bula Vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.
My Fellow Fijians, as I had stated earlier this morning, this past week has proven to be a trying one given the effects of the tropical cyclone and tropical depression. Please rest assured that my Government will provide full assistance to all Fijians in the affected areas. I especially thank you all for your preparedness. I also wish to thank the relevant agencies such as DISMAC, the MET office and law enforcement agencies for their untiring efforts in ensuring the safety of all Fijians.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today we mark a new year and a new future for the people of Vanua Levu. That is what this road represents—nothing less than a new future. It is part of a commitment by my Government to build the kind of infrastructure that creates opportunity and wealth, that eliminates barriers to commerce, education and good health, and that brings all Fijians together as one community and one people.
I am here in Vanua Levu this week to open or inspect many projects—projects that improve education, provide safe drinking water, bring electricity to remote villages, and help irrigate farmland. I am also visiting with people who will receive small and micro business grants and listening to the people in the North who work hard every day trying to build a future for themselves and their children.
Nothing makes me prouder than to see how the Fijian people have responded to the improvements Government has made. It may look like we are investing in projects—in infrastructure, in highways and electrical grids and jetties. But if we look just one step beyond the physical improvements, we see that we are really investing in people. And for every dollar we invest in infrastructure, the Fijian people repay themselves many times over in productivity, initiative and hard work. I believe the Fijian people are capable of accomplishing anything we put our minds to, anything we put our backs into, and anything we put our sweat into. And that is especially true in Vanua Levu, the very heart of Fiji.
So this is a wonderful way to begin 2016. I am delighted—and very proud—to be here today in Dreketi to officially open these 70 kilometers of new, sealed, modern highway on the Nabouwalu to Dreketi Road. This is a major accomplishment for the people here and for the Northern Division as a whole.
This project was a massive undertaking to bring about a massive transformation. The cost was 228 million dollars. And the result is that a road that was dusty in the dry season and bogged down in the wet season—and difficult to travel in the best of times—is now a modern road with a smooth surface. It doesn’t shake the bolts loose on your car or truck when you drive on it. It doesn’t steal years from the life of your vehicle, or ruin its suspension and tyres. And it helps you travel quickly, to transport goods to market, to bring in supplies for farms and homes and businesses, and to bring families and friends together.
The Fiji Roads Authority replaced 14 bridges as well—bridges that allow this highway to cross waterways and rough terrain. All had to be replaced to link this road all the way down to the Nabouwalu Jetty. The bridges were completely redesigned to modern standards and built to last 100 years and withstand flooding.
This road is an important symbol of my Government’s continued commitment to the welfare of the people of the North and a cornerstone of our Look North Policy. We have a vision to transform the North, to extend to the people of Vanua Levu the same level of services Fijians enjoy on Viti Levu.
I have said many times before that I believe deep in my heart that every Fijian – no matter where they live – has a right to such things as good roads, electricity, water, education, health and telecommunications. It is Government’s job to provide those things—equitably, fairly and efficiently throughout the country. And that means it’s my job. It is both a burden and a privilege, and I bear both with great pleasure. We may not be able to produce full parity and full development overnight, but we will work every day, make progress every day, and keep that ideal before us. And eventually, we will succeed. This is a part of what we mean by One Fiji: equal citizenship, equal opportunity and equal services.
I have also criticised previous governments for not seeing fit to provide a sealed road here to unlock the economic potential of this area, to increase the value of iTaukei land and improve the lives of ordinary people. Well, those decades of neglect have come to a crashing end as I proudly open this beautiful road, and here is why:
The sealed road will cut travel times dramatically and make a whole section of Macuata and Bua provinces more accessible. Even people in villages and settlements that are beyond the sealed portion will still enjoy shorter journeys because of it. Students will spend less time traveling to school, people will get medical attention more quickly, and families will have more
time to spend together.
And as this most recent cyclone reminds us, this all-weather road and the year-round access it provides, mean less disruption from extreme weather events. Farmers are already at the mercy of the elements in their fields; we can at least ensure that they are not at the mercy of the elements after their crops are harvested and loaded onto trucks to take them to market.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In this moment of celebration, I want to highlight again on the issue I have been addressing all over the country – the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault.
My Government and I take every opportunity to condemn these crimes and demand that we as a society refuse to tolerate such violent acts. Although the law punishes these crimes severely, we need to create a culture that shames anyone who even thinks about abusing or assaulting our women and children.
So, I call on all of you to join me in this fight to ensure every Fijian woman and child, lead a fulfilling life that is free from violence and abuse.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before now, travel was simply too long and too rough to make this part of the Northern Division a serious prospect for more economic development. But this new road changes everything: We can now take advantage of the area’s potential because we are conquering the remoteness. We are making it easier to invest because good infrastructure reduces both the risk and the capital requirements.
The value of the land will increase—in some cases increase significantly—because the new opportunities unleashed by a better road will make the land more attractive to potential investors and businesses. This is very good news to landowners. It gives them more choices for how to put their land to use.
One of the priorities of my Government is to create opportunities for landowners and then help them take advantage of those opportunities. Land rights have never been more secure in Fiji than they are now. Landowners have an absolute right to decide what to do with their land, as they always have. And now they have more options. That is good for land owners, and it’s good for Fiji.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am proud to say that the North is on the move. The people here see the opportunities before them and are making their plans. As we continue to improve infrastructure, we will create more opportunities. Our economy has been growing at a record rate, and investor confidence—by both Fijian and foreign investors and potential investors—has never been higher. A growing economy gives us more opportunity: more money to spend on infrastructure, education, health and social welfare; more Fijians looking to turn their ideas into successful businesses; and more chances to raise up all Fijians and create a higher standard of living.
The North is sharing in that prosperity, and also contributing to that prosperity more than ever before. The sugar industry in the North is being expanded, land is being reclaimed for growing cane, and we intend to crush one million tonnes of sugarcane a year in Labasa by 2020, and we will need a good road network.
That is just the start. We are riding a wave of optimism in this country that grows with each new project that we complete, from the biggest highway to the smallest village project. And there is no place where I feel the optimism more than here in the North.
But let’s keep one important thing in mind: A good road is a wonderful thing, but it carries its own set of risks and hazards. So I urge drivers and pedestrians to take proper precautions along this new road and obey the speed limits and safety signs. Be careful, particularly as you get to know this new road. And even the best highways are not indestructible. They require care. So I urge the logging truck owners—and all transporters—to comply with the regulated load requirements. Excess loads can cause enormous damage to highway surfaces, and that is in no one’s interest. You can be sure that the Land Transport Authority will be watching you to make sure you are complying with load regulation—and with my full blessing and support, by the way.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our national highways are quickly becoming a source of national pride. A modern road network is being formed before our eyes that will benefit every Fijian. It will create opportunities here in the North and everywhere else. It will support our export industries. And it will put money in the pockets of just about every person in the country. All anyone has to do is take advantage of what is here.
I would like to thank all those who have made this highway a reality:
• The Fiji Roads Authority, which, as you know, managed this project;
• The Exim Bank of China, which provided the financing for this project;
• The contractor, China Railway 1st Group, which did the construction work;
• And, of course, all the people who worked long and hard to make this life-giving artery a reality.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it now gives me great pleasure to declare this new section of the Nabouwalu –Dreketi Road open.
Vinaka Vakalevu, thank you and I wish you all a very happy
and prosperous 2016.