The Honourable Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific,
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
The President of the Australia Fiji Business Council,
The President of the Fiji Australia Business Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
In this room today are the men and women who power one of Fiji’s most important trading relationships – one that is critical to our national prosperity and economic wellbeing.
So after nine years in which I couldn’t attend an Australia-Fiji Business Forum in Australia because I was banned from the country, I’m delighted to finally be able to address you here and meet you face to face. And to be in the beautiful city of Sydney – home to the majority of the Fijians in Australia – Australia having the largest group of the Fijian diaspora in the world.
I’m also delighted to meet Australia’s new Minister for the Pacific, the Honourable Steve Ciobo (Chi-obo) and look forward to building a strong relationship with him. But I want to start in the customary way by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we gather this morning – the Guringai people – and pay respects to their elders, past and present.
We recognise their struggle and the injustice of their dispossession – something our own indigenous people were fortunate to not experience. But there is also no doubt about the special nature of the relationship between Fijians and Australians of every background. And that is also something worth celebrating today.
Whatever the strains between our governments over the years, our people-to-people ties have remained strong.
Visitor numbers to Fiji from Australia continued to be buoyant during our political estrangement and have now reached record levels – just under 350,000 last year.
Fijians also appreciate Australians. Their warmth, their honesty, their lack of pretension, their generosity of spirit. And their constant willingness to extend the hand of friendship to their neighbours, especially in times of crisis.
Speaking personally, when I was cast as a pariah by the Australian Government after the events of 2006, ordinary Australians would still come up to me in Fiji and shake my hand.
Some would even say “Good onya Frank”.
Because I think that having seen for themselves the situation in Fiji, they often had a better understanding than Australian diplomats, bureaucrats and the Australian media of what we were trying to do.
To fundamentally alter the political, social and economic landscape for the better. And to produce a more equal, just and fairer nation for every Fijian.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I intend to concentrate on looking forward today rather than rake over the events of the past. But I do want to say this: It is a great shame that Australia and New Zealand – our traditional friends – turned their backs on us when we set out to substitute a flawed democracy in Fiji with a proper one like theirs.
To sabotage our efforts to create the first genuine democracy in Fiji of equal votes of equal value – a democracy based on the legal and moral basis of a common and equal citizenry.
I personally will never understand why they couldn’t understand that Fiji simply couldn’t go on being a nation in which some of its citizens enjoyed more rights and privileges than others.
Couldn’t go on with a situation in which the votes of some citizens were worth more than others.
A nation made to be divided along ethnic lines in which people were categorised by their race and ethnicity.
With certain elites entrenched at the expense of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. Where merit was shunned and cronyism thrived.
It was certainly something no Australian or New Zealander would ever have accepted in their own country yet their governments tried to enforce it on ours.
I also can’t help wondering how things might have been different if Australia and New Zealand hadn’t tried to destroy us with their sanctions, travel bans and their diplomatic offensive to damage Fiji’s interests the world over.
How much sooner we might have been able to return Fiji to parliamentary rule if we hadn’t expended so much effort on simply surviving. If you had been more understanding. More engaged. Been able to recognise that defending the status quo in Fiji was indefensible, intellectually and morally. Contrary to the fundamental principle of any democracy – the right of every citizen to enjoy equal opportunity and equal access to substantive justice.
All this simply didn’t exist in Fiji before the revolution we embarked on in 2006. But it does now.
Under the revised Constitution we adopted two years ago, which also includes a Bill of Rights guaranteeing the Fijian people a range of civil, political, social and economic rights they had also never enjoyed before.
It is now a matter of historical record that based on the 2013 Constitution, we proceeded to the election that I had always promised in September 2014.
An election declared free and credible by an international monitoring force of some 20 nations co-led by Australia, India and Indonesia.
I know there was widespread surprise in official circles in Australia and New Zealand when the Fijian people endorsed our revolution and our new Constitution by giving my FijiFirst political movement 60 per cent of the vote under the proportional representation system.
But it came as no surprise to me or to most Fijian voters. Because not only had my Government created a fairer, more equal and more just society.
We’d tackled, head on, the scourge of systemic corruption and the task of reversing decades of neglect – the lost years we spent decaying as a nation rather than improving the position of everyone and growing our economy.
For the first time, we provided free schooling for our children, plus scholarships and tertiary loans to open up opportunities for higher education and improve our skills base.
We began investing hundreds of millions of dollars in our infrastructure.
Better Roads, more efficient wharves, better airports. Better telecommunications.
Connectivity with water and electricity.
We put in place an economic framework with consistent polices.
All those building blocks a modern economy needs to encourage growth and investment and confidence.
So when the Fijian people came to choose a government, they chose us. Because we deliver. We serve. We have created more opportunities for ordinary Fijians than ever before. And we will continue to do so for as long as we hold the trust of the people.
Honourable Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, as you all know, Fiji used the period of our estrangement to develop other relationships.
We’ve reached out to the world and the world has responded. But it is now time for Fiji and Australia to also reach out fully to each other again at an official level.
For our governments to rekindle the warmth of our old relationship and match the unshakeable relationship between our peoples.
Fiji seeks a new relationship with Australia – a reinvigorated partnership based on mutual respect and friendship.
Letting bygones be bygones.
Building an atmosphere of confidence, cooperation and trust.
And working more closely together than ever before on both our bilateral relationship and our cooperation across a broad front in the region and the world.
In terms of the existing regional architecture, we have our differences.
Fiji will continue to press for Australia and New Zealand to step back from the main table at the Pacific Islands Forum and allow the island nations to determine their own agendas.
We also have a fundamentally opposing view of what needs to be done to reduce the carbon emissions that are causing global warming and the rise in sea levels and extreme weather events that pose such a serious threat to Pacific island nations.
We still aren’t satisfied with the Pacer Plus Agreement.
One cannot negotiate such an agreement let alone sign it when the fundamental premise of the proposed agreement fails to take into account the realities of the economies of small island developing states.
Such an agreement must recognize the power differentials and the economic capacities between countries such as Australia and New Zealand on the one hand, and on the other, Pacific Island states that lack comparative economic sophistication and strength.
There must be understanding if any such agreement is to be successful.
We are still irritated by certain impediments to trade such as the Australian ban on imports of Fijian kava.
Yet none of this should be an impediment to a higher and more friendly level of engagement between us and better relations generally.
Minister, I have been gratified by your appointment last month with specific responsibility for the Pacific. And see it as a clear sign of a renewed commitment by the Turnbull Government to give the island nations a higher priority.
I also welcome your public comments expressing a very strong desire to continue strengthening Australia’s relationship with its island neighbours.
I have been struck in my meetings with your Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, with the transformation in the tenor of our relationship to a much more positive note.
And from my perspective and that of the Fijian Government as a whole, you can be sure that we will match that commitment to a better relationship with sincerity and good faith.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I especially appeal to the business communities of both countries to ramp up your own activities as part of this wider engagement.
Because you are the principal economic drivers of our relationship, the principal drivers of the employment on which the prosperity of the Fijian people depends. Australian business people trading and investing in Fiji and of course making handsome profits.
Fijian business people trading and investing in Australia.
And since my Government changed the laws to allow dual citizenship, an increasing number of Australian-Fijians as well.
The climate to do so has never been better – the longest running period of economic growth in Fijian history.
And an annual growth rate of 5.3 per cent last year that eclipses that of Australia and New Zealand and many other developed countries.
Fiji is very much open for business, with one of the lowest corporate and personal tax regimes in the region; a range of incentives including zero tax for investments in certain parts of the country; the modernization and upgrading of financial standards and standards of compliance to international best practice; plus a whole range of positive reforms that are making the process of doing business in Fiji easier and more attractive.
Including the removal of red tape and a seamless entry into the Fijian market by streamlining the approval process through the various ministries and regulatory authorities.
We are continuously seeking to improve in this area.
Recently, we launched an Online Single Window Clearance System to speed up the investment process.
This Internet-based gateway allows any investor anywhere in the world to get your approvals from the critical agencies of the Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority, the Reserve Bank, Investment Fiji and the Registrar of Companies.
Once you get to Fiji, you will find a young, talented, educated and English-speaking workforce. Perfect for the development of call centres and the IT industry generally, which we are especially keen to attract.
You will be able to import capital equipment and capital goods duty-free, as well as inputs for manufacturing.
You will enjoy the lowest corporate taxes in the region – a flat rate of 20 per cent, with a reduction to 17 per cent for companies that base their international or regional headquarters in Fiji.
Companies listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange pay a tax rate of only 10 per cent.
You can take advantage of preferential trading arrangements with other Pacific Island nations as well as Australia, New Zealand and others.
And as mentioned you will enjoy tax-free status for 13 years if you invest in certain targeted regions of the country.
All this makes it highly attractive for those of you who are still to enter our market to be part of Brand Fiji – the quality array of goods and services we are already taking to the world and intend to expand significantly in the years ahead.
Talk to our people at Investment Fiji and they’ll be able to explain the opportunities more fully.
Our main precondition for any development being given the green light is that the preservation of our pristine environment must always come first.
The national Green Growth Framework we adopted earlier this year precludes any development that threatens the sustainable use of our resources on land and at sea.
And we will not compromise on this – unlike some countries in the region – even at the cost of forgoing big dollars in revenue.
A clean, green Fiji is non-negotiable. And in a world in which our natural heritage is increasingly under threat, we make no apologies for this and, indeed, regard it as a far superior investment.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our reforms are a work in progress and I am the first to concede that we have a long way to go.
But there is no doubting our commitment, including a major overhaul of the Civil Service to put the service back into our public sector.
You may have noticed that we have thrown open our top positions – those of permanent secretaries – to outside candidates, including Australians.
It is all part of a comprehensive program – working with the World Bank – to overhaul the top-down, excessively hierarchical and bureaucratic public service model we inherited from the British. Establish more meritocracies.
Attract high flyers from the private sector.
And open up career paths for younger people with enthusiasm and fresh ideas.
Our overall strategy is to develop international best practice across the full spectrum of government.
Whether it is in the industrial relations sphere by complying with the core ILO Conventions, as we have done recently; combating transnational crime such as drug trafficking and money laundering by working closely with agencies like the Australian Federal Police.
And, of course, refining and improving the process of doing business in Fiji, just four hours or so from Australia by air and already the true hub of the Pacific.
The “go to place” for investment. The “go from” place for exports to Australia and the rest of the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to close by thanking you all – on behalf of the Fijian Government and the Fijian people – for your efforts to strengthen the most important trading relationship Fiji has with any nation – a flow of goods and services worth more than $3-billion Fijian a year.
As you know, Australia is also the biggest foreign investor in Fiji and the biggest aid donor – some $88-million Fijian in 2015-16.
And I ask you, Minister, to again convey our thanks to the Australian Government and the Australian people for that assistance, which is deeply appreciated.
Let me also remind you that you will be spending Australian tax payers dollars lot more wisely if your aid is complimentary and in conjunction with the Fijian government’s development plans and focus. You will get better results and be able to help lot more ordinary Fijians.
After all, my Government does not believe in hand-outs but leg ups. The idea is that we eventually stop being aid dependent.
Thank you for the opportunity to address you all this morning.
I can’t help thinking how times have changed.
The so called “pariah” is now a welcome guest and is able to parade along the Manly Esplanade with the surfers and the seagulls.
I’m very glad to be here with you in Sydney and look forward to meeting as many of you as possible.