Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

Today, we embark on another major project to redevelop and enhance the beauty and status of easily the most important part of Suva – Albert Park and its surroundings.
It is truly the jewel in the crown of our capital – this great expanse of green bounded by our nation’s two most iconic buildings – Government Buildings and our Parliament – the seat of our democracy – and the very grand Grand Pacific Hotel.

For more than 130 years, Albert Park – which is named after Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert – has been the social and ceremonial hub of Suva.

It’s always been a sporting venue. In fact the Suva Cricket Club was established here in 1884. It has also been a place of happiness and celebration – the site of the Hibiscus Festival that has brought our capital alive every year since 1956. And it has been the scene of many of the great events in our history – events that have helped define us as a nation.

In 1928, the trees at the northern end of the Park had to be cut down to allow for the landing of the Southern Cross – the plane piloted by the great Australian aviator, Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who made the first Trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia.

In 1953, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake surged over the seawall and Albert Park was filled with fish.

And on a sunny morning on October the 10th, 1970, older Fijians will remember being here as our “noble banner blue” was hoisted for the first time to mark our Independence from Britain and the birth of our new nation.

Over the years, some of the most famous faces in the world have also gazed out over this Park, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And most recently, the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who paid us the great compliment last November of not only visiting Fiji but visiting Suva.

India is the world’s biggest democracy and an emerging power that deserves a bigger role in global affairs. Which is why Fiji intends to support India in its bid to become a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council.

But I also found Prime Minister Modi to be great company. And the “selfie” I took of us on the lawns of the GPH was re-tweeted by him and seen by many millions in India and around the world.

So many events. So many happy memories. And every Fijian who has ever visited this place and its surroundings will have them.

Albert Park has a place in everyone’s heart. So I’m especially delighted to be here this morning to cement its place in our national life even further. To conduct the ground-breaking ceremony to begin work on upgrading this great icon of our city – loved by so many –to make it even more worthy of the pride we all share in it.

Frankly, it is about time. Because as much as we all love it, Albert Park is well overdue for a make-over. Over the years, the Suva City Council has struggled to cope with drainage problems and occasional flooding. It’s something that no-one who ever has been to the Hibiscus Festival after heavy rain, will ever forget. But all that trudging through the mud was not only the bane of every mother’s existence at Festival time. It regularly damaged the surface of the park and affected our ability to use it.

Anyone who’s played rugby here will know that for far too many years, Albert Park has either been a mud bath or so hard and uneven that injuries have been almost inevitable. Indeed many of our veteran players have called this place “The House of Pain”. It simply wasn’t worthy of our great city. So something had to be done and my Government has done it.

We have contributed $10-million this year to the total cost of the upgrade of $16.7-million. And when it’s finished, we can be sure that the “House of Pain” will become perhaps not the House of Pleasure but certainly a world-class surface worthy of the growing stature of Fiji as a sporting nation. And a world class surface on which to hold our grand ceremonies of state, such as the splendid Military Parade that always marks Fiji Day.

My Fellow Fijians,
This redevelopment includes four rugby or soccer grounds, two cricket fields with artificial pitches and modern lighting. But the biggest improvement includes a new grandstand with a seating capacity for 1,000 people, corporate lounges, VIP rooms, seats for the disabled, a control room and parking for 28 vehicles.

This grandstand will be at the Thurston Gardens side of the park. Opposite Government Buildings not next to it and giving a full view of the new Parliament. The look will be cleaner and more sympathetic with the overall aesthetics of this great, green square at the centre of our capital and of our national life.

By the time this project is expected to be completed, which is in the middle of next year, and we gather again to cut the ribbon, Suva will have a state of the art facility every Fijian can be proud of. And we will have completed the grand plan to revitalize this heart of our capital – the Albert Park renovation following that of Government Buildings and the Grand Pacific Hotel.

An area that was once decidedly shabby and something of a national embarrassment – especially the GPH before its upgrade – will once again shine brightly as the jewel in the crown of our capital. The jewel in the crown of our nation.

In closing, I want to thank the Suva City Council and their consultants led by HLK Jacob Limited, the contractors Yanjian Group (Fiji) Limited and Heritage (Fiji) Limited. And to wish them every success as they work to complete this project of truly national significance.

Vinaka vakalevu, Thank you.