Bula vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.
I’m very pleased to be here in the Sugar City to formally open the refurbishment of the Legal Aid Commission’s Office in Lautoka – the latest in a series of facilities we have opened across the country to give the Fijian people better access to the justice system.
As you all know, this office has been open for some time. But before this refurbishment, limited space meant that there was no privacy for those seeking legal advice. Sensitive and difficult discussions had to take place in front of the entire room, which was usually over-crowded to begin with.
That’s now a thing of the past. Having acquired additional office space, the Legal Aid Commission has completely redesigned the whole office to build a proper waiting room and separate interview rooms where clients can meet with their solicitors in private.
For all intents and purposes, it is a totally new facility and the opportunity to officially launch it gives me yet another chance to urge ordinary Fijians to take advantage of this vital service we are providing for them.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Never before have low-income earners in Fiji had a better opportunity to get the best legal advice than through this initiative of my Government.
Every Fijian with an income of $15,000 or less can now get free legal assistance through these Offices dotted around the country. No longer do you have to worry about the cost of paying a commercial lawyer if you have a legal problem. No longer do you have to be scared or intimidated by the justice system.
For no cost at all – if you meet the means test we have set – you can defend yourself against a criminal charge. You can deal with family law matters, such as custody of children or enforcing maintenance payments. You can get a Will drafted to leave your possessions to your loved ones. You can take out letters of administration or get help with probate matters and FNPF withdrawals.
As I’ve also said before, I think giving the most vulnerable people in Fijian society better access to the law is just as important as giving them access to free schooling or free medicine.
We do all of this as a Government because we serve ordinary Fijians and we care. Mine is a caring Government. We are determined not to allow low-income earners, single parents, the elderly and those with disabilities to miss out on the privileges that others take for granted.
So I again urge everyone who needs a lawyer and qualifies under this program to use it.
We set aside a record $4.4 million last year for the Legal Aid Commission – the largest allocation for legal aid in Fijian history – and we have made the same amount available in 2015. This was up from only $800,000 in 2012. So no one can doubt our commitment to this program. Nor our determination to keep helping those Fijians who need our assistance most.
We believe in substantive justice for every Fijian – no matter who they are or where they come from. And we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk.
My fellow Fijians, on the question of justice, elements of the Opposition seem more interested in undoing the justice that has already been dispensed, than getting justice for ordinary people who really need it.
I think many people share my dismay at the Opposition’s attempt in the Parliament last week to draw attention to the sentences that have already been imposed on George Speight and the other perpetrators of the outrages of 2000.
I think we are all wondering why the Opposition Leader, Ro Teimumu Kepa, used our new Parliament – the cornerstone of our new democracy – to resurrect some of the skeletons of our past.
I personally think she owes us all an explanation as to why she is so concerned about George Speight. Is it because she sympathised or supported his treasonous actions? Because we have still not got a satisfactory explanation from her as to why she visited him at the Parliamentary complex during this most traumatic event.
We’ve all seen the pictures. There she is with this treasonous thug. Consorting with people who had brought Fiji to its knees in one of the most violent and destructive chapters in our history.
In the building behind her, the democratically-elected Government was being held hostage. And yet, she was happy to be seen with George Speight with his arm around her.
And why now use only the third Parliamentary session we have had in our new democracy to question the fate of this person? Someone who grievously damaged our nation and economy and ruined the lives of thousands of Fijians.
She says it was in the national interest for her to do so. But whose interests do these questions really serve? Not the nation’s. Not Fiji’s. It is to serve her own interests and the interests of those around her – the people on the side of George Speight.
The truth is that with one phone call to any reputable lawyer Ro Teimumu could have easily found out the answer to her question about George Speight’s sentence.
Speight was sentenced to death. But his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. That life sentence means life. Because having been sentenced to death in the first place, that life sentence cannot be commuted any further.
George Speight is to spend the rest of his life behind bars. And Ro Teimumu Kepa knows it. She knew it then. She knew it last week when she asked this question. And she knows the answer now.
So why raise this issue and something that cannot be altered under the law? The Opposition Leader needs to explain herself a lot better than she has thus far.
At the very least, this is yet another example of an Opposition that constantly looks backwards – raking over the coals of the past – rather than looking forwards like the Government does. To the wonderful opportunities that await our people if we turn our backs on the past and embrace our united future.
So again I ask: Why revisit the events of 2000? It is now almost 15 years ago and many young Fijians have no memory of it. The truth is that these people are constantly looking over their shoulders. They still can’t seem to believe, for instance, that the Fijian people decisively rejected their message of division and hatred at the election last September.
If they had any self-awareness at all, they would know that the Fijian people don’t want any more hatred and division. That is all in the past. They want an inclusive future for everyone and the hope of better days for themselves and our nation.
The FijiFirst Government is giving them that inclusiveness and hope. And the evidence is all around us, reinforced by a facility like this that gives ordinary Fijians access to justice. And hope that when they find themselves before the law, the Government is there to help them.
George Speight has had his justice. I’m not interested in him. I’m interested in ordinary Fijians on low incomes getting justice when they get their day in court or have some other legal problem.
My fellow Fijians, this same Opposition trait of constantly looking over their shoulders applies to the debate about our national flag.
Ro Teimumu Kepa and those around her want Fijian young people to cast their eyes upwards at a flag that carries the symbols of our colonial past – the Union Flag and the Colonial Coat of Arms.
Whereas I want them to gaze upwards with patriotism and pride at a flag that contains indigenous and Fijian symbols. A flag that represents Fiji as a modern and thriving nation state – a Fiji moving forward with unity and confidence.
We honour our history and our past. But the symbols of the British are not those of our future, especially 45 years after Independence, when most Fijians weren’t even born.
Our national competition for a new flag is designed to fire the imaginations of every citizen – and especially our young people – to come up with a design that we can all relate to as Fijians.
Whereas the Opposition wants us to relate to symbols that are outdated and no longer relevant – symbols that belong to our colonial past, not the future we are building together.
So my fellow Fijians, let’s all fix our eyes on the future – our vision of a clever country in which our young people grow up with more opportunities than any other Fijian in history.
Our education revolution is delivering that future. A future in which Fijian workers are prized the world over. A future in which Fijian-made goods and services are a byword for quality and consistency.
We enjoy a level of respect in the world that is also unprecedented in our history. Last night and today, we are hosting the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates – one of the world’s most dynamic economies.
From a desert, one or two generations ago, the people of the United Arab Emirates have built a nation that is the envy of the world. They have, for instance, built one of the world’s great airlines and they are helping to lead the search for renewable energy sources to produce a cleaner and greener world. In fact, they are providing solar power projects to light up some of Fiji’s outer islands – Kadavu, Lakeba and Rotuma.
Sheikh Abdullah’s visit follows closely on the heels of those of the Presidents of China and Indonesia and the Prime Minister of India. We Pacific Islanders no longer only go to them. They also come to us as honoured guests. So who can doubt that Fiji stands taller and prouder in the world today than it ever has before?
When these great Leaders arrive here on our shores, I want them to stand before a flag that is wholly ours. That is a symbol of our nation, not someone else’s.
While our political opponents continually summon up the past, the FijiFirst Government has its eyes firmly on the future. We know that greatness lies over the horizon if we maintain the course we have set – One Fiji with opportunity and justice for all.
With this Office and those like it around the country, we have turned promises into deeds. So I urge every Fijian who qualifies for the services here to use them and to share in our vision of better days ahead for everyone.
My fellow Fijians, I now have great pleasure to officially declare the Lautoka Legal Aid Commission Office open.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.