The nation is being treated to a fresh round of finger pointing this weekend as both sides of politics react to the warning by the Governor of the Reserve Bank that Fiji is in for a challenging year as the economy loses some of the momentum of the post-Covid recovery.
It was as certain as night follows day that the FijiFirst opposition would seize on Ariff Ali’s statement to accuse the government of mismanagement. That’s what oppositions do. Or what they are supposed to do – put the heat on the government of the day on behalf of the nation to improve its performance. Yet no sooner did FijiFirst do what we pay it to do than the Minister for Finance, Biman Prasad, went into attack mode about its own record in government, as if raking over the coals is going to do anything at all to protect Fiji from the storm clouds the Reserve Bank says are gathering.
We don’t need a Punch and Judy show between the Coalition and FijiFirst over the economy. We need to be certain that the country’s economic management is in the best of hands to weather the coming slowdown. And that is by no means certain when Biman Prasad seems more anxious to play politics than explain to the Fijian people precisely what he intends to do to minimise the negative impact of that slowdown on living standards.
What we’re seeing instead is a rerun of what has become a very tedious narrative – the old Charles Atlas “my economic muscles are bigger than yours” routine between Biman Prasad and Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum that dominated the election lead-up and that Biman Prasad is continuing with Khaiyum’s surrogate – Faiyaz Koya. We all know that Koya is a ventriloquist’s dummy and that every word uttered by him on the economy comes from Aiyaz. Which is why this latest war of words is so pointless and depressing for anyone looking for genuine answers about the way forward.
The Fiji Times reinforces its role as Coalition lapdog in the same way that the Fiji Sun was FijiFirst’s lapdog with a front page today that gives Biman Prasad a free kick to try to swing the focus back on the previous government’s economic record. When he urges FijiFirst to play a more constructive role in opposition, what he really means is “try harder, Aiyaz, to see how brilliant I am compared with you at managing the economy”. When the truth is that neither of them are Charles Atlas and Biman Prasad is showing no more ability to get on top of Fiji’s multiple challenges than his predecessor.
The fact that Fiji’s national debt has actually increased under the Coalition from $9-billion to a projected $10.5-billion tells us that we are still continuing as a nation to live beyond our means. The Coalition owed it to us all to use the goodwill that accompanied its election victory to make the hard decisions – to warn that the debt binge could not continue and tighten the national belt with cuts in government spending. They needed to both preach austerity and lead by example with an austere approach to governing.
What has happened instead? Not a program of “back to basics” and cuts to everything but essentials like health, education and the police but the same orgy of spending as its predecessor. It took almost a year for the Prime Minister to reduce the $3000 plus a day overseas travel allowance of his predecessor. And the nation has been shocked at the amount of time Coalition ministers have spent gadding around the world while conditions at home show no sign of improvement, whether it is the appalling conditions in our hospitals or the self-indulgent antics in the education ministry.
As Grubsheet quoted a PAP supporter in our last post, the Coalition is good at boasting about how much better it is than FijiFirst but is chronically unable to deliver – to implement its policies. And its year in government has been marked less by solid achievement than a series of damaging distractions of which the Lynda Tabuya-Aseri Radrodro sex and drug scandal is just the latest.
There is an old truism in politics that governments that can’t govern themselves have no hope of being able to govern a country. And close to 14 months into its term, the Coalition partners are still fighting over the spoils of office, still obsessed with internecine warfare and their own interests rather than the national interest. SODELPA is still insisting that it be given plum jobs it says were a precondition for joining for the government. And not a week goes by without the media reporting Coalition tensions or leadership speculation. It is a government of navel gazers, not of men and women of vision and resolute action.
Soon after it took office, the Coalition’s lapdog, the Fiji Times, trumpeted the return of the Tebbutt opinion poll and gave lavish coverage to the Coalition’s popularity with the public. What has happened to the Tebbutt poll? We certainly haven’t seen it recently. Which almost certainly means that the government’s stocks have gone into free-fall and the Fiji Times can’t bring itself to face the fact. (Prove me wrong, Fred.)
This government’s obsession with spin is no different to the last, which undoubtedly accounts for the way in which the Reserve Bank Governor’s comments on a slowing economy burst like a thunderclap at the end of last week. It came out of left field with no warning at all from him or anyone else. And certainly not from Biman Prasad, who is no different from Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum in giving grim reality a rosy spin. Where were the warnings from the Finance Minister that 2024 was going to be “challenging”? There weren’t any. Which is why Ariff Ali’s statement has been greeted with such surprise, even shock.
Once again, Biman Prasad has sunk to the occasion when he could have risen to it. Instead of patiently explaining how the government plans to deal with any correction and what it will all mean for the average Fijian, he dodges the opportunity to show real leadership and with the assistance of his media lapdog, makes it all about the opposition. A history lesson from the Professor and gratuitous advice to be more positive. Er, Biman, you have been in charge of the economy for the past 13 months. So the buck stops with you, not them.
The NFP leader has been a big disappointment across the board – missing in action during the “vulagi” debate in which the right of non-indigenous Fijians to belong was being fundamentally questioned; missing in action as the workplace ethnic cleansing in the civil service and offices of state continues apace; missing in action during the outrageous assault on the rule of law in which the Fiji Law Society alone has had to fight the illegal appointments of the Acting DPP and a Supreme Court judge; and now a blame game about the state of the economy.
What good is the NFP if they won’t keep the other bastards honest? That’s the burning question a great many NFP supporters have been asking themselves and the answer for most is “no bloody good at all”. Which is why the oldest political party in Fiji is going to be decimated whenever the next election is held and the Professor propelled from politics altogether, giving us lectures to the last breath but dodging what really matters to those who put him there.