The great cigar-chomping American comedian, George Burns – with the wisdom of someone who lived to 100 – once said something that applies to the Fijian civil service as much as it does to far too many bureaucracies the world over: “Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair”. Add to that in the Fijian context getting a job with another regional government or NGO, starting a business or going back to the teitei to plant cassava.
The Burns quip has particular resonance as I gaze down ruefully at a list in front of me of all the permanent secretaries who have passed through the ranks of the civil service in Fiji since Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum came to power in 2006. On reflection, there was really nothing permanent about any of them in the traditional sense of being above politics and being able to survive changes of government to ensure continuity in the running of the state. In one way or another – having fallen foul of their political masters – they went through the revolving door of government one by one and back onto the street.
Indeed, it is striking, for such a small country, the large army of those who have been either sacked, asked to resign, been taken ill, transferred elsewhere in government or simply been undermined or cold shouldered long enough for them to get the message and leave. By the tally of a former PS with an elephant memory of the circumstances of their own departure and those this person has witnessed over the years, a startling 57 permanent secretaries have come and gone in the past 14 years.
In the eight years of the dictatorship that preceded the return to parliamentary rule in September 2014, some of this instability might have been expected. The roll call of the fallen to that date numbers some 25. But the return to democracy and the supposed reform of the Public Service Commission a year later – including professional recruitment by external head-hunters – has failed to staunch the Soviet-style bloodletting at the top. 32 permanent secretaries – by this tally – have gone in the six years since the election in 2014. And even taking into account a slight margin of error in the counting, it’s an astonishing figure.
In recent times, the fallen have included the Permanent Secretary for Health and Medical Services, Bernadette Welch, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Permanent Secretary for Education, Alison Burchell, in the midst of a period of intense reform in our schools. These people exist to serve the public – as the name implies – yet the public is not party to the manner in which their servants are unceremoniously and ruthlessly dispensed with when they fall foul of the leadership.
The departures of these two highly qualified and respected professionals – Burchell in January and Welch in June – were cast in the official announcements and subsequent media coverage as them leaving of their own volition. But this was far from the full story. Both women were forced out of the civil service prematurely by a capricious government and its capricious driving force, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, the Attorney General and “minister for everything”, including the civil service. And they are just the latest in a conga line of former senior public servants who’ve left – in the euphemistic words of the public statements that mark their departures – “to pursue other interests/opportunities” or “retire”, having been skewered by the AG, with the concurrence of the PM, through a supposedly independent process they control like everything else.
Just as permanent secretaries aren’t genuinely permanent, the Public Service Commission isn’t genuinely independent. It hires and fires permanent secretaries but can’t say “no” under the establishing legislation if the government wants a PS gone. When the PSC Chairman – the respected retired ANZ banker, Vishnu Mohan – gets the call that the leadership has lost confidence in a particular individual, he is obliged to execute their wishes. This isn’t exclusive to Fiji. With any change of government elsewhere, including Australia and New Zealand, a clutch of top civil servants are customarily shown the door as incoming politicians assert their authority. Yet in few places other than Fiji have permanent secretaries proven to be so temporary between elections and so subject to personal whim.
Even the Civil Service’s brightest stars such as Bernadette Welch – its former PS – can suddenly find their light extinguished. And the instability this causes has a decidedly negative impact on internal confidence, morale and standards of governance. The extent of the dysfunction has produced an atmosphere of mounting fear and loathing in senior ranks. So that far from being focussed on service delivery and quality outcomes for the public, permanent secretaries are less inclined to be innovative or decisive than constantly trying to read the political runes and watch their backs.
They know when they see two people of the calibre of Bernadette Welch and Alison Burchell reaching for their revolvers before the official firing squad marches in that none of them are truly safe. Welch and Burchell have declined to comment on the circumstances of their departures beyond what the public has already been told and are unlikely to appreciate being dragged back into the spotlight after they have both left the country. Yet the national interest is clearly served by examining the circumstances of their departures. And it isn’t hard to piece together the bare details from other sources and especially those deeply unhappy at the manner in which their talents have been lost to Fiji.
For her part, Bernadette Welch came from a stellar career as a senior public servant in the Australian Government. She had been Principal Adviser to the Treasury, Head of the Climate Change Division and Head of Operations for the G20 Summit of global leaders that Australia successfully hosted in Brisbane in 2014. It was this experience running a major international event that especially appealed to the AG, who had ambitions for Fiji to become the first Pacific developing country to host the annual meeting of the board of governors of the Asian Development Bank. Welch duly delivered that gathering in May 2019 – the largest ever held in Fiji – when more than 3,000 participants from 76 countries descended on Nadi in a major boost to Fijian prestige and the local economy. It was a highly successful hosting that earned Fiji a great deal of praise. And for a time, Welch was the apple of the AG’s eye for giving him the opportunity to shine in the eyes of his fellow finance ministers plus central bank governors, bankers and delegates from government and the private sector from throughout the Asia-Pacific and around the world. But that favour didn’t last for reasons that are just emerging.
Bernadette Welch’s fall from grace appears to have begun when she moved from being Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Civil Service, responsible to the AG, to Permanent Secretary for Health and Medical Services, where she formed a close working relationship with Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete, her new minister and one of the government’s rising stars. Before she went, Welch is said to have been prevailed upon by the AG to report to him on Waqainabete’s performance without Waqainabete’s knowledge – essentially to spy on a fellow cabinet minister and potential future rival for the leadership. She didn’t do it but was to pay for that defiance in due course.
In my experience, this is not an isolated incident. One of the AG’s principal informants about other ministers and civil servants is Susan Kiran, Bernadette Welch’s replacement as PS Civil Service who also happens to be Secretary to the Cabinet. As such, Kiran wields considerable power behind the scenes and with a ruthlessness that belies her schoolgirl appearance and demeanour. Not only is she close to the AG and uses his authority to keep restive or rebellious civil servants in line, they jointly control what goes before the Prime Minister and his cabinet, she as Civil Service PS and Cabinet Secretary and he as Civil Service Minister and all powerful “minister for everything”.
Every submission the Prime Minister and his colleagues consider in the cabinet room has gone through the filter of the AG and Susan Kiran beforehand, giving them extraordinary power to determine the national agenda. Because it stands to reason that they are also in a position to ensure that anything they don’t want to go before the cabinet doesn’t get there. Anywhere else, one person simultaneously wearing the two hats of civil service PS and cabinet secretary would be seen as a conflict of interest in that any cabinet submission that affects the civil service can either be put forward or withheld. But not in Fiji. In any event, few Fijians realise the power Kiran enjoys with the AG’s patronage, or for that matter, have even heard of her. But she is omnipresent in government as the AG’s enforcer and eyes and ears.
At a New Zealand High Commission function last October after I left government service, I was struck by the fact that Susan Kiran spent the entire evening shadowing the Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, Mere Vuniwaqa. I wondered briefly why this was the case because Kiran is not Vuniwaqa’s PS. That person is Jennifer Poole. But then I remembered an astonishing conversation I’d had with the AG three weeks before in which he’d told me of a plan by a group of government ministers to eventually install Mere Vuniwaqa as Frank Bainimarama’s successor. More on that in a future posting. But such was the bizarre spectacle of Susan Kiran sticking limpet-like to Vuniwaqa that evening that in my own mind, the two events were undoubtedly connected. The only plausible explanation was that Kiran was monitoring conversations Vuniwaqa might have been having and reporting their contents to the AG.
When Bernadette Welch was evidently told to inform on Ifereimi Waqainabete in much the same manner, she chose not to obey the instruction. Instead, she and the Health Minister forged a notably effective working relationship characterised by a high mutual regard. Together, they are credited with Fiji’s quick and effective response to the Covid-19 threat that has made the country safer than it might have been. Yet the close nature of that professional relationship with her minister appears to have been Welch’s undoing. And Dr Waqainabete appears to have been powerless to prevent her departure.
Few Fijians are aware of the split that has emerged in the cabinet since the debacle of the last election, regrettably along ethnic lines, with iTaukei ministers on one side and the AG and his team of Indo-Fijian MPs on the other. This has multiple ramifications – none of them positive – that we’ll examine in detail in a future posting. Yet when ministers are divided, it stands to reason that their permanent secretaries can get caught in the middle and that’s where Bernadette Welch appears to have found herself. Reared in the traditions of the Australian Public Service, she would undoubtedly have seen it as her principal duty as a permanent secretary to work to her designated minister, Dr Waqainabete. But that’s not how it happens in Fiji. Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has total control of the civil service as its minister and ostensible number two in the government. And with his notorious propensity to project his influence way beyond his own portfolios, he appears to have expected as a matter of course that Bernadette Welch would owe her allegiance to him even though Waqainabete was her line minister.
The ultimate trigger for Welch’s departure was reportedly Covid-related. Grubsheet understands that when she produced an internal report on border closures that the AG and his protégé at Fiji Airways, Shaenaz Voss, thought was too restrictive, an alternative report was commissioned from Shaheen Ali, the Permanent Secretary for Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport, who also sits on the Fiji Airways board. But evidently no-one told Welch, who had prioritised public health considerations ahead of tourism or the fortunes of the national airline in any decisions about border openings. Feeling undermined and realising that she had lost the AG’s confidence, Welch decided to cut short the many months still to run on her contract. As one close friend puts it: “She didn’t need that shit”.
There was general dismay among her colleagues, diplomats and NGOs at her departure in the middle of the Covid pandemic but Welch had ultimately come to the view that her position was untenable and it was time to move on. So the announcement was made that she had “retired”. A popular figure in Suva with her colleagues, staff and the wider community, Welch was treated to an unusually large number of farewells and presentations, including a reception at the Australian High Commission that was taken as an official vote of confidence by her own country, at least, that she had performed her duties in Fiji to the highest standard. It was certainly in stark contrast to the cold shoulder she received from the man who Welch had made to look good in the eyes of his regional peers at the ADB governors meeting only a year before.
In the case of Alison Burchell, she once also enjoyed the AG’s favour in her former position of Permanent Secretary for Youth and Sports for fixing the operations and insisting on better accountability for the public spend. And he continued that support for a time when she was transferred to the larger Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts. Burchell’s problems began when the AG installed one of his political creations, Rosy Akbar, as Education Minister. While Burchell saw it as her principal task to press ahead with implementing the reforms in education that the AG himself had championed during his own period as acting minister, she evidently displayed more zeal than Rosy Akbar was comfortable with politically because of the upset the reforms were causing within the system. As their working relationship deteriorated, it was only a matter of time before Burchell entered the revolving door.
The official announcement that Burchell was leaving Fiji “to pursue other interests” was followed by an article in the Fiji Sun – which the AG controls – suggesting that she had a poor relationship with the teacher unions and it had reached the stage where she was only communicating with them in writing. It was a gratuitous attack by the AG’s media lackeys that had no basis in fact. Burchell had been meeting the unions face to face. But the article was clearly designed to deflect public criticism from the AG for allowing Burchell to go days before the start of the school year.
As a fellow South African, Burchell shared the same propensity for plain speaking as the Fiji Airways CEO, Andre Viljoen, that has been notable in his recent candid assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on the airline’s fortunes. She’d developed a reputation within the education sector for calling it as she sees it and this was always bound to ruffle feathers among those doubling down in their resistance to reform and anxious to maintain the status quo. Yet many believe the time for plain speaking about deteriorating standards in the nation’s classrooms is long overdue and for them, Burchell’s blunt assessment of what needed to be done was a refreshing and welcome change.
Her calm, no nonsense approach to running her ministry was vastly at odds with the anxious, sometimes overwrought, flip-flopping of Rosy Akbar, her minister. The former Ba high school teacher is said to be out of her depth and struggling with the immensity of the education challenge. Breaking down resistance to change in such a large bureaucracy requires resolve yet rather than confronting the challenges head on, Akbar appears to have been spooked by the adverse reaction to policy changes her own government had already endorsed. Having been asked to deliver fundamental reforms in education, Alison Burchell appears to have taken the AG at his word when the prevailing instinct after the government’s near loss at the last election had turned to caution. It is not without irony that the person who replaced Burchell as Acting PS Education is Susan Kiran and that she too is said to be struggling with Rosy Akbar. As the French say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, they more they remain the same. But with Alison Burchell’s departure, the Fijian public lost another competent and dedicated servant.
So in the space of a mere six months this year, Fiji – like a rugby team that dispenses with its best players – lost two of its most respected overseas-recruited permanent secretaries, along with two locals who also resigned, Craig Strong from Fisheries and Maritino Nemani from Youth and Sports. Like national rugby teams that bring in players from outside, countries need the best players they can recruit to turbocharge the performance of government and improve service delivery. Yet there has always been a degree of local resentment about foreigners allegedly taking jobs that can be filled by Fijians without any real appreciation of their specialised knowledge or accumulated experience that Fijians may not be able to match and their ability to mentor Fijians to eventually take over. The net result of losing people of the calibre of Welch and Burchell isn’t just the loss of their services but the inevitability that other talented foreigners will be deterred from taking up positions in Fiji. But perhaps Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has changed his view about engaging outsiders in the first place. For a start, his own brilliance isn’t as immediately obvious to them as it is to him and the circle of enablers around him. And they will invariably have come from places where questioning decisions is actively encouraged because it produces better decisions, as opposed to the toadying and forelock-tugging subservience that has become the prevailing civil service culture in Fiji.
Fiji inherited the British tradition of senior public servants being supposedly apolitical and surviving their political masters when they leave office to faithfully serve those who have unseated them at the next general election. The idea is that democracies have continuity and expertise in the running of their affairs and orderly transfers of power. So that while elected politicians have their hands on the levers of power for the duration for their terms in office, civil servants are the cogs in the machinery of government who keep it ticking over. It’s the politicians that are meant to come and go, not their civil servants. That’s the theory at least. Yet with 14 years in power – six of them under parliamentary rule – political dominance and sheer longevity has given the AG and the PM the ability to turn the traditional manner of doing things on its head.
When it is decided that someone is past their use-by date, they are at first treated, and seen to be treated, like the walking dead. It’s a traumatic process for the individual involved because in Fiji, permanent secretaries have traditionally been regarded as close to God. They expect deference and they receive it. Their staff speak when they are asked to speak. They are routinely garlanded, make speeches and cut ribbons. They are ferried around in shiny late model Toyota Prados with blackened windows, with drivers who open their doors and staff who carry their briefcases and papers. But all of a sudden, they will become aware of phone calls not returned, formal invitations not received and looks of discomfort or pity when their eyes meet others in the corridors. And then the axe will fall – the walking dead suddenly tombstones in the vast graveyard of their departed predecessors. Having returned their vehicles and phones and surrendered their treasured title, the Public Service Commission moves in to clean up the mess, finds an already overworked fill-in and commissions the head-hunters to begin the process of locating another “temporary secretary” better able to meet with the leadership’s approval. (See the link in the comments section below if you are interested in filling one of the vacancies left by Welch and Burchell). As terminations go, it rarely gets more brutal. And the lesson isn’t lost on the survivors.
One of the longest serving permanent secretaries is the aforementioned Shaheen Ali, who has chalked up a remarkable nine years at the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport. He survives not only because he is competent and enjoys the confidence of the leadership but because he makes no secret of his political allegiance. In the lead-up to the 2018 election, Shaheen Ali openly praised the FijiFirst Party on social media and criticised the opposition. Which means that for all his skills, his position in any change of government is untenable and his survival is totally linked to FijiFirst’s survival. In the traditions of the civil service, it is not the way it should be. A remarkable double standard also applies to permanent secretaries who enjoy a more intimate relationship with the leadership and those who don’t. Take the case of Joshua Wycliffe, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, who has – how shall I put it – survived a “complication” in the crossover between his personal and professional life that was not extended to an iTaukei permanent secretary in the same position. Can it really be that there is one rule for those who curry favour with the leadership and another for those who do their jobs and fulfil their obligation to remain impartial? Well, yes. Because that’s what happens when any civil service is politicised and impartiality goes out the window.
As the economy disintegrates, the atmosphere of fear and loathing has intensified and especially in the Ministry of Economy, the epicentre of the crisis. It doesn’t take an insider to tell the Fijian public that the Minister of Economy is under intense strain. It is written all over his face. And in the “kick the cat” atmosphere of any full-blown crisis, emotions are running high. Insiders report unprecedented scenes in which the AG has berated the Permanent Secretary of Economy, the highly regarded Makereta Konrote, for her alleged shortcomings when it’s an open secret that she tried to restrain his profligate spending before the Covid crisis. Had he taken her advice, there may have been something in the kitty to cushion some of the current blows instead of the half billion dollar budget shortfall that preceded the border shutdown and the government’s revenue collapse. It’s yet to be seen if the normally imperturbable Konrote will follow the Ministry’s Head of Climate Change and International Cooperation, Nilesh Prakash, out the door of Ro Lalabalavu House. Prakash told colleagues he’d resigned because he could no longer stand “being yelled at by the AG”. But as the coming months unfold and the pressure mounts, there’s a lot more yelling still to come.
Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is a bit like a juggler whose hands are suddenly less sure and the balls start to fall. He has spent the best part of two years trying to avoid responsibility for dropping the ball in the lead-up to the 2018 election and presiding over a FijiFirst campaign that took the government to the brink of defeat. He is already trying to avoid responsibility for dropping the ball in his management of the economy and leaving Fiji in a much more vulnerable state than it needed to be to deal with the Covid challenge. And he is having great difficulty keeping his other balls in the air as events combine with the burden of longevity to conspire against his own political fortunes. What were once his strengths – his absolute conviction and self-belief – have become liabilities. As he fumbles and the balls come down one by one, his juggling act no longer impresses the electorate and even within the government, his support is ebbing away.
As his own position disintegrates along with the economy, the AG has drawn the wagons around him and reduced his already small circle of trust. He has always relied on a coterie of the same faces to perform multiple roles but his latest appointment stretches the bounds of credibility to breaking point. If he didn’t understand the inappropriateness of making the Fiji Airways chief, Andre Viljoen, chair of the Fiji Development Bank when that bank has lent the airline tens of millions of dollars, then he should have. Similarly, putting forward one of his closest supporters, Daksesh Patel, to chair the FNPF in January when as Chair of Energy Fiji Limited, Patel had recently presided over the sale of $220-million worth of EFL shares to the FNPF, is another extremely bad look. Both appointments may be legal but they don’t pass the public credibility test. And especially when two other close associates of the AG, Sanjay Kaba and Mukhtar Ali, have joined Daksesh Patel on the FNPF board at a time when the AG is using the retirement savings of ordinary Fijians to keep the nation afloat and the integrity of the Fund is paramount.
There is no suggestion of impropriety yet even the AG’s supporters wonder why he can’t at least try to avoid the appearance of cronyism and conflicts of interest by widening the circle of people drawn on for official positions. The answer is simple. It’s because he doesn’t trust anyone else to achieve his aims. And it is all about control. A small player in a small country dreaming big dreams but constrained in the pursuit of those dreams by the fear of losing control. Which, in my humble opinion, will keep Fiji small so long as that attitude continues. Because it is the antithesis of the teamwork and mutual trust needed to build a successful nation.
In a tome 500 years ago called The Prince, an Italian by the name of Niccolò Machiavelli wrote the handbook for rulers everywhere on the ruthless pursuit of power. And it is all about control. Manipulating and exploiting others to achieve their goals. Doing whatever it takes. Since the 1970s, Machiavellianism has actually become an official condition in modern psychology, part of the so-called Dark Triad that also includes narcissism and psychopathy. How far it has taken hold at the top of government in Fiji is for the experts to determine. But there’s a line Machiavelli wrote that ought to be of comfort to the 57 permanent secretaries who make up the roll call of the fallen over the years: A prince who is himself not wise cannot be well advised.
Next time: Anatomy of a disaster. The 2018 election.