The Government’s cyber critics have been blindsided by the announcement that all three former major political parties – Labour, the National Federation Party and SODELPA, the former SDL – have been cleared to contest the 2014 election. The declaration by the Registrar of Elections, Mohammed Saneem, that all three entities had cleared the hurdle came last Thursday. Yet as of the time of writing, the main anti-government website, Coup 4.5, still can’t bring itself to fully report the news, confining itself to a posting that the NFP alone has been given the nod to compete, with a one line addition about the other two, much more important registrations. Yes, almost a week later and any Coup 4.5 reader is none the wiser about undoubtedly one of the most important developments of the year.
It confirms once and for all – quite aside from its routine censorship of readers’ comments – that when this miserable cyber rag doesn’t like a particular story, it simply buries it. For the credibility of the increasingly hysterical Coup 4.5, this is yet another nail in the coffin. It continually portrays itself as a crusader for democracy while railing against the alleged propaganda of anyone who writes positively about Fijian Government policy, Grubsheet included. Yet when the chips are down, it willfully ignores the fact that genuine democracy is precisely what is taking shape in Fiji – the Bainimarama Government’s opponents free to contest what the Prime Minister has described as the “battle of ideas” that will determine the result of next year’s election.
All this is what a colourful British politician named Alan Clark once famously called being “economical with the actualite”. The late junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government was caught out giving a less than full and frank account about a British arms deal with Iraq. Rather than admit to being a liar – which he patently was – he merely conceded not exactly telling the whole truth, of being economical about the details of what actually happened. Regrettably, this is a failing that is chronically common not just to Coup 4.5 but someone in Fijian public life who should know better – Mahendra Chaudhry, the Labour Party leader and former Prime Minister deposed in the 2000 coup.
Most people in Fiji are familiar with Chaudhry’s history, someone who supported Voreqe Bainimarama’s takeover in 2006, accepted the job of finance minister in his administration, then fell out spectacularly with the PM and did an about-face. He turned from very public supporter to implacable critic and has waged war on the Bainimarama Government ever since. Most people will also be aware that Mahendra Chaudhry is also on trial for alleged foreign currency offences related to substantial sums lodged in Australian bank accounts. He has also fought a prolonged series of skirmishes to retain control of the Labour Party, of which he was once undisputed leader. The most public of these has been with the prominent trade union official, Felix Anthony, who stormed out of Labour accusing Chaudhry of continually employing undemocratic means to get his own way. The relationship between the two remains poisonous and Anthony is widely expected to form a breakaway party with others to oppose Labour in next year’s election.
For all the political mayhem within Labour ranks and signs that Chaudhry is losing his grip, history tells us that he is arguably the wiliest of the country’s political operators. He is a master of backroom politics and especially the tactic of divide and rule that has kept him at the top of the union movement and then mainstream politics for much of the past quarter century. However great the falling outs between Chaudhry and the Bainimarama Government and Chaudhry and his former colleagues, he is not to be underestimated. He’s especially adept at manipulating opinion in the sugar cane belt of the West, convincing ordinary Indo-Fijian farmers of their tenuous grasp on their leases and their tenuous livelihoods in an industry that has been buffeted by huge winds of change. Whether or not the outcome of his current court proceedings eventually allows him to stand in next year’s election, the fact remains that he poses a formidable force at the ballot box. All of which makes him someone to take very seriously. Regrettably, there are clear signs that our first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister has taken a leaf out of Alan Clark’s book and become a master of being “economical with the actualite”.
Grubsheet was startled to hear an interview Chaudhry gave to Radio Australia last week – after Labour had been registered to contest the elections – in which he peddled two blatant falsehoods. First, he claimed that the Fiji media continued to be saddled with restrictions that prevented any party that opposed the Bainimarama Government from getting proper coverage. This is simply untrue. There are no restrictions on media coverage of Chaudhry’s comments or, indeed, the comments of any other political leader. On the contrary, Grubsheet has been repeatedly informed by individual journalists in Fiji that Chaudhry refuses to talk to them nor to anyone else from the outlets that employ them. It’s a clear case of hollering that one has been gagged by the media while refusing to answer the knock at the door or pick up the phone and speak. Now, that tactic might wear with an ignorant Australian audience and a broadcaster – in the ABC – that is ever willing to give events in Fiji a negative slant. But to a domestic audience, it simply won’t wash.
In the same interview, Chaudhry claimed that restrictions continued to be placed on political gatherings of parties opposed to the Bainimarama Government. This too is untrue. Labour, or anyone else for that matter, is entitled to meet whenever they choose to do so. Previous curbs on political meetings have been lifted. Indeed a brace of opposition political figures – including Mahendra Chaudhry, Laisenia Qarase, the deposed SDL Prime Minister, and Ro Teimumu Kepa, the new President of SODELPA, the former SDL – attended precisely such a gathering in Cuvu, Nadroga late last month. Were they stopped from doing so? Not at all. They may have attracted no more than 40 people when they had reportedly catered for 600 and had spread the word that those attending would be fed. They may have been scorned by the Prime Minister, who said it was “funny” to see those who had “brought Fiji to its knees sitting on the same mat and smiling at each other”. But there was nothing to prevent them from doing so, nor to stop ordinary people from joining them if they chose to do so. The truth is that the meeting was not only allowed to go ahead, it went ahead and received widespread national media coverage. So why on earth did Mahendra Chaudhry tell Radio Australia what he did?
Then came yet another case of the former PM being economical with the actualite in an interview he gave last Sunday to Radio New Zealand International. In it, he condemned as “cruel and grossly insensitive”, the Government’s decision to cut off most of the 19,000 recipients of its Family Assistance Program. Chaudhry said the decision would, in effect, sentence these people to extreme hardship and indignity and add to crime, child prostitution, human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse and suicide. The average RNZI listener throughout the Pacific would have been appalled. What a terrible place Fiji has become, they would have imagined. There was only one problem. The story was a concoction. Chaudhry had again been economical with the actualite. The truth is that more people, not fewer people, are set to benefit from a major reform of the social welfare system currently being implemented by Government. What happened is that a government spokesman said the 19,000 people were currently being re-evaluated to make sure that the most needy Fijians would receive assistance. He said this would lead to a portion of these people being taken off the Program because they were deemed to be in less need than others who previously received no assistance. Chaudhry twisted that statement into his extraordinary claim that most of the 19,000 FAP recipients were being cut off. The truth again, is that the program is being strengthen – in consultation with the World Bank – to provide an even greater safety net for Fijians. Whereas only three per cent of Fiji’s poor received some form of assistance under the old system, the new system will assist 10 per cent. Those are the facts and Chaudhry chose to ignore them.
What’s the common thread here? That Chaudhry goes to the foreign media to peddle this misinformation, knowing that they are more gullible, less likely to know the precise facts and also likely to give his statements prominence. The local media in Fiji, of course, knows better – that this is blatant politicking (which is fine) but that some of these claims have only a passing acquaintance with the truth (which is not fine at all). As one journalist put it to Grubsheet: “Why should we report what these guys are saying when we know it to be false?” The answer is “you shouldn’t.” As the Fijian opposition evidently sees it, the local media is there to report their utterances without question. No. They are there to report without fear or favour but are under no compunction to report comments that are either untrue or are not newsworthy judged by conventional media standards. In other words, tell us something new or something that our readers, viewers and listeners need to know. But don’t treat us like idiots and especially the people we are meant to serve – ordinary Fijians who will be making a decision next year on which political party is best suited to govern.
Mahendra Chaudhry surely has a duty to the Fijian people not to be economical with the truth, something that, of course, applies to every candidate in 2014. His recent behavior also highlights the need for ordinary Fijians to be more aware than usual of false prophets in the election countdown. Australians talk about the need to have a “good bullsh*t detector” when it comes to dealing with their own politicians and the same applies in Fiji. More than a quarter of a century of bullsh*t – of the old racial politics and the rhetoric of class warfare – means that many ordinary Fijians can detect it when they see it. And in the past week, they’ve been clearly able to detect it emanating from Mahendra Chaudhry.
Ho hum. This is the illustration that goes with the latest attack on Grubsheet by “Mad Marc” Edge, the Canadian academic who left the University of the South Pacific in disgrace after formal complaints about his bizarre behaviour from a string of his students and fellow academics. Equally bizarrely, Edge blames Grubsheet for his termination and devotes an entire blog to attacking us and the other targets of his ire – Crosbie Walsh, the New Zealand academic and blogger, and Professor David Robie of the Auckland University of Technology. In the tortured mind of this sad figure, all three of us are guilty of having deprived Pacific journalism of his brilliance. Whereas the truth is that all three of us – quite independently – came to the conclusion long before the USP itself that Edge was delusional and a total menace – a strange melange of Walter Mitty and Forrest Gump. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that he turned malevolent and began to trash the furniture at USP – sowing dissent, belittling his fellow academics and even threatening some of his students on Facebook.
Everyone eventually decided enough was enough and Edge was forced to resign or be sacked. The official term was “relieved” of his post, though it also describes the collective sigh that accompanied Edge’s sudden late-night departure from these isles. He now resides at 23,000 Dyke Road, Richmond, British Columbia (what a long street it must be), spewing venom and without a dollop of the self awareness necessary to grasp that he alone was the architect of his demise. The good news is that peace broke out at USP the minute Mad Marc left. The bad news is that he refuses to go gracefully. We know his address because he’s posted his entire “Curriculum Vita” on the Internet. It’s preceded – on a Google search – by such headings as “The lies of Marc Edge” -an excoriating piece penned by Professor Robie – all of which makes the following extract from Edge’s latest offering laughable in the extreme: ” Journalism, it has been long said, is merely the first draft of history. Often the truth only comes out in the fullness of time, to be told by historians such as myself.”
See what we mean by delusional? This is a man branded as a liar by the only Professor of Journalism in New Zealand and the South Pacific. Mad Marc’s CV ends at USP so he is evidently yet to secure another academic position. But with David Robie’s reference, it’s hardly likely that the global academic community is making a Gadarene rush on 23,000 Dyke Road. Ho hum again.