The flamboyant British aristocrat and MP, Lord Alan Clark, gained notoriety for admitting during a court case in the 1980s that he had been “economical with the actualité “. It was a fancy way of saying he had lied. And the admission caused the collapse of the trial and triggered an inquiry that undermined the government of the day and eventually led to its defeat. Three decades on in Fiji, has the Registrar of Political Parties and Supervisor of Elections, Mohammed Saneem, been economical with the actualité in relation to his claim of not being consulted by the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) on its report on political financing? Someone is not telling the truth. Is it Saneem or arguably the most respected promoter of democracy and elections on the planet? A Swedish-based organisation made up of 32 countries, currently chaired by Australia, that is an authority on electoral practices the world over?
International IDEA’s report – entitled Political Finance Assessment of Fiji ( see below for a link to the full document ) – was published more than a month ago on October 10. Yet it wasn’t until this week that Mohammed Saneem called a news conference to attack its contents and announce that the Fijian Elections Office was cancelling an MOU with IDEA and severing all ties with the organisation. What happened in the meantime to prompt him to go on the offensive? Was it because the house elf’s master, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, got wind of the report and prodded Saneem to go on the offensive? Just like he allegedly prodded the SOE to lodge a formal complaint with the Judicial Services Commission about “misbehaviour” on the part of the Solicitor General, Sharvada Sharma?
Saneem specifically claimed that he had not received a draft copy of the report to enable him to have input into its findings. Yet this is specifically denied by IDEA, who say they sent him a copy of the draft report on August 11. Only one of them can be right. And the spotlight is now on Mohammed Saneem amid serious questions about his integrity and the credibility of the Elections Office as it prepares to stage the 2022 elections.
The Supervisor of Elections told a media conference in Suva that the IDEA report – co-authored by Dialogue Fiji Executive Director, Nilesh Lal – was incorrect and contained “errors and factual defects”. He went further to directly question the integrity of IDEA, saying the report had not been compiled in an apolitical and independent manner. It “was rather representing various interests of political parties”. He didn’t say who those parties were but the implication was that the report represented the views of the opposition on the political financing rules in Fiji. “This completely defeats calling it a political finance assessment. It should be called political party commentaries or a record of political party statements on the political party regime in Fiji”, Saneem said.
To accuse a respected and internationally recognised organisation of 32 sovereign states of bias and a lack of independence is a grave charge. And IDEA has fought back. Its Senior Program Manager for Asia and the Pacific, Adhy Aman, told the Fiji Times that the organisation diligently provided Mohammed Saneem’s office with opportunities to correct its report at every step of the process. He had “opportunities to contribute to and review the report at several junctures, during the interview phase, the validation workshop and the draft review process in the weeks prior to finalisation of the report”, he said.
The IDEA spokesman went on to say: “We provided Mr Saneem with a copy of the draft report on August 11, 2021, and sent a reminder exactly two weeks later on August 25, 2021. We never received any feedback until November 7 – almost a month after publication on International IDEA’s website on October 10”. The spokesman claimed Mohammed Saneem was interviewed for the report on July 2. “The Registrar for Political Parties, as the principal political finance oversight body in Fiji, is naturally high on the research team’s list of interviewees. As per our standard procedure and upon the request of the registrar, the interview was recorded”, he said.
So there is a tape that can prove whether Saneem was fully involved in the process and whether he had adequate opportunity to provide input as early as July. And presumably a trail of emails that can prove that he received a copy of the draft report on August 11 and a reminder two weeks later. Why didn’t he respond? Was it because he was fully consumed with his court action to debar the SODELPA MP, Niko Nawaikula, from the Parliament and then his campaign to remove the Solicitor General, Shavarda Sharma, as he blamed him for the failure of the State’s case? Is the month-long delay in his responding to the IDEA report because the house elf was waiting for his master to give him his riding instructions, just as he was allegedly prompted to make the Judicial Services Commission complaint that triggered the suspension of the SG? Or did he anticipate a negative report and deliberately not respond so that he could go public with his criticisms while knowing precisely what was in it before it was published, having been given a draft? It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Mohammed Saneem would try to turn the report to his and the FijiFirst government’s advantage. Because, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the years, the government routinely goes on the attack against anyone who questions its conduct merely on the age-old premise that attack is often the best form of defence.
There are so many questions that require answers from Mohammed Saneem and his patron, the AG. Because they go to the heart of his fitness to uphold his duty to independently do his job and conduct the electoral process with impartiality and fairness and without fear or favour. Grubsheet has already reported on Saneem servile posture in his dealings with the AG. See “Brown Owl. Neither Wise Nor Judicious” https://www.grubsheet.com.au/brown-owl-neither-wise-nor-judicious/ But this latest attack on an internationally recognised organisation that prides itself on its independence again calls into question both his independence of the ruling party and his judgment.
As I commented on my Facebook page earlier today: Mohammed Saneem is at the centre of what is known in PR circles as a shitstorm. (Noun: Vulgar slang: A situation marked by violent controversy). The main advice to anyone at the centre of a shitstorm is to stand still and do nothing until the storm subsides. Flail your arms around and you just get covered in more shit and spread it around further. It is advice that Saneem routinely ignores.
The Registrar of Political Parties and Supervisor of Elections already risks grave damage to his reputation over his secret formal complaint to the Judicial Services Commission about the alleged “misbehaviour” of the Solicitor General, Sharvada Sharma. Yet not content with that, he has declared war on arguably the most respected organisation for the promotion of democracy in the world – one currently chaired by Australia and with 32 other member states.
It is a battle Mohammed Saneem cannot win and will do immense damage to Fiji’s reputation. And for what? Because Saneem doesn’t like what the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has said about the rules governing political party finances in Fiji. Which because he is house elf to the Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Elections, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, really means the AG doesn’t like what it has said.
Tough. Some of the rules governing political donations in Fiji are indefensible – such as babies being able to donate to political parties so that families can make multiple donations and get around the $10,000 a year cap for individuals. Yes, there is no age threshold. And this has invariably benefited the ruling party – FijiFirst – because of its support from prominent business families in Fiji and accounts for its huge funding advantage over the opposition. The IDEA report shows that the FijiFirst Party spent $6.3-million in the 2018 election year, three times the combined total of the opposition parties.
IDEA’s contention that Mohammed Saneem has too much legal power is also established fact. As Register of Political Parties, Saneem basically answers to no-one (apart from the AG). An appeal against any decision made by him used to go to the High Court but that was amended so that it now goes to the Electoral Commission. And the Electoral Commissioners are appointed by the Constitutional Officers Commission, which is controlled by the government. The legislation stipulates that there can be no appeal of any decision by the Electoral Commission. Which ultimately gives the Minister Responsible for Elections, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum – who is also Secretary General of FijiFirst, in a glaring conflict of interest – extraordinary power to influence outcomes in the ruling party’s favour through his house elf in Toorak.
With just months to an election, all Mohammed Saneem has achieved with his intemperate attack on IDEA is to attract more scrutiny of him and the AG over their election finance rules and their conduct of the 2022 election and embroil them in more controversy. With his thin skin and schoolboy-like belligerence, Saneem seems chronically bereft of judgment – a mirror image of the chronic lack of judgment of his master. They provoke fights they cannot win and as the resulting shitstorm intensifies, routinely cover themselves in more shit as they wave their arms around in indignation.
It isn’t going to end well for either of them when the Fijian people are finally able to pass their own judgment in the privacy of the ballot box next year.
Link to the full International IDEA report: