Storm in a teacup

Fiji Law Society President Wylie Clarke. Picture: REINAL CHAND/FT FILE

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama this week treated conversations around the much talked about Bill 17 like a storm in a teacup.

Due to go before Parliament tomorrow, the Bill seeks to amend section 12 of the iTaukei Land Trust Act of 1940.

It seeks to remove the requirement of obtaining the consent of the iTaukei Land Trust Board for any mortgage, charge, pledge or caveat on a lease or for any such lease to be dealt with by any court of law or under the process of any court of law.

That has been contested fiercely by opposition parties, public figures and individual citizens, and has sparked a debate of controversial proportion on social media.

The National Federation Party said it was “deeply concerned” about the government’s decision to rush changes to the Act without “proper consultation”.

The party Leader, Professor Biman Prasad, said the government was being “arrogant” and “disrespectful”.

The NFP has not only opposed Bill No 17 but has joined up with others in calling to have it withdrawn.

As of Friday evening, the number of people who took part in an online petition against Bill 17 had reached over 10,000.

That is not a sign of a storm in a teacup.

Viliame Gavoka, the leader of the Social Democratic Liberal Party, said the PM and his government should have “consulted native landowners first before bringing any legislative changes to native land laws”.

One civil society organisation said the government’s latest action has left landowners “out in the cold in terms of consultation and mechanisms for redress”.

A few prominent Suva lawyers have expressed concern too, highlighting the government’s “lack of consultation” on social media.

Richard Naidu yesterday’s twittered “I know everything – I-don’t-need-to-consult attitude has created a problem where there wasn’t one”.

He said this has exposed the “lack of constitutional protections” for iTaukei land laws.

The government, in its defence, said the Bill would do away with needless bureaucracy that often held up development on leased iTaukei land. Furthermore, it added the amendment would help make native land “more attractive” for the benefit of landowning communities.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Mr Bainimarama called some of his political skeptics “lying politicians”, “bush lawyers”, “urban elite” and “fearmongering politicians”.

It is obvious Mr Bainimarama thinks the public outcry concerns a trivial matter that can be just ignored. To me, the crux of this week’s public outbursts was not so much the amendment of the 80-year-old Act but rather the government’s brazen ignorance of consultation and inclusive decision-making.

While it often barks about good governance and democratic principles, it does not follow them entirely.

This is not the first time those in power have bulldozed legislation through Parliament. It is also not the first time a far-reaching Bill has bypassed consultation and proper oversight processes.

Politicians holding power need to be reminded of their duty. They are not only paid by taxpayers of this country to pass and review laws, but also do it in a manner that is transparent, accountable and inclusive.

Land is always a sensitive issue to discuss in Fiji.

Changing laws on it without proper consultation have in the past caused controversy and often ignited distrust and suspicion.

Only through goodwill, respect for landowners and open dialogue can the complexities of land issues in Fiji be addressed. These cannot be expressed and obtained through force but through conflict-free and non-confrontational negotiation.

I am not a lawyer, just a Fiji citizen doing his job to hold the government accountable.

This week’s article focuses on the importance of having public consultation on fundamental and far-reaching issues that affect the people of Fiji, including native landowners.

On the current Bill 17 issue, consultation is critical because landowners, as key stakeholders on land, must be heard and respected.

Sometimes, engaging with custodians of native land – the TLTB – is not enough. For there are certain decisions that landowners must also take part in and can only make themselves. The consultation will not only promote compliance and drive consensus on land. It also allows landowners, their representatives and interest groups to participate in decision-making.

On the part of leaders, consultation allows the government to gather information, including alternative views, from which they can draw ideas to ultimately make decisions that are fair, responsive, relevant and effective. Consulting landowners should not only be a matter of courtesy, it should be a matter of rights.

Research has shown that involving citizens and non-state actors in the development, decision-making and democratic processes and tapping into their reservoir of knowledge, skills and experiences has far-reaching advantages.

Public service delivery and development are not end in themselves. Ensuring that the government, before taking action, demonstrates the willingness to listen, consider feedback, share concerns and accept positive criticisms — even those it may find disconcerting is equally vital.

It is when those holding leadership positions consistently fail to listen and consult on important matters, that citizens feel powerless and disenfranchised.

Over time, these may evolve into resentment.

The government’s continuous lack of consultation over issues pertinent to the iTaukei have the potential to cause distrust among the country’s main ethnic groups and stir animosity.

It also has the potential to erode people’s confidence in government, civil servants and state institutions.

Despite our many differences, we generally want good leadership — one that genuinely listens and cares.

Author Jonathan Mills once noted that “the leader that doesn’t listen is emotionally unintelligent, selfish and arrogant”.

He said the leader who has the quality to take a country into the future was someone who has “a heart to listen, who cares and realises his/her servant role”.

Mill’s statements suggest that a good government listens and consults.

At this day and age, and against a backdrop of human rights, listening to the “voice” of the people and consulting the public on important laws and policies are important aspects of good leadership.

The public outcry over Bill 17 tells us that people are not naïve. They are empowered and demand that they be recognised by the government as active participants in decision-making.

It also means they are pressurising leaders to use more open and consultative processes when discussing land issues and amending land laws.

This should be a wake-up call for the government, that it needs to ditch its bullying tactics and start engaging meaningfully with its citizens on matters that concern them.

Those in power need to listen to public concerns over Bill 17 of 2021. Choosing to not listening to alternative views will not help Fiji, not during a crisis.

They need to stop pretending they know everything and what they decide goes and is always right.

The truth is, by not consulting and listening to people, the government only demonstrates its preference for unilateral and authoritarian leadership. I hope the government listens to the people and makes the right decision to prevent what it thinks is just a storm in a teacup from developing into an actual storm.

Give landowners the respect they deserve. Consult them!

Before I leave you, please remember all the COVID-19 safety and hygiene protocols — wear your mask when you leave home, wash your hands regularly with soap or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and practise social-distancing rules. If you haven’t received your first jab, get it done. If you have gotten one out of the way — thank you and if you have been fully vaccinated — congratulations!

Until we meet on this same page at the same time next week — stay blessed, stay healthy and stay safe!

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