The Great Council of Chiefs | ‘Cart before the horse’ or the horse itself?

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Warriors stand guard infront of the Ulunivuaka on Bau Island. Picture: ELENA VUCUKULA

My original title was “Reviving the GCC: the cart before the horse”. But there are indications that some forces within the PAP and SODELPA may want the GCC to be the horse pulling Fiji along, despite its poor record in looking after the narrower iTaukei interest.

Is there any merit in the claim by Graham Davis (Grubsheet) (on seeing only one Indo- Fijian PS out of the 11 recently appointed) that “Sitiveni Rabuka, Siromi Turaga and others in the People’s Alliance and SODELPA (are pressing forward) with a shameless program of indigenous supremacy.”

Is the review of the GCC intended to create a cog in that ethno-nationalist program, if indeed it does exist?

In my The Fiji Times article of May 20, 2023 I had suggested that a priority for the new Coalition Government should be to hire an international panel of constitutional lawyers to settle a thorny question inherently affecting many planned initiatives of the Coalition Government: is the rule of law represented by the 2013 Constitution (which is currently being tinkered with), or the 1997 Constitution?

With Fiji’s “prominent” lawyer preoccupied with balancing the budget for the Minister of Finance (who is a professor of economics), this professor of economics is forced to give his pennyworth of legal opinion.

Since the 2009 Court of Appeal had concluded that the 2006 coup was illegal, then the 1997 Constitution had not been abrogated (as Justice Anthony Gates had previously ruled), that it was still alive (extant), and that the 2013 Constitution (and all its constituent military decrees) should be consigned to the dustbins of history, like their anonymous authors.

Importantly, the 1997 Constitution had already given the Great Council of Chiefs a proper constitutional role in the governance of Fiji, within the provision for an Upper House, the Senate.

So why is PM Rabuka implementing a Review of the GCC before examining these other legal options (such as recall of the Senate) which would not require any review of the GCC? Does PM Rabuka have an ethno-nationalist game plan?

Why not revive the Upper House?

First, note that the Coalition Government has made no mention of bringing back the critically important Upper House (Senate) which not only had a clear role for the GCC, but far more importantly was an essential “checks and balances” mechanism on the elected Government.

Remember that the Senate consisted of 32 members, of whom (a) 14 were appointed by the President on the advice of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga (GCC); (b) nine were appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister; (c) eight were appointed by the President on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition; and (d) one was appointed by the President on the advice of the Council of Rotuma.

Within this formula there were numerous opportunities for the appointment to Senate of social leaders, business persons, of any ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or age, even if they were not elected to the House of Representatives.

With a solid Senate in place, there was absolutely no need for noniTaukei representation to the GCC as some have suggested. As Jioji Kotobalavu correctly argues, the GCC is the “representative body of the indigenous iTaukei and Rotumans communities … as indigenous peoples”.

Why was the GCC dead?

Despite the many images merrymaking and grand speeches, it has been a bad week for the chiefs. Speaking at the welcome service on Bau, the Methodist Church’s Bau Division Superintendent (Reverend Ilisavani Bosekoviti) brutally observed (quoted in FT 24 May 2023): “Over the past 16 years, the GCC laid dormant in our midst … the mouths of chiefs were kept shut, and they were helpless.

Our culture and traditions were weakened.

The iTaukei people were helpless. Our voices were not heard … the three confederacies, Kubuna, Burebasaga and Tovata — no one could speak up.

The GCC, the beating heart of our chiefs, the vanua and iTaukei, no one expected it to stop beating for 16 years … God saw that the chiefs weren’t abiding by His word .. [and] put their wealth and status above Him. God made chiefs wander into the wilderness for 16 years….”.

I am not a religious person, but I would suggest that the good reverend “should not use the Lord’s name in vain”.

It was not God giving the chiefs any message, but Commodore Bainimarama backed by the RFMF, who told them to go drink homebrew under the mango tree. Sadly, most of the chiefs (except for Ro Temumu Kepa) did quietly go away.

The Fiji Times letter writer Terry Hulme put succinctly (FT 25 May 23) what many honest observers think: “I believe that the GCC, as a body, acted shamefully during the acts of the [2000] coup … with gunmen and gangsters running rampant in that August House people were crying out for leadership, for someone to tell the criminals to get out of our lives, to tell the police and army to remain faithful to their oaths … It all fell apart”.

Professor Steven Ratuva more calmly states “the GCC has been used politically in the past by the military, by political parties, by politicians … its image has been tarnished”.

Dr Tui Rakuita and Sevanaia Sakai were even more scathing when they wrote (FT 27 May 2023) “chiefs who have nothing to their name, but a bloated sense of entitlement … are a danger to the institutional objectives of the GCC”.

Chiefs wrecking democracy

The chairman of the GCC Review Committee (Jone Baledrokadroka) has himself said they would like the GCC to be apolitical, given their serious mistakes during the past coups.

The historical evidence (Reading 41 in my Vol. 3 book Our Struggles for Democracy, Rule of Law and Media Freedom available at the USP Book Centre) does indeed show that chiefs have been used to undermine democracy and the GCC itself.

Evidence provided to the Evans Board of Inquiry revealed that six months before the 2000 coup Bainimarama was informed by his intelligence officers that a coup was being planned by some high chiefs, some of his senior military officers and failed politicians. Bainimarama did nothing to stop it.

Most of the GCC chiefs came out in public support of the coup during the hostage crisis and even military officers were sitting on the fence.

Again, some high chiefs supported the treasonous 2006 coup by which the RFMF removed the lawfully elected Prime Minister (the late Qarase).

One, who showed his face at the Bau celebrations recently, became the right hand man of Bainimarama signing draconian military decrees, including even the one that abolished the GCC. That same high chief became the Speaker of the House, muzzling the Opposition MPs and parties.

The reality is that the sky did not fall in when the GCC was abolished by Bainimarama or when the Methodist Church was stopped from having their annual public fund raising.

The indigenous Fijian people and their social leaders did not take to the streets to protest Qarase’s removal and their intellectual leaders did not take to the print media or even anonymously on social media to complain about the shutdown of the GCC.

Many iTaukei commoners were quite happy that they did not have to contribute food, yaqona and cash to the elite chiefs and church officials.

While there was nothing to stop any chief from working hard for their people, they declined while their people sank further into poverty as the latest FBS Reports suggest.

The chiefs waited to be recalled and the Coalition Government of Rabuka, Prasad and Gavoka (all commoners by the way) did just that.

One of the first decisions that Cabinet will make is the granting of a $200 monthly allowance to vanua leaders and a change of the lease money sharing formula to give more to the chiefs.

Who should be the guardians of iTaukei welfare

Many commentators (including former Governor of the Reserve Bank Savenaca Narube) have argued that the GCC should be the guardians of iTaukei welfare: “one of the main goals of the GCC should be community leadership and economic development and prosperity … must lead the change in people’s mindset to serve the modern needs of people”.

But judging the GCC by 10 social and economic development criteria in an earlier article of mine (“GCC and Chiefs failing Fijians” FT March 21, 2015 and Reading 101 in my Volume 3 book), my personal assessment was that the GCC was failing miserably, with a score of 21 out of 100.

I suspect that there are many commoner iTaukei out there who will silently support Wise Mavono from Balawa, Lautoka who wrote (FT 31 May 2023) “I laughed so hard … when I heard mentioned the GCC is to look after the interest and welfare of the iTaukei people.

Joke of the year right there!”.

Not guardians of non-iTaukei

When the late Jai Ram Reddy was invited by then PM Rabuka to speak to the GCC he euphorically said the chiefs were also chiefs of Indo-Fijians, and that illusion is being revived today.

Professor Ratuva has also suggested that “the GCC should seriously look at every ethnic group’s problems and not just iTaukei issues”.

But I seriously doubt that other ethnic groups want to be looked after by a GCC which could not even look after their own people’s interests.

It is just as well that the GCC Review Committee does not have any Indo-Fijians or kailoma or kaivalagi as members.

Safeguarding iTaukei is job of the elected government

The bottom line today is that it is the responsibility of the elected Fiji Government to look after the welfare of iTaukei and all other citizens of Fiji.

My population projections indicate that iTaukei were already 61 per cent of the voters in 2022, will be around 63 per cent in 2026 and 65 per cent in 2030?

Indo-Fijian voters were only 33 per cent of the voters in 2022, and likely to be 30 per cent in 2026 and 28 per cent in 2030.

If strict proportionality is maintained in future revised electoral systems, then the future Fiji Governments will be largely determined by iTaukei voters just as in the 2022 elections.

Only if iTaukei votes are split evenly between two parties will Others become the “kingmakers”.

That elected government, not the GCC, must ultimately be held fully accountable through Parliament for the safeguarding of iTaukei welfare and also that of all other communities.

Tragically of course, the governments of Bavadra/Reddy in 1987, Chaudhry in 1999 and Qarase in 2006, were not allowed by the RFMF to do the good for iTaukei that they could have done.

Despite the orgy of empty cost-less apologies by PM Rabuka and the Methodist Church to the girmitiya, to date there has been no apology from the RFMF whose arms brought down three good governments and destroyed Fiji’s future and that of all citizens of Fiji.

Rabuka’s plans for the GCC

Given the GCC’s terrible performance in the past, PM Rabuka envisages strange new roles for the resurrected GCC. Rabuka has said (FT 25 May 2023) the GCC will “serve as a parallel institution to President Ratu Wiliame Katonivere where he could seek advice on any matters of interest to Fijians … when decisions come in from Government”.

He also said, “the advice of the GCC are in harmony with the interest and betterment of all people in Fiji”.

Are they? PM Rabuka suggests the GCC serve “as an advisory body to the executive government … (that it) can receive representations from the various cultural and religious bodies … then convey these through the minister responsible for the GCC to the Prime Minister and Cabinet”.

Why through the GCC? He argues “in any future review of Fiji’s Constitution, the place and role of the GCC should be included … it is the GCC, not the military, that should be conferred the constitutional responsibility to also serve as the guardian of the well-being of all the people of Fiji”.

To suggestions the GCC should include qualified iTaukei women and young people, Rabuka’s reply (FT 26 May 2023) was that the GCC can never be modernised, it has had its own values and traditions that cannot be altered or changed.

Women and young people can bring their concerns to the GCC and they will be heard. But social media critics have pointed out himself was a commoner yet made chairman of the GCC.

What do the iTaukei want?

I suspect that iTaukei euphoria after the result of the 2022 Elections reflects their joy at seeing the back of a vicious government which undermined the sense of self-worth of iTaukei in their own land: closing down the GCC, squashing their Methodist Church, banning the Fijian language from Parliament, ending the Ratu Sukuna Day holiday, appointing mediocre noniTaukei (and even foreigners) to high positions in the civil service, public enterprises, and judiciary when qualified iTaukei were available, and the “in-your-face” Superman making all the decisions, including the financial ones that created Fiji’s debilitating public debt.

The joy and merry-making at Bau was all about that sense of liberation, not a desire to see the GCC take greater control of their lives. Jone Baledrokadroka (chairman of the GCC Review Committee) is correct in noting that “indigenous people should be listened to and they if they think their chiefs should be installed in some small way, then so be it.

That is the voice of the people.” But will the GCC “be installed in some small way”? Or will it have, as Rabuka’s off the cuff remarks seem to indicate, a far more powerful role than what it had as part of the Upper House in the 1997 Constitution, tending more towards Graham Davis’s feared ethnonationalism? Or, could this all be about Sitiveni Rabuka returning from his 23 years of “wilderness” after his election loss in 1999, atoning for his 1997 constitutional sins, by returning the governance of Fiji to indigenous Fijians, with the help of the GCC?

• PROF WADAN NARSEY is one of the region’s senior economists and a regular commentator on political and economic issues in Fiji. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The Fiji Times.

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