Opinion: Rules for everything; Is this really how our democracy should be?

Leader of the NFP Biman Prasad, left, and PAP’s leader Sitiveni Rabuka. Picture: Facebook/NFP

From yesterday’s The Fiji Times comes the news that Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who (as well as being the minister responsible for elections), is the secretary of the ruling FijiFirst party (FF), has written a long letter of complaint to the Fiji Elections Office about – well, about everybody else.

People in the Fiji Labour Party are making “false statements”, he says.

The Fiji Sun is publishing bad opinion poll results.

SODELPA is making unlawful election promises.

The People’s Alliance and NFP might be money laundering.

The six-page ramble is notable for a number of things.

The FF secretary is also the Economy Minister.

The economy is still in post-COVID recovery.

The national budget is due in three weeks’ time.

Shouldn’t he be a bit more focused on that right now?

But this strange letter is also reflection on how our current government seems to think about political life in our country.

This includes how what we see, hear and read on public issues, should be controlled and regulated.

And (of course) how those who step out of line should be punished.

The letter calls on the FEO to enforce some of our country’s more bizarre electoral laws.

These laws, introduced last year by – of course – the very person who is making the complaints, are aimed at restricting political debate to some sanitised version of what the Government thinks is proper.

Politics by its nature is an untidy, rowdy business.

Promises are made, some of them wild and extravagant.

Mud is slung in every direction.

We complain about the awfulness of it all.

And yet, there’s something to be said for that old maxim that we get the leadership we deserve.

Purveyors of politics are like every other kind of merchant.

They respond to public demand.

But the FF government somehow seems to think that its “true democracy” is best served by keeping politics to a level of purity that only they understand and can deliver.

The trouble is, when you have been around for 15 years and have lost touch with reality, it’s only your “reality of the matter” that you understand.

So when the FF says something – that’s “government”.

When anyone else says something – that’s “politics”.

And whatever they do is always right – and anyone who criticises it is “lying” and “power-hungry”.

And so, it follows, laws must be made to stop all this lying, and power hungriness and politics from destroying the purity of our “true democracy”.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum’s first complaint is about a FLP candidate, recorded criticising the Government at a pocket meeting somewhere.

It seems he was suggesting that the Government isn’t transparent and gives contracts to its friends.

Such things, he says, are “false statements”.

“It is imperative,” he says, “that political parties and indeed those campaigning at political rallies adhere to the law, which requires inter-alia persons to ensure that they do not make false statements.

“This will safeguard the integrity of campaigns and the entire electoral process.” (By the way, you don’t write the Latin phrase inter alia – meaning “among other things” – with a hyphen. But never mind).

New laws

Tucked into the Electoral Act is a new law (from last year) which says that no one may publish information which is a “false statement which is likely to influence the outcome of an election”.

If you do, the Supervisor of Elections may “direct a person”, including a “service provider” (what’s that?) “to remove or correct any (false) statement”.

Any person so directed must “immediately” remove or correct it.

There’s some sort of right of appeal to the Electoral Commission. Assuming that this fails, however (and why wouldn’t you assume that?) you can go to jail for five years if you don’t “remove or correct” your “false statement”.

So – and there is no simpler way to put this – our laws give to the Supervisor of Elections the right to censor things that any one of us say – and possibly, even the people who report us saying it.

What’s a “false statement”?

It’s not defined – so who knows?

And when is a “false statement” going to “influence the outcome of an election”?

If someone rants on at a pocket meeting of 40 people, is this going to bring down the government?

Moving on.

The longest part of the Fiji First six-pager is devoted to a lengthy complaint about the Fiji Sun opinion polls.

So imagine how politics-watchers’ tongues must be wagging.

For years, after all, the Fiji Sun has been the Government’s admirer-in-chief.

It has christened the Prime Minister the “Messiah”.

Day after day, its pages are filled with adulatory articles about the FF Government and pictures of garlanded Government ministers giving out things.

Opposition parties are relentlessly attacked in Fiji Sun “analysis” columns.

So there are a few of us scratching our heads and asking “what happened”?

(It’s OK, however, the Fiji Sun’s dutiful praise of the ruling party seems to continue unabated).

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum pontificates at length on what’s wrong with the Fiji Sun poll and how the Fiji Sun gathers its data.

“By conducting results of poorly conducted polls, Fiji Sun or any other media organisation is likely to disseminate misinformation to the electorate,” it says.

“In continuing with the polls in this manner and publishing survey results, Fiji Sun appears to be willingly providing a skewed representation of the wishes of the electorate for the upcoming general elections”.

So he asks the FEO to “take such action as is appropriate” against the Fiji Sun and other people who might dare to publish polls.

Because “publication of such polls disseminates incorrect information”.

More “false statements”?

Well, those Fiji Sun polls certainly do cause some of us to scratch our heads in amazement – but not necessarily for the same reasons that worry Mr Sayed-Khaiyum.

The Fiji Sun, meanwhile, says that it uses the same polling methods it used for the last election (without telling anybody what those methods actually are).

But what “appropriate action” does the FijiFirst party secretary want the FEO to take?

Does he think that there’s a law against bad pollsters now?

And since he is the Attorney-General, oughtn’t he to know there isn’t one?

Naughty promises

Next on the list is SODELPA.

Apparently, it has been issuing pamphlets saying naughty things like “we’ll improve our hospitals and build new ones”.

This, says Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, is a breach of another new electoral rule.

This is the rule which requires every politician making a “financial commitment” to “provide a written explanation” (to whom nobody knows – the law doesn’t tell you) about how the money will be raised to pay for it, how it will be spent, which “budget sector agency” will spend it and “if expenditure exceeds revenue, how the deficit is to be
financed”.

This new law, which barely makes sense, is of course the reason why most opposition political parties will be giving us, the voters, very little detail about what they will do in government.

Because if they fall foul of this law (whatever it is supposed to mean) they can be sent to jail for up to 10 years.

The exception, of course, will be the FF, whose ministers have easy access to thousands of civil servants.

They can of course give their ministers information on the cost of every promise, how much revenue can be
raised to make it, and which budget sector agency should spend the money – and so on.

Finally, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum turns his guns on the People’s Alliance-NFP partnership.

He appears alarmed that they have been having fund-raising dinners “both in Fiji and abroad”.

“We note that in such fundraising activities there is the opportunity to manipulate the source of political donations, obtain money from business entities, and even launder money,” he complains.

“All laws in relation to political party donations must be adhered to.”

There is a certain breathtaking brazenness to the particular complaint that these terrible opposition parties might be “obtaining money from business entities”.

No political party in Fiji history has ever been more successful at raising funds than the FF.

Millions of dollars have gone through its bank account.

And a quick look at its publicly available donors lists in past years reveals an interesting line-up of characters who have written cheques to Fiji First.

No need to name names here.

But it’s fair to say that most of us recognise many prominent business family names in the list.

Husbands, wives, and even children of those families, it seems, are so enthusiastic about the FF party’s path to true democracy that they are just lining up to hand over their cash.

Fifteen years, they say, is a generation.

And there’s a generation of Fiji citizens who have grown up under this government with the idea that there have to be rules for everything.

Rules for what the media can say and do.

Rules that we must never talk about race.

Rules for how we run our schools and community organisations.

Rules, even, for what our names must be.

And, of course, rules for how we participate in politics.

None of these are necessary.

Few of them make any sense, except perhaps to minds focused on finger-wagging admonishment about all the bad things we could get up to without them.

The same minds lack any imagination about all the good we might be able to do for each other if we were simply
allowed, working together, to get on and do it.

And if ever we were looking for reasons to change the government, the sheer suffocating silliness of all these rules – and the mentality they represent – are surely reason enough.

  • RICHARD NAIDU is a Suva lawyer. It’s true, he doesn’t like rules very much. The views in this article are not necessarily those of The Fiji Times.

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