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The National President, Shree Dharm Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji;
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

It is always a great pleasure for me to attend any Sanatan event because of the opportunity to honour and highlight the great work you are doing to help build our nation, and especially in the fields of education and social welfare.

When disaster strikes in Fiji, we know that the Sanatan and its hard working members will always be there to extend a helping hand. And I want to warmly thank you all for once again extending the hand of assistance in recent times to those of our fellow citizens affected by the back-to-back cyclones of Josie and Keni.

Once again, many of those who lost their loved ones, their homes or possessions or had their businesses, farms or plantations damaged were able to benefit from the assistance of the Sanatan. And you set a great example to all communities in Fiji of the importance of us always coming together to support each other whenever tragedy strikes.

I especially appreciate your invitation to speak to you today on your Conference theme of “addressing climate change through moral values”. It isn’t often that we see the climate threat being cast as a moral challenge. But, of course, it is.

Because at its most basic, it is about the moral obligation of those nations that have benefited the most from the industrial age to assist those nations that are the most vulnerable to its impacts. And also the moral obligation of us all – individually and collectively – to do what we can to reduce the climate threat and protect and preserve the planet that is our only home.

Friends, this is not a day for party politics because the Sanatan crosses all barriers and is rooted in the principle of service to others irrespective of their backgrounds and beliefs. But before I talk about climate change, I do want to talk about the importance of national unity in the lead-up to the election that is coming sometime this year. And also the importance of the Government’s central mission to empower all of our citizens as we move forward together as a nation. Because it is through empowering individuals by giving them the ability to improve their own lives that we are equipping our nation for the even better days that I am convinced lie ahead.

This morning, you will all be digesting the contents of last night’s Budget, which has built on a great many of the programs my Government has instituted over the years that are all about empowerment. Not so much giving our people hand-outs – although sometimes they need them as with the Home Care program after the recent floods - but giving our people what I am fond of calling leg-ups – assistance from Government that helps them to help themselves. So that when they do so, it’s not just a short-term fix but gives them the chance to secure lasting improvement in their lives and those of their families. And as families all over Fiji are empowered, they carry the nation with them towards a better future for Fiji as a whole.

Friends, last night’s Budget was many things – bold, imaginative, comprehensive and sets us all up for a wonderful year. But it was also prudent and responsible because unlike some of our predecessors, this Government is determined to live within our means. When we borrow – and every nation borrows - we don’t borrow for the day-to-day operation of government.
We borrow for infrastructure development such as roads and airports that we know will grow our economy and produce a better return on that investment for everyone.

Friends, it is this responsible management of our economy under my right hand man, The AG and Minister of Economy, that has laid the foundation for Fiji’s increasing prosperity. Nine straight years of economic growth - the longest in Fijian history - and a proud record that we are determined to continue. Because as I have said before, we are convinced that the best is yet to come.

Friends, we are using that prosperity, as each year passes, to not only unveil new initiatives but build on all the programs we have already delivered. Foremost of these is our education revolution - the free schooling, tertiary loans and scholarships that have already transformed the lives of even the most disadvantaged Fijian children.

I am extremely proud to head a Government that has produced the first billion dollar spend on any ministry in any budget in our history. And I’m proud because that spend is on education – a major investment in the future of our young people. Because of the Sanatan passion for education, let me highlight some of our announcements last night that I am especially proud of and that I know you will all welcome.

We are increasing the number of scholarships for high achievers and for the first time, will send Fijian students overseas to pursue courses such as architecture that aren’t available in Fiji. As you know, through our TELS scheme, we are already providing loans to enable many Fijian young people to pursue higher education when they couldn’t afford to do so in the past. In many ways, TELS is the embodiment of the leg-up I am constantly talking about - my Government’s philosophy of empowerment. Because we are lending to enable even the most disadvantaged young person to pursue their dreams on the condition that they pay back those loans when they start working.

Last night, we announced a new and very imaginative initiative that helps these young people even more. If TELS recipients pay off their loans at a faster rate, they will be given big discounts in the total amounts they will have to repay. So this is a big incentive for young people to work hard to pay off their debt because they will be saving money. And it also ensures that the Government gets the money back more quickly and is in a better position to help others obtain the same benefit.

Friends, I’m sure this initiative will be widely welcomed, not only by TELS recipients but their families and the wider Fijian family. Because again, it is Government empowering ordinary Fijians and giving them the means to help themselves. While at the same time, raising the skills set of the nation as a whole, benefiting the wider economy and moving us all forward together.

So this is not just an incentive for individuals but an important exercise in nation-building. The same applies to the increased allocations in the Budget for maternity leave and also our first paternity leave program. Nothing is more important to the FijiFirst Government than strengthening Fijian families. So as we’ve said, this Budget is about uplifting families and uplifting Fiji.

Friends, as well as growing our economy and increasing opportunities for the Fijian people, you will all know that one of our main priorities is the fight against climate change. So as Prime Minister and President of COP23 - the global climate negotiations - I especially welcome the emphasis on climate change as the theme of your 59th Convention this year.

The Fijian people don’t need any lessons about the importance of confronting the climate threat. I’ve already referred to the recent damage caused by Cyclones Josie and Keni.
But as you all know, Cyclone Winston just over two years ago not only killed 44 of our loved ones but caused damage equal to one third or our GDP. So we are directly in the firing line and no amount of wishful thinking is going to alter the fact.

When Fiji was given the opportunity to lead the global response to the climate threat, we seized it, and with the help of our COP donors, have been very successful in doing so. We brought the world together last November at COP23 in Bonn to continue the job of implementing the work program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that was decided in the Paris Agreement of 2015. But we are also leading a very important initiative to get the world to step up its response to the climate threat. Because what has been agreed so far is simply not enough.

In Paris, the nations of the world committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions so that we can keep the average global temperature as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius above that of the pre-industrial age. Unfortunately those commitments - called our Nationally Determined Contributions to reduce emissions – fall far short of the mark. Instead of achieving the 1.5 degree warming target, they will in fact produce warming of at least three degrees by the end of the century. And that would have terrible consequences for the whole world. More extreme weather like Cyclones Winston, Josie and Keni for those of us in vulnerable parts of the world; widespread food and water shortages; more disease; more conflict as nations fight over scarce resources and hundreds of millions of people on the move looking for refuge.

Friends, the whole world has to do more. We have to do more. So Fiji is leading a Pacific concept called the Talanoa Dialogue to get the 195 nations that are members of the UN to raise the ambition of their NDCs to meet the seriousness of the threat we face. With our Polish partners in the Talanoa Dialogue, we have to get everyone to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions a lot further if we are to have any chance of winning this battle.

Given the gap between where we are and where we need to be, it is going to be extremely difficult to do so. But Fiji was given the opportunity to lead and we have embraced the challenge wholeheartedly on behalf of vulnerable nations around the world.

For nations like Fiji, it isn’t merely the right thing to do – the moral thing, as your theme puts it - but a fight for our very survival. And as COP23 President, I appeal for the support of every Fijian when I go to COP24 in Poland at the end of the year for the political phase of the Talanoa Dialogue, when we are going to try to get agreement to step up the fight to raise our NDCs.

Of course, we are also stepping up a range of measures to improve our ability to deal with the climate threat here at home. In last night’s Budget, we allocated more than $651-million over the coming year on 26 projects to build our resilience - 18 to adapt to the frightening new era we face and 8 to mitigate against its effects. And of course, as the climate threat increases, this is undoubtedly just the start.

Friends, I wish I could tell the Fijian people otherwise but we are going to have to get used to allocating more - much more – to deal with the climate threat as the years pass. The industrial nations promised in Paris to mobilise $100-billion dollars a year in public and private finance to climate- vulnerable nations like Fiji by 2020. But unfortunately only a fraction of that has been placed on the table. And we need a much bigger global effort if we are to have any hope in the vulnerable nations of adequately coping with this threat.

So, Friends, you are right to cast this as a moral challenge and I thank the Shree Sanatan Dharm for doing so and for inviting me to be with you all today. To both the National Committee of Sanatan Fiji and especially the Nasinu Branch and to the generous Sanatan sponsors, vinaka vakalevu for all that you have done to make this convention the success I know it will be.

I wish you well on behalf of the Fijian people for all the religious, sporting and social engagements that traditionally make up this great occasion. And I now have the great pleasure to declare the 59th Sanatan Convention, open.

Vinaka vakalevu, Dhanyavad, thank you.

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