It is my pleasure to further the discussion of my Government’s Budget for 2016-2017. It is a discussion I as Prime Minister welcome.
But before I talk about the numbers, I want to discuss my Government’s vision and priorities in the upcoming fiscal year. Because a strong national budget is far more than the allocations to the different ministries. Madam Speaker, a strong national budget is the continuation of a government’s blueprint for the future of the Fijian people. It is a statement that we believe in ourselves and in our ability to work together with all Fijians with the right resources. And it is a declaration of consistency, sound management and long-term vision that everyday Fijians, investors and development partners need to see. And this 2016/2017 budget, Madam Speaker, is a very strong national budget.
Madam Speaker, as we continue the hard work of recovery from Cyclone Winston, my Government believes it is vital that we keep our focus on the future—a future in which we build better, a future in which we are more resilient, and a future in which we are more affluent. We make hard decisions in all budgets. We always have to choose. But in this budget, Madam Speaker, we have not asked the Fijian people to choose between recovering from Winston and remaining on a solid course for the future. We must do both. And we have done both. We have not asked the people to pay for repairs today in exchange for years of stagnant growth in the future. That would be a fool’s choice. We will not tell the people that if they want their schools repaired today, they will have to delay repairs of roads and jetties, the electrification of villages and the extension of fresh water; that there must be a delay in doctors salaries or a delay in securing and equipping our youth. That would be a breach of faith. We have not asked the people to deviate from seven years of solid growth, which would only mean prolonging the suffering that Winston caused in February. That would be stupidity and a sign of no vision.
Our Government has a track record of consistency. We have set a course to improve the quality of government. We have made taxation fairer and more transparent. We have radically reformed education to make it more equal and provide more opportunity. We are steadily improving infrastructure after many years of neglect. We are working hard to raise up the poorest among us by extending the social safety net for those who need it and helping others start and expand small businesses. In short, Madam Speaker, we are investing, and the investors are responding.
Investors are looking for long-term consistency and for a mature approach to budgeting and economic policy, and that is why Fijians and non-Fijians alike are placing their bets on Fiji in near-record numbers today. Consistency builds confidence. Confidence yields investment. And investment produces jobs and encourages people to create businesses.
So, Madam Speaker, while the opposition picks away at an expenditure here and there, or questions why we have gone into a larger deficit when the answer is all around them in the destruction left by Winston, my advice to them is to find the big picture and look ahead. That is where my Government is looking, and we find that the international financial experts in both the private sector and the major international financial institutions all agree with us.
We were again reminded of the confidence the international community has placed in Fiji just this past Friday when Fiji hosted its first Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Crusaders. Fiji was the first small island state to ever do so, and anyone who attended that match or watched it on television can tell you how inspiring it was to watch such a high-level sporting event take place in Fiji.
That game showed the world that we have the facilities, capacity and passionate fan base to host international sporting events, and it was big boost for our sports tourism industry. An Industry that has enormous potential to provide jobs and revenue streams into our economy. Only one example of many of how our progress is being recognised and rewarded on the world stage. And another example of how targeted investment in such infrastructure is necessary and must continue. Madam Speaker, such investments will always give very good returns and build our capacity as an economic powerhouse amongst the Pacific Island countries.
I believe that no nation can truly prosper if it leaves people behind when it grows. That is why we are helping iTaukei landowners to develop their own land. This is unprecedented, Madam Speaker.
This year we have again allocated 10 Million Dollars to help the iTaukei develop their own land. Four projects namely in Yadua – Nadroga; Wairebetia, Saweni and Vuda – all in the Nadi-Lautoka corridor are already in place and the fifth in Tamavua will soon commence. More will follow in the next few months. This assistance is targeted in a very direct manner to assist iTaukei land owners to not simply be people who lease out vast tracks of land to others for development, but for they themselves to become developers and they themselves to lease the land with the assistance of Government. They will take the cream.
Madam Speaker, landowners will only realise the true potential of their asset base and achieve sustained economic growth for our country through innovative and inclusive initiatives by my Government, which are practical, they are tangible, they are real and they are positive. Not through the fear, negativity and the absence of practical solutions, as demonstrated by previous governments and by those from the other side.
As I’ve continuously said, growth cannot be limited to the urban centres. We have to look after people in the maritime and deep rural areas by making an extra effort to extend services to them, to develop the infrastructure that links them to other Fijians and to markets, and to give them a boost to develop their own livelihoods. This focus continues in the budget.
We are an inclusive government. Before the budget announcement, we had undertaken an unprecedented amount of public consultations. We spoke with high school students, young people, business houses, disabled people, and anyone who wanted to contribute to the budget. The level of participation and democratisation reached record heights. And, by the way, Madam Speaker, we are the first Government to seriously and comprehensively prioritise awareness and assistance for the disabled and protect women and children from violence.
All of this is because we have a vision to modernise Fiji, a vision to empower all Fijians, a vision where the Government provides an enabling environment for individuals and businesses to do what they do best – to use their God-given intellect, their drive and energy, their savings and their assets, their skills and their talents, to improve their lives. A government is successful if it believes in its people, gives them a level playing field, and creates an environment that gives them confidence.
And as I have said, Madam Speaker, we have both a moral and a practical obligation to provide a social safety net for those who cannot participate equally, who are on the margins of society. We have increased social welfare benefits this year, and we have again reduced the pension age—this time from 68 to 66. This is for people who have no form of superannuation. Hon. Minister Akbar has already detailed this initiative. We are continuing subsidised electricity, free water and free medicine. All of these reforms are targeted, of course, so that they go to the needy—they are means tested.
Then, of course, we provide truly free education—and for the first time in Fiji’s history. We also have enhanced our focus to practical learning through the establishment of 10 more technical colleges and increased the number of Toppers Scholarships, which the Hon. Minister for Education will discuss later on.
Madam Speaker, a vision is not enough. A government also needs a sound game plan to help people believe in their own chances for prosperity. That requires strong, decisive leadership—and that is precisely what my Government has been giving Fiji.
Unfortunately, we do not hear vision, leadership or a game plan from the other side of this Parliament. Madam Speaker, sometimes your opponents will attack you by going for the jugular vein; but when it comes to this budget, the opposition has shown an instinct for the capillary. They complain about this expenditure or that without specifics and instead of focussing on the merits of the entire budget. They don’t for example even understand the distinction between independent bodies and departments and ministries. They make unfocussed, personalised, often nonsensical comments. It’s a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of substance. And Madam Speaker the confusion and chaos in the Opposition has reached new heights in the past week or so.
So, they attack us for the deficit, the very deficit that has been deemed prudent and wise by international experts. But, I ask them, How could any compassionate human being, any leader worthy of his/her people, do anything else? How could any true leader still keep faith with the Fijian people and serve them at the same time? Because that Madam Speaker, is what I as Prime Minister and leader of FijiFirst, my Ministers and my FijiFirst team is here for, we are here to serve the Fijian people, all of the Fijian people. That of course is lost on the Opposition because they are more concerned about their individual political careers.
The fact is that the Opposition have been static and reactive, while we have been forward-looking and have presented another forward- looking budget.
Here is a fact everyone can take home with them, Madam Speaker, including the Opposition: We spend 40% of the budget on capital works, and this has been the consistent—I use that word again—consistent practice of this Government. Before 2006, 85% of the budget covered operating costs. No substantive assets were being built. No real effort was made to give our fellow Fijians the means to lift themselves out of poverty and improve their lives. So year in, year out 85% of the budget was spent and nothing much was left to show for it in the new fiscal year. There was also no tangible program to maintain State assets.
Madam Speaker, some people think it is enough to simply help poor people by giving Government alms. That doesn’t solve the root problem. It may make them feel good, but they are only treating the symptoms of poverty. My goal is to end poverty in Fiji.
That is one reason why today we are spending 60% to fund operations and 40% on capital expenditures. We are building for the future and we are building to connect our people to each other, to services and to markets. And, of course, this is a major reason why our debt management has now been hailed by international agencies. Contrary to the Hon. Leader of NFP who by the way continues to speak for SODELPA. The opposition is rather dogmatically clinging onto another theory but Madam Speaker, they want to do it on the backs of ordinary Fijians. I say that with no irony, because we know that it is the underprivileged, the ordinary Fijians, the marginalised Fijians who will bear the brunt of the kind of cut-backs they are talking about. We of course do not criticise for the sake of it. We of course do what is right for our country. We of course build for the future.
In the 2016-2017 Budget, my Government has again demonstrated its unwavering support to the 200,000 Fijians who depend on the Sugarcane Industry.
We’ve taken the calls from the Sugarcane Industry seriously. We have more than doubled the allocation for sugarcane development and farmers assistance program to $11 Million in order to restore sugarcane farms to pre-cyclone and pre-drought levels of production and of course for the future.
The majority of rehabilitation funds will target the affected areas of Rakiraki, Tavua, Ba and parts of Lautoka. An area of 1,500 hectares has also been identified for assistance in Labasa. Funds will help restore sugarcane crops in these areas and provide a solid foundation for farmers to keep production growing and keep quality levels high.
This is not about short-term fixes either. We are putting the priority on the long game by emphasising improvements in the value chain, harvesting practices and cane delivery. We are promoting good husbandry on all farms and, in some cases, modifying farms to better accommodate mechanical harvesting and make manual farming more efficient.
Mechanisation will also help address the shortage of cane cutters in many regions, and we are following the Australian model for revamping cane harvesting and transportation systems – introducing mechanical harvesters that can service varied topography to keep the mechanisation process efficient and cost-effective.
We have allocated $3 Million towards improving cane access roads so that farmers can safely and conveniently bring their sugar cane to the mills. Furthermore, the maintenance and upgrading of over 100 cane access roads is now the responsibility of the Fiji Roads Authority – affecting an estimated 679,710 tonnes of cane each year. A significant step in increasing the access of sugarcane farmers to mills and markets.
Since 2009, my Government has contributed funds towards the purchase of fertiliser, covering $14.09 of the cost of every 50k bag, leaving $31.50 to be covered by the farmer. As every farmer knows, sugarcane crops need adequate fertiliser to produce quality cane and maximise farm yields. We’ve continued our commitment to subsidising fertilizer in this budget, and this year’s allocation of $9.7 million will go a long way in helping our farmers increase sugarcane production.
My Government has already stepped up to cover the additional costs of carting sugarcane from the Penang area to the Rarawai Mill and is set to rebuild the Penang area mill to better suit the demands of the modern market.
We no longer operate in a sugar market where the quality of the sugar is an afterthought. The sugar we produce has to meet the very high standards of global buyers, or else it will not attract a premium price.
Fixing the Penang Mill to the same standard as before does not set-up our industry for long-term gains and prosperity. We are taking an approach that rebuilds and upgrades the Penang Mill to produce sugar that meets the requirements of global buyers, making our sugarcane industry more competitive – and that is going to take some time.
It would be easy to ignore commercial and market forces in the interest of political expediency. Instead, my Government is taking real steps to keep our Sugarcane Industry competitive. Steps that secure the long-term prosperity of Fiji’s sugarcane farmers and keep our industry healthy and thriving. Steps that will prepare Fiji for the close of our preferential market access to Europe in 2017 and make us capable of embracing new opportunities.
In this budget, the Office of the Prime Minister has received an allocation of $17.6 million to support the Head of Government and the Cabinet in their work to recover Fiji from Cyclone Winston, while also remaining focussed on shaping Fiji into a modern country on a sustainable path of development.
In 2016-2017, the OPM is allocated $9 million for the small and community grant scheme to support rural community projects. While these projects can be minor, they make a real difference to the ordinary Fijians who benefit from them. Whether it be water tanks, outboard motor engines, refurbishing of school buildings in isolated parts of Fiji, water or electric projects, health facility or a new access road – these projects form the backbone of our efforts to eliminate disparities between rural and urban populations.
As I mentioned earlier, education is the most effective tool a Government can use to eradicate poverty. Through the Foundation of the Education of Needy Children, the OPM will provide children with the resources they need to complete their education and put them on course to contribute to our economy and improve their socio-economic standing.
The Ministry of iTaukei Affairs is allocated $11.5 million in the 2016-2017 Budget. The Ministry promotes iTaukei culture and heritage guided by the Fijian Constitution which recognizes and protects iTaukei ownership of land, the unique culture, customs, traditions and language.
I am pleased to inform Parliament that the digitisation of Vola ni Kawa Bula records was completed just this past Thursday. In total, 646,200 individuals have been digitised – 450,129 of which have yet to register their accounts with the TLTB. We anticipate a full launch in December.
To protect and preserve iTaukei villages, the Ministry will continue to survey village boundaries. This involves the demarcation, surveying and registration of village boundaries, identification of land reserves for future use and supporting village relocation for disaster risk reduction.
The Ministry of iTaukei Affairs will of course continue its work with the Provincial Councils and the iTaukei Affairs Board and the respective allocations have been made to these entities including the administrators. The Ministry will also in the new Budget year through the Special Revival Unit create better understanding of iTaukei customs and language in addition to encouraging the transfer of traditional knowledge to youths.
The 2016-2017 Budget will help build Fiji back better than it was before without compromising the vision my Government has for the future prosperity and well-being of the Fijian people. It says that even after Winston we are stronger than before. This is a strong budget, a fair budget, and an inclusive budget with unprecedented levels of consultations. It is a bold statement to the world of where Fiji stands today, and where we intend to go. It builds further confidence by ensuring that my Government’s economic philosophy and its implementation are maintained through fair, transparent and consistent polices and processes. It says Madam Speaker, that through strong and decisive leadership we Fijians can continue to reach for new heights.
Madam Speaker I support the Budget of my Government to Parliament.
Vinaka Vakalevu. Thank you.