Mr Speaker Sir, let me first acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of our sportswomen by congratulating the Fiji Pearls on qualifying for the Women’s Netball World Cup next year in South Africa, the Fijiana for winning the Pacific Nation’s Cup, and the Kulas for advancing to the semi-finals of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup after last night’s victory against the Cook Islands –– a win I was proud to witness first-hand.

Mr Speaker Sir, winning at the highest level is all about preparation. It demands consistent practice to deliver an effective game-time strategy.
That is true in sports. It is also true in Government. And our game plan is the National Budget we put before the people. When we consider the totality of the pandemic, the strength of our recovery, and the stability and certainty that our people and businesses need at this time, I believe this is the most important Budget that we have ever presented this Parliament.

Families need more support and they need it now. This Budget gives it. The private sector needs stability, certainty and longer-term consistency. This Budget delivers that in spades. And this Budget broadens and lengthens the causeway to recovery we established from day one of the crisis.

Its expenditure has been called balanced, disciplined, and responsible. Its social support has been called fair and compassionate. Its policies have been called pro-active and pro-growth. That is all true.
And this was all possible because when Fiji needed a clear vision and decisive leadership, my Government supplied it. And when we called on the Fijian people, they stood with us.

Even in the early days, when we understood very little about the virus and what we knew was changing daily, we began readying Fiji for a recovery. Every day we worked to get back to the FijiFirst-forged path towards an economy that was diversifying, digitising, delivering resilient infrastructure in our communities, and breaking records for growth. An economy that was connecting our most rural communities to clean water and reliable energy; relocating communities at-risk to sea level rise; and lifting people out of poverty. And the policies that were driving up investment; driving down unemployment; and empowering our landowners. You don’t mess with the fundamentals of a winning record like that, Mr Speaker. So through the pandemic we preserved the businesses, institutions, and industries, like Tourism, that helped make it all possible.
We secured vaccines and deployed them for free for all eligible Fijians in all parts of the country. We repatriated more than 45,000 Fijians and adapted best practices in COVID management from our national carrier, Fiji Airways, which obtained some of the highest possible recognitions in COVID-safety, to our airports, to our hotels. Though pandemic, our strategy and confidence didn’t only distinguish ourselves from our opponents –– we distinguished Fiji among nations. We made Fiji the number one country in tourism readiness in the entire Asia-Pacific. Our policies did that. Our people did that. Together, we made Fiji the most COVID-safe tourism destination in the most populous region of the world.

I then promised Fiji would be open by Christmas. Some critics said that was a “fantasy”. We re-opened our border well before that date and proved that small minds can’t comprehend bold visions.
We are now surging out of this once-in-100-year crisis. Our economic growth this year will break records. Yes, of course that reflects recovery from the pandemic-induced decline, but it is a valid indicator our business sector is resilient and our economic fundamentals are strong –– strong enough to create a Bula Boom in tourism and economic activity. While countries like Samoa still haven’t fully opened their borders, Fiji has been open and recovering for nearly seven months; creating jobs, paying wages, attracting investment. That is what decisiveness delivers, Mr Speaker.

And that is all good news. But no one in Government believes that Fiji is free of its challenges. There is still a war going on, Mr Speaker. We can’t turn away from it. Aside from killing thousands of civilians, the Russia invasion of Ukraine has decimated the global supply of wheat and seed oils. A fragile agreement was signed just two days ago to increase grain exports out of Ukraine –– but that is far from guaranteed to actually happen. Vital supplies of fuel are being cut-off to the world as well.
This has all made lagging pandemic shortages and supply chain disruptions even worse and sent prices even higher.

We responded early on by dropping customs duties to zero or near-zero on over 2,000 items. We responded again by raising the national minimum wage which, let’s not forget, this Government introduced. We responded further by removing VAT on 21 essential food items. We are also the Government that freed the lowest-earning Fijians from paying any income tax at all and that subsidizes electricity and provides free water for low-income families. We are also the Government that covers fees for market vendors and that covers the license renewal fees for taxi drivers, carrier drivers, and bus drivers. We are the Government who covers the fees for members of the public seeking their Birth Certificates or Police clearance to fill out job applications, we also cover the fees for fishermen to get their licenses – and we have extended all of that support for another full year.
And through this Budget, we will become the Government that responds with compassion once again through a new 60-Million-Dollar inflation mitigation package.

It includes cash support to families paid out per child –– one dollar per day, or seven dollars a week, or 30 dollars a month. It is not a fortune, by any means Mr Speaker, but it is a difference-maker for many needy families. It certainly will be for a mother of four who will receive 720 dollars in direct cash support between the start of August and the end of December. One-off payments of 180 dollars will also go to tertiary students, people on Government pensions and in aftercare, and social welfare recipients. The situation is extremely volatile, which is why we’ll review our response in six months’ time. If more support is needed, it will be given.
I’m deeply impressed by the balance achieved in this Budget, Mr Speaker. We’ve delivered this support while also committing to the path towards fiscal consolidation that the AG assured us we would embark upon once our recovery gained steam.

During the crisis itself, we had to deal with the choices that were before us, not the choices we wish we had. We had to choose a best option for our people and our businesses, because the perfect option did not exist. So we acted, as governments are supposed to do. We borrowed –– as in we, the Government, borrowed –– so that families could put food on the table and businesses did not have to shut down forever. Let me be crystal clear on that: If our people had not been given access to the unemployment benefits we rolled out in the pandemic and the social support which we never cut through the pandemic, families would have not have been able to feed their children and keep their homes. Businesses would have been forced to borrow much more at much higher rates to simply survive, if they had been able to borrow at all.
The bottom line is that our borrowing protected families and businesses, and that was the right call. Our recovery is the proof.

Mr Speaker, I love to hear all the positivity and excitement this Budget has created –– our Attorney-General and his Minister for Economy Team deserve those accolades.

Though I would say the most telling commentary comes from our opponents. They’ve all called this Budget an “elections budget”. That is their funny way of admitting that it is a damn good budget for the people. They said the same thing four years ago. And it provides some insight into their thinking, since they have no guiding philosophy of government or economic management and only seem to be driven by the desire to be elected to office.

Let me let them in on a secret, Mister Speaker. Elections are decided by the people –– and I answer to the people. So when my political opponents call this an elections budget, they really mean it is a people’s budget.
So is every budget that we have passed before it. Because we don’t work towards an election, Mr Speaker, we work for the people. When you serve the people, the people support you. It isn’t complicated.

They say our support and service to the people is “freebies”. With one silly word, Mr Speaker, they expose their own intellectual bankruptcy, because a response like that is designed to cut off discussion, not engage in it.

So, Mr Speaker, I ask: what would they prefer?

Should we force the most vulnerable Fijians to pay the full price of Russia’s war?

Should we demand the most vulnerable Fijians front the full cost of rising bus fares?

Should we abandon those who need their Government most?
Mr Speaker, only a politician seated in the comfort of an office would ever dare to call social support a “freebie”. Government isn’t holding a “buy one, get one free” sale on new television sets. We are providing security for those most vulnerable in society.

Mothers don’t call money they can spend buying food for their children a freebie. No one calls free medicine they need to survive, a freebie. No one calls the free education they can provide for their children, a freebie. No one calls the roads they rely on to travel to their jobs or to the market, a freebie.

Our people need this support and our opponents are too blinded by political ambition to see it. In fact, Mr Speaker, I think they’ve become bitter and twisted. Their personalisation of politics and the economy could not be more different from our sober, visionary, and rational decision-making. It is the difference, Mr Speaker, between tweeting and leading. It is the difference between policy- making and power-seeking.
I’ve been to communities. I’ve spoken with the people; I know the difference this assistance makes for families; for children; for those most vulnerable. All our political opponents have offered the nation, are insults.

They cry and howl like a pack of wolves in public, but behind closed doors they are more like a flock of timid sheep, searching in vain for a shepherd, or maybe even a sheep dog—anyone who knows anything about economic state-craft and has the courage to propose strategies that will lead them out of their confusion and stupor and into a safe political meadow.

They’ve had ten days to provide any credible alternative policies –– and we’ve heard nothing from them but schoolyard tantrums. I still wonder what our opponents hope to accomplish by these attacks—not for themselves, because we know the answer to that, but for the people of Fiji.
What kind of economy would they envision in these troubled times, and what difficult choices would they summon the courage to make? We don’t know because they don’t propose; they just whine and criticize and say no.

I trust the people to tell the difference between those working to serve them, and those who could not even be bothered to present them with an alternative budget; those who couldn’t be even bothered to complete their terms in Parliament; and those who cannot be bothered to tell the truth to the public, Mr Speaker, like Hon Biman Prasad.

In took Hon Biman Prasad a matter of days after the Budget to begin lying to our cane growers. Despite the AG’s total assurance that we would pay the full 85 dollars per tonne, Hon Biman Prasad said we won’t be paying that guaranteed price. That is an outright falsehood. Our growers will get the full 85 dollar per tonne as we promised they would. I’m seriously concerned that Hon Prasad doesn’t understand the most basic premise of our support programme for cane growers.
Government funds a top-up on the world market price for sugar. That means, when the world market price goes lower, we step-in to cover the difference to grant our growers certainty. And when the world price rises, we don’t have to spend as much. The world price of sugar is rising.

So, Government doesn’t have to subsidize as large of a difference as it did in previous years to reach the 85-dollar price floor. The Budget allocation reflects that. If the professor can’t comprehend those basic maths, he should go back to school. In fact, he should go speak with his old colleague Dr Rup Singh –– who has said clearly that Fiji’s debt levels are sustainable, by the way. That’s real analysis, Mr Speaker. From a real professor who still believes in objective truth, who has not sacrificed his academic credentials on the altar of political ambition.
Leaders don’t lie. Leaders solve problems. Leaders create solutions. Hon Biman Prasad and his new bed-mate, Rabuka, only know how to paint the worst possible picture of the country through conjecture, pessimism, and fabricated theories. They don’t speak the truth, and that is the truth. Hon Prasad, your new national-bank-destroying buddy nearly turned our Fijian dollar into used serviettes when he was in government. He devalued our dollar by more than 50% without the help of the pandemic. We kept our dollar strong the entire crisis. That’s the truth!

What is also true is that this Government supplied ideas, policies, and purpose that the Fijian people deserve from their elected representatives. We’ve strategically delineated
3.8 Billion Dollars’ worth of expenditure. We’ve written a roadmap for delivering sustained growth. We have sensibly reduced public spending to allow businesses and the private sector to step forward and drive our recovery. We have committed to keep taxes low for three years at least, Mr Speaker Sir. That is consistency that businesses and the Fijians they employ can count on.
Across my portfolios, the Immigration Department will use its allocation to continue its reforms that make it more technologically-savvy for the benefit of our citizens and visitors. That includes a complete online permit processing and payment system. And I welcome the extension of business visa durations.

On sugar –– the guaranteed price of 85 Dollars per tonne will be paid. We have again allocated $25 Million Dollars budget to ensure that our growers continue to pay $20 per every 50kg bag Blend A, B and C fertilizer they procure despite the skyrocketing price of the commodity globally.

The Ministry of iTaukei Affairs will continue to implement policies that reflect our philosophy that our landowners should be financially empowered by the constitutionally- protected assets they own. The Ministry’s budget has been increased to survey more un-surveyed land, preserve, and revamp our iTaukei records, and host more roadshows, leadership and cultural awareness trainings.
Our opponents have already embarked on their usual campaign of lying to landowners about threats to their land and security –– they said the same thing about the 2013 Constitution, they said the same thing in the 2014 elections, they said we’d sell Kadavu to the Chinese, and they said the same thing about Bill 17, which is now Act 21. And of course, no land has been lost; no landowner has not been consulted; on the contrary, iTaukei land is only rising in value.

No rights have been infringed; instead, iTaukei landowners have been emboldened and empowered to seek development opportunities and earn more money in lease payments.

And lastly, the Ministry of Forestry’s 17.7-Million-Dollar allocation will fund the steady development of a greener Fijian economy, creating sustainable livelihoods that our people can count for generations. That is what we are in the business of doing –– creating long-term solutions that support a long-term recovery.
Mr Speaker, the entire pandemic, our opponents have tried to shrink the nation’s ambition. They have tried to make this about them versus us. That was never how we saw it. That still is not how we see it. The real fight has been the Fijian people against the virus and the global pandemic and economic crisis it created. That is the fight I’ve been focused on for the past two and a half years. That is the fight that matters. That is the fight we are winning.

When you look at how they act and little they have told us about how they would lead, it becomes clear that our opponents are among the greatest risks facing our recovery. When we consider future threats, like conflict overseas, climate change and COVID-19, we sadly must consider the remote possibility of our opponents entering government. Their incompetence rises to the same level of risk as the other crises we face, because their indecisiveness and inability to craft meaningful policy would make us far more vulnerable to every other threat on the horizon. Vision doesn’t unite them. Policy doesn’t unite them. Neither does common sense.
They are married by nothing but bitterness, spite, and pessimism. God Forbid, if they ever entered government, they’d spend years trying to figure out who would lead them, much less make any policy that improves people’s lives.

This Government is united –– not by hatred towards anyone –– but by principles and by ambition for Fiji. We want what is best for Fijian families. We want what is best for hard- working people and the businesses and industries they rely on. We want what is best for Fiji today and what is best for our children and grandchildren tomorrow. And I wholeheartedly endorse this Budget as our game plan to deliver that vision for all Fijians. It is indeed a winning recipe.

Thank you.