The President of the Fiji Day Organising Committee,
My fellow Fijians,
Friends of Fiji,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Bula vinaka and a very good afternoon to you all.
What a pleasure it is to be back in Sydney with so many of my fellow Fijians and friends of Fiji as we celebrate the 47th Anniversary of our Independence.
It is wonderful that, even an ocean away from our home, we can all come together, as Fijians, to show our love for our great country.
Earlier this week, I joined many of our fellow Fijians in Nadi where, for the first time ever, we held our national celebration for Fiji Day in the West. Thousands of Fijians gathered together in honour of our independence, watched our military perform in their annual parade, and celebrate our ties as a united Fijian family. It was a very special event for me to take part in; it was so great to bring our national celebration to our Western Division, and celebrate with many Fijians who had never taken part in our official celebrations, which have always been held in Suva.
This year, I’ve also had the opportunity to meet our fellow Fijians in Vancouver and San Francisco to celebrate our independence and carry the message about where Fiji is today, and where our nation is headed. And now, finally, I’m in Sydney with all of you for your Fiji Day celebrations.
No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve always shared in the same feeling of unity and joy with our Fijian family, and I know we all share in that same spirit this afternoon. It’s a feeling that can’t be bought, it’s a feeling that never fails to stir my heart – seeing the smiling faces of so many of our citizens, of all ages and backgrounds, dressed in Fiji Blue singing our national anthem – those moments rank among my most treasured as Prime Minister.
Every year, these celebrations serve as a reminder of all we work for, as one nation and one people, determined to build a new and better Fiji. It puts faces to the initiatives that my Government fights for every day, and it shows me how far we have come as a nation. It recharges my own passion to continue down this path of progress and take Fiji to even greater heights.
There are over 50,000 Fijians who live in Australia now, and I want all of them, not just those here today, to feel that same sense of pride and belonging that are ignited at these Fiji Day celebrations. Because now, more than ever, Fiji is whole, Fiji is united and Fiji is brimming with opportunity for every Fijian. Luckily, you are a short flight away from returning to experience all of that for yourselves. In the meantime, I am proud to tell you about the progress that we have made, and what we are working to achieve for the future of Fiji.
That progress has come about because we are steadily realising the vision for the new Fiji – a vision that I’ve spoken with your community about in the past. A Fiji where no Fijian feels cast aside in their own country. A Fiji where no Fijian is left out of our national development and prosperity.
And a Fiji where every Fijian’s success is determined by their own discipline, their own ambition and their own hard work.
I know that many Fijians who resettled here in Sydney and throughout Australia did so because they didn’t see a future for themselves in Fiji. Many left because they had lost faith in where our nation was headed, and sought better lives for themselves and for their children. And others left because, sadly, they felt like unwelcome strangers in their own rightful home.
There are times in our history when it was difficult to see our nation’s true potential. I know that. But that is no longer the case – that is not the Fiji I lead today. The spirit of optimism that is sweeping our nation is something you can only truly understand when you experience it for yourself.
When you do visit Fiji, in your conversations with everyday Fijian men and women, you’ll finally hear the hope that we have for our future, you’ll hear the pride we have in our great country and you’ll hear the new dreams and ambition that the Fijian people hold for themselves, their families, and their nation.
I’ve seen that newfound faith in what is possible first-hand. I’ve seen it in the stories and experiences of the Fijian people. I’ve seen the parents who are sending their children to school to realise opportunities they never dreamed of having themselves. I’ve seen it in the young, budding entrepreneurs who are bringing their ideas to the table and using their creativity to help spur growth in our economy.
And I’ve seen it in Fijian communities in remote, rural and maritime regions that are building connections with the rest of Fiji, the region and the world for the very first time.
The recipe for success that has led Fiji’s progress over the past decade isn’t something we keep secret.
Our agenda has been transparent and our mantra clear; we are now a unified nation, and it is our unity and togetherness that have driven my Government’s agenda to modernise the Fijian economy – an agenda that has led to eight straight years of economic growth for Fiji.
For eight straight years we’ve been consistent and unwavering in carrying out the work we knew needed to be done to take the Fijian economy forward, and for eight straight years we’ve been able to pass on the prosperity of our economic growth directly to ordinary Fijians.
Our agenda for development is rooted in the sacred law that governs every action of my Government – the Fijian Constitution. The Constitution enshrines an unprecedented array of rights for every Fijian. The Constitution also ensures that Fijians irrespective of their ethnicity, religion and cultural practices are equal and have common and equal citizenry. This encourages all men and women to participate equally in and contribute equally to their country.
Our development agenda has seen a massive push for the expansion of infrastructure and essential services throughout Fiji.
Because we need to open up our communities to the rest of their country, to our region and to the world. We need every Fijian to have access to reliable roads, bridges, ports and jetties so they can bring goods to market, visit with family and friends and seek new opportunities. And for those that have visited Fiji again recently, I’m sure you would have taken notice of our new state-of-the-art international airport in Nadi, the newly upgraded Queen’s Road and the new developments springing up across the country.
We’ve also continued to vastly expand access to services; water, electricity, health and other essential services that every Fijian needs as a foundation for success in their lives.
Services that are making life better for men, women and children all over Fiji, along with networks of telecommunications that are keeping them connected with their fellow Fijians and with the rest of the world.
As I’ve said before, education is now free in Fiji at the primary and secondary level, and we also offer free textbooks and subsidised bus fares to our students. We’ve invested in our children, all of our children, everywhere in Fiji. And we are opening doors of opportunity for young Fijians that stood shut for generations.
In moving our people forward, we’ve also done a great deal to make Fiji a more caring nation – a nation that provides for those that cannot provide for themselves. We’ve vastly expanded our social welfare programmes, schemes that are assisting rural pregnant women, children, the elderly and those living with disabilities. We are subsidising access to water and electricity for low-income families.
We’ve launched a national campaign to bring security and stability to Fijian communities, by giving secured tenure to those who have been living for decades as squatters.
We’ve done all of this because we know we need to make special efforts to ensure our prosperity reaches every Fijian.
So we’ve done a great deal to give ordinary Fijians the skills, resources and opportunities to do well for themselves, but we knew that wasn’t enough. We knew that, in some cases, the rules of our society were stacked against many of our people and that we needed to establish a more level playing field across our economy. That is why we’ve taken steps to shake up long-standing structures of privilege and dismantle vestiges of the elite, to give every Fijian an equal shot at doing well.
We are engraining merit-based achievement into every aspect of our national development, so that ability, performance and hard work are the ultimate determinants of success in the workplace, in Government and in every facet of national life.
We are currently in the midst of a massive reform programme for the Fijian civil service, as we seek to engrain a new culture of excellence and service-delivery across government. When our work is complete, recruitment in the civil service will be based solely on merit. Not on who you may know, who your parents may be or where in Fiji you may be from, but on merit. And that work – that commitment – is making our civil service more client-focussed and more results-oriented, with, of course, the biggest winners being ordinary Fijians.
The iTaukei own 91 per cent of the land in Fiji, and that ownership is guaranteed under the Constitution for all time. We no longer will have situations where iTaukei land were permanently alienated and converted to freehold land under the previous governments and constitutions.
The Constitution also prohibits unfair discrimination on the basis of one’s culture or religion while recognising the unique culture, customs, traditions and language of the iTaukei and Rotumans. We’ve also ensured that lease monies are equally distributed amongst all members of a land owning unit. This brings about transparency, equality and economic empowerment for all, not just the few.
For the first time there is constitutional protection for tenants who lease land. We have also now made it legally possible for leases to be issued up to 99 years. As some of you would know previously leases were, at least for agricultural purposes, issued only for 30 years.
My fellow Fijians, when we pursue development in Fiji, we aren’t making many of the same mistakes made by industrialised nations – mistakes that have brought disastrous consequences for the natural world.
Instead, we are setting an example of how progress and development can go hand-in-hand with a steadfast commitment to the preservation of our environment.
No development in Fiji under my Government has taken place at the expense of the environment, and none ever will. We’ve even said no to valuable sources of revenue because those projects haven’t met the high standards we require. And we certainly don’t have any regrets about that. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our children and we owe it to all those generations yet to come to not only preserve our environment, but to actively work against the damage that has already been done.
Our oceans and our reefs are currently being choked by pollution from our region and the rest of the world. That was the major reason Fiji took on the responsibility of co-hosting the first-ever UN Conference on Oceans this past June in New York.
We cannot allow the continued degradation of this precious resource on which so many of our coastal communities depend. And at the Oceans Conference, over 1,400 voluntary commitments for ocean action were registered by the international community – a big win for every Fijian and for every person on earth.
But we aren’t only working abroad, I am also doing everything I can to persuade our own people of the importance of this agenda. Part of our response to an increase in litter has been to place a tax on plastic bags because these bags, along with plastic bottles, are being swept into our waterways and out to sea.
To complement this, Government is working with retailers to engage women groups to make re-useable bags to be sold at outlets which create economic opportunities for our people, in particular for our women.
There is also a 10% Environment and Climate Adaptation Levy or ECAL and all revenues collected from ECAL goes into a separate trust fund that is used only for environmental and climate adaptation projects. All monies spent through ECAL must be published and available to the public.
These initiatives are about having the national resolve and planning for the future. Because if Fiji is to lead the world on such an important issue, it has to lead by example and display leadership..
Finally, as you all likely know, we are also preparing to take on the most important responsibility ever entrusted to Fiji – our upcoming presidency of the ongoing United Nations negotiations on climate change, COP23.
This November, in Bonn, Germany, Fiji will take the lead in confronting the greatest threat that has ever faced humanity – that of climate change.
We all know that the effects of our changing climate are already upon us. Here in Australia, you are facing the loss of your Great Barrier Reef. In Fiji, we are faced with the rising seas, changing weather patterns and severe weather events – events like Cyclone Winston.
I know many of you here watched from afar as Cyclone Winston ravaged our nation, destroying homes, schools and public buildings, and claiming the lives of 44 Fijians. I know you waited anxiously for news of your families and loved ones. And I know many of our Fijian community in Australia came together to assist affected Fijians – and I thank you dearly for that support.
I’ve taken on the COP23 Presidency, because we cannot sit idly by while industrialised nations continue to make this crisis even worse.
And I will be demanding bold and decisive action on this issue in Bonn this November, as we seek the full implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
We’ve assembled a grand coalition for climate action of governments, businesses and civil society that I will lead to the COP this November.
And I would like to thank the Australian Government for their AUD six million dollar support to our presidency and this vital mission we are undertaking. My fellow Fijians, I always look forward to spending time with your community here in Sydney because you always put on such a vibrant show of patriotism for your home, our beloved Fiji.
I encourage you to share the news and developments of Fiji with those that cannot be here today, your friends, your coworkers, and your community. By doing this, you are helping Fiji in ways that cannot be accomplished on our own.
Members of my delegation are also present and available to help anyone interested in applying for Fijian citizenship, as you know that under my Government we allow for holding of multiple citizenship. We have the Fijian Elections Office team here who can register you to vote and we have a team from the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs who can register your children in the Vola Ni Kawa Bula.
I greatly appreciate all of your words of encouragement and thank for you all for the invitation to spend time with your community. And I wish you all a very happy and blessed Fiji Day!
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.