Countdown 2018: Sugar Hot Issue In Political Debate
Sugar has emerged as a big item for political debate for parties whose origin can be traced back to the sugar cane belt. The National Federation Party and the Fiji Labour Party have gone back to the sugar cane districts to support cane farmers in their grievances.
The sugar votes will significantly influence their polling figures in what some sees as the 2018 General Elections. The NFP which was born in the cane fields has made a comprehensive submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economic Affairs on the bill to reform the sugar industry. The committee has been holding consultation meetings in the West to hear what farmers, lorry operators and others involved in the sugar industry think about the proposed reforms. The reforms are designed to strengthen the future of the industry. Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar Voreqe Bainimarama has admitted that the abolition of European Union sugar production quotas next year and the consequent adverse implications on sugar prices poses a very big challenge. Moreover, EU sugar prices have already come under pressure, with significant falls compared to prevailing prices over a year ago.
So suppliers like Fiji are having to prepare for a reduction in our export revenues even before 2017.
To deal with the situation initiatives are being fast-tracked to diversify and expand the industry revenue streams.
Fiji is moving away from its reliance on one commodity - raw sugar – because this is no longer viable. Mr Bainimarama has said we need to be smarter, to add value to our crop, to exploit new revenue opportunities and open up new markets. But among the grievances some farmers voiced at the consultations was they wanted more say and consultations in the industry. They sound similar to the submission made by the NFP. It is common knowledge that both the NFP and the FLP held meetings with the farmers before the public consultations. In its submission to the committee the NFP has clearly made a pitch to the Indo-Fijian voters.
It said: “At a time when the IndoFijian community or Fijians of Indian descent as known under the 2013 Constitution are commemorating the 137th anniversary of the first arrival of indentured labourers, descendants of the indentured labourers on 14th May, 1879, who are predominantly cane growers, face enslavement or another Girmit, if the Reform of the Sugar Cane Industry; Industry Bill Number 19 of 2016 is passed in Parliament by the FijiFirst Government using its numerical majority.” The NFP has also attacked the Sugar Cane Growers Fund Amendment Bill No 20 of 2016. “The Sugar Cane Industry Reform Bill demolishes all freedoms, independence, fair play and justice for cane growers,” it said. The growers are represented by the Sugar Cane Growers Council which used to have elected representatives from the canefarmers’ unions, the NFP-sponsored Fiji Cane Growers Association (FCGA) and the FLP-backed National Farmers Union (NFU). During the 1998-2004 period the NFU dominated the council and the cane belt. The support spilled over to the political arena and carried FLP leader Mahendra Chaudhry to victory in the 1999 General Elections. The NFP was annihilated and failed to win a seat.
But in the 2014 General Elections, the results for both parties subdued with the NFP winning three seats and the FLP failing to win a seat.
Now the battle has once again intensified between the two parties over the sugar votes.
More than 200,000 people are affected by developments in the cane belt. So they are prime targets by political parties. The NFP has claimed that since the 2006 takeover the growers situation has gotten worse because of the reforms.
But that ignores the following. If the farmers were really unhappy about the reforms how do you explain that the West overwhelmingly voting for Mr Bainimarama in the 2014 General Elections.
Votes in the cane belt in 2018 will be split four ways among the FLP, NFP, FijiFirst and People’s Democratic Party. PDP has the support of Felix Anthony’s Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union although it also did not win a seat in 2014.
Sugar politics are back.
Prime Minister and Minister for Sugar Voreqe Bainimarama has admitted that the abolition of European Union sugar production quotas next year and the consequent adverse implications on sugar prices poses a very big challenge.
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.
Former People’s Democratic Party leader Felix Anthony.
National Federation Party leader Biman Prasad.
Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry.