Fijians pin hopes on September poll

TIM FULTON
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014
Jitesh Chetty
DEAN KOZANIC / Fairfax NZ

NOT CONFIDENT: Jitesh Chetty has been dairy farming in NZ for six years and never voted in an election back in Fiji. He says Fijians can't say anything.

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The great thing about New Zealand elections is that losing political parties accept the result, Jack Singh says.

The Woolston resident and Fijian community leader is counting down to Fiji's "one man, one vote" election in September, when he and other expatriates hope democracy will be restored.

Singh, of Fijian Indian descent, was a teacher in Fiji for 33 years, including during the first coup in 1987.

The military-led regime of General Frank Bainimarama had made Fiji more "secure" since it expelled the elected Qarase government in 2006, he said.

Fijians were fearful after the first coup - it was a time when many fled to New Zealand or Australia - but the sense of dread had faded under Bainimarama, Singh said.

The country was "not a total democracy" but the nation was stronger socially and less corrupt, partly because of a dedicated anti-corruption agency.

There is now free, universal schooling, the food supply is more stable and medical services have improved.

Roads and electricity networks have been upgraded, children can ride buses for free and those over 60 are entitled to a social welfare benefit.

"‘The basic needs of the people have been cared for very well," Singh said.

He accepted not everyone in Fiji or beyond would agree.

Bainimarama's role in deposing the elected government has received international criticism and he remains banned from entering New Zealand.

Singh preferred to see the regime's policies as a drive for national "unity".

Unlike previous governments, this military-led regime had exercised power fairly, he said.

"The army role has decreased but in certain things they have to keep control, otherwise people will not be able to be disciplined, you know."

Canterbury's Fijian community has grown to about 1500. Most of the adults were working in dairy farming, hospitality or horticulture.

The community is ethnically diverse and groups regularly share activities.

An example of this was last year's Diwali festival, run by the the Christchurch Fiji Association.

Bainimarama had introduced a "common roll" giving indigenous Fijians and Fijian Indians equal voting rights, while allowing expats to vote and hold dual passports.

Singh believed the passport policy had been pragmatic, given the number of Fijians who had emigrated to New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere since the late 1980s.

"Bainimarama's vision is quite good; he wants to make progress."

One of the reasons for the political upheaval in Fiji over so many years had been "hatred and jealousy", Singh said.

As a former president of the Fiji Head Teachers Association, Singh had argued ethnic favouritism was doing more harm than good.

"Now, since the education has been free for everybody, there is no reason why anybody cannot climb that ladder, go up," he said.

In Singh's view, Bainimarama had also done well in tempering Fiji's system of chiefs.

Removing the privileges that went with chieftainship had been "real democracy", he said.

Another Christchurch-based Indian Fijian, Vinesh Prakash, is the Fiji Association's secretary and a legal assistant trying to get his New Zealand qualifications. He had lived in Fiji under the Qarase government and remembers feeling that the national blueprint of the day had been discriminatory "and wasn't doing what was in the best interests of the country".

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Prakash sensed Fiji was ready to end its coup history.

"I'd love for democracy to get back in Fiji.."

About 100 voters registered when staff from the Fiji High Commission in Wellington visited Canterbury earlier this year.

Prakash is looking at it positively.

"It's quite impressive for a first time and it's always some place to start," he said.

Jitesh Chetty has been dairy farming in New Zealand for six years, ever since he took the advice of high school friends who had scattered from Fiji to the four winds. Chetty had never voted - he had just become eligible at the time of the 2006 coup- but wasn't confident that voting for a government would change much. Fijians weren't free to express this view, he said.

“Nobody can say anything because they get taken to military barracks and shut up. It's really sad, but where is the freedom, where is the rights?”

- The Press

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