Newly elected Fiji PM vows to tackle growing national debt

MELBOURNE, Australia — Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka vowed to address the “litany of woe” created by the nation’s former government while raising concerns about the Pacific nation’s massive debt.

In his first address to the country since being sworn in to office on Christmas Eve, Rabuka said Thursday there had been a “great and joyful awakening” in a nation where democracy is considered fragile.

The 74-year-old’s election Dec. 24 at a special sitting of Parliament in Suva ended the 16-year reign of Fiji First Party leader Frank Bainimarama as prime minister.

The People’s Alliance Party leader, who formed a tripartite coalition to win office, promised to audit the spending of the former government and said he will institute an austere approach while in power.

“The mood for a new government was evident,” Rabuka said. “There was a whole raft of reasons for that including the problems with infrastructure and essential services, education, increasing poverty, abuse of rights, a climate of fear and a massive national debt.”

Rabuka, who previously served as prime minister between 1992 and 1999, said the incoming government needed to address Fiji’s growing debt, which he said may be over 10 billion Fijian dollars ($4.5 billion).

“That is a huge burden for a small economy like ours. We will examine cash flow issues and structure debt repayment. This will be done in a way that does not impede our development,” Rabuka said.

The former military commander, who will chair the Pacific Islands Forum, was backed for office by the affiliated National Federation Party and the Social Democratic Liberal Party.

Rabuka has appointed three deputy prime ministers and 19 ministers to oversee what he described as the rebuilding of Fiji “in all aspects of our nation’s life.” The new prime minister acknowledged this is a larger cabinet than anticipated but said he will propose cuts in the wages paid to parliamentarians.

In a 20-minute address, Rabuka also criticized the former government for trying to divide the nation along racial lines during the election campaign.

“None of the tall stories worked. They were widely ridiculed and debunked on the street and in the media,” he said. “In a democracy, the people are in charge. Elected representatives like me and my parliamentary colleagues do not lord it over you. We are your servants.”

But Rabuka extended an olive branch to the Fiji First Party, saying features of a working democracy included forgiveness, robust debate and consideration of different ideas.

“My message for Fiji First is that we wish to develop a positive relationship with you as part of a broader initiative to enhance national unity,” he said.

Fiji had seen four coups in the past 25 years, two of them led by Rabuka in 1987, but the transition of power from Bainimarama, who also instigated a coup in 2006, to the new prime minister has been peaceful.

“Leaders like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, they knew how to forgive, how to deal with hatred and succeed through peace,” he said.

“In an ethnically and culturally diverse country, love is accepting that differences are part of Fiji’s national identity and that we all belong here. The fear that has haunted Fiji since 2006 is fading away now. Soon it will be gone. Love will ensure that it never returns,” Rabuka added.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has been in contact with Rabuka, offered congratulations Thursday to the new government.

“There’s been a peaceful transition of power in Fiji. That is a very good thing. Fiji, of course, has not always had peaceful transitions of government. This has been,” Albanese said.