The Great Council of Chiefs was not as great as its name suggests

3 January 2023

Discussions have begun in the nation whether the Great Council of Chiefs should be re-established. Mr. Rabuka and his gang in the new coalition government have expressed their interest in favor of the Great Council of Chiefs.

Firstly, it is impossible to re-establish the Great Council of Chiefs with the same legislative authority as it shared under the Constitution of the Sovereign Democratic Republic of Fiji dated 25th July 1997 (“1997 Constitution”) unless the Constitution of the Republic of Fiji dated 7th September 2013 (“2013 Constitution”) is amended by the procedures set out in the 2013 Constitution.

The question is whether it is practically possible to amend the2013 Constitution to allow the re-establishment of the Great Council of Chiefs with those powers. What do you think?

In order to amend the 2013 Constitution, an amendment bill must receive the support of 75% of all Members of Parliament and 75% of all registered voters and by the procedures set out under section 159 and section 160 of the 2013 Constitution.

Secondly, some people may propose or are proposing that the 2013 Constitution be abrogated, and the 1997 Constitution or a new constitution be adopted in its place where the authority of the Great Council of Chiefs becomes a component of Fiji’s legislative process. However, under section 2(5) of the 2013 Constitution, the abrogation of the constitution is not permitted. But I will not be shocked if some hooligans go to the extent of forcing the abrogation of the constitution. They have done this before 2006, and if their greed is not resolved and if they get the right opportunity and support, they can do it again.

Those who are persistent on re-establishing the Great Council of Chiefs are left with the option to repeal the iTaukei Affairs (Great Council of Chiefs) (Revocation) Regulations which came into effect on 9thMarch 2012in the exercise of the powers vested under section 5 of the iTaukei Affairs Act 1945 and using the privileges provided under the same section, re-establish the Great Council of Chiefs.

Let’s assume that the Great Council of Chiefs is re-established by law.

What will be the structure of such a Great Council of Chiefs?

It is an undeniable fact that the Great Council of Chiefs was a colonial curse. Established in the year 1876 that is, two years after Ratu Seru Cakobau and his gang ceded Fiji to Great Britain.

When the Great Council of Chiefs was established, Fiji was scattered into several tribes and clans. It would have been impossible for Great Britain to administer Fiji in such diversity. To make administration more accessible and practical, they re-grouped Fiji into provinces, districts and villages. God knows what their re-grouping methodology was,but if you happen to visit Batiri village in Vanua Levu, half of the village falls in the territory of Cakaudrove Province and the other half in Macuata Province. The village has two Turaga-Ni-Koro (or village administrators).

Great Britain applied the same system in other parts of the world where they had their forced jurisdiction. For example, before the emergence of colonial rule in India, the country existed with several kingly States, each boasting its unique culture, traditions and languages. Great Britain could not administer India in its diverse form with some 70,000 soldiers. Thus, they re-grouped India into provinces, districts and villages in the same manner as did later in Fiji. In that process, the kingly States slowly vanished.

However, the case of India was quite different from that of Fiji.

On the first hand, India was well-versed with the idea of democracy and its significance in the government system. Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa civilizations are symbols of India’s ancient democratic culture. Britishers were well-versed in India’s rich history and knowledge-based society. They were terrified, so they attempted to manipulate and alter India’s history and knowledge but massively failed. They wanted to establish an authoritarian government in India so that, if the nation gained independence, it could continue to loot its resources. However, at the time of independence, the leaders of India chose the path of socialism and democracy. They rejected the class system and blessed their citizens with equality before the law.

On the other hand, during the same time, Fiji struggled with illiteracy, slavery, cannibalism and heathenism. Implying the idea of democracy in such a society would have been vastly impractical, impossible rather. Such a society is governed by a fish-justice system where the big fish eats the smaller fishes.This was visible in the manner in which the last beholder proclaimed the title of Tui Viti. Great Britain was least interested in the governance of Fiji.In addition to that, Fiji never had to struggle for its freedom. For Fiji, freedom was declared by Mr. Rabuka on 7th October 1987. Great Britain divided the iTaukei Fijians into two classes. The chiefly iTaukei, who mainly formed part of the Great Council of Chiefs, and the ordinary iTaukei, who were ruled by the chiefly iTaukei, who hardly had any say in the governance of their system orin the running of Fiji.

The former Prime Minister of Fiji, honorable Doctor Timoci Bavadra, was not chiefly iTaukei.

Let us note. The monarchy culture that existed in India’s pre-mogul and pre-colonial era was vastly different from that of the culture in Great Britain and Fiji. The people elected monarchs in India while in Great Britain, it is appointed following the blood lineage. How often do the ordinary iTaukei get the chance to select their high chiefs? Do they even get the chance?

Today, the citizens of Fiji are highly educated. They live in the modern era, and they understand the importance of democratic principles in the governance of the nation. They have been struggling to establish a democratic Fiji because they want a better future for their children.

In a democracy, every arm of the government must be based on and function by democratic principles. When an institution is established by law, the government is vested with the moral responsibility to allocate a budget for that institution so that, it can function properly. You cannot let a government institution operate on taxpayer’s funds, but the members of the institution are appointed based on a hereditary system as may have been culture in the past Great Council of Chiefs. That will be a slap on both cheeks of democracy. Have you ever thought how much budget was allocated to the Great Council of Chiefs since its inception in 1876 and what was the impact of that allocation on Fiji’s economy and its outcomes?

In this context, the critical question is whether it is possible to establish the Great Council of Chiefs based on democratic principles. In that way, the ordinary iTaukei will have the fair and equal opportunity to contest the Council’s membership and also to vote in the election for the membership of the Council. The presence of the Minister responsible for iTaukei Affairs will signify that the interests of non-iTaukei taxpayers is guaranteed in the Council too.

Section 4 of the iTaukei Affairs Act 1945 outlines the establishment of the iTaukei Affairs Board. For many people, the structure of the iTaukei Affairs Board is problematic because its members are generally appointed by the Minister responsible for iTaukei affairs. I do not have any complaint against this structure because the minister responsible for iTaukei affairs is an elected representative of the people. If he or she is exercising the powers of the Minister, he or she is actually exercising the powers the people have vested upon him or her through the constitution. However, as a Board structure is already in place, it only makes sense to invest taxpayer’s money in improving the Board structure to make it more democratic, inclusive and functional than spending money on creating a separate structure (the Great Council of Chiefs) that will do the same job.

The critical question is that will the chiefly iTaukei let the ordinary iTaukei take leadership portfolios?

What will be the role of such a Great Council of Chiefs?

In the past, the Great Council of Chiefs had particular mandates set out in the constitution of Fiji.

Firstly, from 10th October 1970 (the date on which Fiji Independence Order came into effect) to the political upheavals of the year 2006 and minus the days Fiji was under military dictatorship, Fiji had a bicameral parliamentary system. In other words, Fiji’s Parliament was divided into two chambers. The House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Great Council of Chiefs, or Bose Levu Vakaturaga, appeared in the Senate of Fiji under the last three constitutions of Fiji. However, the number of members it could appoint in the Senate differed in each version of the constitution.

Under section 45(1)(a) of the Fiji Independence Order 1970, the Great Council of Chiefs, through the Governor-General of Fiji, had the power to appoint 8 out of the 22 members of the Senate.

After Mr. Rabuka declared Fiji a Republic on 7thOctober 1987, the Sovereign Democratic Republic of Fiji (Promulgation) Decree 1990(“1990 Decree”) came into effect on 25th July 1990. Under section 55(1)(a) of Fiji’s 1990Decree, the Great Council of Chiefs, through the President of Fiji, had the power to appoint 24 out of 34 members of the Senate.

Under section 64(1)(a) of Fiji’s 1997 Constitution, the Great Council of Chiefs, through the President of Fiji, had the powers to appoint 14 out of 32 members of the Senate.

Secondly, under Fiji’s 1990 Decree. the Great Council of Chiefs was vested with the power to appoint the President of Fiji. And under the 1997 Constitution, to appoint the President and also the Vice- President of Fiji.

Fiji’s current Parliament is a unicameral legislature. Registered voters elect Members of Parliament. Those Members of Parliament then exercise the rights vested upon them under the 2013 Constitution. For example, they make laws for our country. In exercising their rights as Members of Parliament, those persons are exercising the rights of the voters. I think this is proper representative democracy – ONE PERSON, ONE VOTE, and ALL VOTES ARE OF EQUAL VALUE. Unlike the previous constitutions of Fiji, a gang of citizens of Fiji, who were members of the Great Council of Chiefs, could vote twice for the members of Parliament. That is a clear stunt of political inequality.

Apart from that, the President of Fiji is appointed under section 84 of the 2013 Constitution. If the President is absent from duty or from Fiji, then, by virtue of section 88 of the 2013 Constitution, the Chief Justice of Fiji is vested with the powers to perform the functions of the President of Fiji.

There is no provision under the 2013 Constitution to appoint a Vice-President of Fiji.But supposedly, a provision is made by an Act of Parliament to appoint or elect a Vice-President of Fiji; the important question is that what will be the mandate of such a Vice-President?

On 8thDecember 2022, the Fiji Times quoted Mr. Rabuka—
“…the GCC is the institution best positioned to put in place training and leadership programs for the iTaukei traditional leaders.”[1]

Let us note. The iTaukei Affairs Board is well vested with the powers and duties to address all matters pertaining the iTaukei in this nation and other issues that arise at provincial, district and village levels. This, in addition to the powers the Cabinet already has to look at matters in generality.

Therefore, what will be the role of such a Great Council of Chiefs if re-established?

I appeal to all Fijians but especially the iTaukeito think wisely and not support the wastage of taxpayers’ hard-earned money in funding stunts such as re-establishing the Great Council of Chiefs. That money can be better utilized to improve Fiji’s infrastructure and to alleviate poverty in our country.

I appeal to Mr. Rabuka and his gang in the new coalition government to make the government mechanisms more functional at the local level, and conduct elections for Local Government Councils. Apart from that, make Rural Advisory Councils and Rural Maritime Advisory Councils formal arms of the government, governed by Acts and regulations. At the same time, closely monitor these organizations through the government’s anti-corruption authorities like the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (“FICAC”) so that these organizations operate transparently.

I appeal to Mr. Rabuka and his gang in the new coalition government to give a formal structure to non-indigenous communities in Fiji, particularly the Fijians of Indian descent so that their communities become more organized, and their culture, traditions and languages are well preserved and in doing so, revive the Panchayat system in Fiji.

And to those who are persistent on re-establishing the Great Council of Chiefs at the cost of taxpayer’s funds, I suggest that you to instead establish a charity in that name and personally fund that charity without increasing iTaukei  and leases or harassing the minorities in our country to serve the poor and needy. But, let us be warned. Charities in Fiji neither receive nor hold authority over taxpayers’ monies. It will not bring political power and prestige.

God bless Fiji.

Left Salute!

Sincerely yours,

MR. SAVNEEL SANGEET KUMAR