Fiji's Prasad says accounts body now toothless
Fiji's deputy opposition leader Biman Prasad says he has been effectively removed from a key parliamentary body and that's a further erosion of democracy and accountability in the country.
Fiji's deputy opposition leader Biman Prasad says he has effectively been removed from a key parliamentary body and that's a further erosion of democracy and accountability in the country.
On Thursday the economist was voted out as chair of the Public Accounts Committee following on from a change to parliamentary rules in February.
The committee has been scrutinising a backlog of accounts from Frank Bainimarama's military regime.
The requirement to have an opposition appointee leading the key committee has been done away with and the government whip Ashneel Sudhakar is now in charge.
He says the committee is no less independent and will continue its scrutinising role.
But Professor Prasad told Sally Round the new rule is a departure from tradition in many Commonwealth countries.
BIMAN PRASAD: As is the case in many Commonwealth countries, the Public Accounts Committee is always chaired by an opposition member and Fiji's history always had that and obviously government was very very unhappy with the way in which the Public Accounts Committee was doing its job so effectively and efficiently, they had to remove me as chairman.
SALLY ROUND: One of my colleagues has just spoken to the new chair, Ashneel Sudhakar, and he says that there will be no difference in scrutiny - the committee doesn't operate on the whims and fancies of the chair.
BP: That may be so from his point of view but the change in the standing orders actually makes the committee toothless because what it does it removes the committee's power to scrutinise the auditor general's report in a way that will bring about thorough accountability, particularly with respect to value for money where taxpayers' funds are concerned. For example, the government is complaining that the committee was looking at some of the policies. Of course the committee has the right to look at a policy if that policy results in misuse of government funds and wastage of government funds and so basically what the change in the standing orders has done, apart from removing the provision to have an opposition (member) to chair it is basically render the committee's power useless. All the committee will have to do is to go through the motion of looking at the auditor general's report - as per law - without actually providing a thorough and detailed scrutiny of how the taxpayers' funds have been used. That is a big worry and that is a backward step for a government which wants to call the democracy they have a genuine democracy. In fact this whole thing has now become a facade.
SR: How many opposition members are still on the committee?
BP: There is provision for two members. The committee has five members: three government and two opposition members. I was nominated by the leader of the opposition to be the chair of the committee so once I've been removed as chair of the committee I am no longer a member of the committee and it's up to the leader of the opposition now to appoint my replacement and I really, personally do not think I can continue to serve on that committee even if the leader of the opposition wants me to because I don't think I can do justice to the people who have elected me and to the taxpayers of this country. Aseri Radrodro remains on the committee but he has also said that he will be consulting the leader of the opposition.
SR: So he may resign too?
BP: I don't know but the leader of the opposition will have to make that call and relook at what the committee is going to do in light of the changes that have come, not only through the standing orders but also my removal today as chairman of the committee.
SR: So are you saying there is a chance that the opposition could boycott this committee altogether?
BP: I don't want to speculate what the opposition is going to decide and what the leader of the opposition has in her mind at the moment, Sally.
SR: What happens now?
BP: Well, it doesn't stop me as the shadow minister of finance and spokesman on finance for the opposition and leader of the National Federation Party to continue to scrutinise the auditor general's report. These are public documents and when reports from the Public Accounts Committee do come to parliament we will have the opportunity to talk about those reports so really my job doesn't stop here in terms of bringing about accountability (and) holding the government to account, I think that will continue.
SR: And all the backlog of accounts, the stuff that you've done so far - what happens there?
BP: Well this is another issue. We have to understand that it was (the) Bainimarama government who did not release the auditor general's report from 2007 to 2013 so the committee was landed with all the backlog and so we were able to scrutinise reports from 2007-09 and that's been submitted to Parliament. We went on to looking at 2010 right up until 2013 and there were some serious issues - for example the salaries issue that cabinet ministers were paid under the military government, issues about the miscellaneous expenditure in what we call Head 50 and obviously the last meeting that we had was in August last year: two members left the committee from the government side - there was no replacement so we did not have the quorum and we couldn't meet after that.
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