TRANSCRIPT OF REMARKS TO THE PRESS ON MEDIA REPORTING OF $100 MILLION FUNDS

We’d like to address a matter that has been very much been in the media and in particular The Fiji Times and I understand the social media including the websites and FB pages that support SODELPA. This is about the so-called $100m missing articles that have been published by the Fiji Times and continuously has been published further seeking answers on this.
I would like to clarify the situation today, not to explain about the $100m but about the manner in which this matter has been handled by the Fiji Times, in such an irresponsible manner and in particular also by the Public Accounts Committee – the way that they have also handled the matter.
We have so far not made a public statement because we have understood as has been an incident relayed earlier on to another committee matter that we weren’t allowed to comment in public space regarding matters that were before the committee.
The Fiji Times has been pursuing questions from us, sending us questions, we have refused to answer them because we want to follow the proper path.
We yesterday approached the Hon. Speaker of the House and then followed by a letter officially to the Hon. Speaker seeking clarification on our ability to respond in the public space regarding matters before the committee that has been raised in the public space, in particular by one media organisation overwhelmingly.
The Hon. Speaker has given us the clarification and has said that (if) we want (we) can make comments in the media as long as they are not confidential matters that are discussed before the committee so in other words they were not in closed sessions and also that we are at liberty to discuss this with the media organisation.
Our position has always been, any parliamentary committee, standing committee of parliament has quasi-judicial powers. The quasi-judicial powers means that they are able to summon witnesses, they are able to summon people to appear before it but they must also act judiciously.
Acting judiciously means that you do not give running commentary on matter that you are still deciding upon.
In this particular case, because a question was asked regarding Head 50 and because the officer at that time was not the relevant officer to answer the question, she was from Audit. Asinate who is here next to me who is the head of budget- she should been the one to whom the question should have been put to and unfortunately, that officer said I cannot account for it.
The conclusion was then arrived at by the Fiji Times that $100m cannot be accounted for. We have copies of the various newspaper publications that we can show to you and subsequently there was a letter written by the PS (Finance) to chairman of the Public Accounts Committee to say that a detailed response would be provided, which today has been provided and this is what it is.
It gives a breakdown of Head 50, which is always presented in the budget. If you look at Head 50, you will see that it is broken down into various SEGs. SEG 1, SEG 3, SEG 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. It gives a detailed explanation what these amounts are and what these amounts are allocated for.
The $100m that was very loosely referred to is the average amount allocated to Head 50 over a period of 15 years- from 2000 to 2014.
There was absolutely no attempt whatsoever by the Fiji Times or any other media that may have published it to actually exactly find out or they could have very simply gone to the budget documentation that was presented to Parliament last year in November and found out exactly what it was and what they money was exactly used for.
In fact the newspaper article also said that the Small Grants Scheme was in Head 50, the Small Grants Scheme is in Head 2 which is in the PM’s office Head.
This in many societies would be held to be malpractice and this in many societies would be condemned by everybody by a particular media organisation to sensationalise matters about Government finances.
It is sensationalism that is to the detriment of confidence in the economy, trying to create an air to say there is lack of transparency when the right people who are here on either side of me were there to answer the questions.
We were very concerned of course ourselves when we read the reports in the papers. We were also very concerned about the response given by the relevant officer in question and we have spoken to that officer, we have already provided to the secretariat of the PAC a breakdown of Head 50, they have received it this afternoon.
So ladies and gentleman, what we see over here is depriving the Fijian population of accurate information by the media. What we see here is a chairman of the committee giving a running commentary on a matter that is before the committee. We have urged and we have said this before that when a matter is before a committee, it does not mean that just because one person has appeared before that the answer has been given.
The answer and the culmination of the findings is always in the report of the committee. If you go to a court and if it has sat down for four, five, six days hearing, if you hear what witness says on day one, does the judge go out and arrive at a conclusion. No, the judge has to listen to all the witnesses, has to listen to all the facts, all the evidence, then look at the law and come up with a ruling or a decision.
In the same way, the PAC needs to give their findings in the report and this is why we have said previously, running commentaries in particular, when there are matters that involve finances, they need to be done in a very diligent and judicious manner and unfortunately that has not happened.
We have three articles, we have in the Fiji Times on the 6th of August – “No answer for $100m question” – “Response Overdue” dated 8th September 2015 and then the “$100m question” which is dated the 17th of September.
It contains a number of misquotations and omits the actual context within which the answers were given. So I urge the media, when you are reporting on committee findings contextualise the matter. Just because one person has given answer to the committee it does not mean that that would be the outcome of those investigations or those hearings.
The other matter that we would like to address is that we have also highlighted the fact that all these matters, the information can be very easily ascertained. Yes, in this particular instance we did not give the response because we did a thorough analysis going back in the past 14 years and also we wanted to hold off onto it because we also wanted to make a public statement on it, it is very critical.
We also urge the PAC not to give running commentaries. Yesterday, I had a meeting with the chairman of the PAC of the Australian Federal Parliament and one of the members and they themselves said that the findings of the committee is always contained in the report. The findings of the committee are contained in the report and not in a running commentary on a day to day basis by the chair or any other member of the committee.
It is very critical to ensure that we give the right information to the public. The committees are therefore, at the end of the day to find out the best solution. If they are PAC, to find out exactly what happened and then to make a recommendation to the Parliament, that is the purpose of the PAC.
We have also noted a number of anomalies in the manner in which the Auditor General has given the report. There is one particular incident where the Acting PS Finance can tell you, the auditor general’s report alluded to the fact that there were no contracts in place when in fact contracts were in place.
After the Auditor General’s report was presented to the PAC, the Acting PS Finance told the Auditor General’s office that the contracts are here and they were like yes it is here but in the Auditor General’s report reference to it was limited, if not mentioned at all.
We are finding similar anomalies in the Auditor General’s report, we are finding similar lack of understanding of commercial transactions by the Auditor General’s office- a number of modern day transactions that relate to Government, that relate to commercial transactions, the inability to understand the legal implications, they can seek legal advice from the SG’s office but that has been minimal and some of the recent comments that we have seen by them in the queries they have had in the respective ministries shows the complete lack of understanding of certain legal matters and therefore the conclusions they are arriving at is not always accurate nor correct for that matter.
We have now given the response on Head 50 on the Miscellaneous Services budget and I want to tell you for example of what are some of the expenses within Head 50. In SEG 1, it allows for the payer awards- salary adjustments so for example
- in 2001 there was a spike of $45m when there was a restoration of the pay-cut that was implemented in 2000 so that restoration, that adjustment was parked in Head 50 and that came in 2001
- in 2003, there was a provision of COLA and merit payments, that was then saw a spike of about $25m
- in 2005 and 2006, there was a job evaluation exercise, that was implemented, again you saw it exceed over $20m, there were no amounts in 2007 and 2008
- in 2009, again there was job evaluation exercise that saw a spike of close to $30m in that particular SEG
- SEG 3 includes expenses for overseas recruitment, passage allowance for officers on leave- these are those civil servants who are not on contract employment but get long service leave etc, overseas travel costs for civil servants and Ministers. These are parked in SEG 3. The overall increase of 67 percent took place between 2000 and 2014.
- in 2004 the increase in budget was largely due to the increase provision for passage allowance which is the leave allowance entitlement paid to all non-contracted officers after 12 years of service and every third leave anniversary thereafter. There was some reductions in this SEG because then the overseas travel cost for the civil servants were transferred to the individual ministries rather than parking on SEG 50 which obviously gives a lot more accountability
- SEG 5 it includes agents charges and fees, bankers commission and exchange, expenses of experts and consultants and litigation fees- these were all parked in SEG 5
- there was an increase in 2014 because what we did, in order to get more control over it, a number of expenses were moved to SEG 5 so for example litigation fees was moved from the office of the AG to Head 50, it was parked there so these are the ways that the expenses keep on changing
- in SEG 6, 2009 where we started paying FICAC, FICAC was created and the grant for FICAC was paid from Head 50 SEG 6. Now if you notice, in this year’s budget we have a separate (one) that has all the independent commissions- Human Rights Commission, Judicial Services Commission and we have then of course, FICAC, we will get the Accountability and Transparency Commission. All of these commissions are now in a separate head. So SEG 6 will go down from this year because FICAC has been taken out and given a separate head with all the independent commissions. So the accountability, irrespective of which head it is placed in is there, it is movements, it is those adjustments, for example in 2012, there was a new provision for ADB subscription and that’s when the budget went up. From this year SEG 6 will go down because FICAC has been removed from it
- St Johns grant, St Johns ambulance used to be in Head 50 and now it has been moved to Head 22 from this year so obviously it will come down
- SEG 7 has miscellaneous refunds, duty on Government purchases and general reserves plus other one-off budget provisions for specific identified purposes and you will always find this.
- in 2003 there was a spike because a special budget allocation was made for VAT refunds, office building maintenance and asset sales expenses and this is in 2003 so these kind of adjustments take place in SEG 7
- in SEG 9 it includes the provision for purchase of new and replacement of office equipment and vehicles and the vehicle leasing programme for the whole of Government
- in 2002 there was a huge spike which has never been reached after that. Nearly $27m in 2002 that was a one-off budget expense, at that time it was called the Natadola Marine Resort infrastructure development- the realignment of the Queens Road in Taunivou, the Pacific village and the supplementary provision for the standby facility for unforeseen capital projects. That was 2002 and went to $25m or $27m. In 2014 it is about $12m to $13m, in fact it was very low, quite minimal in SEG 9 up until 2008. In 2009 it increased slightly, just over $5m because of the vehicle leasing programme that we have comes in SEG 9 in Head 50. This is vehicle leasing for all the government ministries.
- SEG 10, which is the last SEG has recorded an increase of 763 per cent compared to 2000 and 2014- why? Because this is where TELS is paid from, this is where the Home Grant is paid from, this is where the PSC and iTaukei scholarships, some of which still exists where people are finishing off, this is where these expenses are parked, the Denarau bridge is parked under SEG 10 of Head 50
- in 2011 there was a spike of around $180m because that is when Government pumped in money for FSC and that tapered off in 2012 so these are the kind of expenses that are parked under Head 50
This is the explanation that has been given to the secretariat of PAC, addressed to the chairman of PAC.
This is a very unique situation that we are in now and that uniqueness has been created by the fact is that there has been a lot of irresponsible reporting, in particular in this instance unfortunately by the Fiji Times by taking a particular answer out of context and putting an actual spin to it.
And unfortunately the chairman of the PAC has continued to feed into that rather than saying, look, lets wait for the response from Ministry of Finance, we will then come to a conclusion whether there has been abuse of funds or whether there is $100m missing or if there is any anomalies.
That is precisely what the committee and the chairman should have done because nobody can arrive at a conclusion without getting all the facts and information first, how can you do that, how can the Fiji Times do that and how can the chairman of the PAC allow that to happen and that is precisely what has happened, and it is not an insignificant issue, it is a very significant issue because when you have such headlines, when you have such irresponsible reporting, anybody picking up that newspaper or listening to the radio or reading from a website will say “oh, in Fiji there is no accountability, they don’t know where $100m is”. That is the impact of it and it was allowed to be lingered on for the past couple of months.
And I can bet your bottom dollar that is this response had been provided earlier on they would not have covered it, nor would the PAC, if they would have said, “yes we have received the response” would they have gone into the details to explain to them and said well now it is accounted for, that would have probably been in the report.
So our appeal to the chairman of the PAC and members of the PAC, is please nobody is stopping you from doing your work, you have access to all the officials, you have the ability to call officials who may have not been there for the day and they are the right officials to call, you have access to them, please call them, please get all the information and then arrive at your conclusion.
Please don’t give a running commentary, you are undermining the very committee that you are supposed to be representing with the credibility of that committee is significantly diminished if you arrive at the conclusion without hearing all the facts.
And my appeal to the media is also this- please just because you are sitting at the back, try and understand what is happening, try and talk to the officials if you want to get clarification, nobody is stopping you from doing that. We always respond to questions, reporter from Fiji Times knows, except in this particular instance I did not, whilst questions were sent to me repeatedly from her and the reporter from the West because of this very matter, of whether we could respond publicly or not. And I have it in writing here from the Hon. Speaker of the House that I can and I received the letter this morning and that is why we are holding this press conference.
As I said, we have given the Head 50 details to the chairman of PAC and we are quite happy to also give it to you. In fact because the matter is of such significant importance that we will actually give this to you and you can go to the Ministry of Finance website also where you will find the most up to date information right up to December 2014 regarding our debt to GDP ratio, regarding the Government finances, revenue and spending.
That type of information was not made available before, it is now being made available, in fact we have said this previously.
Thank you very much.

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