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Response to Speech from the Throne

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By Hon. Matthew C Wale

I wish to thank His Excellency for gracing Parliament with his presence and delivering the government’s policy priorities for 2021. I wish to also thank the PM for invoking this part of our Standing Orders to invite His Excellency to open each meeting. I don’t think any of us paid any attention to the existence of this Standing Order. In other commonwealth jurisdictions, of course, the Speech from the Throne is delivered at the commencement of each session of parliament. And our constitution is very clear that a session of parliament is not longer than twenty four months. And meetings are held within a session of parliament. From this reading of the constitution, I take it that the Founding Fathers did not anticipate that a meeting of parliament would take an entire year, with the use of special adjournments. I would encourage the PM to study this and make full use of it.

This matter raises a constitutional issue that merits our attention. Section 72(2) of the Constitution requires that there are at least two sessions in the life of a parliament. And that each session is opened by proclamation by His Excellency under Section 72(1). A session dies a natural death on the expiry of twenty four months from its opening unless prorogued earlier by resolution of the House. From this reading, it can be argued that the first session of parliament commenced in May 2019 with the election of the Speaker and will end twenty four months hence. We are technically in the dying stages of the first session of this parliament now.

There are implications from this for parliamentary business. Generally speaking, parliamentary business that is outstanding from one session dies at the end of that session, and must therefore be reintroduced in the next session. Consequently, there would be implications for outstanding business from one session carried in the next session without being reintroduced properly. I wish to flag that now, as in years gone by, this matter was ignored and parliament carried on as if one session could last an entire four year term. But the constitution clearly does not allow for that.

His Excellency began his speech by reminding all of us members of parliament in our various roles and responsibilities to provide leadership with integrity. He expressed similar sentiments in his first address, a year earlier, and it is only right that we all pay attention. His Excellency is a true servant of integrity and has consistently demonstrated this throughout his life and service in education and in the church. After retiring as Archbishop, he returned to his passion as a teacher before taking up his current responsbilities.  Let us rise to his call and seek to emulate his example.

As MPs some are Ministers and exercise the powers of Executive government, others are Chairs of various committees in executive government, whilst others of us animate parliamentary supervision of the executive government through standing committees and the two offices of Leader of Independents and Leader of Opposition. He is right, if we all took our responsibilities seriously and discharge those with integrity, our democracy would be very strong indeed, just as our founding Fathers had hoped. And the result would flow on into society and the economy. 

A look at the budget data over the last six years reveal very low budget execution rates across almost all ministries. No proper public expenditure reviews were conducted across ministries to assess whether actual expenditure matched budget plans. Only one ministry has done such a review several years ago, and it showed that actual expenditure skewed badly from budget for that ministry. All ministries should do periodic expenditure reviews to help them in decision making and budget discipline. Budgets are derived from plans, and if ministries are unable to stick to budgets, it is doubtful that plans are ever going to be achieved. This is a serious weakness that must be addressed but it demonstrates the great need for leadership in the ministries.

This is why ministers need to understand their role and responsibilities in policy making, planning, budgeting, and implementation. Guidelines must be formulated to assist ministers in the performance of their work. Ministers ought to undergo training to understand their work and cabinet responsibilities and processes. Let us swallow our pride in this matter. Ministers’ performance is essential to effective executive government. I encourage the PM, as coordinating minister, to establish a regular assessment of ministers’ performance. I hear that some ministers have a poor attendance record at their offices. This is terrible and dishonoring to the offices they hold, and ultimately it is disrespectful of the people of Solomon Islands.

The people of this country have very high expectations of their government, and rightly so. Please do not fail them by neglecting the solemn responsibilities entrusted to you as ministers.

The other point I wish to make is this – all fifty of us are MPs first and foremost. All other responsibilities derive from that. This means that our parliamentary responsibilities take precedence – lawmaking, supervision, and advancing respect for the constitution. This is important to minimize the temptation for the executive government to use parliament as a rubber stamp.

The role of the Opposition office is important to our democracy. It is unfortunate that the office has been neglected for so long. The office is an important part of our parliamentary supervision of the executive government, as well as providing alternative views on policy and strategies. It needs to be resourced to fulfill its responsibilities effectively. Its human resource establishment, office space and facilities, and its access to information in executive government are important to making the office effective in discharging its responsibilities. 

Executive government must not operate on the mode of secrecy as its default modus operandi. This requires a shift in mindset. We govern on behalf of the people, exercising public powers and expending public resources. None of these matters are private to any individual or group of individuals. Therefore, it is important to building and maintaining public trust that there is open government, that people are able to see the how and why of decisions made on their behalf and in their name. Of course, there is need for confidentiality and secrecy also in some matters, but these should be by deliberate choice determined by the nature of the matters involved – it should be the exception not the rule. Let’s continue reforms to open government more, it will make for better decision making and governance.

It is important that the independence of parliament is further enhanced. I did not hear anything on this in His Excellency’s Speech. However, parliament needs to operate on its own calendar to give certainty for the transaction of its business and give effect to its oversight responsibilities.  

The PM informed parliament of the recent cabinet decision to extend the life of parliament from 4 to 5 years, although this is yet subject to further discussions with key offices in government. From the outset, let me just say that as a matter of principle, it is important that on a matter concerning the life of parliament itself there must be a clear and direct mandate from the people. This is only possible from a general election. Limited consultations that merely respond to predetermined questions and data would be inadequate to give a mandate for such a matter. So ideally, this matter should be taken to the electorate at the next general elections for a mandate. If the government wishes to proceed before the elections, at the very least it should consult widely – although as I said, this is inadequate on a matter of such gravity. And the change should not affect this parliament – it should come in the next one.

This is a policy position the SIDP took to the last general elections. I do not recall seeing any other party seek a mandate on this matter. We must avoid taking unilateral decisions on matters that should involve the people. Let us respect the place of the electorate in these kinds of decisions.

The PM stated that the need for constitutional reforms and the Pacific Games 2023 form the basis for this proposal to extend the life of parliament. I would suggest that if the games are an issue, that the games be postponed by a year to allow the elections to take place. Even the Olympics has been postponed, and in the current circumstances, I don’t think that anyone would begrudge us postponing the Pacific Games. Further, ongoing reform is the work of parliament and cannot be grounds for extending the life of the House itself. I will say more on this matter when the proposal has been finalized and is brought to the House for deliberation. The matter is of such gravity that it is important to caution the government right at the outset about it.

I have already said much that is relevant to the policy priorities outlined in His Excellency’s speech in the debate on the 2021 budget.

There are some positives about government’s overall policy disposition. Firstly, one can see there is a waking up to the need to have fewer priorities. Secondly, there is recognition that adequate funding is a necessity to ensure priorities have any realistic hope of being achieved. Thirdly, government is more sensitive to its own capacity to execute and therefore the need to review its delivery mechanisms and to seek strategic partnerships with non-state actors. As I said these are positives and must be encouraged. However, there is much room for improvement in all these positives. The priorities would seem to me still too many in the current difficult economic situation and given the squeeze on government revenues. The result is that although there is better clarity on government priorities, the funding levels are still inadequate for purpose. I grant that there has been increases in budget allocations to government priorities, compared to previous years. But in this matter, it is not a comparison to prior years that is important. The two factors critical to delivery of the policy objectives are whether there is adequate funding and capacity to execute. A look at the 2021 budget reveals a sharing out of the cake, not a strategic outlook. In Wala, we would say, “ke fatoo mola”, allocating something to show you recognize it not necessarily to meet the need.

This was my main critique of government policy as contained in the 2021 budget, and it is still relevant to this debate. Fewer priorities will achieve clearer focus. Fewer priorities enable adequate funding to be allocated which would lead to better delivery and execution. And the delivery/execution objective requires government to seek the most efficient, effective and economically catalytic partnerships.

In His Excellency’s Speech, as in the 2021 budget, government stated that agriculture, fisheries and forestry represent growth sectors that will attract investment. And in each of these, processing represents the strategic growth opportunities. Of course, processing must be supported with marketing capacity. These are all very important statements. However, we have just dealt with the 2021 budget, and I think we can all agree that the 2021 budget cannot deliver on these. As I said in the 2021 budget, this is disappointing. I had hoped for more ambition in these three sectors.

Two factors would contribute greatly to creating growth in these sectors, as in others. Firstly, substantive tax reforms need to be delivered sooner. Secondly, there must be an ecosystem that is proactive in supporting business.

High taxation in this country remains an impediment to serious investment that would unlock opportunities in these sectors. Tax reform has been on the cards for the last twenty years and there has been very little movement on any of it. What is the problem, may I ask? It would seem to me there is an irrational fear of the unknown, or perhaps a fear of government losing revenue in the short term. This matter requires a rational approach that accepts there will be an immediate short term reduction in government revenues as it streamlines taxation. It is important that government keeps its eyes on the long term benefits of such reforms to motivate and guide the tempo and direction of tax reforms.

Further, fiscal incentives are a key catalyst to investment. Government must not fear this. However, there is a need for certainty on such incentives, and clarity and transparency around the process and timing to obtain them. The ad hoc manner fiscal incentives are handled at present does not give certainty to business and investment and makes decision making arbitrary. There is too much discretion left to certain individuals, and nothing to clarify to business what is permissible. Decision making takes too long. Lack of certainty, lack of transparency and delayed arbitrary decision making are serious impediments to creating a sound stable business environment to attract quality investments. Worse, they are more likely to encourage corruption as businesses are put in the situation that they need to induce these things to happen. This is the current quagmire we have at present, and it is choking off growth in the economy. There needs to be serious, substantive, efficient reform in these.

An ecosystem that attracts, encourages, supports, and facilitates business enterprise must be a deliberate policy target of the government. Access to finance continues to be an issue. DBSI will go some way towards addressing this issue but much more needs to be done. KYC requirements make it difficult for a lot of businesses and individuals to open bank accounts. This is really an unnecessary impediment. There must be more common sense in this matter. Government must liaise with the central bank on this matter. Access to land is another important factor. I note government’s land reform objectives. I grant there are structural issues involved in land reform that need to be handled with care. The current stamp duty on land transactions is another issue affecting refinancing of businesses, and needs to be reformed. It places an unnecessary cost on what ought to be simple business transactions.

Business advisory services, financial services, extension services, efficient trade disputes resolution, predictable transportation services, better quality communication, and infrastructure are essential components of a sound business-friendly ecosystem. 

Solomon Islands has been described as an expensive investment destination. That is why Tina Hydro is costing three times than it should, as an example. It is important that the services available in an ecosystem are not excessively priced. The services currently available to support business are excessive and expensive. Reforms must address this.

In the debate on the 2021 budget I dwelled on the need for inclusive growth to be a focus for economic reform. We want to build a vibrant and just Solomon Islands society. Economic injustice is a breeder of social injustice. This aspect of our economy needs more honest debate and action. And government must advance and protect the interests of the people in this important matter. Policies, laws, and practices that facilitate exploitative economic behavior and activity must be reviewed. 

Cost of living continues to be a problem in our economy, despite low and negative inflation. I think it is fair to say that the majority of Solomon Islanders live on the margins, barely surviving in a hand to mouth situation. This situation is worst in urban centers. This is the clear picture from the recent Household survey. Food is expensive, leading to poor choices. Electricity is expensive, water is expensive leading to poor hygiene and health, transportation is expensive, education is expensive, access to healthcare is difficult in certain parts of the country. This is in part a result of the lack of inclusive economic growth over the past fifty or so years. Government must not lose sight of these important areas of policy concern.

Price discrimination in land and property – I have been laboring this point for some time, but the current economic model will deprive indigenous Solomon Islanders of titled land. Titled land is becoming too expensive for indigenous Solomon Islanders, whilst the prices are relatively cheap for foreigners. There is no level playing field. There is need to impose price discrimination to level the playing field. Young indigenous Solomon Islanders are priced out of the market, and it will get even more difficult for them, if government continues to do nothing on this matter. I did not see this matter addressed in government’s policies. In fact, I am concerned that government’s intention to review land rentals and rates will further drive up land values, further disempowering young indigenous Solomon Islanders. Government’s desire for more revenue must not add to the existing problem. The situation is already grave, but on the current trajectory if nothing is done to rectify it, indigenous Solomon Islanders will be reduced to being only renters, at best, and spectators, at worst. This cannot be good for our society.

The lack of clarity in government policy in the shipping sector needs to be addressed. The interests of Solomon Islanders in the shipping industry needs to be protected. It is, of course, important that shipping services are efficient and offer a good service at a reasonable price. However, government must protect and support Solomon Islanders in this industry. I was encouraged by the statements from both the minister for MID and the Finance minister that they will look at this matter. In all government policy, Solomon Islanders must come first.

We must appreciate the contributions being made by our partners to the preparations for the Pacific Games 2023. I only want to reemphasize to government the need to ensure maximum cash from the support is injected into the Solomon Islands economy, and maximum numbers of Solomon Islanders are employed in the construction phase of these infrastructures. We are grateful that infrastructure facilities are essentially donated to us, but we would appreciate it more if they spur growth in jobs and opportunities for Solomon Islanders in these difficult times.

Let me just make a few comments on the major constraints on meaningful economic growth posed by the quality of our education infrastructure and resources, the quality of our healthcare system, and the reach and quality of infrastructure throughout the country. I want to urge the government to put together a focused and costed plan for these, and to propose a phased financing plan that would become the basis of dialogue with our donor partners and IFIs. It would be good for the government to give a clear overall picture to donor partners of development priorities for the next ten to fifteen years, to assist their own planning to support our efforts. Let’s be ambitious on these with our partners. We cannot be blamed for that. 

Our schools need equipped science labs, libraries, computer labs, cheap internet access, and proper sanitation. These ought to be basic to schools, but are still a rarity in ours’. The roll out of the role delineation policy throughout our healthcare system will create improvement in the access to and the quality of healthcare services. Sealed roads around and across our islands cannot continue to be a distant desire. These are critical to moving our economy substantively forward. 

It is time for the government to establish a national scientific research authority. Such an authority would be responsible for research in all sectors of our economy and society, and would work closely with SINU and other overseas institutions. We have limited scientific manpower and it makes sense to rationalize our approach to research. I need not point out that good research is essential to ensuring our economy is not stuck in the past.

I am encouraged to note government is waking up to the great need to relocate communities vulnerable to sea level rise. This is a good start. This matter cannot be approached in a simplistic manner. However, given the urgency of the need, there is no time to lose. A carefully thought-out policy and approach will not only save lives but give hope to our vulnerable communities. 

I am encouraged by the government’s recognition that technical and skills training is important to our economy. This is positive. However, the budget allocations do not yet show that this is priority. I encourage the government to be more ambitious in this area. Special needs education is another gap in our education system that is failing our children and deserves policy attention.

Gender-based and domestic violence is a serious cancer eating away at the fabric of our society. It is based in the perverted primitive view of women and girls as sex objects and property. It is a major cause of family breakdown and trauma in our women and young girls. This holds them down as individuals from realizing the potential they possess to exploit opportunities in life. The issues this problem raises are cross cutting and require a comprehensive cocktail of policy responses. And the government must work on those. However, the need is desperate and urgent and cannot continue to be ignored and neglected. The Ministry of Women has been neglected over a long long time, and this consistent neglect has conditioned them to not be as ambitious as they should be. We have placed them in the terrible situation where they are continually apologetic for the terrible results of this cancer. Their pleas for support have never been given any weight. Worse, their cries for help have been castigated as feminism, women’s rights, and anti-men. We the men of this country have collectively failed our women folk. We the leaders in this House have failed our women folk. You the men in executive government have failed our women folk. Surely, there is a place in our hearts that is touched by the oppression and suffering of our women who are violated and abused. At least two thirds of our women experience this. Surely, we are moved enough by their suffering to take serious steps to join together to fight this cancer in our midst. Surely, the government can find it in their hearts to allocate significant money to respond to a serious need in our midst. Yes, we must collaborate with the churches and NGOs in this important fight, but given the size and extent of this problem, government must play a leading role.

As I did in the budget debate and during committee of supply, I call on the Prime Minister to take personal responsibility for government’s response on this issue.

In conclusion, let me say that government’s policy priorities point in the right direction. Are they likely to be achieved? The 2021 budget is the best indication of how likely that is. A number of policy priorities are unfunded in 2021. This coupled with the lack of adequacy of allocations in the budget, and consistently low execution rates, unfortunately I think it will be a major challenge to meaningfully deliver on the policies. This is not to discourage government, but to embolden (radua) government to be ambitious to prove me wrong and deliver way beyond expectations.

Let me close by thanking His Excellency for his address to the House. I wish to also thank the Hon. PM for this motion to allow members to express their views on government policy and legislative priorities for 2021. Let me also register my appreciation to the front liners and those giving them leadership for the great work they are doing to keep our country safe from Covid-19. Let me also thank church leaders, community leaders, chiefs, elders for keeping peace, order and cohesion in our communities. I call on them to make a special effort to stamp out violence against our women and girls. I especially call on the churches to both preach and model the gospel of love, grace, forgiveness, peace, and service in our families and communities.

I wish to thank the Hon Chief Justice and the judiciary and support services for the important work they do to ensure justice is both administered and seen to be done in our country. 

Let me thank our donor partners, without whose support it would be ordinarily difficult for us to realize our development aspirations in a more timely manner.

And finally let us thank our Father in heaven, who has chosen to dwell among us and in us and is the eternal source of our joy, hope and strength.

I support the motion.

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