Honourable and Distinguished Members of Parliament;
Ambassadors and Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Ladies and gentlemen.
Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
I’m delighted to be here to officially open the 25th Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum and to welcome all of our distinguished international guests to Fiji.
Our Fijian delegation is joined here today by 20 Heads of Delegation from Russia, Cambodia, Australia, Mexico, Japan, Thailand, Colombia, New Zealand, Micronesia, Indonesia, Chile, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, Korea, Laos, Peru, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Allow me to say, on behalf of the Fijian people, what a privilege it is to welcome all of you to our shores. And I hope that you are all able to experience the famed hospitality that we Fijians pride ourselves on offering.
Fiji is extremely proud to have renewed our participation with the APPF following the establishment of true parliamentary democracy – the first time in our history that our Constitution provides for common and equal citizenry and an electoral system that guarantees that every vote has equal value.
Over the last decade, Fiji has embarked on a progressive path that has seen our standing in the world and our integration with the region grow exponentially. And we are very proud of the recognition you have afforded Fiji by honouring us as the hosts of this year’s forum.
The APPF is an esteemed and highly regarded international body – and its strength is rooted in our shared commitment to democracy. Each of us is beholden only to the people who have placed us here, to those we were elected to serve. And that underlying principle makes Fiji very proud of our membership and of what we have been able to achieve alongside our APPF partners.
Those achievements were also made possible – in no small part – by the dedicated members of the APPF, to whom we again owe our thanks for their invaluable help bringing us together here in Natadola. To the working groups, Drafting Committee, Executive Committee and other members: vinaka vakalevu for all your hard work. Thank you very much.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Over the last quarter of a century, the APPF has consistently remained at the forefront of the global and regional challenges of our time. Under the Tokyo Declaration – and the expansions that followed – this forum has remained committed to its core mandate to further regional trust and cooperation by forging common ground among us, and by using the great diversity of our region to boost the international standing of the Asia-Pacific.
Today, our region is on the cutting edge of development. Around the world, we are increasingly seen as a model for economic dynamism and integration. And the APPF has shown many other countries and international institutions how elected legislatures can lead the way in deepening regional cooperation to spur economic development.
Raising the status of women has been a top priority for my Government, and so I was extremely proud that last year’s forum produced its first-ever meeting of Women Parliamentarians – a welcome step towards addressing the need for greater inclusion of women in public life, and particularly in political spaces.
We have all just heard from the Honourable Dr. Jiko Luveni, who we are blessed to have serve as our first female Speaker of any Fijian Parliament. As a woman who serves as a tremendous role model for every Fijian, she has used her position to become a forceful advocate for greater acceptance of women in Fijian politics and national life. And that is a cause I am deeply proud to champion alongside her.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Throughout our history of working as partners through the APPF, we have seen over and over again that we are strongest when we are most united. And that unity and the trust have allowed us to strike a regional balance in the Asia-Pacific that works for the benefit of us all. Most of Fiji’s major trading partners are fellow APPF countries, and that is not by mere chance.
Certainly, geography has created natural trade patterns. But we have also had the wisdom to build strong economic partnerships, and we learned long ago that the transfer of knowledge, expertise and experiences gives us all a better chance of improving the lives of our people. And at this year’s forum I believe that will ring more true than ever, as we seek to forge parliamentary partnerships for our mutual peace and security, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 16.
Here in Fiji, my Government is very proud of the significant strides we have made to address social and economic inequality in our society.
Ten years ago, Fijian society was riddled with institutional biases on the basis of religion, ethnicity, gender, provincialism and socioeconomic status. And while it is a work in progress, we have knocked down many long-standing barriers to equal opportunity and have laid out a clear progressive path for our national development. Today, I am proud to say that the Fijian people stand more united and more prosperous than at any time in our history.
On the back of our seventh consecutive year of economic growth, we have committed ourselves to mainstreaming as many Fijians as possible by making sure our economic gains do not belong to the few or to the elite, but rather to the many—to all of the hard-working ordinary Fijians to whom we owe our economic achievement.
We are doing everything in our power to make ambition, discipline, and ability the only predictors of success in Fijian society. Merit must be rewarded over social position, political connections or sense of entitlement. And we are committed to building a social safety net that protects those who are most vulnerable.
Whether it be through our free education initiative, subsidised water and electricity, free medicine for those below a particular income level or our merit-based approach to civil service recruitment. At the same time we are also expanding our road network and connecting the unconnected to water, electricity and telecommunications.
We are striving to bring greater opportunities into the life of every Fijian. That is a basic responsibility of government. And then it is up to each Fijian to determine what he or she will do with those opportunities. In that way, we unleash the talents and energies of our people so they can improve their own lives and build a better and stronger Fiji. And while we may be spread out over 100 populated islands, our long-term goal is to ensure that geographic location has no bearing on the economic prospects of any of our people.
I am very proud of all we have achieved, but it is vital that we match our unprecedented development with equal efforts to ensure that it is sustainable – that we take steps to protect the hard-won progress of the Government I lead and of the Fijian people.
I know that the nations gathered here today share my belief that national security is the most essential function of any government—that information relating to public safety and well-being is vital and must be managed with transparency and efficiency, and that our economic security and national security are intrinsically linked. We cannot be prosperous if we are besieged by crime, corruption and internal or external threats, either by state actors or criminal and terror organisations.
It is our sacred duty to protect the men, women and children of our respective countries, and that is best achieved by promoting peace and security at a regional and international level – because there is no operating in isolation in the current global security landscape.
Conflict can spill over to reach any corner of the globe at any time. Criminals operate in cyber-landscapes irrespective of national borders and outside of geographic limitations. And many existing laws, regulations and tactics are woefully out of date and irrelevant to the evolving threats we face.
That is why this forum is so important. Here we can deepen the trust and security cooperation among our nations and find solutions that can save valuable time in preventing transnational crimes. Here we can share strategies that have been effective, and explain pitfalls that should be avoided. Here we can lay the groundwork for the next phase of regional security by strengthening existing frameworks and systems, and preparing the next generation for the challenges not yet upon us.
The stakes could not be higher. The crises we will discuss in the coming days threaten years of development progress throughout our region, are causing countless innocents to suffer, and jeopardise entire peoples and ways of life.
These issues demand regional action – because any weak link in the Asia-Pacific leaves us all exposed. We live together in this part of the world. It is our home, and it should nurture the hopes and dreams of our people. We share this most sacred space, and so we share a destiny and a responsibility to all our people, and Fiji stands ready to do our part.
That being said, each of us faces different sets of security concerns. Each of us has to develop tailored solutions that fit our own situation. We in the Pacific, for example, are faced with an external threat that far exceeds our own abilities to confront. I am speaking, of course, about the rising seas and severe and erratic weather patterns brought about by climate change.
When taking stock of the scale of the security risks we face, none compare to the threat climate change poses to many low-lying nations throughout the Pacific–nations whose very existence is at stake due to rising seas. We have no choice but to give this crisis all the energy, rigorous attention and sincere commitment that we can muster. And as you are all aware, Fiji has been elected to preside over the UN climate change negotiations at COP 23 in November, and we are also co-hosting the UN Oceans Conference with Sweden in June.
So clearly these are issues close to our heart and major cornerstones of our foreign policy – and I’m glad to see that regional cooperation on climate change has been given due prominence on our agenda. I very much look forward to increased cooperation among us on climate change adaptation, the conservation of our oceans, seas and marine resources, and disaster-risk reduction.
The Asia-Pacific region is considered the most disaster-prone in the world. This is a fact to which every Fijian can attest, given the destruction wrought upon us by Tropical Cyclone Winston last year – the strongest cyclone to ever strike in the southern hemisphere. So the urgency could not be greater, and whether it be severe weather events, food security or eroding coastlines, we all face consequences and we all have a role to play in addressing the global climate crisis.
Given our role as parliamentarians, given our commitment to democratic principles, and given the enormous good the APPF has already achieved, I am highly optimistic about what we can accomplish over the next few days. But we can’t stop there. We have to turn the outcomes of these plenary sessions into tangible policies and programmes that keep our economies sustainable and bring as many of our citizens as possible into the fold of economic prosperity. Only then will we live up to the faith placed in us all as elected officials – that great responsibility we owe to our citizens and to each other.
Again, let me welcome you all to Fiji. During your time with us I hope you are able to take some time to enjoy some of the stunning natural beauty that surrounds you here in Natadola, and experience the relaxation and the tranquillity that has made our islands such a draw for tourists from all over the world.
Thank you all for being here, I look forward to our discussions. And I now have the great pleasure of declaring the 25th Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum open.