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A Commentary on Parliamentary Representation and Rotuman Statehood

by Sosefo Inoke

1.0 Introduction:

It is election time again and the controversial topics of Rotuma's independence and parliamentary representation have surfaced again. These are two issues that Rotumans often discuss passionately amongst themselves but shy away from in public debate. We are afraid of being accused of stirring and entertaining separatist views. Neither do we want to be accused of having unrealistic expectations that we can survive on our own.

The opposition to independence, whatever the form or meaning it takes, and the allocation of more seats for Rotuma in the Fiji House of Representatives miss one of the fundamental issues. And that is that Rotuma is a unique state or sovereignty. A state within a state if you like. Anyone doubting Rotuma's sovereignty need only look at the Deed of Cession to Britain in 1881.

In this commentary I will raise some facts and issues which I hope you will find interesting and give you something to think about. Better still I hope I can raise an awareness that will make you more vocal and active and influence our leaders to do something about it.

1. Parliamentary Representation

In May Rotumans will make the most important political decision of their lives--until the next general election that is. We will vote for our sole representative in the House of Representatives for the Parliament of Fiji. It is a decision that affects all of us, locally and overseas, whether Fiji citizens or not. So cast your votes wisely.

It might surprise you to know that it is only the second time in our 118 year association with Fiji that we have been given the opportunity to vote for our own representative in the lower house. The first time was in the last general election. I guess in a way it does give some credence to the sentiments expressed elsewhere that we have been hard done by in terms of political representation. Especially when we consider ourselves a partner in this association, albeit, a very minor partner.

It might surprise you also to know that the quest for more Lower House representation is not new. We have on at least four occasions officially asked for one or more seats. One thing for sure -- we cannot be accused of not getting those seats for lack of asking.

Here are some facts:

a) In 1970 the Rotuma delegation to the London Constitutional Conference on Fiji's independence requested, amongst other things, a seat for Rotuma in the House of Representatives for the soon to be independent Dominion of Fiji (see The Fiji Times, Friday, June 12, 1970). You now know that the Constitution that resulted from that conference did not give Rotuma a separate seat -- we were lumped together with Lau and others.

b) The subsequent report on the conference made no mention of the Rotuman views and representations (The Fiji Times, Friday, June 12, 1970).

c) Following the coup of 1987 the Chairman of the Rotuma Island Council wrote to the Governor General of Fiji on 25 May 1987 requesting that there be three seats in the House of Representatives for Rotuma -- one communal seat for Rotumans in Rotuma, one communal seat for Rotumans living in mainland Fiji, and a national seat for all Rotumans in the country.

d) There appears to be no official, or any, response to this letter because a memorandum to the Prime Minister dated 18 February 1988 from the Chairman of the RIC reiterated that request for three seats and submitted that the justification for this request was the contribution of the "thousands upon thousands of square miles of exclusive economic zone the potential of which has yet to be properly gauged".

e) Again, in our submissions to the 1996 Reeves Constitution Review Commission we asked for two seats -- one to be elected out of Rotuma residents and one from the Rotuman community at large. We only got one seat, the latter.

It might interest you to know that one of the submissions to the Reeves Commission was that there be set up a special Ministry or sub-department for Rotuma Affairs and that our member of parliament be responsible for it. It was felt that with our only representative being made a minister, it was too onerous a task to expect him to look after the national interests as well as his electorate. It is a problem unique to Rotuma because other provinces and groups have more than one representative.

The disappointing thing about all these requests is that there has been no official explanation for refusing them. I suspect it is because our numbers do not justify the increased representation and preferential treatment. Other significant factors such as the inclusion of thousands upon thousands of square miles of exclusive economic zone, and our standing in this union as a partner do not appear to have been given due consideration. Maybe one day the importance of Rotuman representation will be appreciated--the day when the seat holds the balance of power in Fiji.

2. Statehood

That Rotuma is a sovereignty is not an issue. The 1881 Deed of Cession to Great Britain is testimony to that fact. Now that we have been associated with Fiji ever since, our standing and status in that union is the real issue. I challenge you to tell me what it is exactly. You will not find it in a document anywhere. Neither will you find it in unwritten conventions. At best I suggest all we have is a loose understanding as to what that relationship entails. A frightening situation. You may well say that we have been in this situation for over 100 years and things have been going on pretty well. That may well be true but there has been no reason or occasion to put that relationship to the test.

We need more than the Rotuma Act giving the Rotuma Island Council of Chiefs the power to make laws for the order and good government of Rotuma.

I give you an example. Suppose that a rich mineral deposit is found just north of the serene Malhaha coastline. The Government says since you are part of Fiji we will take all of the income from mining that deposit as part of revenue for the whole country. Are we able to say, "Hold on, that is ours, we will decide how much we give to the country?" Can we turn to some document or convention or some law that will help us? I doubt that the Rotuma Act will help us.

Is this such an unrealistic scenario? How do we address this problem?

One thing that will help is to have a treaty signed between the Fiji Government and the representatives of Rotuma. That is the normal way nations set out their agreements and arrangements with each other. It is a different thing altogether from secession. Our leaders need to sit with the Government and put pen to paper as to what exactly the relationship was and what it will and should be. Having an arrangement based on unclear conventions and loose understandings is a recipe for misunderstanding and discontent. I go so far as to suggest that this is one of the reasons why we can ask as often as we like but we will not get the parliamentary representation we may deserve.

Do we need to treaty?

Well, having a written agreement, because that is what a treaty really is, will make everyone aware of all the rules of play. It may not have all of them but it will have all the important ones. Secondly, in the process of making those rules the parties will address their minds to the issues that are important to their relationship and may find ways of avoiding conflicts before they arise. They will also become aware of the contentious ones and may even find a workable compromise.

You may be able to achieve the same result by having an act of Parliament passed by the Fiji Parliament. The trouble with this is that like any act it can be changed at any time at the whim of the Government. Sure you can put also sorts of safeguards in the act but that will not fix it. All they do is make it more difficult to amend the act.

What should the treaty contain? First, it will acknowledge our sovereignty over our territory yet at the same time acknowledge that Rotuma is part of Fiji. It will set out the terms on which the Government and Rotuma will have access to that territory. The treaty will also set out the terms of our political relationship with Fiji: e.g., the number of seats in the lower house and the senate, the right to self government as and when we need it, possibly the setting up of a special ministry or department for Rotuma affairs. The right to set up our own court systems and dispute resolution processes will be acknowledged. Similarly, our financial relationship with Fiji, e.g., the right to impose taxes and fees on activities within our territory. I am sure you can think of a whole lot more things that should be in such a document.

I liken it to a partnership and the partnership agreement. You are together and yet at the same time separate. For the relationship to flourish you must acknowledge each other's rights and privileges and not allow one to be overborne by the other. Is it such an unreasonable expectation?

3. Conclusions

I am not here talking about secession or independence in its widest sense. I am talking about establishing and maintaining an identity and the rights and privileges that come with it.

As a minority group we must guard against policies of assimilation and integration. One of the safeguards is the establishment of a treaty. If you accept that Rotuma is a sovereign nation then you will have no difficulty accepting the creation of a treaty and the notion of increased Lower House representation. You will also accept that it is a necessary document to have.

The longer we proceed without such a document the greater the risk of losing our identity. We will become assimilated and absorbed into the rest of the country. A minority group with an identity we will not be. Is this what we want?


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