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By Mary-Louise O'Callaghan

South Pacific Correspondent

The Australian

SUVA, Fiji Islands (February 13, 2002 – The Australian)---A court case to decide whether Fiji's deposed prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, is entitled to a Cabinet post in the south Pacific nation's Government opened in Suva yesterday.

The case, which has the potential to bring down the Government, was prompted by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's decision in October not to pursue negotiations with Mr. Chaudhry's Labour Party, although the deposed prime minister had agreed to join a Qarase-led Government.

Mr. Qarase, who was appointed interim Prime Minister following the 2000 coup, effectively taking over Mr. Chaudhry's job, has stated publicly that he could not work with him.

Counsel for Mr. Chaudhry, Australian QC Gavin Griffiths, argued before Fiji's Court of Appeal that Mr. Qarase was obliged under Fiji's 1997 multiracial constitution to grant the Labour Party several Cabinet seats, proportional to the 27 seats Labour won in the 71-seat house.

The constitution, which provides for multi-party government, says a party that gains more than 10 percent of the seats in Parliament must be offered a proportional number of seats in the Cabinet.

However, Mr. Qarase, whose the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua party won 31 seats in the 2001 election, claims he was obliged by the constitution only to make the offer of Cabinet posts, not to act on Mr. Chaudhry's acceptance of such an offer or pursue negotiations to ensure the Labour MPs joined his Government.

The Court of Appeal hearing comes just a week before the High Court trial of the coup's leader, George Speight, on charges of treason is due to begin.

Yesterday, Fiji’ Daily Post newspaper quoted Mr. Chaudhry as saying he was willing to work with Mr. Speight's conservative Alliance Matani Vanua party, which won six seats, including one by Mr. Speight.

However, Mr. Speight's seat was declared vacant after he failed to attend three consecutive parliamentary sittings.

He is being held in custody on an island just outside of Suva.

Mr. Chaudhry said he did not want to pre-empt the court's decision but he did not foresee a Labour-led government.

The Court of Appeal is being chaired by New Zealander Justice Thomas Eichelbaum, who is serving with New Zealand justices Ken Keith and Robert Smellie, Australian Kenneth Handley and Briton Gordon Ward, who is Chief Justice of Tonga.

It is expected to make a ruling on Friday.

For additional reports from The Australian, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Australian.



SUVA, Fiji Islands (February 13, 2002 – Daily Post/FijiLive)---The outcome of the High Court trial over the formation of the Government could hinge on whether Fiji Labour Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry attached conditions to his offer of acceptance.

In submissions yesterday, Fiji Labour Party counsel Dr. Gavin Griffith argued that Mr. Chaudhry had not made any preconditions of acceptance but rather had accepted the invitation, stating that Labour was open to negotiations later on.

However, it is understood that Mr. Chaudhry’s letter stated that Labour’s participation in Government would be on condition that Cabinet decision-making be on a consensus-seeking basis, especially on key issues and policies.

The letter is understood to have stated that consensus seeking mechanisms in the Cabinet should include the formulation of a broadly acceptable policy framework.

It is on the basis of the contents of Mr. Chaudhry’s that Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase withdrew his invitation for Labour to be part of government, as per the Constitution, which mandates a multi-party government.

In addition, the court deliberated on whether Mr. Qarase had attached conditions to his invitation to Mr. Chaudhry.

It is understood Mr. Qarase had set a basic condition to his invitation that the policies of his Cabinet would be based on the policy manifesto of the SDL.

Labour argued that Mr. Qarase had no discretion on the offer, meaning he could not make any offers.

Justice Kenneth Handley questioned whether Mr. Chaudhry had written a one-sentence acceptance, would it have made any difference?

The Fiji Labour Party side said they would have considered that outcome but were unable to say whether they would have accepted the invitation that way.

Justice Handley compared Mr. Chaudhry’s acceptance to that of former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka in 1999.

He said Mr. Rabuka had set conditions that had been rejected by Mr. Chaudhry.

He said by that, Mr. Rabuka had given Mr. Chaudhry reason to drop SVT from its coalition.

Justice Handley said it was important to note whether Mr. Chaudhry had done the same thing by setting conditions to his acceptance.

State counsel Stephen Gagler argued that the multi-party concept was unrealistic because the two parties had different manifestos and principles.

Justice Robert Smellie, while cross examining Mr. Gagler, questioned why, if the two parties could not find a way to work together, another option could not be taken. Mr. Gagler responded that the Constitution did not offer another option.

The case continues this morning and will end today.

A decision is expected next week.

Mr. Chaudhry was in court yesterday while Attorney General Qoriniasi Bale and Solicitor General Nainendra Nand represented the Government.

Representatives of foreign missions with offices in Fiji attend the hearing.

For additional reports from Fiji’s Daily Post, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Other News Resources/FijiLive.

For additional reports from FijiLive, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Other News Resources/FijiLive. 

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