By Sean Dorney

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business, December) –Nauru’s reformist government moved quickly after its emphatic win in the October 23 elections to push through the toughest but most realistic budget the all-but-bankrupt Nauru has ever seen.

Simply put, the people of Nauru will get a whole lot less from the government and be taxed and charged a whole lot more.

Public servants will not get their full pay—they will get a maximum of $100 a fortnight until a complete review of employment levels and pay scales is completed, probably in February; landowners leasing land to the government will have their payments cut by three-quarters; a new import duty of 10 percent will be imposed on most goods; import tariffs on beer, cigarettes and luxuries will skyrocket; and government charges for almost all services will rise.

Some of the resulting price rises are huge. A packet of cigarettes that used to cost $2.50 in Nauru will now cost $8.50 and beer has gone from $36 to $55 a carton.

"Inevitably with reforms there is a considerable degree of pain," Finance Minister David Adeang said on the night the budget was passed. "But these are fairly in my view short-term pains for the longer-term gain for the people of Nauru, especially for the succeeding generations of Nauruans to follow from ours. We intend to stabilize the economy and put Nauru on a stronger economic footing for the benefit of the future of Nauru."

The election—Nauru’s first called under a state of emergency—was all about economic management and Nauru’s lost wealth. Adeang, the leader of what was formerly called The Visionary Group and a consistent critic of the way past governments dissipated the country’s once vast wealth, easily topped the poll in the largest constituency of Ubenide.

Nauru’s unique fractional preferential system of voting provides an extremely accurate measurement of popularity. Each vote is counted to the final fraction of each voter’s last preference. For example, in Ubenide, there were 17 candidates which meant that the person marked number one by the voter got one full vote while the second preferred candidate got half a vote, right down to the least favored candidate who got 1/17th of a vote.

Adeang scored 343.183 votes. That is not a misprint. The counting goes to three decimal points. His team in that electorate won three of the four seats. The fourth was won by Valdon Dowiyogo, the son of the late President, Bernard Dowiyogo, who died in office early last year.

Over the past year, Adeang’s Visionary Group teamed up with a group of older members led by Ludwig Scotty. They backed Scotty for the presidency which he won after Rene Harris was defeated in a vote of no confidence in June. However, the numbers were evenly divided in the 18-member parliament and the Scotty Government struggled to implement its reforms. After a series of frustrations orchestrated by the Speaker Russell Kun, which prevented the Government from passing its budget by the September 30 deadline, President Scotty declared a state of emergency, dissolved parliament and ordered the October 23 election.

The Scotty Government went into the election as a unified group and won a thumping victory. Their candidates topped the poll in every one of the eight constituencies and those associated with the former Harris administration were routed. Only Harris and one other Opposition MP, Terangi Adam, retained their seats. Former speaker, Russell Kun, was one casualty. He fell to eighth place in Ubenide and lost his seat.

Other high profile losers were the former president, Kinza Clodumar, who lost his seat to a former Chief Secretary, Matthew Batsuia, and Remy Namaduk, a former finance minister.

Just before the election was called, Chris Masters from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s investigative program, Four Corners, visited Nauru and put together a 45-minute program attempting to track down just what had happened to the billions of dollars Nauru once earned from phosphate mining.

The program, "Island Raiders," became an election issue. Posters proclaiming, "Four Corners said it all—Vote Wisely," could be seen around Nauru. The Scotty Government directed Nauru Television to screen the program every night at nine o’clock in the week running into the election.

Rene Harris claimed he should have been given a right of reply and he complained that Nauru Television had refused to give him equal time to present his side of the story.

Harris also attacked observers from the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Pacific Islands Forum for endorsing the election as free and fair. During Question Time on the first sitting day of the new Parliament, he referred to the observers as "these Forum idiots."

Later, in the Adjournment Debate, he claimed they had ignored his complaints that some voters had been switched between electorates.

"For them to say that all is well is very odd," Harris said. "I’ve lost faith in the Commonwealth Secretariat and I shall report it to Don McKinnon, my views. I’ve lost my respect for the Forum people and I’ll report it to the Australian guy over there."

He said he referred to Greg Urwin as "the Australian guy" because he believed Urwin should never have been made Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum because it was an organisation for Pacific Islanders.

The new Nauru Parliament has a number of new, well-educated, younger members. One of them, Frederick Pitcher, has already been promoted to cabinet as Minister for Island Development.

Pitcher, who spent two years in Manila with the Asian Development Bank, says Nauruans will have to adjust to the loss of its wealth if the country is ever to recover.

"My view is that it has to be a national change of attitude, both on the government’s side and the people’s side," he said as he settled into his new ministerial office. My own priorities are to go to the people through public awareness and make sure they’re on our side because without the people’s support we just make enemies again."

The other issue he nominated as needing immediate attention was the status of the trust funds.

"The Nauru landowners trust fund, Fund Number Two, is an issue that I think is going to cause some public discontent. I would think that given the status of the receivers taking over most of our assets and selling them, we need to now look towards a future trust fund that is managed professionally and out of the government’s hands."

One issue which did not figure in the campaign was the Australian funded refugee processing centre on Nauru. All sides seemed to believe the money poured into the processing centre had helped keep Nauru functioning.

The 82 remaining asylum seekers are not so happy, although they have a large measure of freedom to move around the island. The gates to the processing centre are left open most of the day, they are allowed to swim in the harbour and go to the Internet café, and their children attend Nauru schools. At Kaser College, a Catholic school, Mohammad Ali Rehmati waits in the school grounds each day for his daughter and sons to finish their lessons.

"My father said we have been in here three years," Ilham Rehmati translated. My mother is sick. Please help us. Give us some freedom."

Ilham said the asylum seekers just wanted to get away from Nauru. "We have been treated very well but we did not come for Nauru. We came for Australia to have a peaceful life in Australia. We wish the governments of New Zealand and Australia take us out from here. We want freedom."

At the high school, on the other side of the island, three teenage asylum seekers, Mohammed and Sinale from Afghanistan; and Ahmed from Iraq, said they, too, were sick, sick of Nauru. "We are human. We are not animals," said Sinale. "What is our crime? What is our sin? I don’t know what is happening with us in the camp."

The three agreed they were allowed to go swimming and visit the Internet café. But they complained they had to do it at set times.

"We can go to the Internet café but we can not go shopping," said Mohammed. "We want to go everywhere but we can not."

Ahmed complained life on Nauru was too boring. President Scotty contends the asylum seekers are living better than the Nauruans.

"I couldn’t bring myself to believe certain allegations about these people not being treated properly," President Scotty said. "In fact, they’re eating very well, enjoying their life, swimming in the sea, boat harbors and cycling around the island, playing soccer and enjoying their life. As you know they would like to go and stay somewhere that can be permanent for them," he said.

"Nauru is not the place for them."

December 29, 2004

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