NEW FIJI CABINET PORTFOLIO SETS DANGEROUS PRECEDENT

Editorial

Fiji Times

SUVA. Fiji (Jan. 6) – Never before in the history of this nation has the Fiji Attorney-General held a portfolio dealing with matters other than the law and the judiciary.

Ever since the first elected government, led by the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the Attorney-General has been a distinguished lawyer.

In a number of cases, the person chosen to assume that mantle was also given the title, Minister for Justice.

The Cabinet reshuffle announced by interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama on Friday has set a dangerous precedent.

Interim Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum is responsible for Public Enterprise, Electoral Reform and Anti-Corruption.

While we applaud the downsizing of the interim administration, it is pertinent to point out that consolidating the portfolios of electoral reform, public enterprise and anti-corruption is an unwise move.

We do not, at this stage, wish to discuss the capabilities of the incumbent in fulfilling his multi-faceted task.

However, tradition has dictated and rightly so that the position of Attorney-General is an advisory role.

That is why, under the Westminster system, governments are at liberty to choose legal experts from outside the elected house of representatives.

In this way, the people gain comfort in the fact that the ultimate guardian or advisor on legal issues is politically independent.

The fact that past governments have not always ensured that Attorneys-General have been people of impeccable character or without political bias, does not give the interim administration licence to do as it likes.

Indeed, it is because of this administration's pledge to be transparent and accountable that it must uphold the integrity and independence of the role of the Attorney-General.

The Attorney-General traditionally assumes no other role in Cabinet so that his or her advice is unbiased and free of any possible link to a personal or professional interest of the advisor.

In the case of Mr Sayed-Khaiyum, he assumes ministerial control of a ministry which is responsible for an entity administered by his brother.

This is a direct conflict of interest.

The minefield which is our electoral system will, undoubtedly, bring several serious legal challenges as the nation heads closer to the elections.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum will also be expected to offer advice pertaining to the polls and the system by which the election is administered.

This is another direct conflict of interest.

It is not too late to step back and make the necessary changes.

For the sake of transparency and independence, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum must be Attorney-General or a minister responsible for other portfolios.

He cannot be both.

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