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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, Dec. 7, 2011) – Lawyers and pensioners say Fiji’s new decree regulating the country’s main pension scheme flies in the face of the rule of law.

But the head of Fiji’s 300,000-member National Provident Fund has defended the scheme’s legality, independence and accountability.

Sally Round reports.

Changes to the long-established pension scheme include refunds on original sums invested, cuts in payouts and top ups for pensioners on lower rates.

Some pensioners are angry not because they’re against reform but because they have long-standing contracts which they say are being trashed.

Ross McDonald is among them.

"Now if they came to you and said by the way when you get paid next Friday we’re cutting your wages in half what would your reaction be? That’s exactly what they’re doing to us. They had a contract with us. They are walking away from it."

This was the response from the fund’s chief, Aisake Taito, in a written answer to Radio New Zealand International’s query about the legality of changes:

"It is important to understand that changes to the pension scheme have been absolutely necessary to ensure that the fund remains sustainable in the long term and our current and future pensioners and members have the pension they deserve in retirement."

Mr. Taito went on to say the scheme was far too generous and not sustainable.

"The process for creating this new scheme was done well within our legal structures and endorsed by the solicitor general. We have done everything in our power to make the transition as easy for our pensioners as possible, as well as maintain our focus on equitability and sustainability."

[PIR editor’s note: The New Zealand Law Society has called the new decrees for Fijis National Provident Fund unlawful and that it "demonstrates the continuing erosion of the rule of law and indeed democratic values in Fiji." The decree will regulate changes to the pension scheme, but does not allow anyone to challenge those provisions in a court of law, along with giving the Attorney-General the power to stop any challenge underway.]

Reforms have been in the offing for months and a challenge to the legality of cuts was already before the courts.

Pensioner David Burness feels the changes are against his human rights but the proceedings now look to be in doubt as the regime’s new rules mean the decree can’t be challenged in the courts.

Mr. Burness’ lawyer Shaista Shameem says that’s a first for Fiji’s decrees.

"I’m totally disgusted with this because at the end of the day the court had the power to decide for or against us. We may not have won the case at all but this shows interference with the powers of the judiciary and really flies in the face of separation of powers doctrine that all of us following the British legal system have."

Austin Forbes chairs the Rule of Law Committee of the New Zealand Law Society.

He says such a no-challenge provision is indefensible.

"That’s a breach of the accepted principles of the rule of law that legislation does not take away existing rights which are in the form of a current court proceeding that’s already been initiated. Secondly on a broader level I’m afraid it only demonstrates the continuing erosion of the rule of law and indeed democratic values in Fiji."

Meanwhile, pensioners like Ross McDonald are not sitting back.

"We want to see our original contracts honoured and we will continue to fight for that and to protest against these reductions being put in place."

The Fiji National Provident Fund says it will continue to clarify pensioners concerns over the next three months.

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