Trust in government: The limits of self-promotion on Facebook

A snapshot of the controversial Facebook post that came under the spotlight. Picture: Fiji Government Facebook Page

So, was the Prime Minister on the “frontline” on January 4 as the Government’s Facebook page said he was?

Apparently not.

A controversy blew up this week over the post – as well it should.

In the first week of January, the FijiFirst Government was under political fire.

Its ministers seemed to be missing in action as multiple mini-crises erupted around it.

Suddenly, on the Government of Fiji Facebook page there appeared a picture of the PM at some kind of checkpoint.

“While our opponents were busy criticising the efforts of our hardworking frontliners from the comfort of their homes,” said the caption breathlessly, “Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was on the ground working alongside them, ensuring the safety of our people and our beloved country!”

Except the Prime Minister wasn’t.

He wasn’t on the “front line”.

He wasn’t anywhere.

Some sharp-eyed observers pointed out that the picture was actually taken last April at a coronavirus checkpoint.

It so happened that this was a time when acting PM Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum was lecturing people in Ba about only listening to the facts and not politicians’ lies.

So NFP MP Lenora Qereqeretabua was quick to make the point – who is lying?

The Opposition?

Or the Government?

The Government responded, again, on Facebook (well somebody in the Government responded – we don’t know who, as no one took responsibility for the post).

“Misguided individuals”, the Government said, had wrongly criticised the Government.

Of course, the picture was a “retrospective”, the Government said.

See, the Government said, we said “WAS”, we didn’t say “IS”.

That proves it! To which Ms Qereqeretabua retorted that the Government was just telling a new set of lies to cover up its old ones.

So what should we take from this?

Just one more boring political scrap?

And who believes politicians anyway?

And it is that second question which opens up the discussion.

We might expect politicians to exaggerate and obfuscate – but is this what we expect of our Government?

And do the politicians in charge of our government – because yes, they too are politicians – understand the difference?

Blurring the line

Those of us who pay attention (not many, I am guessing) know the pattern of the Fiji First Party’s rhetoric.

When one of their Ministers says or does something good, it’s “Government”.

When a member of the Opposition criticises Government services or points out a problem, it’s “politics”.

The irony of this is that (and I have been watching Fiji governments for 40 years now) this is the most hyper-politicised government Fiji has ever had.

Every government will use the power of its incumbency to try to spread good political vibes.

That’s part of the game.

But no government in Fiji’s history has used self-promotional rhetoric and propaganda as manically as this government.

We are used to being told that whatever the Government is doing is bigger, faster or greater “than ever before”.

We are constantly informed (incorrectly) that economic growth under the FijiFirst party is “unprecedented”.

How many times have we been reminded that only since 2013 have we had “true democracy”?

The desperate self-affirmation seems to reflect a deeper insecurity amongst our leaders.

If no one else will praise them, it seems, then they need to do it for themselves.

But it becomes more dangerous when the politicians in the government cannot tell the difference between their own self-serving politicking and their responsibilities in government.

The Government Facebook page has suddenly become a place for attacking the opposition, not for giving taxpayers important public information.

“Our opponents were busy criticising us”, said that January 4 Government post.

Whose “opponents”?

The Government’s? Or the FijiFirst party’s?

If FijiFirst party politicians believe that they can freely use publicly-funded resources to mount attacks on the opposition, do they actually understand the difference?

And what does this sense of entitlement mean?

Why is it that when opposition parties hold political meetings, the Police Special Branch want to know what is happening (and sometimes ring them up to ask)?

Why is the Police Force, which belongs to all of us, keeping an eye only on opposition parties?

There is of course one very well-known country where the line between party and government is very blurred indeed – the People’s Republic of China, where one cannot be a senior government official without being a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

And the People’s Republic of China is probably not well-known for “true democracy”.

Trust in government

But even more dangerous than this, in the long term, is the harm that this political distortion can do to trust in government.

All of us as citizens, regardless of our views on the politicians in charge at any time, depend on the Government.

The Government runs our hospitals, educates our children, tries to keep us safe and collects taxes to pay for all of those things.

And in return we follow its laws, submit our information and fill out its forms – and pay our taxes.

This is what is grandly called (or at least used to be) the “social contract”.

And in the modern social contract we all expect that politicians, from time to time, will make promises they can’t keep. They will exaggerate their victories and pretend that their losses never happened – and even tell a fib or two.

But what we should still be able to expect is that the government itself – the large, bureaucratic body that we pay for, run by independent public servants who are not politicians – acts fairly, reasonably competently – and honestly.
We do not expect the Government to lie to us.

Never more than in a crisis do we need trust in government.

When we are all in the middle of a pandemic outbreak, or flooding and cyclones, or a threatened tsunami,
we need to be sure that the information we are getting is unbiased and for our benefit, not someone else’s.

When the Government asks people to take vaccinations and suffer lockdowns or curfews for the greater good, their co-operation – and that greater good – depends on how much the people trust the Government.

We do not have the data so we do not know – but how many of the people who refuse to be vaccinated, or discourage others from getting jabbed, are people who either dislike the Government, are tired of being bullied by it – or just do not trust it?

Which leads to my last point.

There are times when the politicians in charge have to understand that some things are above politics and that there are times when they should join hands with their political opponents.

It means, when you are in control of the power and resources of the Government, you stretch out your hand to the opposition and say “let’s do this together, because it is the right thing to do”.

In most well-run countries, if there is a major public disaster or crisis, it is not the just the Prime Minister who arrives at the scene in a Government car or helicopter – it is also the Leader of the Opposition.

This is because the Government understands that there are times when bringing people together is more important than politics.

Ironically, it can also be good politics for the Prime Minister. Most people, being inherently fair-minded, approve of the gesture.

This is the opportunity that the government which has led Fiji for the last 15 years – consumed with its own insecurity, desperate to be thought of as better than ever before, determined that it must be seen to be perfect and never wrong – has been unable to grasp.

So everyone in Fiji loses.

But it is a different thing again when our government is prepared to casually lie to protect its image – just because it cannot think of anything better to do.

That is not blurring the line.

That is crossing it.

• RICHARD NAIDU is a Suva lawyer. Not everyone trusts lawyers either, but if they’re lying, at least it’s with their own money. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The Fiji Times.

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