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Engaging Again With Fiji Not a Case of Too Much Too Soon, Might Help Democratic Transition

Fiji is not a very stable country politically. The Pacific islands nation has endured no less than four coups over the past 20+. The ethnic divide in the country is stark with Fijian’s of Indian descent, Chinese descent and native-born Fijians living together in a nation in not so much harmony. But it is not just about the ethnic divide. Indeed the latest coup in particular, in 2006, when Commodore Frank Bainimarama wrested power stemmed out of a conflict festering between the then civilian government and the military which was not just about ethnicity.

This latest coup d’etat had its origins in the previous uprising, with Prime Minister at the time, Laisenia Qarase wishing to introduce legislation which would have pardoned the coup leaders involved. Frank Bainimarama was almost killed during that period of political instability.

Overnight Australia, New Zealand and Fiji agreed to somewhat of a restoration of ties between the three nations. The agreement will restore full diplomatic relations between the nations with the reciprocal reinstatement of each countries respective high-level diplomatic missions in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

Travel restrictions for members of the Fijian Government will also be eased and restrictions were lifted to allow a representative of the Fijian administration to travel to the meeting at which the change in policy was agreed to.

In 2009 our High Commissioner in Fiji was expelled by the Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama in a move that was closely followed by the Australian Government expelling the top Fijian diplomat.

It is an interesting move given that the previous deadline for free and fair elections, in 2009, was not met. Indeed since then, a further crackdown on the press and other authoritarian moves have pointed to a far from certain transition to democracy, due to occur in 2014. Indeed, such a positive step at this point seems almost fanciful.

Speaking on ABC News 24, the director of the Australian National University’s Centre for the Contemporary Pacific, Brij Lal said that “It’s important to measure words against deeds.” And this is a correct reflection of how to judge the political situation in Fiji at present.

The words coming out of the mouth of the Fijian Prime Minister’s mouth speak for great hope of a return to democracy and less internal conflict in the trouble-prone Pacific nation.

But Bainimarama’s deeds tell a different story. Freedom and democracy have been going the other way in Fiji since the 2006 coup when the Commodore took power from the civilian government of Mr Qarase. His deeds tell a story of grand but broken promises as well as a crackdown on those opposed to him from within and outside of the country he rules over.

But is the reinstatement of diplomatic relations a case of jumping the gun too early? Is Australia at risk of finding it “very difficult for it (Australia) to disengage and take a more objective stance”? Would it have “been prudent on the part of Australia to see some of the fruits of those initiatives (toward elections and democracy) before going as far as it has done”?

The answer on all counts is likely no. No material progress has been made toward democracy since diplomatic relations broke down badly in 2009. Australia and New Zealand while disengaged from Fiji diplomatically have been unable to, with objectivity, influence the transition toward an at least somewhat stable and democratic government. And if the two nations had waited before entering into political relations with Fiji again until they had seen some of the benefits of promises made by the Fijian Government, well, they would likely have been waiting a mighty long time. Chances are they still might, but frank yet friendly engagement is much better.

Helping the Fijian Government restore their economy which is heavily dependent on tourism and exporting sugar will be an important diplomatic step which could result in the knock-on effect of being able to persuade Fiji to return to some form of democracy.

While the economy is stalled it is the Fijian people, already under authoritarian rule that begin to suffer further from the political isolation of the Fijian regime. Combine that with the recent devastating floods and the level of hurt because of a weak economy is high.

Australia and New Zealand, in restarting diplomatic relations could place incentives for economic development assistance based on real outcomes in the transition toward democracy with more assistance provided as progress is made to free and fair elections and more democratic government.

It’s certainly not to early to again engage with Fiji and the re-engagement with the island nation may well help rather than hinder some form of transition toward democracy. But only if the relationship is managed with Australia and New Zealand offering help for change. The restarting of diplomatic relations does not automatically equate to too much too soon

Peace-loving New Zealand Gets First Carr Trip

New Senator for New South Wales and Foreign Minister designate has used his first trip overseas to visit our long term ally in the far reaches of Earth, New Zealand. The incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs headed there this week to meet with parliamentary colleagues while he finds his feet in the crucial role.

But is it smart for our new Foreign Minister to visit New Zealand ahead of all other nations in the region, some of whom we share a strong or growing relationship with and others with whom we have struggled in recent years, think Fiji and Papua New Guinea, the latter with their own political strife in recent times.

Nobody doubts the importance of New Zealand to our defence interests in particular with our southern partners across the Tasman being a long-time ally, particularly since the ANZUS Treaty was signed, but harking as far back as when the ANZAC legend was born on the shores of Gallipoli.

New Zealand are our strongest friends but also the most stable of nations in our immediate international region and a growing trade partner with whom we share a great history in realms other than defence relations. This is precisely why the wisdom of New Zealand being the first port of call for Bob Carr above all other neighbours in our dynamic Asia-Pacific region.

There are multiple countries in our immediate vicinity where our diplomacy is required for reasons including political stability, security and action on people smugglers and asylum seekers.

Think most recently of Papua New Guinea, a country where in recent months and years there has been some very serious political instability at the very top tier of government, with former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare at loggerheads with the parliament and his own party, aspects of the police and the military and even senior officials of the judiciary.

Thankfully there has not been a successful coup in the country over the power struggle, although a temporary “mini coup”  of sorts by a small part of the security forces in one part of the country shows that the country is far from stable, even if tensions have been suppressed since that moment.

Fiji is another country requiring some serious attention from the Australian Government, even though this has been made all the more difficult by the expulsion of the acting Australian High Commissioner to Fiji.

The coup where Fijian Commodore Frank Bainimarama was just one in a serious of military overthrows of democratic government in the country over the last twenty plus years and has led to freedom of speech being completely overrun with foreign-owned media expelled, making it harder for reporting of human rights violations.

There are positive signs with consultations on a new Fijian Constitution initiated, to be completed in 2013, but it remains to be seen whether the deeds will meet the words of another Fijian dictator.

Further, the Commodore has stated that 2014 will be the year when democratic elections will return to the small multi-island nation in our region so our work in the region, through multilateral bodies and non-government organisations will be to help ensure, albeit from a distance, that this timeline will come to fruition and be met at the earliest possible opportunity, with 2014 still being too far away.

Indonesia is another nation in the Asia-Pacific that deserves our ongoing attention at an intense level with security concerns post the Bali bombings continuing to be an issue not just for Australians travelling to the country for holidays and business, but also for a regional response to people smuggling which runs rife in the country and the broader asylum seeker issue.

A large number of Australians travel to Indonesia, particularly the capital Jakarta and Bali for both business and leisure activities each year so this requires intense diplomatic efforts in mutual security support in an attempt to make sure that our two nations do all they can to stamp out terrorism activities in the south-east Asian nation.

Australian attention is also needed with our partner Indonesia, to ensure that people smuggling is combatted at the source in Indonesia in efforts to stem the flow of boats which can lead to the drowning of asylum seekers. This can be done on a bilateral basis, but also as part of the so-called Bali Process of nations in the region. This must mean that all nations in the region sign up to the UN Refugee Convention and agree to take on their share of asylum seekers.

In the broader Asian region there are other countries which need to become more open, democratic and free, such as Malaysia and Singapore, so focusing an initial trip on peace-loving New Zealand, whilst important must not neglect those nations in our region where there is much work to be done to ensure they enjoy the freedoms that both our nations have enjoyed.

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