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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

The ALP Might Think the G20 Has an Electoral Benefit, But Tell ’em They’re Dreaming

Prime Minister Julia Gillard formally announced today in Queensland that Brisbane had won the right to host the G20 summit in the year 2014. This was greeted with much appreciation and even gloating from Queensland politicians at different levels of government. Brisbane beat all other cities that put in a submission to be able to host this potentially very lucrative meeting of the world’s 19 biggest nations and the European Union. The event will have some definite positives for the Queensland economy when it is held in November 2014.

Brisbane won the event over the much bigger cities of Sydney and Melbourne, with politicians from both states and including Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle sticking the boot into the Gillard Government over the awarding to Brisbane of the summit.

Both states think that their cities have better facilities and they certainly do, with sizeable airports and convention centre facilities, not to mention terrific accommodation available.

That’s not to say that Brisbane doesn’t, it certainly does and the city has been working hard to develop world class facilities and attempting to grow a reputation worldwide as a true “world city”. The Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre facilities are not to be sneezed at and are well and truly capable of hosting such a large and important meeting of world leaders.

Politicians from both NSW and Victoria and many in the media immediately upon hearing of Brisbane being made the host of the G20 immediately put the announcement down to politics. The ALP Government are finished in Queensland in particular and will be, on recent poll results, all but wiped out if an election were held in the near future.

So, of course it follows that speculation would immediately turn to the move by federal Labor being a so-called “vote-buying” initiative before the next federal election due to be held some time around mid-to late 2013.

But is it really reasonable to assume that Brisbane playing host to world leaders for the summit in 2014 would actually win votes? The answer is almost certainly not.

The event will likely have economic benefits for the economy of the city of Brisbane, bringing in what is estimated to be $50 million for the local economy over the course of the visit by international delegations. Though at the same time, much of the city would probably be in lockdown for such high-level visits so benefits, particularly to retail might not be so high.

On the other hand, hotels will be rubbing their collective hands together with glee at today’s announcement, particularly with tourism, a usually strong performer in the state of Queensland having been hit so bad because of the floods and the Global Financial Crisis

Brisbane having world leaders, including the US President visiting will also possibly have some impact on the broader tourism market, spurring confidence that things in Queensland have returned to a more stable position, but this is less certain and probably of much less benefit than many have been quick to assume today.

The potential too for world leaders discussing possible future business investment in and trade with the Queensland and Australian economy is a very important long-term prospect.

But all this will count for very little when it comes to the ballot box. International meetings of world leaders, though great in their own special way have never actually stayed with the thoughts of voters as potential election winners, or at the very least as the ALP was probably hoping against all hope, vote buyers of some face-saving repute.

There will never be a time when the exit polls say that a summit was any kind of factor in the electoral success of a political party.

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