(+) When What's Not Good May Be Not So Bad: Some Thoughts for Minister McCully
Speaking recently to RadioNZ International Foreign Minister Murray McCully said there was a lack of "good news out of Fiji" since its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum a year ago. He added that "the [Pacific Islands] Forum leaders unprecedented step of suspending Fiji's membership was more about punishing Fiji for failing to comply with the organization’s democratic ideals." He hadn't expected the suspension "to prompt changes by the interim regime" but it was needed to uphold principles. [It could also have been used to warn other Pacific nations not to support or follow Fiji's example. What was not said was that, in international politics, stability is often more prized than principle.]
I have commented elsewhere about how the "punishment" (that had no expected outcome!) has unintentionally heartened government opponents, strengthened the hold of the military in civil government, and adversely affected the livelihood of ordinary Fiji citizens, and I'll say no more on this, or comment on what the choice of a word like "punishment" tells us about NZ's attitude to Fiji. Instead, I'll focus on the word "good" that means different things to different people.
The Word "Good"
For the Minister, it probably means no restrictions on the Fiji Times, no Public Emergency Regulations, no detentions for their breach, engagement with the old political parties, "freedom" for the Methodist Church hierarchy, and, most of all, "democratic" elections yesterday. I doubt he would extend "good" to include a flash assassination or a quick mutiny but many of those whose company he keeps would think these drastic measures "good."
Unfortunately, the Minister's apparently worthy democratic aims are not quite what they seem in the Fiji context (hence the need to place so many terms in speech marks), and none will be realized anytime soon because what the Minister sees as "good," Bainimarama sees as "bad." For Bainimarama their adoption would mean jettisoning the Roadmap and the People's Charter. He would have allowed the coup to fail, dozens of policies and schemes would be left up in the air, and nothing "good" would have been achieved after nearly four years of sacrifice and effort.
Many people sympathetic to what Bainimarama says he seeks to achieve share Minister McCully's concerns about a number of actions by the Fiji Government. Many have been spelt out on this blog, most recently in the ten serious concerns I expressed about the draft Media Decree. We have also frequently noted that the Fiji Government too often reacts excessively to situations, and seems quite unconcerned with its poor PR.
But we have also noted the many good things government is doing, or is trying to do, and noted that none of them (not one) is ever mentioned in the so-called independent mainstream media, or acknowledged by the Minister's government.
Here is a short list of some of the things they could have reported and acknowledged:
- The Corruption Clean-Up Campaign, a major reason given for the Coup, continues. The Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption (FICAC) investigated and laid 161 charges against 47 individuals in 2009.Some 4,365 complaints were received, of which 44 percent were resolved without going to court. Government audits and accountability reports continue to reveal irregularities. Department and Ministry annual auditing is now enforced. The huge backlog of complaints against lawyers is being addressed as are accusations of transfer pricing.
- Structural Reform and a more efficient Civil Service. The IMF recently complimented Government on these measures, and many citizens have noted a more polite and helpful civil service.
- The Economy. IMF also commended Govt on its fiscal and monetary policies that have done much to counteract the severe effects of the global financial crisis and the massive destruction to infrastructure after the January 2009 floods. Low interest loans have been obtained from new sources -- China, India, Malaysia -- to fund development. Micro-credit is being advanced to encourage small local businesses.
- Development initiatives. An improved and social physical infrastructure is another of Government's Roadmap goals. This includes work on roads and bridges, rural and outer island development (Rotuma now exports food to Tuvalu; nursing stations and small business initiatives in several areas), more emphasis in food security, and agriculture (rice, dairying, vegetables, copra use for biodiesel), and land reform. Some two-thirds of the 6,406 cane farms where leases expired between 1997 and 2010 are back in use. Most leases have been renewed with existing tenants, others with new tenants, a few leases have been subdivided for subsistence and cane farming, 1,670 have reverted to the landowners, and 374 leases were still in the process. Land leases are no longer a political weapon and lease money is being paid to the actual owners, not to chiefs and others in the former gravy train.
- Race and racism are not longer political weapons. Government has started the long uphill road to create a common "Fijian" indentify for all citizens. All citizens will be treated equally while respecting their ethnic differences. Race-based parties will not be allowed to stand in the 2014 elections. This situation must not be confused with NZ where the Maori ethnic minority has its own party. Some critics have questioned Bainimarama's sincerity because of continuing dominance of ethnic Fijians in the Military. I think this will continue in the short-term for strategic reasons.
- Government measures to tackle poverty in a hostile economic environment include retaining VAT (GST) at 12.5% and excluding basic food items; food vouchers for the most needy; introducing minumum wages levels; assistance with school tranport, school fees and textbooks; help for squatters and more low-income housing, and many rural development measures, some of which are noted above.
- Social justice. Elections that do not bring social justice are not truly democracy. The one-man one-vote elections planned for 2014 will prevent repeats of the legislated racial discrimination practices under the Qarase Government.
- Meanwhile, Government has taken a number of steps to produce social justice, in addition to those noted concerning the poor and rural dwellers. The New Women's Plan of Action (WPA) 2010-2019 will see women enjoy equal participation at decision-making levels that are especialy important to women. The five areas include: employment; decision-making;violence against women and chldren; reproductive health issues; basic services such as housing, water, sanitation and transport; and women and the Law.
- A Decree has been passed to prevent children abuse and child trafficking; the UN has commended another Decree on HIV/Aids; the backlog of legal cases and complaints against lawyers is being cleared; an estimated 1,200 public servants injured during working hours will be paid all outstandingcompensation claims backdated to 2001. That's right, 2001, five years of the Qarase Government! The latest compensation to be paid is to a widow of a Fijian soldier killed in Fiji's UN engagement in Lebanon 31 years ago. And our Government has complained about cuts to Qarase and Rabuka's parliamentary pensions!
- The People's Charter. I doubt Minister McCully would disagree with any one of the Charter's stated aims or with Bainimarama's Roadmap other, of course, than with the timing of elections in 2014. Public dialogue is occurring and progress is being made on the Charter, but not as much and as fast as many would like.
- Meanwhile, grassroots (if not elite) support for Bainimarama is clearly growing, most especially among ethnic Fijians. He is being judged by deeds that affect ordinary citizens, and he continues to receive matanigasau (traditional apologies) from villages and tikina all over Fiji that had previously opposed the Charter, on the advice of their chiefs and Methodist church ministers. This is not the usual route to democracy and things could still go wrong, but success would be more assured with the Mininter's understanding, if not actual support.
- Finally, although cut off from its traditional friends, Fiji continues to receive international recognition, soft and low interest loans and technical assistance from non-traditional sources. NZ and Australia's influence in the Pacific could be eroding. The Minister should not underestimate the possible erosion of New Zealand influence.
Disclaimer: This material is not covered by copyright and may be used without acknowledgement by the media. -- Crosbie Walsh