(B) Democracy in Fiji : Unravelling the Myth

by Rodney V. Cole

Fiji-born and now Australian citizen, Rodney Cole spend 20 years in Fiji's public service, in both district and the central administrations. At various times he was a Member of the Council of Ministers, the Executive Council, the Legislative Council, and the Fijian Affairs Board. He held a Commission in the Fiji Military Forces and in 1984 led a team which resulted in changes to the structure of the Fijian Administration. In this brief article, he traces the erratic path of Fiji's incomplete democracies, and considers what Australia can do to break the current impasse.

It could well be regarded as Fiji’s ‘day of infamy, May 14th 1987, the day a senior officer of the Royal Fiji Military Forces led a coup to usurp the authority of an elected government. Acting as he did the perpetrator of the coup not only shattered the idea that Fiji was a democratic country but also destroyed the long held belief that Fijian commoners venerated the authority of their traditional chiefs. Further, the belief that Fijian soldiers were unswervingly loyal to their Commander in Chief, the Governor General, no longer held.

Once the idea that a coup might serve to fulfil the ambitions of those seeking to achieve change in political circumstances of the state, and once the traditional reverence for chiefly authority no longer held it became almost fashionable to ignore the concepts of democracy as the basis for a state in which equality between citizens is paramount.

Since 1987 Fiji has been subject to three further coups, the most recent in 2006. The reasons advanced for these acts, which might indeed be regarded as treasonable, are not the concern of this paper other than to concur with the principle that military intervention to change the governance of a state can seldom be justified. The concern of this paper is the response of the international community which has demanded that Fiji immediately return to that form of democratic government that existed prior to the 2006 coup. This paper will argue that such a demand is unrealistic if what is envisaged is that form of democracy defined by the Macquarie Australian Dictionary, namely ‘a state of society characterised by the formal equality of rights and privileges’. It will seek to demonstrate that Fiji has never enjoyed a truly democratic government where equality existed between citizens in terms of their electoral rights. A discussion on the extent to which segments of the population were disadvantaged by former constitutional structures is a matter beyond the scope of this paper, it is simply a fact.

Prior to the cession of Fiji to Queen Victoria in 1874 the power of chiefs over individual vei matanitu (kingdoms) was absolute. With the change to colonial status Fiji simply exchanged the form of government, as A.B. Brewster put in his book King of the Cannibal Islands, for ‘the iron rule of a Crown Colony of a severe type, the governor of which is more powerful and autocratic than ever was His Fijian Majesty’. During the colonial period, which lasted until independence in 1971, there were efforts to involve citizens in a form of consultative government through the executive and legislative councils. But always in matters of policy or legislation there remained the governor and his red pen, with the Colonial Office lurking in the background, who retained the power of veto, a power seldom if ever used as civil servants, until 1965, outnumbered elected or nominated members of the community. In the early years of colonial rule elected European and nominated Fijians made up what might have been regarded as the ‘opposition’. Over time the racial balance in the Legislative Council changed, the first Indian members being elected in 1929. They almost immediately introduced a motion calling for a common electoral roll which inevitably was rejected resulting in their vacating the Council until 1932.

In 1965 the official majority was abandoned and 36 elected members took their seats, of these Fijian members numbered fourteen and Indian twelve. European and other qualified electors were allotted ten seats, a situation which represented an electoral advantage given their modest voter roll. In attempt to break down the racial divide, and meet continuing pressure for a common electoral roll, both communal and ‘cross voting’ rolls were introduced whereby each of the three racial groups could vote for candidates in other groups. A constitutional conference in 1970 determined upon a bi-cameral legislature with an appointed Upper House with a Fijian majority and fully elected Lower House of 52 made up of 22 Fijians, 22 Indians and 8 General electors representing all other racial groups. Fiji went to independence in 1971 on the basis of the 1965 constitution.

In the 1972 elections Ratu Mara’s Alliance party which had taken Fiji to Independence retained government. However the 1977 elections, reflecting a degree of disillusionment by Fijian voters resulted in a victory for the Indian dominated National Federation Party (NFP). Delay in the NFP nominating a candidate for the position of prime minister led the Governor General, Ratu Sir George Cakobau to appoint Ratu Mara as prime minister of a minority government which was quickly voted out of office but returned in a landslide following a fresh election. Again in 1982 the Alliance was returned to government but with a reduced majority, seemingly as a consequence of weakening traditional ties so critical in maintaining Fijian hegemony.

In the 1985 elections a powerful new, principally Indian, Coalition of the Fiji Labour Party and the NFP, with a Fijian from the Western Division nominated as leader, succeeded in winning government. This victory, despite a constitution which appeared to favour Fijian hegemony, was short lived as the first military led coup of 1987 deposed the elected government. A second coup shortly thereafter led to the constitution being revoked and Fiji declared a republic. A new constitution drafted by an unelected government was adopted in 1990. This reflected Fijian xenophobia by giving members of the indigenous population the right to appoint an executive president and preponderant representation in a bi-cameral parliament. The obvious imbalance in ethnic representation in the parliament led to a new constitution, adopted in 1997, in which Fijian electors retained a pre-eminent position in terms of seats in both the Upper and Lower Houses thereby allowing for the continuation of Fijian parliamentary predominance.

Surprisingly the first elections under the 1997 constitution resulted in the Fiji Labour Party being able to form a government led, for the first time by an Indian prime minister. Perhaps less surprising was the attempted coup that followed, a coup that again led to military intervention, the introduction of martial law and once more the abrogation of the constitution. An interim government under Fijian leadership, appointed by the Commander, Fiji Military Forces (FMF), took office in 2001.

Subsequently a new Fijian party was formed, the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL), led by the appointed prime minister. The 1997 constitution was restored in 2001 and following elections that year, and again in 2006 the SDL party formed government. Of course this being Fiji, and given the politics of change since independence, expecting the unexpected should come as a matter of course. By 2006 the military leadership, disillusioned by alleged racially biased policies, corruption and nepotism associated with the SDL government, decided it was time for a ‘cleaning out’. The consequence, yet another coup. While it can be argued that the SDL failed the basic criterion required for a democratic government it was none-the–less elected and therefore its peremptory removal from power by the Fijian military was sufficient cause for an international outcry.

While the population of Fiji, particularly the Indian community, as well as most other Pacific island countries appear to have remained ambivalent both Australia and New Zealand demanded a return to democracy as represented by the racially biased 1997 constitution. A range of bans were imposed and the Liberal Party government in Australia played the ‘gunboat diplomacy’ card with tragic consequences. Unfortunately the Australian Labour Party, which succeeded the Liberals in government continued the policy of intransigence towards the Fiji’s military imposed government with the Prime Minister expressing the need for continuing pressure ‘ to ensure that we do not see a spread of coup culture to the rest of the Pacific.’ This pressure has among other things led to Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations and the regional Pacific Islands Forum which relies heavily on both Australia and New Zealand for its existence.

In spite of, perhaps almost because of the external and to a lesser extent the internal pressures mounted against it, the military government has been completely unmoved from its determination to reject racism as a basis for ‘a state of society characterised by the formal equality of rights and privileges’. To this end it is promoting a draft policy document, PEOPLES CHARTER FOR CHANGE, PEACE & PROGRESS, which claims to represent ‘Fiji’s own way of addressing its deep rooted, complex and fundamental problems’ (page i of Charter). In order to fulfill its ambitions the military government have stated that it will not contemplate elections under a new constitution until 2014.

It is not the intent of this brief paper to debate the pros and cons of the military position nor the reluctance of those opposed to the existing regime to consider the implications of a return to the racially biased 1997 constitution. It is accepted that the position of the military is ethically indefensible but it should also be recognized that no amount of pressure such as now being exerted will deter those in power from their ambitions as set forth in the Charter. It seems clear that those in control in Fiji know what they want and are determined to achieve their objectives. Those opposing the present regime however are faced with the dilemma of how to enforce a return to the 1997 constitution rather than wait out the time table envisaged by the military. Australia, leading the charge to restore a dubious form of democracy, has introduced a range of punitive measures presumably designed by public servants but presented by political leaders with the objective of forcing the military to concede defeat and bow to its demands. Those aligned with Australian policies, but reflecting diverse range of interests, include the New Zealand Government, the leadership of the Fijian Methodist Church, some members of the Fijian community, a number foreign governments as well as a variety of bi-lateral and multi-lateral organizations. A number of blog sites, hiding behind the mask of anonymity, spew forth a stream of abuse against the present government while some members of the academic community in Australia avidly condemn what they might have been expected to welcome, a new constitution containing proposals for a common electoral roll. Not unexpectedly members of Fiji’s Indian community generally remain reticent for although they may expect to benefit from the adoption of the People’s Charter they stand to endanger rights of migration by upsetting the sensitive metropolitan neighbours through appearing to support the current regime.

Whichever way one looks at the Fiji political situation of today there appears to be an impasse. The government in power refuses to bow to external pressures to ‘return to democracy’ before it’s nominated date for an election, based on a common roll, in 2014. No amount of pressure by those aligned against the military regime has altered this time table. Of course options for exerting pressure remain – more bans or embargos which will only serve to inflict a degree of pain and suffering on the bulk of the population. There is no case for intervention equivalent to the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands nor is there justification for aggressive foreign military intervention. So if Australia wishes to push the envelope, to underscore its lead role in the region, to ensure that the Pacific islands states remain part of its sphere of influence, or simply seek to expedite in a sensible fashion its desire to restore a formally elected constitutional government what to do?

Any change in current Australian policy towards Fiji must involve intervention at the prime ministerial level, strong minded recognition that change is not demeaning but serving national and regional interests that over-ride bureaucratic intransigence. Initiation, and presentation of more rational policies that reflect recognition of the true meaning of democracy are matters well within the political skills of the Prime Minister. Perhaps he might be guided by CE Lindblum: ‘Policy is not made once and for all; it is made and remade endlessly. Policymaking is a process of successive approximation to some desired objectives in which what is desired itself continues to change under reconsideration’ ( ‘The Science of Muddling Through p.19 Public Administration Review 1959).


Memory lapse? said…
Rodney Cole is a smart guy so I'm puzzled to see him nominating 1971 as the year of Fiji's independence - not once but twice in this paper. Independence Day was October 10th, 1970. I also quibble with his pronouncement that "the position of the military is ethically indefensible". It is legally indefensible given the judgement of the Fiji Court of Appeal last year. But surely from an ethical viewpoint, taking a stand to prevent the marginalisation of 40 per cent of the population by a racist government is entirely defensible? I also think that the estimable Mr Cole is entirely wrong to place any confidence whatsoever in the Australian Prime Minister to break the impasse in Fiji. Kevin Rudd is a dead duck in his own country. On the basis of a poll published today about voting intentions in Queensland in the coming election, Kevin Rudd looks set to be only the second Prime Minister in Australia's history not to win a second term. Maybe Mr Cole put pen to paper before Rudd began his spectacular self immolation. For all that, however, Mr Cole deserves praise for entering the debate and providing us with a more even handed treatise than some of the drivel emanating from arm chair critics in academia. When it comes to historical background, there are few people more qualified to comment, having lived through it at first hand. Vinaka vakalevu for this contribution.
History repeating itself said…
Rodney Cole explains very well in his opening couple of paragraphs the volcanic upheaval Sitiveni Rabuka unleashed on May 14th, 1987. Yes, it was the end of any notion that Fiji was a democratic country and the end of any notion of absolute chiefly authority. I remember being stunned to the core to see the President, Ratu Sir Penaiaa Ganilau, booed by ordinary Fijians as he entered the special meeting of the GCC immediately after the coup. You just knew this was a seismic shift and one that certainly wasn't for the better. We need more pieces like this to remind us that Fiji was never a democracy like Australia and NZ. Before Cession, the chiefs ruled with unquestioned and terrible authority and in the Crown Colony of Fiji, any elected bodies like Legco were merely consultative and if the British didn't like it, that was it. Hardly the kind of democracy enjoyed in the mother country or by Aussies and Kiwis. So as Cole points out, the very idea of democracy was an invention at independence 40 years ago. Is it any wonder that its roots in the country aren't exactly secure? This is something that I don't think is remotely appreciated in Australia and NZ. Let's face it, we've had a long history in Fiji of being told what to do. So is it any wonder that the mostly benevolent dictator Bainimarama gets garlanded at successive villages by women acting like excitable schoolgirls? As the old saying goes, those who ignore history are likely to repeat it. But Rodney Cole shows us something else; that even a fleeting glimpse back at history can provide answers that elude even the finest minds in the corridors of the greatest powers. Let's hope the foreign affairs boffins in Oz and NZ get to read his piece.
Naming rights said…
I have read Rodney V. Cole's contribution with interest but can't help wondering what the V stands for. It's not Voreqe by any chance? He certainly seems a lot more sympathetic than your usual academic, that's for sure. I'd imagine, given his distinguished colonial career, that Mr Cole is old enough to be Voreqe's father. But perhaps he adopted the name out of admiration for the dictator? It would be a bit odd but we do live in strange times.
Croz Walsh said…
@ Naming rights ... Rodney says it's the V for Victory sign popularised by Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain. Well, I think that's what he said but the line between Taumatawhakatangihanga­koauauotamateaturi­pukakapikimaungahoronuku­pokaiwhenuakitanatahu and Yarramalong was a little faint.
Bugger V me said…
Does this mean the V doesn't stand for anything but Churchill's two fingered V for Victory sign in WW2? I knew the colonial era was strange but this really takes the keke.
it is 2010 not 1987 said…
It is now 2010? And it would appear the Fiji military has still not learned anything from the disastrous coups that followed 1987. It is not up to Australia to break the impasse and clean up the mess Fiji finds itself in again because the military don't understand the role of a military and are poorly led.
As for sanctions - too soft - time for them to be substantially increased - particularly for those getting benefits from migrating to Aust and NZ and at the same time supporting a human rights abusing military junta. No way do these freedom loving countries want or need such people.
Chinese cyber wars said…
Croz, when I was in China recently, I tried to log on to you and couldn't get past the official Chinese firewall. I wondered if it was all blogs they were screening or just you? Either way, those commies have no idea how valuable exposure to your website can be. Makes you wonder why Frank or anyone else would ever bother with them. Losers.
Be afraid, very afraid said…
Croz, take a look at today's editorial in the Fiji Sun, which as we all know, reflects the regime's thinking. It confirms an official strategy to bypass Australia and NZ by forging closer ties with people like the Russians and Cubans. And it also confirms Frank's attempt to drive a truck through the Pacific Forum by encouraging other island states to join the MSG and shake off Australian and New Zealand domination. Anyone who cares about the integrity of our existing regional groupings ought to be highly alarmed by these developments. I think you should post the editorial and invite comment because I don't think enough people appreciate how grave things have become. There's an accompanying story in which Frank accuses the Forum's man in Suva - a Samoan - of relaying false information to member states in an attempt to discredit Fiji. Next month's MSG summit is going to be a doozy, that's for sure.

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