Switch off the Autopilot in the Pacific

Canberra's stance on the Fiji crisis requires an urgent rethink

Michael O'Keefe in the Sydney Morning Herald 
July 16, 2010

    The easy option is to ramp up the rhetoric without much changing sanctions against the regime of Frank Bainimarama, the naval officer who seized power four years ago in a bloodless coup. This would be predictable and lazy. To escalate the sanctions is an option, but one that both John Howard and Kevin Rudd eschewed when faced by similar belligerent actions from Suva. The unstated option is to end or dramatically modify sanctions - and this should not be taken away from the table.


    Despite some early optimism from Canberra, Suva and Wellington, the policy of the previous government did nothing to reverse the coup.In fact, Rudd substantially followed Howard. Gillard is likely to do the same.

    This sums up Australia's historical approach to the South Pacific; policy autopilot until a crisis fills the broadsheets, followed by orthodox responses that do not really work and then a return to business as usual.
    In short, there has been a policy vacuum from Canberra since the initial response to the coup, despite several inflammatory escalations and signs of an emerging humanitarian crisis developing on the ground.
    The expulsion is just one example of brinkmanship from Bainimarama. Others include the draconian Public Emergency decrees, the abrogation of the constitution, earlier diplomatic expulsions and a spate of restrictive media laws.In each case, Australia's response has been public criticism, but no escalation of sanctions.

    Meanwhile, Australia's policy towards Fiji has achieved none of its stated aims; democracy has not been restored, elections have been postponed and individual rights and freedoms curtailed.

    And from Bainimarama's recent statements, it seems that even the tenuous road map to free elections in 2014 may be scrapped. The only diplomatic success has been cementing our place as the dominant regional power - a ''sheriff'' in our own right. The Pacific Islands Forum, the UN, EU, US, Britain and NZ have all supported Australian leadership. But even this success is eroding.

    The capacity of the Pacific Islands Forum to act as a regional voice is being challenged, not least by Suva's bid to expand the Melanesian Spearhead Group.Cracks are also appearing in hitherto unwavering support from the US and Britain. And the most worrying development is that for every back-step we take, China strides forward.

    What is needed is a fresh approach. We shouldn't reward a dictator, but Australia's ''smart'' sanctions have failed to punish Suva sufficiently to encourage compromise. Bainimarama has instituted a ''Look North'' policy that has diluted the impact of the sanctions. Travel bans have been inconvenient, but direct flights are now leaving Fiji for Asia. Cutting off military co-operation is a snub, but officers still train in European and Asian colleges (including China). Soldiers still earn status working on lucrative UN operations. Sporting sanctions never really took hold.

    The maintenance of the sanctions status quo is now damaging Australia's strategic interests in the region and beyond.Sanctions are meant to target the regime and there is no sign that elites are suffering. Ordinary Fijians, however, are hurting regardless of ethnicity. If there is a divide now, it's between winners and losers, between urban and rural Fijians, between landowners and landless Fijians of Indian origin and internal migrants.

    GDP has declined, but it fails to measure welfare. Most socio-economic and development indicators are in reverse. It has been estimated that poverty is higher than before independence in 1970. Suva's 20 per cent devaluation of the dollar has not been matched by real growth in incomes. Access to costly services such as healthcare have also been curtailed. There is a rise of subsistence agriculture. In short, human security is being challenged.This dire situation can be partly explained by the impact of the global financial crisis on small island states with fragile economies. It also reflects economic mismanagement by the regime.

    However, the situation may also be attributed to the response of investors and tourists to imposition of sanctions, travel warnings and tense diplomatic exchanges. Sanctions may be contributing to the very situation they were designed to avoid. In truth, we can't disaggregate the factors. If sanctions are part of the problem, and a humanitarian crisis is developing, and if we claim that the South Pacific is our ''patch'', then we must do something to end the impasse.

    The stubborn maintenance of sanctions may no longer be in Australia's interests. But that is for the PM to decide.
              Dr Michael O'Keefe is a senior lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University.
    Click here for source article.

    Comments

    daucina dina said…
    Dr Michael 0'Keefe of La Trobe University has come out of the woodwork rather too late for anything commendable to be said of him. Stating the obvious is not necessarily smart. He fails to gauge with accuracy the situation on the ground in Fiji. People have died in Fiji and out of Fiji due to Australia's misguided policy towards Fijians. No one who has a health condition in Fiji will thank Australia or New Zealand for their dilemma or their imposed choice. Instead, a number of people known personally to me have died for a lack of prompt assistance and no obvious alternative. Hot footing it to India is hardly a helpful choice if one is dying of Cancer of the Colon? The experience of the past ten years in Fiji under the tutelage (is that what it is???) of Australia's Foreign Policy is so revealing that we do not require Australian-based academics to add to our understanding of what has signally failed: Australian politicians and their Think Tanks of whatever political persuasion.

    There is absolutely no point in trying to pick up the pieces now of your ridiculous and compromised foreign policy. The inadequately trained diplomats sent to the Islands of the South Pacific over too many years have made you more than a laughing stock: Pariah of the Pacific might be more appropriate. You think that is extreme? Then look at the consequences of your actions on the ground. No amount of sugared pills in Aid will ever erase those or bring back all those who died unnecessarily and are dying in Fiji and adjacent islands now.
    Liu Muri said…
    What a load of academic hogwash. This is a classical academic intellectual masturbation where an academic says a lot without saying anything. So, what does this armchair critic suggest? If he left everything to the decision of Gillard, then why did he waste his time in penning this article which has a lot of smoke, but no light?
    So, Dr Michael O'Keefe, where do we go from here, Sir, what do you, or did you hope to suggest or recommend, Sir.
    Please stop pontificating if you have nothing constructive to say, or if you think it is constructive, then say it in such a way so that us common mortals can understand you..
    Freedom and democracy said…
    The wonderful thing about democratic countries like Australia with its freedom and professional military, is that people are entitled to their view. It is terribly sad that this is not the case in Fiji at the moment.
    With all due respect to Michael O'Keefe's view, this is why he is an academic and not a policy adviser or a decision maker. No government in Australia, of any persuasion, would , or could, ever support a military coup - anywhere. The people would destroy them. This is just basic commonsense and honesty. And if Fiji is going to move forward it needs a big dose of both very urgently by those who have assumed 'leadeship' without the mandate of the people.
    Anonymous said…
    @ Anonymous

    Joint interests must be found if an alliance of sound thought is to follow. 'Soundness' in any field requires 'accountability'. Governance of any standing requires funding: funding comes from taxpayers, corporate and individual and indirect through VAT.

    Thus, taxpayers have the means and the joint interest to require proper governance, to require that their stolen or diverted monies are repaid in full and the Public Purse is restored. How? Each and every diverter of public money is to repay and restore public money whence it came: to the Exchequer of Fiji Inc. Then, transparency is to follow. Then and only then some semblance of a democratic future may evolve.

    Ms Gillard, the present PM of Australia has to some extent assuaged her coup-like tendency and called for elections. Hats off to her now 'for thinking better of it'. That's the way to go and she appears to know it.
    imprimatur said…
    @ freedom & democracy

    So, "the People would destroy them?". Well if sanctions are modified sufficiently to allow some of us easy access to Australia and considering that we shall not be funded - as others have been - to promote our views, you had better be well prepared for what will be said. There will be little reticence or restraint, we can assure you: the views expressed will be clear, succinct and thoroughly to the point. Your Policies have failed and they have undermined the democratic process not in anyway assisted it.
    sara'ssista said…
    I am presuming previous australian government didn't think this would drag on as long as it has and that fiji would take some measures to fix itself, by the population taking control and requiring the military to go back to barracks, it is now time to ramp up sanctions and perhaps a blockade by air and sea and we will see this end very quickly as the regime has no resources to combat this. No navy and no airforce. Thank god.

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