Two Loyal Aussies Think Bainimarama is "Fiji's Best Hope"

This article by Graham Davis was written before last week's meeting in Natadola.

While Australia contends Fijian dictator Frank Bainimarama is increasingly friendless, two Australians are among his most loyal supporters.

Frank  Bainimarama is bewildered and seething with rage and frustration. The military man in him knows he's suffered a humiliating tactical defeat. And worse, he didn't see it coming. He's been rolled by someone he thought he could depend on most, the outgoing chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, who has pulled the plug on a summit meeting in Fiji barely a week out and with no warning.

Expensive suites are booked, the pigs, kava and dancers all primed and waiting. It was meant to be Fiji's hour of triumph, chairman Frank briefly wearing the country's former mantle as Pacific leader.

Instead, with his back turned at an International Monetary Fund meeting in South Korea, Australia has mounted a diplomatic counter-offensive, using a $66 million aid package to Vanuatu to strong-arm Prime Minister Edward Natapei into calling the meeting off. Natapei didn't even call Bainimarama to give him the news. So much for Melanesian solidarity. Now back in Suva, the dictator rails against the perfidious Aussies and their Kiwi cousins and the man he accuses of stabbing him in the back.

Yet the military training kicks in, orders are barked, the telecommunications counter-offensive spreads out across the region. Within days, the MSG Plus summit may be off but the Engaging with Fiji summit is on, attracting a host of Pacific countries, including two crucial face-savers, the leaders of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

It's been a roller-coaster ride of a week at the office, as Bainimarama's chief censor and media strategist Sharon Smith-Johns cheerfully concedes.

"The mood was one of shock, anger and disappointment. Natapei didn't call. He just put out a press release dated Friday that I didn't get until Monday. Suddenly, bang! What do we do? Obviously, we hit the phones but there were a few prayers too."

With her flame-red hair and assertive persona, Smith-Johns would be a striking presence anywhere. Yet it's still startling to find this former Fairfax marketing executive among the coffee-coloured faces moving quietly in and out of Bainimarama's office, where he sits under a portrait of the Queen deposed by Fiji's first coup maker, Sitiveni Rabuka, 23 years ago.

"I don't think I'm being disloyal to Australia. I feel disappointed with Australia that they can't see what I can see over here, a lot of positive changes. [Foreign Minister] Stephen Smith can take a swipe at us, I can take a swipe at him but my role is giving people a better understanding of what's happening in this country. I don't feel like a traitor, not at all."

Multiple time zones away, by the East River in New York, another Australian citizen, Peter Thomson, is preparing for a diplomatic day of battle for Bainimarama as his permanent representative at the UN. Six months ago, his excellency the ambassador was a Sydney author and magazine writer, a face in the alfresco coffee crowd at trendy Coluzzi in Darlinghurst.

Now, he's busy signing diplomatic relations for Fiji with a slew of countries it had never bothered to engage before as part of a strategy to broaden its global ties and escape the Australian yoke.

"I've just come back from Cuba," Thomson tells me. "We're examining areas of co-operation in the medical field, in which Cuba is a world leader for developing countries. "We've got 160 medical students from the Pacific on medical scholarships in Cuba."

Unlike Smith-Johns, Thomson is Fiji-born and his connection to the country stretches back five generations on his mother's side. His father was a British colonial servant and Thomson himself ploughed through the ranks of Fiji's civil service in the stable immediate post-independence years, at one time consul-general in Sydney. But then came Rabuka's 1987 coup, when Thomson found himself a target as the high-profile white permanent secretary to Fiji's governor-general, embroiled in a constitutional crisis and with indigenous supremacists demanding his head.

Three days in an excreta-smeared cell at Rabuka's pleasure convinced Thomson of the need to put down other roots, first in New Zealand, then Australia.

More than most, he has cause to have deep personal feelings about the rise of Fijian nationalism and the steady marginalisation, before 2006, of the 40 per cent of non-indigenous citizens. "I'm a passionate advocate of a multi-racial, multicultural Fiji so I fully support Prime Minister Bainimarama's program," Thomson says. "Race-based constitutions and political parties have been very divisive for the nation. We're now working towards a future in which citizens will vote without regard for race for the first time."
Fiji's UN ambassador is unusual in having triple citizenship: Australia, NZ and now Fiji, his passport restored when the regime ended a 40-year ban on dual citizenship last year.

"To any notion of disloyalty or treachery to Australia, I'd say nonsense," he says. "I'm working to restore good relations in our region, not destroy them."

Unlike Thomson's deep roots in Fiji, Smith-Johns first visited in 1994, then again in 1997 when cupid's arrow sliced through her holiday.

"I fell in love with my diving instructor, the classic holiday romance," she laughs. "Then I moved here in 2000 right in the middle of George Speight's coup. Everyone thought I was mad."

Marrying her diving instructor, Smith-Johns became chief executive of internet service provider Connect Fiji and met Bainimarama informally at a business forum. She wears her devotion on her sleeve.

"I've become good friends with both him and his wife, Mary, who's a wonderful woman and a very close friend of mine," she says. "But he's my boss first and foremost and I have had occasions when he's bawled me out. But although he's tough, he's very fair."

For all her NSW country girl charm, Smith-Johns is now widely detested in Suva as the official who presides over the government's media censorship, the final arbiter of what Fijians see and hear.
She insists that 90 per cent of stories now get past the military censors but that's a figure hotly disputed by her newsroom critics, who also point to her role in what increasingly appears to be the imminent closure of the country's oldest newspaper, The Fiji Times (owned by News Limited, publisher of The Australian).

Most damaging is the allegation that when Smith-Johns was head of Connect Fiji, she allowed the regime to tap into the emails of her customers, including journalists and human rights activists.
"Absolute rubbish," she insists. "I take great exception to that. As a CEO, I could not and would not do that. We were never approached by anyone in government to tap emails. Never, ever."

Smith-Johns concedes she was once asked to explore the possibility of blocking websites opposed to the regime.

"It was pretty hard-core, nasty stuff but I still said no. I didn't think it was the right thing to do but in any event, it's a losing battle. Block off one website and another will pop up," she says.

Twelve thousand kilometres away from the political blast furnace of Suva, Thomson finds many more friendly faces of all hues as he strides the corridors of the UN.

"While Australia and NZ have obviously caused a lot of damage to Fiji's interests, the vast majority of diplomats I meet are very understanding of our efforts to carry out our reforms and bring long-term stability to the country," he says.

Thomson is spearheading vital elements of Fiji's Look North policy, pursuing closer ties with China, India and the Arab world -- among others -- as a means of breaking free of its dependence on Australia and NZ.
"We've applied for membership of the Non-Aligned Movement to forge a truly independent foreign policy, something we should have done a long time ago," he says.

"Over the last five months, I've officiated at ceremonies formalising diplomatic relations with 17 countries, and there'll be many more before the year is out."

Thomson and his wife Marijcke, a Sydney magazine publisher, were on holiday in NZ in January when the phone rang with Bainimarama's office on the line. "When your homeland has most need for your services, that is the most important time to serve and I had no doubt that I was equipped to do the job," he says.

Thomson had been on Bainimarama's radar for 50 years, since his own father had served as a prison warden to Thomson's father in British colonial times. But it was Thomson's strong advocacy of Fiji's position in the past couple of years that persuaded the dictator to entice him back into Fiji government service.

"I gave speeches in Australia to the Lowy Institute and the Centre for Independent Studies, as well as speeches in New Zealand, highly critical of their policy towards Fiji. It was pretty strong stuff about punishing Fiji without achieving anything and destabilising the whole region," he says.

Thomson's views were shared by a number of Australian, NZ and Fiji business figures, who secretly commissioned him last year to launch what they called the Fiji Dialogue Project in an attempt to heal the breach. Thomson is speaking about the initiative for the first time. "These were prominent people with long records of service in the three countries, no personal agendas and a shared commitment to the wellbeing of the South Pacific region. They were as distressed as I was about the breakdown of the relationship," he says.

And so Thomson embarked on a mission of personal diplomacy involving talks in Suva with Bainimarama and his foreign minister and subsequent trips to PNG and NZ. "I went under the radar to Port Moresby to meet Prime Minister Michael Somare and get his support for our efforts. Good progress was being made when the welcome news came that the foreign ministers of Australia, NZ and Fiji had agreed to a tripartite meeting. We thought, prematurely as it turns out, that our work was done," Thomson says.

There was also a meeting in Tony Abbott's electoral office in Sydney before he became Opposition leader. Thomson says he got a polite hearing but no commitments when he told Abbott the other side to the Fiji story wasn't getting through. Through these efforts, Bainimarama and Thomson developed their high mutual personal regard.

"The PM comes from a background of public service, as did his father before him. Remember, this is a man who only just survived an assassination attempt after he suppressed the ethno-nationalist forces trying to overrun Fiji.

"This is the man who defused the time bomb of the 2000 coup, when George Speight's gunmen held the government hostage for 56 days. That was Fiji's greatest trauma and the country never wants to see it happen again," Thomson says.

Thomson and Smith-Johns say Bainimarama's promise to hold elections in 2014 are central to their support for him and they believe he'll keep his word. "There will be an election in 2014," says Smith Johns. "No doubt about it." Bainimarama's many critics aren't so sure and neither is the Australian government, which in any event, wants an election now.

But for these Australian true believers, Bainimarama remains Fiji's best hope and they make no apology for being in the front line defending it against their own government's bete noir.

"I've never had any approaches from the Australian side warning me off," says Smith-Johns. "No spooks have come to see me. The only warning I received was from my mother, who told me to get back home and stop it!  She said, 'For God's sake, Sharon, come back home!' I said, 'It's all going to be OK, Mum. Have a Bex and a good lie down.' And I'm sure it will be."


Anonymous said…
In politics - as you should know - things are not always the way they may seem to the outside observer. It is perhaps too early to celebrate the staunch support to a dictator provided by two Aussies.
Anonymous said…
Lets hope these two are not let down like so many others who have tried to support the stated intent of the PM.

They would do well to advise the PM to stop his threats to Australia and to stop the mumblings about maybe putting off the election.

They would do well to advise him to get moving on actually preparing for the election.

They would do well to advise him to set some milestones and dates by which things will be done. Like a draft constitution and how it will be drafted. How the consultation will work ?

They would do well to advise him to lift the public emergency decree as he promised he would.

They would do well to advise him to stop making promises he never intends to keep.
Joe said…
We need to see more done fairly quickly. MC should have been prosecuted back then, not only when he speaks against the regime. I hear that Ratu Inoke will be back in court early next month for 2000 mutiny charges. FHL grant converted to loan, good work. Building 2 bridges on King's Rd for $9M, etc,etc

What about the NBF saga? Will that ever be investigated? Is it because of high profile names? Current govt. ministers involved, or what? Is the AG in the process of hiring his ex workmates from overseas to clear all those NBF debtors?

We really need to see some meaningful steps taken, like NBF, drafting of new constitution, etc. I am sure Aust & NZ will help if work on a new constitution is kick started asap. If you are really serious about caring for the people of Fiji, get those NBF debtors to pay back those millions of $$$$s owed to the taxpayers.
Anonymous said…
Question is will they last the distance or will they stumble and fall ? What happens if an election does not happen or it becomes a controlled exercise as most expecte (eg so many parties poeple excluded that only Frank or his nominee can win).

I guess they have the luxury of going home at the end of the day. Peter does not care so much that he is giving up is AU residency is he ? Sharon have you applied for Fiji passport and will you surrender your AU one. Or is that all too risky.

We no the great saviour of Fiji Gov Reddy worked first to secure NZ residency before securing the job he always wanted.
Anonymous said…
Bro Croz - you didn't mention this article was lifted from Murdoch owned The Australian. Often wondered how you'd put positive spin on dictators? Above publication had a good go at it via this warm & fuzzy article - complete with front page picture of a relaxed tie wearing Frank - even more surprising was the one taken with chief censor instigator of photo shoot & article - PR at its best - earnt her money already. Fact that all above took place in a company who in 2 months time about will lose a $100 million + asset find really puzzing?
Carpet baggers said…
What happened to John Samy and Jim Anthony? These carpet baggers don't last too long?
Joe said…
Just 2 Australians? What is this, a cricket match? What about "Harbhajan" and his spinners?????
Joe said…
What a load of crap Croz. There is no such thing as a "Loyal Aussie". Have you heard of names such as:

Julia Gillard, Sir John Kerr etc.?

There is no such thing as "Loyalty" amongst compatriots in OZ. What else do you expect?
Walker Texas Ranger said…
@ Carpetbaggers

Instability affords opportunity. This is when the oddballs get going. This has been so since time began. However, we should consider the old saying: "horses for courses". We need particular people at particular times. We must make the best use of those who are prepared to step up: democratic process almost destroyed Fiji with its 36 member Cabinet: all expecting to be fed,clothed, housed and paid for by taxpayers who had already been cheated and milked for fifteen years by corrupt, greedy and dishonourable leaders with their inappropriately qualified lackeys. Nation States require leadership if they are to survive a most hostile world climate. They require courage, steadfastness and the determination to succeed. They must ensure outcomes benefit all citizens and investors. They are required to take corrupt people and their corrupt enterprises head on and clean them up or put them all on notice: steal from the public purse and you will be rendered accountable to us: the people who pay you.

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