Why Did the MSG Leaders Change Their Minds?

Crosbie Walsh
13 July 2010

Exactly one year ago today the Melanesian Spearhead Group resolved to ask the Pacific Islands Forum to lift the ban on Fiji at the meeting in Cairns in August. The MSG believed they were legally bound to allow Fiji to take part in regional trade and economic agreements such as PACER Plus and PICTA.

Radio Australia's Sean Dorney saw their decision as "quite a victory for Commodore Bainimarama. "Some of us," he said,  "were expecting there to be some suggestion or some urging of him to go to elections earlier than his proclaimed time of September 2014. But when the leaders finally had their news conference on Friday night, it was pretty clear that they were just saying right Commodore, we think you're on the right track. You've convinced us that you've got the plans that are going to suit Fiji into the future and we'll go along with what you say."

Here's what the newly appointed MSG Chairman Vanuatu's Prime Minister, Edward Natapei (photo), had to say:

"MSG Leaders noted the Government of Fiji's "Strategic Framework for Change" which was announced on 1st July 2009. The Framework sets out key milestones and timelines on major political and structural reforms which are necessary for sustainable democracy. A major component of this reform, reform agenda is the formulation of a new Constitution that will ensure equal suffrage for all people of Fiji including electoral reform.

Leaders noted that the Framework reflected a clear vision and strategic direction for far reaching changes that the people of Fiji would need in order to achieve sustainable democracy.

Now on Fiji and the Pacific Islands Forum: Leaders acknowledged the central role Fiji plays in the Pacific region, particularly within the Pacific Islands Forum - PIF - and its associated agencies, and called on members of the Pacific Islands Forum and development partners to engage in open and constructive dialogue with Fiji.

Leaders noted the importance of Fiji being continuously engaged in the PIF and the MSG. Leaders further recognise the importance of collective and inclusive group engagement in pursuing their common interests in the region, including economic cooperation arrangements.

Leaders recognised Fiji's right to participate in regional trade and economic cooperation agreements such as PICTA, PACER Plus and the interim EPA. The exclusion of Fiji from discussions of these agreements would be invalid and therefore the decisions pertaining to those agreements would be null and void."

But Fiji never went to Cairns. It was never allowed its "right to participate" in anything.  Somehow the MSG leaders had changed their minds.

Natapei's Further Mind Change
So what  caused Natapei and, apparently, the MSG leaders to change their minds about attending the MSG meeting in Fiji next week, and why was their decision so long delayed?

Was it because having Bainimarama chair the meeting was a "threat to the organization's values," as Natapei claims?   Or because all the MSG leaders thought, contrary to the evidence, that the situation had deteriorated in Fiji since they endorsed Bainimarama's "Strategic Framework for Change" 12 month's ago? Natapei's reference to an "impasse" on the chairmanship could be the explanation except that  only one week ago PNG assured us that Natapei had agreed to Bainimarama chairing the meeting.  And why was this turn-around decision left so late?  Natapei says he's invited Bainimarama to visit Vanuatu to resolve the matter but, as he must have known, this invitation came too late to "resolve the matter" and  hold the Fiji meeting.

Natapei's invitation is a little cheeky. He supported Fiji's inclusion in the Cairns meeting and then backtracked. He supported the Strategic Framework for Change and backtracked again. He agreed to Bainimarama chairing the Fiji meeting and backtracked yet again. He accepted the invitation to attend the meeting and then scrapped the meeting, causing unnecessary costs, insult and humiliation to Fiji and Bainimarama personally. And then, to add to the insult, he invites Bainimarama to Vanuatu so he can "resolve the matter." Why didn't he  go to Fiji and sort it out there? And who gave him the authority to resolve the situation, anyway? He said all the MSG leaders were involved. [P.S. One report says there are.]

Something Doesn't Quite Tick
Something about all these comings and goings doesn't quite tick.  There are just too many coincidences.

In addition to the latest about-face by Natapei and the MSG, we have the Australian-PNG meeting in Alotau last week when PNG agreed to two Fiji clauses in their joint communique. Then there's the reports that the Australia's Acting High Commissioner in Suva has been urging MSG countries to boycott the Fiji meeting (and presumably similar actions in Australia and other MSG countries). And Vanuatu's hosting of the Forum meeting next month. It would be most surprising if there were not a link between these happenings.

It is also conceivable that the likely forthcoming "no confidence" motion against the Somare government may be connected. Somare, a long-time friend of Fiji, was in no position to exercise his usual influence just when it was most needed.

Several observers said a successful MSG Plus meeting in Fiji would put "Australia's nose out of joint." There was even talk of a reinvigorated MSG and a threat to the integrity of the Forum. Australia, which is not a member of the MSG, could not allow this to happen. It must remain the dominant player in the Region and in the Forum. Coincidences or not, the outcome is a happy one for Australia.

Unhappy Day for Fiji
What it has done to assist Fiji is another question.  Natapei says the MSG has a "more critical role to play in assisting Fiji to restore parliamentary democracy through increased dialogue and interaction ... across all levels of Fiji society.." These are the "choice" words of those opposed to what Bainimarama is trying to do.

Bainimarama wants to move forward to parliamentary democracy, not back. He does not want dialogue and interaction with "all levels" if this means with the parliamentarians he ousted in 2006. And he certainly won't be impressed, as his Government picks up the expense tabs, with Natapei's version of  "Melanesian values and traditional practices."

There is one slight possibility that  some good might eventuate as a result of this unhappy day for Fiji if it results in an acceleration of the dialogue process and  more inclusive involvement leading to elections in 2014. But this would have been more likely to happen as a result of discussion among friends at the MSG Plus meeting. I suspect Bainimarama will now be less likely to listen to those he can no longer trust. Unfortunately, his first act will probably be to expel the Acting Australian High Commissioner, and progress on dialogue within the country will suffer a further serious setback.

If these predictions are correct, Natapei and the MSG leaders' action, and Australia's almost certain role in at least some of the "coincidences," will have produced the exact opposite effect to that they presumable intended.  My prediction is that it will not be long before they regret what they have done, but much longer before they admit it.

Who on earth is providing this policy advice? Three and a half years down the road from 2006, Australian (and New Zealand) attempts to isolate Fiji and cause internal collapse have demonstrably failed. Their policies  have damaged the economy, brought hardship to ordinary Fijians, increased military involvement in government,  and hardened Government's resistance against inclusive dialogue.  Despite this, all the evidence points to Bainimarama's growing popularity.  Who knows, the  latest episode could make him even more popular if he is seen  as a David standing up to a Goliath.


Mr Happy from Horowhenua said…
Croz, sometimes I read your stuff and wonder what planet you're on. Yes, I know, planet Horowhenua. But really! To say that the latest developments might make Frank more popular really takes the cake. It's a complete stuff-up whichever way you look at it. Not only is Fiji humiliated in the eyes of the world, we're back to where we were last year with the Australians and maybe, soon, with the Kiwis too. Frank's action in kicking out the acting Aussie HC is already lead item on many regional media outlets tonight. How does that help? You seem to have completely lost all sense of objectivity since your recent trip to Fiji. Yes, some good things are happening and not everything the regime does is bad. But some of your writings, like this particular offering, are starting to smack of "suspension of normal faculties". You'll recall that lots of people who visited Germany in the 1930s thought Hitler was great. I'm not suggesting in any way that your trip to Fiji blinded you to every frailty of the regime. But how you can possibly see a silver lining in the grim events of this evening is quite beyond me. Fiji's relationships with his nearest neighbours are in tatters but on a much bigger scale than before. Now it's not just the white neighbours from whom we're estranged (again) but our so called Melanesian brothers, as well as those bothersome Polynesians. If that's not a disaster, then I'm happy to be your Sunday roast. I suggest you give up your happy pills and get a grip.
Red Dragon said…
Why did the MSG leaders change their minds? It is perfectly obvious: BULLIED AND BOUGHT!

And that will never do anything practical or useful to create a democracy for Fiji or indeed for themselves. If they think that being 'put upon' and pressurised in this way is desirable democracy - then think again! Australian taxpayers should think again about the use to which their dollars are put in the immediate region surrounding them. Look at East Timor: almost bullied into accepting refugees headed in Australia's direction. But their parliamentarians had the guts to put an end to this and to stand up for themselves. Shame - 'madua...'
Cicero said…
@ Croz

Not just wishful thinking. Your last few sentences are essentially correct. After three and a half years of hardship successive to six years of post-terrorist trauma, most Fijians will now "dig in". The mood is completely misjudged by the new Australian PM. Just as it was with the East Timorese. Having survived this far, we shall opt for a democracy which will not foster terrorism on our own terms. No sledge hammer from across the water will be wielded to effect where the denial of full democratic rights to all the people of Fiji will be tolerated. No comfort given to those who cosied up with terror to achieve their ends assisted so ably by an Australian foreign policy which will not tolerate terroriara on their own soil yet appear to foster it elsewhere. Listen to East Timor's Parliament and their resolute response. The same applies in Fiji and former Australian envoy Susan Boyd was told so - roundly - in 2001.
White Frangipani said…
Maybe this Melanesian Spearhead meeting "flip flop" is as simple as this. Australia and NZ give a lot of aid money to the Pacific Islands to the point that most Pacific Islands feel loyalty and gratitude to the "big brothers" of the Pacific. These Pacific Islands would not survive if it they did not receive NZ and Oz aid money. There is no doubt that Fiji also needs aid money but on the other hand Fiji has gone out on a tangent and is showing its "big brothers" of the Pacific that it is time for Fiji to grow up and stand on its own two feet as much as possible. Have the "big brothers" of the Pacific leaned on those who were going to participate in the Melanesian Spearhead meeting? Has newly appointed MSG Chairman Vanuatu's Prime Minister, Edward Natapei thought of the consequences of what he has said? From my armchair it looks more like he is pleasing the Australian Government and the new "interim" Prime Minister Julia Gillard. I wonder if those who were going to participate in the Melanesian Spearhead meeting are going to be rewarded by the "big brothers" of the Pacific? Something sure doesn't add up here.
TheMax said…
It is simple to answer that question as to why the MSG meeting was cancelled. Its money. Period.
sara'ssista said…
You talk about how this policy of aus and Nz has failed but it is not them who need fiji. Fiji seems to be forever seeking friends to help it out and when they turn their backs it cant' possibly because they have changed tack, oh no, it the conspiracy theopry again. Fiji is only suffering due to the actions of this regime. They expect everyone to just agree with them and their appalling tactics to keep themseleves in the game. Aus and Nz are mature democracies and don't feel the need to bend ona whim to a regime that is self-appointed and illegal.
Advance Australia Unfair said…
Back in late 2001 and early 2002 as Fiji was still reeling and traumatized from the events of 2000 terrorism by George Speight and the Mutiny, Susan Boyd, the then Australian envoy to Fiji, came back from Canberra and invited some of us to dinner to tell us that: Canberra wished for Fiji to accept refugees on its soil in the first of many projected processing camps (Concentration Camps?).

I was shocked, appalled and even re-traumatised at such an idea and I told her straight: ‘This is not possible. We are in a state of trauma and we are too poor to accommodate all these also traumatized people from war zones’. She did not bat an eyelid and pressed on that the economic advantages to Fiji would be considerable.

This is how Australia promotes its interests in the South Pacific: bullying, buying, corrupting even. There is a streak of fascism in it. I detected it then and it still pervades their psyche. It is disgusting and the East Timorese Parliament has told them that they are far too poor to do their dirty work. Yes, poor in every way: psychologically after years of trauma and terror, incapacitated in every way and not about any more ‘TO BE PUT UPON”

Ms Roberts is welcome to go back whence she came. I am told a few months ago she was invited to visit a Mosque of some standing in Suva. She arrived improperly dressed with bare arms and legs and was bidden into a room to be covered up. That story (reliable from someone we both know) tells me all I need to know. These diplomats from Australia in particular are unschooled, improperly briefed and prepared and they barge in like ‘Bulls in a China Shop’.

We have all had quite enough of them. This episode will build resolve and we shall dig ourselves in and do what we must to obtain a fair, just and proper resolution of all our difficulties: without them.
Anonymous said…
Money makes the world go around and money will bring Fiji's dictator and his cronies to their knees. Who will pick up the pieces? Look at Solomon Islands!
Anonymous said…
Yea sure croz....

Here you go again Croz. Everything is Australia's fault. Australia damaged Fiji's economy ? Actually Fiji have done this, just look at the immediate impact of this and other coups. Australia forced more military to be involved with government ? No that nots true. Frank put his military in because he didn't like how various civilian operated and don't give me the old travel bans excuse. Lots of caple people in Fiji love to use this excuse to the PM but worry about the day it is removed because they will have to come up with another excuse. Remember saying a direct no to Frank always comes with retribution. Frank becoming more popular ? Well its easy to appear very popular when you have total control of the press and any opposition is squashed. If he is so popular why not lift the PER, let unions and political parties meet and speak. Lets see how popular he is. Hey maybe even have a election as he will be a shoe in won't he ?????

Now about fiji's new fair and balanced media. Why are they not reporing the MSG meeting is cancelled. Why are they not reporting the MSG chairs comments ?
Anonymous said…

Last week I made some suggestions on what Fiji could do to improve it's international reputation.

Fiji's PM has to stop thinking about the situation with Australia ( or EU, US, PIF, MSG etc) as personal. It's not a war and no one wins.

Actions speak louder than all this posturing. Why not spend time and energy of things like a new constitution or election system so they can show the world it is genuine about future democracy. Keep the economic focus going at the same time. Make a few concessions along the way.

I'm repeating myself but frankly its all extremely frustrating. Earlier you had a heading two steps forward one step back. I'm worried that is now feeling like one step forward and two back.

Please Frank - lift your game and start kicking your team into action rather than kicking diplomats. Stop worrying about PIF or MSG. Get the house in order.

On the side lines in Viti Levu
Anonymous said…
....Now Frank is going to have a non MSG meeting
in Fiji anyway. That's going to have even less
relevence than the already marginally relevent MSG

I guess if it makes him feel better why not.

Watch any leaders that come sit on the fence and hedge their
bets by supporting frank politely but still
not disagreeing at PIF
Anonymous said…
Bro Croz - don't know who's giving you legal advice on international matters? But if I was you I'd flick em real quick. Looming legal dilemma about to engulf your benefactor straight out of Africa.
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