Why Did the MSG Leaders Change Their Minds?
13 July 2010
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.