The Weakness of Australian Foreign Policy
Missing the Messerschmitts:
The Weakness of Australian Foreign Policy
by Dr Scott MacWilliam
Crawford School of Economics and Government
Australian National University
Whenever the current Australian policy toward Fiji’s military regime is questioned, one standard response is along the following lines: unless there is to be permanent military rule, it is necessary to ‘keep up the pressure’ for change. That pressure supposedly is maintaining various forms of sanctions, isolating Fiji from regional forums and always repeating ‘military bad, democracy good’ as the guiding foreign policy principle.
It is time to subject the idea of pressure to serious examination, and what better way to start than with a sporting story.
During the northern summer of 1945, a series of cricket games were held between England and Australia, dubbed the Victory Tests to celebrate the end of WWII in Europe and the Allied triumph. A young Australian who was especially successful in the Test matches was Keith ‘Nugget’ Miller, who still ranks among the best batsmen-bowlers-fielders (all-rounders) to have played the game. Before one of the Tests, Miller, who had been an RAAF fighter pilot during the war, was asked about the pressures of playing cricket. To quote biographer Roland Perry, Miller’s response was: ‘I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt [a very advanced German fighter-plane] up your arse. Cricket is not.’
Current Australian government policies and practices toward Fiji bear the same relationship to pressure on the military regime as did cricket on Miller.
Exerting popular pressure is in important respects ruled out by the very nature of a military regime: the members of the RFMF are not elected nor in any parliamentary sense representative. The senior officers are not members of political parties affiliated either formally or informally with Australian or New Zealand parties. Now that all three major newspapers in Fiji are owned locally, the outlets for Australian propaganda which could bolster popular opposition to the regime must come from sources overseas and thus have limited local reach. There is little pressure for change from this direction.
As has been demonstrated over the past four years, economic sanctions have limited effect too. Officers are by and large not dependent upon commercial success for their livelihoods, as might be senior soldiers in some other countries. Squeezing local commerce by punitive measures could be expected to have few direct consequences for soldiers’ incomes. While travel bans are irksome for some existing officers with connections to Australia and New Zealand, the next generation will be more familiar with Malaysia, India and China, countries where they have been trained and where Australia’s capacity to influence government policies regarding the military regime in Fiji is limited.
Where measures to affect the wider economy are concerned, the regime is also proving especially adroit in gaining support from some important local business people, while taking punitive action against others who oppose their policies. The transfer of ownership of News Ltd assets is a brilliant example of rewarding supporters while punishing opponents. Even to ask if Australian pressure assisted News Limited’s survival in Fiji is to emphasise the insignificance of any support which may have been rendered to Rupert Murdoch, the former Dirty Digger, now Wall Street Wallah.
The regime’s nationalist instincts also are starting to have some attraction for businesses aiming at areas where import substitution can take place, even if the more ideologically rigid economists continue to oppose policies favouring this direction. The growing proliferation of countries with whom Fiji is dealing commercially and for aid is illustrated by the most recent news that Turkey is considering providing assistance with a long-awaited hydro-electricity project in Buca, Cakaudrove. Today, October 21 an important Chinese delegation from the International Poverty Reduction Centre in China (IPRCC) arrives in Fiji. The Fiji Muslim League has announced that they will use their traditional connections with other Muslim countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, to help secure aid for Fiji. Nothing more needs to be said about the failure of Australian policy to discourage tourists who are invariably more concerned with prices and personal safety than electoral democracy.
Although there is some wisdom in maintaining a range of aid projects, their existence does not constitute pressure against the military regime either. Indeed these can as easily be read as hypocrisy, even a further instance of neo-colonialism. Australia trying to pick and choose the form of contacts on a wink-wink, nudge-nudge basis with government officials hardly indicates consistency, especially when it is the military regime with which Australian aid officials are dealing, either directly or through proxies. Is there anyone, apart from Australian politicians and diplomats, who thinks that the continuation of aid doesn’t represent a formal recognition of the military regime’s authority? When military officers hold senior posts in so many government departments the recognition becomes personalised as well.
Last but not least given the military comparison employed by Keith Miller, the regime is not under threat of foreign invasion, particularly after former Australian defence minister Kim ‘Bomber’ Beazley Jnr’s departure for Washington and the unforgettable helicopter crash off Fiji. While some academic and other opponents of the regime have hoped for a domestic revolt supported by Australia (and New Zealand) against the current military regime, this is unlikely and could even be counter-productive for democratisation. Advocates of the ‘keep up the pressure’ direction now freely admit that they can not see any likely challenger to PM Frank Bainimarama. A revolt in the army leading to civil war is recognised by serious analysts as unlikely to advance the cause of democratic reform either.
An official explanation of and justification for the ‘keep up the pressure’ basis for Australia’s foreign policy toward the regime in Fiji is warranted. A parliamentary statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs along these lines is overdue. In the absence of any detailed and convincing defence of this policy direction, including an outline of its achievements so far, the obvious conclusion seems to be that Australia has no Messerschmitts in its foreign policy armoury. Perhaps it is time to explicitly acknowledge the inability to exert any meaningful pressure and try other ways of changing outcomes over the next few years in Fiji.