Foreign Policy and Rugby: A Strange Game Indeed
Goodness only knows —though history often bears out— it’s hard at times to understand what goes on in Fiji, but these days it’s twice as hard to figure out what’s going in Canberra and Wellington.
Do we live in parallel universes?
A few days ago I was intrigued to read the FRB was appealing to the IRB to relocate IRB 7s rugby tournaments away from Australia and New Zealand. The strategy is intended to counter the ban the two countries have put on players with links, direct or indirect, with Fiji’s military.
I was intrigued on two counts. One was the fact I’d just finished mentioning rugby and the three nations in an essay devoted to the bigger subject of government in Fiji. The other was the fact that on the face of it the FRB may have adopted a shrewd approach. I am certainly not the only one to think so, if Fiji Times reader Aziz Khan is anything to go by (Fiji Times, 26 May 2011).
So how to make sense of Canberra’s move yesterday (25 May) to issue beefed-up travel advisories to Australians, warning of heightened dangers lurking in Fiji, especially Suva? And how to make sense of Wellington’s mutterings of possible asylum status for Fiji’s grand fugitive, Ratu Tevita Mara? Curiouser and curiouser.
As I said it’s sometimes hard —very hard really— to know what occurs in Fiji, but harder still to know what’s going on in Australia and New Zealand. Looking at the bigger picture, however, we can make an attempt to understand and make some educated guesses. And here’s what I see.
- Australia and New Zealand’s policies on Fiji have become increasingly frayed in the last few months. Individual reputations —and policy rationale—are on the line. Egos are at stake. International opinion is beginning to swing in Fiji’s favour. Whatever else, the world is starting to realise that Commodore Bainimarama isn’t your average military dictator. People and policies on both side of the Tasman are in need of rescue. Ministers first? And short of the Tongan navy (or New Zealand matelots if they are still up north on exercises) turning up, things have been looking rough.
- The military “fugitive” affair replete initially, with the officer’s videoed mutterings of “regime change” till he abruptly switched verbal tack next day, it is a fishy affair at best. Fellow trippers have still to be identified. One waits to see if any of them were “visitors” to the Islands. Yet all this to one side, New Zealand is opening its heart to Ratu Tevita. A visa may yet follow; something that Canberra with all its unresolved asylum seeker policy problems is hardly likely to do.
- The FRB’s plea this week to the IRB to relocate future IRB 7s (Fiji Sun, 24 May) may not have attracted headlines, but it may have rattled a few people. For no matter how unsuccessful this ploy turns out to be, it cannot but draw more ordinary public, but international, attention to the foreign politics of rugby in the antipodes. And in this year of the World Cup in New Zealand that is not good news for some.
- A distant but not less audible fourth factor was ABC TV’s “Australia Network”, this week carrying sombre news of massive inundation along the Coral Coast where Fiji’s hotels play guest to thousands of Australian and New Zealand tourists. “News”, it was perhaps, but not “new” to anyone who knows that coast, including staff at the Naviti with whom I chatted two weeks ago about high tides (before the big ones occurred), when I stayed there.
Coming the same week as item 1 above it purposely or otherwise added more alarm; further grist to the anti-Fiji mill abroad. Then on Friday we heard of a dispute between Fiji and Tonga over ownership of Minerva Reef, and alleged damaged done to a Tongan beacon by the Fiji navy. It’s hard to say at this stage to what extent if any Tonga is seeking here to play a ‘hand’ New Zealand would approve of.
The Naviti hotel, incidentally, was at 69% capacity the week I was there and already booked 70% for the week or so surrounding the World Cup. I made a point of asking. And the overwhelming majority of guests during my stay were Australian and New Zealand families.
- Yesterday (26 May) the de-commissioning of Ratu Tevita Mara and his comrade-in-arms Brigadier Pita Driti was officially gazetted and reported in the dailies today (27 May). The same day Canberra issued fresh travel advisories.
I emphasise, again, the implications that follow from all of this are at this stage hypothetical. But personally I think they are worth considering, not least because it all comes within a few weeks of a bit of writing I completed on the matter of rugby and government in Fiji, which is currently being considered for publication, whose Editor which I am grateful to for letting me reproduce the following extract sent away on 23 April.
“Though this is not the best place to get onto the subject of sport in nation building, given the focus of this essay it is appropriate to remind ourselves how important sport is, especially rugby union played at international level, in creating cultural capital that contributes towards national unity, and this despite the fact players are entire i-Taukei.
Whether foreign clubs that recruit Fijians, and organizations like the International Rugby Board (IRB) ever find a way to incorporate Fiji (and neighbours like Samoa and Tonga) the international calendar, remains to be seen. It also awaits to be discovered how long Australia and New Zealand take to discard their policies of banning Fijian players with military connections from entering their countries –assuming they have not already done so by the time this is published (and if so, the probably for reasons of more obvious self-interests than the stability one set out here.
For sure, striking at another’s iconic game hurts players and devotees alike (as did bans on South Africa’s game in the apartheid era), but when that game unites the nation (in ways it never did in South Africa) it hits all citizens. Moreover, it should be remembered that in Mandela’s South Africa rugby eventually helped reconcile the nation.
The other thing is this: as both codes accelerate in stature, and more new rugby playing nations nurture ambitions of competing one day against premier tier-ten nations in 15s at Rugby World Cups (this year being held in New Zealand), or participate in the prestigious annual IRB 7 series, and eventually in that code at the 2016 Olympics, banning Fijians runs the risk of annoying a cross-section of the international rugby community.
Indeed this would now appear to have dawned on New Zealand, reeling under the Christchurch earthquake and its likely impact on the success of the forthcoming World Cup, for in March John Key’s government talking of reviewing its position of Fiji players, providing Bainimarama gave a “cast iron” promise of elections in 2014 –as if he had not already.
Canberra should do the same and like its Trans-Tasman neighbour, it too may have done so by the time this is in print. The longer Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, sticks to his ban the greater are the odds he will come to be regarded as a spoilsport or playground bully by rugby supporters with political acumen, many of whom are from the very nations he wants to be allied with.
To put it another way, if Wellington and Canberra wish to go on playing football with Fiji for political or personal reasons of their own, they should understand that international rugby not only binds Fiji’s citizens, but Fijian teams have endeared themselves to the world far beyond the antipodes.”
Now where’s that ball?