Sir Paul Reeves and Fiji by Brij V Lal

Sir Paul Alfred Reeves, ONZ, GCMG, GCVO, CF, QSO (6 December 1932 – 14 August 2011) was Archbishop and Primate of New Zealand from 1980 to 1985 and the 15th Governor-General of New Zealand from 22 November 1985 to 20 November 1990. He is of pakeha and Te Ati Awa (Taranaki) descent. In 1996, he was appointed Chairman of the Commmission of Enquiry that made proposals leading to the 1997 Constitution, and during 2009 and 2010 he was the Commonwealth's Special Envoy to Fiji.  During this time he urged Bainimarama to engage in dialogue with his opponents and the NZ Goverment to moderate its stance on Fiji. 

In this article, special to this blog, Dr Brij Lal, who shared Sir Paul's work on the Commission of Enquiry and who has never lost touch with him since,  reflects on the man, the Constitution, and Sir Paul's work for Fiji. Vinaka, Brij.

Sir Paul Reeves and Fiji
Brij V Lal

Two weeks before he died, Sir Paul Reeves wrote to me to say that he had cancer and might not be able to overcome it. But characteristically he did not dwell on his ailment. Instead, he talked about Fiji. ‘Our work in Fiji was among the most satisfying that I have done, and sometime it will have its day.’ He concluded: ‘I have dear memories of you, Tom and myself, an incongruous team that did great things.’

Sir Paul had good reason to be proud of his Fiji work. He was called upon to help Fiji in its moment of great need, and he rose to the challenge as few others could have done. The post-1987 years were the most fraught in Fiji’s modern history. The military coup of that year had ruptured race relations, torn up the constitution, severed the cherished links with the British Crown, and plunged the country into an abyss of darkness. The two major communities, Fijians and Indo-Fijians, had diametrically opposed views about the country’s problems and the best way to resolve them. Fijian nationalists were adamant in their demand for complete political paramountcy and the Indo-Fijians insistent on genuine political partnership.

Into this tense and seemingly irreconcilable situation entered Sir Paul Reeves as Chair of the Fiji Constitution Review Commission. The task of the Commission was to review the racially-lopsided 1990 constitution and to make recommendations for a new one which, to use the language of the Terms of Reference, took ‘into account internationally recognized principles and standards of individual and group rights, guarantee full protection and promotion of the rights, interests and concerns of the indigenous Fijian and Rotuman people, and have full regard for the rights, interests and concerns of all ethnic groups in Fiji.’ In other words, square the circle.

No one really gave the Commission any chance of success. There was a great deal of scepticism about Sitiveni Rabuka’s motives. Would a person who had carried out the coup really change the constitution to accommodate the interests of other communities? Hardly likely, most people thought. The review, many felt, was a ruse to keep the international community at bay while the coup supporters entrenched their position in the country. And the Fijian nationalists, led by Inoke Kubuabola, Apisai Tora, Taniela Veitata, and others, demanded the full retention of the 1990 Constitution.

Sir Paul knew the tough task that awaited him in Fiji. He made one early decision that had a huge impact on the work of the Commission. He hired Alison Quentin-Baxter as its chief legal counsel (ably assisted by Jon Apted). Alison was the complete professional of unimpeachable integrity and an enviable tenacity of purpose. Nothing escaped her notice. She left no stone unturned. She kept the Commission on an even keel, educating us on arcane matters of international law and conventions, alerting us to alternatives. Alison has not received the kudos that she so richly deserves.

Sir Paul met the rest of the ‘incongruous team’ in Fiji. He was understandably concerned to establish early rapport between the three Commissioners. The task was not easy. Tom Vakatora was the Government’s nominee, a tough, formidable man of explosive temper. He had been a part of the Cabinet Sub-Committee which had approved the 1990 Constitution, the very document we were supposed to review. His presence on the Commission simply reinforced among Coalition supporters the sense the review would be nothing but a charade. The early days were difficult, but in time, Tom proved to be a character completely different to his public persona: warm, companionable and extremely hard working. Beneath a gruff exterior beat a kindly heart. He became my lifelong friend.

I was the Coalition’s nominee. I did not know of Sir Paul I am ashamed to admit, even though I had his daughter Jane in my class at the University of Hawaii. But I established early rapport with him. My first impression of Sir Paul was that he was a warm human being, a man of grace who did not stand on protocol as some other local dignitaries did, always reaching out. There was little paper trail behind him so I did not know where he stood on some of the critical issues we were asked to consider. So I kept an open mind and my powder dry, just in case.

Early on in the piece, Sir Paul said to Tom and myself, ‘If you two reach consensus, I will not stand in your way.’ He encouraged the two of us to talk among ourselves, to break down barriers and to establish trust. This we did, to great effect, I would like to think. It was during a one-on-one meeting between Tom and myself at The Fijian one long weekend, that we reached provisional consensus on some difficult issues, as the papers of the Commission will one day show. The credit belongs to Sir Paul for having confidence in himself to allow the two of us talk and explore consensus.

Then there was Sir Paul himself. He was a man of grace and gravitas –a former Anglican Archbishop of New Zealand and its Governor General, a man proud of his indigenous Maori heritage but not imprisoned by it, a man of deep spirituality and integrity, of solid convictions but always willing to listen carefully to contrary points of view. He easily put people at ease with his humour and infectious laughter. He was the ideal ambassador for the Commission. He won the confidence and trust of the major political leaders who were so recently at loggerheads. They saw him accurately as a man of peace, a fair mediator. That was no mean achievement in the circumstances.

The work of the Commission was a collective effort, so it would be invidious to isolate the input of the individual Commissioners. Opinions will vary and recollections will differ. Sir Paul’s principal contribution lay in moderating discussion and in playing the role of the fair cop and in giving us the space to be ourselves. For me, Sir Paul’s unique interventions lay in two areas. One was the relationship between Church and State. Methodist Church was adamant that Fiji should be declared a Christian State. Christianity was an integral part of indigenous Fijian identity, and recognizing the special role of the church was a part of the larger agenda of entrenching the principle of Fijian paramountcy. Very often, the demand was backed up by some obscure passage from the Bible. This was completely foreign to me and frequently left me nonplussed. But not Sir Paul. He could with ease recall some appropriate chapter and verse from the Bible to diffuse the issue or contradict it outright! This left some of the submitters perplexed, this deep knowledge of the scriptures on his part. Isn’t it better to be a good Christian than to insist on a Christian State, he would ask? I remember one person saying to me, ‘The falla too good, eh. He a talatala [preacher] or what?’

The other area in which I watched Sir Paul’s intervention with great interest was on the question of indigenous rights. Many an indigenous presenter tried to make out that Fijians were like oppressed indigenous communities elsewhere in the world, including New Zealand. That did not wash with Sir Paul although he listened respectfully to their views. Where Fijian interests and institutions needed to be protected, they should be, was Sir Paul’s view. One provision of the Compact says that ‘To the extent that the interests of different communities are seen to conflict, all the interested parties should enter into negotiations in good faith in an endeavour to reach agreement.’ In that effort, ‘the paramountcy of Fijian interests as a protective principle should continue to apply, so as to ensure that the interests of the Fijian community are not subordinated to the interests of other communities.’ That was a sensible position to adopt. To those who invoked various international conventions on the protection of indigenous nights, the Commission took the view that these instruments were designed to ensure the full participation of the indigenous communities in the management and governance of their societies, not enshrining the principle of paramountcy. Sir Paul’s experience as the Anglican Observer at the United Nations came in handy

One aspect of the 1997 Constitution that has received much criticism is its racially-based electoral system. In this regard, the Constitution is completely at variance with the recommendations of the Reeves Commission. The Commission recommended that Fiji move away gradually but decisively from a racial electoral system to a non-racial one. To that end, it recommended that two thirds of the seats in Parliament (46) be elected from open, non-racial rolls and one third (25) from racially reserved rolls (but only for a short period as a transitional measure). The Parliament reversed the order at the insistence of the SVT, especially its hardline representative on the Parliamentary Select Committee, Inoke Kubuabola, who wanted the full retention of the 1990 Constitution and would not budge an inch. Now Kubuabola is presenting himself as the champion of non-racialism. Such are the processes of personal transformations in contemporary Fiji.

There were other recommendations designed to heal the wounds of the past and to unite the nation. The Senate should be elected from the provinces, not nominated by political leaders, so that it could act as a true house of review of the people and in the process encourage loyalty to one’s province of origin rather than to one’s ethnicity. The President and the Vice President should be elected by a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament as an Electoral College for the purpose. In the allocation of public resources, the principle of need rather than ethnicity should be observed along with the principle of proportionality. I know that Sir Paul was very proud of the human rights provisions of the report.

As I have said, no one gave the Commission much chance of success when we began our work, but by the time we finished, we had managed to re-start a remarkable national conversation about reconciliation and nation-building. In this effort, Sir Paul’s role was crucial. He had earned everyone’s trust and confidence, and that made the Commission’s work all that much easier. The healing process that began with the Commission’s work was continued, and resulted in the promulgation of the much-praised 1997 Constitution.

In the covering letter to the President, Sir Paul personally inserted a few sentences that spoke to the way in which he envisaged the task of nation building. The report, he said, ‘stresses that the unity of this nation is a continuous process of discovery and enrichment.’ A continuous, not a fossilized, process admitting of change and adaptation. He said that progress in a multi-ethnic society is achieved ‘when citizens realise that what is good for their neighbour must ultimately be good for them as well.’ Finally, he hoped that the Commission’s report ‘will be the touchstone against which the people will measure progress towards a strong and united future for themselves and for generations to come.’

That hope now seems forlorn, but who knows? Someday perhaps, Sir Paul’s vision of Fiji as a vibrant multi-ethnic nation, united by a common purpose and a shared sense of collective destiny, confident and at peace with itself might ‘have its day.’

Sir Paul Reeves will occupy an honoured place in the galaxy of leaders who have had a hand in shaping Fiji's destiny. He will not be forgotten. Moce Mada, Sir, Fair Well.


Miaw said…
Brij Lal should never have been on that committee, a academic of sorts who has lived the better part of his life abroad. A historian, rather than a constitutional lawyer, he was gifted this role by J R Reddy. Others were much better qualified for this role.

When Reddy lost his own seat together with all the other NFP parliamentarians ( rejected by the people) Brij Lal repaid the favour by penning a book on Reddy, what a great leader he was and so forth !!
Anonymous said…
Well, Tom Vakatora wasn't a constitutional lawyer or had any great academic credentials to be on the committee and yet they did a fantastic job. Is it being suggested that only constitutional lawyers should serve on such committees? If so, then Dr Sahu Khan would have been the obvious choice who successfully tweaked the FFA Constitution several times to secure his own position as President for 25 years! Now it comes to light that he has absconded to NZ to escape joining some of his other friends in Naboro!
Dr Brij Lal deservedly wrote a book on Jai Ram Reddy - an honest and sincere leader - same cannot be said about his successor who may also join his friends in Naboro!
Perhaps, Miaw would like to write a book on him for his success in robbing the innocent and poor whose champion he pretended to be!

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