Fog (Nearly) All Over Canberra
Foggy Bottom is, of course, the suburb of Washington DC where the US State Department is located, along with major international institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF. Sydney has had repeated heavy fogs this winter. Canberra too gets lots of fog, particularly during autumn, winter and early spring. Now, courtesy of an interview with ANU Professor Stephen Howes, it is apparent that Australian foreign policy toward Fiji remains blanketed by a heavy fog under which utter confusion reigns.
In a newspaper story, which was reproduced in Fiji, Professor Howes has told how the Australian government has been vetoing loans to Fiji by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. At the same time Australian aid to the country has doubled since the Bainimarama government came to power. Professor Howes, who has agreed with ANZ sanctions on the military regime, is concerned that the vetoing while doubling policy `seems hypocritical’.
But he does not seem concerned with the far greater hypocrisy and futility, identified repeatedly by critics of ANZ policy, of providing aid and loans while imposing sanctions. Instead in his most recent comments, Howes encouraged WB and ADB lending on the grounds that it was: “Better in my view to have these institutions active in Fiji trying to promote economic reform and development, including through sound lending”.
Opposition spokeswoman on Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop demonstrated that confusion was gender neutral by trying to separate funding for health and education from giving money `directly to the government’. While acknowledging the possibility of fungibility, that is the military government being able to utilise internally generated revenues for its own purposes because of the availability of foreign aid for other expenditure, Ms Bishop seems politically naïve. Who does she think head the government departments and agencies in Fiji through which international loans and aid is channelled? The very people against whom ANZ have imposed travel and other sanctions, Ms Bishop!
Of course it is possible to argue that hypocrisy is a necessary, even desirable component of politics and that form of it known as foreign policy. Anyone who doesn’t accept the necessity of hypocrisy is being simplistic, overly pure. It is also possible to argue, as many economists do, that economics should and can be separated from politics, ethics and so on: what appears as hypocrisy is simply a clash between distinct spheres of human understanding for which different principles or rules apply.
But Professor Howes, in arguing against the politics of Australian relations with the WB and ADB which influenced these institutions’ behaviour toward Fiji, is not making this separation. He is in fact arguing that they are and should be intertwined: keep lending to affect policy and politics in Fiji. When the dominant feature of Fiji’s politics now and into the foreseeable future is the existence of a military regime, Professor Howes is proposing aid and lending to affect the regime. He does not however ask if the effect will be to weaken or strengthen the Bainimarama regime.
But what if these funds strengthen the regime’s position by lifting living standards and increasing its popular support? So increasing the military government’s popularity and power is good, but sanctions are still necessary to show condemnation of military rule? In short, after nearly seven years, confusion still reigns regarding the most appropriate policies for dealing with the military regime in Fiji.
There is however a little ray of sunshine, certainty in one part of the Lake Burley Griffin establishment. Over the water from Foreign Affairs at the ANU, the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program (SSGM) is hosting a two day State of the Pacific Conference. At the end of June, in a major session on the State of Democracy: Fiji, the anti-regime critics still predominate and there is no attempt at even the usual academic pretence at balance.
Seeking clarity, Australian foreign policy-makers could take a lesson from this section of the ANU where consistency reigns. However that clarity is unlikely to lead to any greater influence over the Bainimarama regime than the official confusion. There must be many in official circles who are hoping that the fog will thicken in Canberra so the chaos below remains obscured.