Cool Heads are Needed, not Over-Headed Ones
By Crosbie Walsh
Only the most hardened opponents of Fiji's Bainimarama government would claim it has been given a Kiwi "fair go" by the media over the past few years.
Fiji has seldom made news headlines but when it did, the news has been invariably negative and one-sided with little to no attempt to understand the causes of the events described. Feature articles and radio interviews which would have permitted greater depth, a variety of opinions, and some analysis have been few and far between. To some extent, this is understandable. Investigative journalism is almost a thing of the past, but on many topics the media can rely on support from academics and other "experts" in various fields. Not so, unfortunately, for Fiji.
Our Fiji and Pacific academic experts have almost all retired, and most of those remaining seem more concerned about promotion and tenure than helping New Zealanders, and its leaders, unravel the vitally important but extremely complex issues that confront this group of islands that are the geographic, communications and economic hub of the South Pacific.
To say that our policy on Fiji has been misinformed is a compliment. It is far worse. We have simply taken phases like "democratically elected" and "military dictatorship" as markers. One is good; the other bad. We have assumed that democracy is the best means of governance for all cultures, in all situations, and in all countries, and overlooked the possibility that in some situations democracy —and military dictatorships, for that matter — may not be as they seem.
It is in this context that the opinions of a Victoria University professor of comparative politics could be especially important. Jonathan Fraenkel has lived and worked in Fiji; he is married to an ethnic Fijian; he came to us from the the State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Programme at the Australian National University where he was the Fiji expert. Most importantly, working in Wellington, he may be expected to have some influence on our Ministry and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Two weeks ago Australian opposition politician Julia Bishop spoke of the need for a new approach to Fiji. Earlier this week in a Dominion Post article former senior diplomat Gerald McGhie said the same.
On Wednesday, the Dominion Post published Jonathan Fraenkel's reply. The heading read: "Let's continue to put the heat on Fiji's strongman." I was disappointed but not altogether surprised. Fraenkel was a colleague of mine at USP in the early 1990s and I have read many of his publications.
The main trust of Fraenkel's argument for no change in policy was that every time Australia or New Zealand had made "concessions" to Fiji, they were "repeatedly rebuffed by the recalcitrant military leader."
If the validity of this argument is tested against events one must, of course, decide on an initial event, or otherwise roles are reversed and the action becomes the reaction. Thus, for example, Fraenkel argues "for several years now, Commodore Bainimarama has sought to strengthen his domestic position by taking a belligerent attitude to the region's bigger powers."
Another observer, however, who may also have little sympathy for the Fiji government, might recall that it was often Bainimarama who was reacting to rebuffs by the region's bigger powers, not the other way round. It was, for example, the bigger powers that imposed travel bans on Fiji's cabinet, military, senior civil servants, and anyone related to them —even its soccer goalkeeper. The travel ban made it difficult to recruit able civilians to government posts.
Well over 150,000 Indo-Fijians now live overseas, and their numbers increased as a result of the racial discrimination practised by the so-called "democratic" government of Laisenia Qarase (to which we turned a blind eye) that was deposed in the 2006 military coup.
Indo-Fijians and other races remaining in Fiji could not risk being refused visas to visit overseas relations, enter their children in our schools or universities, or seek treatment in our hospitals. Unable to recruit suitably qualified civilians, the government appointed more military personnel to government positions, and a less tolerant approach to those who opposed the government ensued.
The observer may also recall that the bigger powers succeeded in having Fiji suspended from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum. Their efforts resulted in the withholding of EU and Commonwealth assistance to what was then Fiji's largest direct and indirect employer, the sugar industry.
Yet another result was that, rebuffed by its former friends, Fiji developed new alliances. Fraenkel notes a few them: the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, China and India. Fiji now chairs the UN Group of 77 and the International Sugar Organization; it has revitalised the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and, as Fraenkel also noted, last week it hosted the inaugural meeting of the Pacific Island Development Forum.
The latter two bodies will inevitably weaken the Pacific Islands Forum, and with it, Australia and New Zealand influence in the Pacific. The boot is now on the other foot: a rebuffed Fiji has created a new playing field.
Fraenkel sees the doubling of Australian aid to Fiji in 2011 as a sign of a "major policy shift" by Australia, and in a limited way it was. But aid money increased to all Pacific Island nations in 2011, not just to Fiji. And the aid was targeted, not according to government priorities, but to Australia's priorities and those of the non-government organizations which received the aid. There was no real policy shift, and, it must be noted, the aid money would have strengthened the position of some organizations that were vocal in their opposition to the Bainimarama government. Aid can be used as a weapon and it always has a price.
Fraenkel speaks with authority about Fiji's domestic situation, although he has not been there for nearly ten years. He writes of the destruction of the "old legal order" despite the fact that the judiciary has maintained its independence, and on several occasions has ruled against government-initiated prosecutions.
He writes about the "protracted constitutional crisis." In fact, a new constitution will be promulgated soon. It will not be the constitution that Fraenkel and many government opponents would prefer, but there are sound reasons for the amnesty and transitional clauses to which they object. It is unrealistic, for example, to expect the Bainimarama government to hand over power to an interim government before elections in September next year when the interim government is likely to include the "opposition parties, unions and civil society activists" who have opposed each and every government action over the past six years. To do so, would risk losing all that the government thinks it has achieved, and the coup would have been to no purpose.
Fraenkel does not mention the race-based constitution under which ethnic Fijian nationalists previously ruled the country, or the Bainimarama government's inclusive use of "Fijian" so that all of Fiji's citizens, irrespective of race, can now proudly say they belong to Fiji. Nor does he mention the new civics curricula in schools aimed at breaking down racial prejudices.
He does not mention that the main opposition parties want to retain race-based elections and restore power to ethnic Fijian chiefs that would see them appoint the President, and dominate Senate and most provincial appointments.
He does not say how the "old political order" favoured the urban elite, and brought few improvements for the urban or rural poor. He is silent on government reforms and policies that have seen action on a much neglected infrastructure, rural and regional development, fair land leases, housing, education, health, work to reduce endemic corruption, and the now improving economy. He accentuates the negatives and recognizes not one positive.
Not all is well in Fiji. It was not well in 2006; in some human rights areas it is not well now, and all of the country's problems will not resolved by a partially, or even fully, democratic government in 2014.
But from my end of the binoculars, things are improving, and could have been much better much earlier had the Australian and New Zealand governments adopted a more informed and flexible policy towards Fiji. Fortunately, it is still not too late.
The DominionPost heading read, "Let's continue to put the heat on Fiji's strongman" but Fraenkel did not say how much more heat is needed or for how long before he expected a positive effect on the Bainimarama government, and he completely overlooked the possibility that it could have a negative effect.
It is now nearly seven years since the 2006 coup. I see no evidence that the "heat" has produced any positive changes in or for Fiji, and I doubt it will in the future. Quite frankly, the policy has failed us and it has failed Fiji, and this is a good reason why our politicians —and Professor Fraenkel— need a rethink. The situation calls for cool heads and new approaches, not more of the same.