Abbott Must Bring Fiji in from Cold

Richard Herr
By Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin in The Australian 13 September 2013

The Coalition's foreign policy statement, released just prior to the election, promised to work with Fiji to normalise relations as soon as possible. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has indicated he would welcome the Coalition's making good on this promise. Of course, it takes two to tango; both sides will have to agree to get on the dance floor.



Bainimarama has long bristled at the "interim PM" label Australia has put on him. He associates the open mocking of him and his government by our media with the Australian government's support for such reporting.

Anthony Bergin
As much as some in Suva would like Bainimarama to be invited to Canberra for talks on re-engagement, the Fiji government recognises this would court disaster if the meeting failed to live up to expectations. The October 10 Fiji Day celebrations could be used to mark some symbolic reconciliation, if the Abbott government has the will to help mark the occasion appropriately.

A visit by soon-to-be foreign minister Julie Bishop would be welcomed in Suva. (As she'd be in Brunei for the East Asia Summit on Fiji Day, she could send her parliamentary secretary.) Getting the atmospherics right is critical for building trust in the longer term. But the immediate need is to address some irritants in the relations.

The sine qua non of keeping the Coalition's promise to normalise relations will depend on lifting the travel bans.

The sanctions regime of the past 6½ years has failed to achieve any useful outcome. Worse, some have worked against the early return to democracy. Preventing qualified civilians from taking up positions with the Fiji government has only intensified the need to rely on able military officers to staff upper levels of the public service.

Lifting of some sanctions, especially the travel bans, is a necessary early gesture from Fiji's perspective. That's the least the Bainimarama administration expects from the new Australian government. Fiji's new constitution came into force on the Saturday the Coalition was elected to power. The constitution has generally received positive reviews despite some criticism on the process and its content.

Setting aside the travel bans could be a gesture of good faith pending further talks. Indeed, it's difficult to see how meaningful engagement on normalising relations could be pursed without lifting travel bans.

There can be no objection to an immediate and unconditional lifting of sanctions against the family members of sanctioned officials on grounds of natural justice and fairness. The same applies to any civilian taking a position with the Bainimarama government working for a return to parliamentary democracy.

This should also include public service positions, whether related to elections or not. It would help restore civilian authority in the public service.

The Abbott government will have to come to terms with the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. The RFMF will remain part of the Fijian political scene, even after next year's elections in Fiji. Our defence engagement with Fiji will be an important part of our bilateral relationship. Sanctions on the repair of the three patrol boats we donated to Fiji some years ago have been dysfunctional for both Fiji and for regional security.

The restoration of defence attaches and other aspects of normalised relations, such as assistance to Fiji's military officer training school and the participation of Fiji officers in our military colleges, will need to be included in the Coalition's approach.

The Abbott government will have to do something significant to redeem its pre-election promise or Fiji will assume the election was simply a continuation of business as usual in Canberra.

Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin are co-authors of Our Near Abroad: Australia and Pacific islands regionalism, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

If you would like to read the book by these authors that is mentioned at the bottom of the article, you can get it free either as a hard-copy or as a pdf from .  I'm not sure if the hard copy is only for Australian postal addresses, but the pdf is just a download. 

Comments

Our universal rights and liberties said…
'Our Near Abroad' - an intriguing, give-away title. The use of the first person plural is notable. The Royal 'We'? Or the Pacific islands' inclusive 'we'?

For 'abroad' was much farther away and broader in its complexity than anyone seemed able, or capable to fathom. Indeed, light years away and unfathomable in its profound complexity - and still growing apace month by month. Whatever possessed anyone in reason to believe that regional security would be enhanced by sanctioning the repairs to surveillance vessels? By isolating those who were the only source of near and archipelagic surveillance in a region increasingly challenged by the threat of organised criminals? Into this gaping, 7 year Gap, the criminals and their cronies have wrought havoc among us. They have had ample assistance 'in house'.

The constitution 'came into force on Saturday'. Another interesting turn of phrase? Possibly, probably deliberate. For the dysfunction which has become endemic and enduring across a broad spectrum of our living standards and institutional capacities will take years to fix. Many of us will never see the end in sight. We shall have long passed out of the solar system, like Voyager 1, and into interstellar space. Can these sanctions ever be assuaged or erased? We await the fundamental test of an election which is sound and clean. In the run-up, we do not wish to see the waste of further taxpayers' funds landing in the laps of those who have coerced us and goaded us. We are looking for an earnest, honest and focused attention to the task at hand: a restoration of our universal rights and liberties. For, "This is not a game" - (to parody US Secretary of State John Kerry). Oh no. It most certainly is not!
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