Why Government is Losing the Support of 'Middle' Fiji

An Opinion piece by Croz Walsh

This article is prompted by an email from a friend in Fiji who thinks my blog is ignoring many important issues where Government 'got it wrong.' 

I do not know how representative he is of the people I have called 'middle Fiji' but I'm reasonable confident that many professional and more highly educated people who previously supported Government, or were prepared to give it the benefit of doubt, share these concerns. Numerically, their votes are not important enough to sway an election result but they are leaders in the realm of ideas, and ideas win or lose elections.

In recent weeks I've been more pro-Government because I think the choice is now much clearer. Fiji can either support the Baininamara Government, with all its faults. or support the the SODELPA/FLP and their chartered return voyage to the old Fiji, marked as it was with racial tensions, privileges and abuses.

Few can dispute the achievements of the Bainimarama government. Senior government people have visited parts of Fiji never previously visited by its political leaders.  Work is ongoing in the long-neglected areas of infrastructure, systematic corruption and abuse of office, tax reclamation, rural and outer island development, women and grassroots development, mico-financing, import substitution, housing, fair distribution of land lease money, bringing land into production, and assistance to the poor, the disabled and the elderly. As one turaga-ni-koro put it, Bainimarama "walks the talk." Many Government achievements were hard earned in the face of opposition from Fiji's traditional friends but Fiji has now won more respect internationally and greatly increasing the number of countries with which it shares diplomatic relations.

Probably Government's most important achievement within Fiji is to state categorically that all Fijians, irrespective of race, culture or religion, are truly equal. The inclusive use of the name 'Fijian', however,  could perhaps have been better dealt with later by Parliament. Statement and actions on equality are not conditional on a name change. And I see no reason either,  why people should not be called Fijian Fijians or Indo-Fijian Fijians. Fijian is a nationality as well as an ethnicity. I am a European New Zealander and my neighbour is a Maori or Maori New Zealander. 

Removing 'race' from official records such as censuses and arrival and departure cards is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Fiji needs to monitor how its different ethnic groups are performing economically and educationally, and it needs to know who is leaving and returning.

My email friend says, "You should realise that Fijians now would not accept the SDL and FLP of the old days and they are tired of the Bainimarama government." I wish I could believe the former and I see no evidence of the latter, except within the middle Fiji to which he belongs. It is, however, true that the public generally grow tired of governments that have been in power for a long time, but I'm unclear how anyone can be so sure about how other people think in Fiji at this time. All they can really go on is what their friends and workmates are saying, and for most people this small circle, however much they talk to each other, is hardly representative.

But I'm as confident as can be that if Government would address the concerns of middle Fiji, it would once again win the support of many of them.

This is a group of people who don't have political ambitions themselves and they are unlikely to experience pecuniary benefits or losses whichever way the elections go. Their equivalent in New Zealand would be called 'white liberals'. In Fiji as in New Zealand  they think their opinions important and jealously protect their right to express them. They address and attend public meetings, form organizations and write letters to the editor that they expect to be published and answered. They are far less concerned about the human bread and butter (or dalo and rice) rights that are protected in the 2103 Constitution and are of vital concern to ordinary Fijians. They are more concerned with political human rights while ordinary Fijians are more concerned about what a government will do to help them. Middle Fiji feels it has been sidelined, and wishes to be consulted and heeded far more by Government.   It rejects the military notion that a differently expressed viewpoint is a sign of disaffection.

From what I can gather 'middle Fiji' concerns revolve around the following issues:

Military violence. There have been several well publicised incidents where military personnel have taken the law into their own hands and intimidated or beaten people (see yesterday Notes and Comments). Often the police have been slow to respond to these cases, and when occasionally they have got as far as the courts and the culprits found guilty, Government has sometimes reduced their prison sentences. Middle Fiji sees this as a gross abuse of power and makes it doubly cautious about the constitutional provisions that protect the military, and the military's possible roles after the election.

Military people and middle Fiji have been trained to think differently. They have different priorities and values. A trusting relationship between them was never going to be easy. Both parties need to try harder to see the world through the others' eyes. 

Action against trade unions. Although Middle Fiji settles its own disputes by mediation, it supports unions in their right to strike. It may not wholly approve of the methods of the likes of Felix Anthony and Daniel Urai but it does not share Government's view that these unionists have acted in ways that undermine the Fiji economy. It wishes to see the repeal of some decrees, particularly the Essential Industry Decree. The Constitution allows their repeal after the elections; they want them repealed now.

Political parties.  Middle Fiji wants the full restoration of their previous rights, even though they may hold them at least partly responsible for creating the conditions that produced the 2006 Coup. They believe a confrontational parliament, with an active opposition, is the best way to keep a check on governments and maintain democracy. They support a Westminster style of democracy.

Government sees the policies of the old political parties, and their recent reincarnations, as self serving and not in the interests of most people in Fiji. Whether or not they also see them as capable of removing the Bainimarama government before the elections, I do not know, but extremists within the old political parties have certainly called for protest marches and for the military to rebel. Middle Fiji thinks there will only be a fair election if these political parties are allowed full campaigning rights now.

The media. A similar logic applies to the media. Middle Fiji wants freedom of speech and a minimal check on what the media can report and publish. It wants all sides to be able to express an opinion on major issues even when this means that Government's position is overwhelmed by separate reports from each of the groups opposed to it. Government wants what it calls a 'responsible' media that will not threaten what it is trying to do. Given Fiji's past history and the actions of the media since 2006, it is difficult to see how a balance can be achieved. 

Salaries and personal gain. Middle Fiji is, I think, rightly concerned about the very high salaries paid to the PM, the Attorney-General and Cabinet, and the recent large salary increases for permanent secretaries. It sees these salaries as unseemly given the high level of poverty in the country. Government did not helped itself  by not revealing the PM's and A-G's salaries when the issue was first raised nearly two years ago. 

Government could argue that higher cabinet salaries are justified because of the much smaller cabinet than in Qarase times, and the consequent increase of portfolio responsibilities carried by most members. It could also argue, as I did in an earlier article on the new salaries for permanent secretaries, that this excessive income gap is a product of neo-liberal thinking not confined to Fiji. There is some truth in all these defences but middle Fiji would see them as morally indefensible.

The word 'moral' is very important. To win back those in Middle Fiji who once supported the Bainimarama government, it has to win back the moral high ground it enjoyed in 2007 during the days when Middle Fiji was heavily engaged in preparing the People's Charter. Middle Fiji is concerned with ideals, good intentions and good deeds. It is impressed by the vision, idealism and self-sacrifice of men like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and women like Mother Teresa.

To win back Middle Fiji, Bainimarama needs to show that he, his colleagues and his army, are less concerned with self and personal gain than his opponents. Both he and the Attorney-General need to show they are people with ideas who also welcome the ideas of others.

The Bainimarama Government needs to re-engage with Middle Fiji. Three words sum up what is most needed: talanoa, talanoa, talanoa.


globe trekker said…
There are some clarifications are needed in the following points.

1) If Middle Fiji is a homogenous group and the individuals within the group, consider and identify themselves as part of that particular classification.

2) How big and racially diverse is this Middle Fiji and Is this group, an extension of the social circles of your email friend?

3) Are the concerns of your email friend and this pseudo group (Middle Fiji), a reflection of homophily and group think?

4) Is there established facts (via scientific opinion polls) that Middle Fiji does exist and determine if their support is actual eroding.
Anonymous said…
Much of what you have written over the years in your support for the illegal human rights abusing junta has been appalling and at times verging on despicable. Amongst the latest convoluted biased rubbish you speak about bainimarama and 'his' army? The Fijian military is not 'his' army. Unless of course you are referring the manipulation and terrible use of the military by a dictator? Do you ever stop to think about what you write? do you ever reflect and think critically about the disgraceful impact of some of your statements?
And to make a statement like middle Fiji (whatever fantasy that is) are "impressed by the vision, idealism and self-sacrifice of men like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and women like Mother Teresa)"??? On what basis do you write such nonsense? Are you stupid or really just a very deceitful person living in your own cocoon self denial?
Crosbie Walsh said…
Sorry you didn't understand my comments, Anonymous. I should have written more simply.

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