Kua Hinga te Totara Nui

A NZ Ambassador Who Stood Taller 
than the Others: 
A Tribute to His Excellency Te Rongotoa (Tia) Barrett

Thakur Ranjit Singh

The passing away of a gentleman and a career diplomat Tia Barret came as a shock to those who knew him. As somebody who was fortunate to have met him in Fiji between 1998 and 2001 when he was heading our High Commission in Suva, I always had a desire to re-establish that contact here, but that dream will now remain unfulfilled by his sudden departure.

He was in Suva during very troubled times with two significant events. The first was the takeover of the Chaudhary government by George Speight in May, 2000 and the second one was the attempt on the life of Commodore Bainimarama by rebel soldiers on 2 November, 2000 through a mutiny.

During those troubled times, he was holding the fort at NZ High Commission and was an exemplary ambassador for Aotearoa, and added pride to this profession by standing stall and being different from other ambassadors by talking his mind without any fear of speaking the truth, even if it meant crossing the boundaries guarded by strict diplomatic protocols.

When the AUT’s Pacific Media Centre’s Dr. David Robie was heading the Journalism School at USP, in Suva, His Excellency Tia Barrett was the Chief Guest at the Journalism Awards almost nine years ago, on 24 November, 2000. The address he gave to the graduating students is still fresh in my mind and it had ruffled a few feathers in the then Interim Fiji regime, some of who still harboured ethno-nationalism and beat the indigenous drums.

While himself being indigenous person of Aotearoa, he was bold to have gone beyond the call of his duty to put the ethno-nationalists in their place.

What is difficult to accept in this dialogue on indigenous rights is the underlying assumption that those rights are pre-eminent over other more fundamental human rights. This just cannot be so, not in today's world. Where the confusion lies, in my view, is with the thought that indigenous people have a prior right over land and the sea and their resources and therefore by extension over the political, economic and social institutions of a country,” he had told the Fijian students.

He had reminded the journalism students that nowhere was it written in any holy scripture that because you were indigenous, you had first rights over others in their daily rights. He had maintained that one should be respected and highly regarded as an indigenous person, but respect was earned and not obtained on demand. He reminded that while the Compact of 1997 Constitution of Fiji accorded a special place for the indigenous Fijians in the polity of the nation, the respect there still needed to be earned.

His talk some nine years ago was so prophetic and would be well remembered by the elements in the Maori community in the recent controversy on the indigenous issue. What he had said in Suva in 2000 would have stood tall in that controversy:

“Being indigenous, in my view, demands high levels of achievement and competency in both our traditional cultural values and in the demands of today's globalised world. That is a tall order, and requires more of us indigenous peoples than of the non-indigenous. But in fact, I think the well-educated, well-rounded, successful indigenous person stands tall as an outstanding achiever. Unfortunately, there are so few although there are examples in both your and my history.”

Barrett had even ventured to lecture to the chiefs about their role and also the responsibilities of Churches, both of which were found to be wanting by the current Fiji regime. What people like Tia Barrett in diplomatic positions proved is that diversity in such positions enriched the profile of the country and if any lessons are to be learnt is that a diplomat like Tia Barrett in Fiji would have been well placed to bridge the huge chasm that currently exists between the two countries.

He had lectured the journalists on the concept of development journalism where the timely and accurate facts fulfilled the thirst for knowledge so that people could make the changes needed to improve their lives in this globalised world. Whether Fiji journalist heeded this call remains debatable, but what is certain is that modern –day ambassadors in troubled countries like Fiji have much to learn from His Excellency Tia Barrett. His departure leaves a huge vacuum in his line of thinking of the Pacific issues and we hope New Zealand continues to be blessed with proud sons like Tia Barrett.

On behalf of my former country-people from Fiji, I join in to extend our condolences to the Barrett family. May his soul rest in peace.

(Thakur Ranjit Singh is a postgraduate student in Communication studies at AUT, and had met Tia Barrett in Fiji whilst he was the Publisher of Fiji’s Daily Post)


Anonymous said…
Thank you, Thakur, for highlighting Tia Barrett's speech, a beacon of wisdom in the sea of nonsense peddled about indigenous rights.

I'm sure many people, like me, hadn't been aware of its contents nor of the accomplishments of the man who delivered it. The region can ill afford to lose men of Tia's calibre and intellect.

Only another indigenous person can say these things and have any impact in a place like Fiji, whose indigenous inhabitants are gripped by a sense of blind entitlement of the kind Tia so eloquently describes.

I'm continually astonished how even the most educated Fijians cling, as an article of the faith, to the notion that their position is somehow threatened and that this gives them the right to lord it over their fellow citizens.

Tia Barrett's comments, as you've recalled them, remind us that in a world with increasingly fewer borders, only those countries that break down racial barriers and extend equal rights to all can truly prosper.

In the Fiji context, no-one wants to erode the extraordinary richness of indigenous culture nor the special place of the Fijians in national life. Indeed the vanua and all it stands for is an intense source of national pride.

What the other races respectfully request is that Fijians acknowledge that having been born here and having no other home, we too have rights and responsibilities.

If only indigenous Fijians would listen to the voices of reason and moderation in their ranks rather than the racist scaremongers who exploit their misguided sense of vulnerability for their own sordid purposes.