Dominion Post Tuesday 6 August 2013
There has been a significant change of attitude in Australia to Fiji.
Last Tuesday Julie Bishop, deputy leader of the Opposition and shadow minister of foreign affairs and trade, recommended re-engagement with Fiji and the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Bainimarama Government.
In a comment that would have done justice to New Zealand's seemingly forgotten traditional relationship with the Pacific, Ms Bishop said: "We will be guided by the Fijian Government on what they seek from Australia".
She pledged Coalition support "in whatever form Fiji requires" to assist them to get to grips with the challenges involved in establishing a workable parliamentary democracy.
Ms Bishop is, of course, the Opposition representative - though that may change after Australia's election in September. The Australian Labor Government is another matter.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been the poster boy for a hardline approach to Fiji since the coup in 2006. He and predecessor Julia Gillard have focused simplistically on the need for elections.
But there is more to it than that.
Since coming to power, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has cracked down on the hitherto strong Fiji trade union movement.
Inevitably Australian trade unions reacted strongly to the difficulties of their Fijian colleagues, and their position has had a powerful influence on Labor Party policy. The opposition parties in Australia recognise no such trade union influence.
Ms Bishop's remarks, though sensitive and well-focused, are off the official agenda. But they must be seen as a signal and an important one.
Since the coup in 2006, New Zealand and Australia have offered little to Fiji in what could be seen as the collegiality expected as characterising relationships within the Pacific community.
Both governments have continued to provide some aid but Fiji needed more than that. Post coup, it wanted the sort of support and relationship now outlined by Ms Bishop, especially when she says "there are very valuable lessons to be learned if we stand in each other's shoes and we try to see issues from each other's perspective".
As I noted in a comment piece three years ago, Fiji's internal tensions since before independence have to be dealt with by Fijians and the decisions reached have to be accepted by the Pacific and wider community.
Now there are further developments.
Since 2006, Fiji has not stood still.
A range of countries have been welcomed in Suva and Fiji has become an active member of the Melanesian spearhead group - which contains the potentially rich Pacific island states.
Fiji has also gained the prestigious position of chair of the non-aligned meeting where it has established a high- profile among delegates.
China-Fiji relations have developed strongly, and Fiji's much-sought-after soldiers are well represented in British and United Nations operations in many of the world's hot spots.
The Australian comments are in marked contrast to those coming from New Zealand.
In a speech on New Zealand's place in the world late last year, Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff made little reference to the Pacific and in later discussion emphasised his continuing view that human rights were the key to progress in Fiji.
Of course, human rights are important and coups cannot be condoned but, given Mr Goff's persistent concerns about human rights and illegal seizures of power, I might have expected a stiff comment on recent developments in Egypt where what looks very like a military coup has taken place.
The New Zealand Government also appears to be remarkably quiet on Egypt.
What I am advocating is that New Zealand take a more balanced approach to Fiji.
The Australian Opposition has taken an early lead. The key for New Zealand is to again speak in the Pacific with a New Zealand voice, re-establish positive contact with Fiji and, while not accepting the coup, come up with alternative policies in a context of co- operation.
Negotiations will not be easy.
But if understandings can be agreed and adhered to, at least there will be some structure on which to build a better relationship.
There may be a sense within the Wellington policy establishment that Suva is simply waiting for New Zealand to welcome them back to the Commonwealth, Pacific Forum and PACER trade negotiations. In fact it may not be quite that clear-cut.
Fiji now has a substantial - but not dominant - grouping that asks why they should bow to New Zealand. They point to Fiji's substantial gains since the coup in spite of Australia and New Zealand sponsored opposition and at times hostility. They consider that they should build on their new structures.
The reality is that New Zealand must undertake a similar repositioning to that of the Australian Opposition.
This means a rethink in terms of policy and, even more important, of attitude - leading to less exhortation and more patient discussion. It is now probably too late but if sufficient goodwill is generated, New Zealand might get Fiji's support in its bid for the 2014 Security Council seat. It depends on the quality of diplomacy.
* Gerald McGhie is a former diplomat with many years of experience in the Pacific. He is a former director of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.
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