Australia's Fiji Backdown

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So it has finally come. After five-and-a-half-years of trying to destroy the Bainimarama government in Fiji, Oceania’s greatest power — Australia — has finally bowed to the inevitable.

For all its economic and political power, Australia could not bring Fiji to heel. It ended in Sydney last Monday, with Australia being dragged reluctantly to the table by New Zealand under the distant but relieved gaze of the United States.

The meeting had nothing to do with the so-called "smart sanctions", which will mostly continue, except that civilian members of the Bainimarama regime will be allowed to visit Australia. Now, all three countries will exchange high commissioners for the first time since 2009 — something Fiji initially broke off, when it expelled the Australian and New Zealand high commissioners for allegedly interfering in its domestic affairs. Fiji’s own representatives were expelled in retaliation.

It’s an important step on the road to a better relationship. But let’s not kid ourselves about who has been calling the shots. Fiji has bested its larger neighbours and there is no other conclusion that can reasonably be drawn.

Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, even went into the Sydney meeting with his Australian and New Zealand counterparts effectively saying that from Suva’s point of view, the outcome didn’t really matter.

Ratu Inoke has been criticised for not speaking to the Australian media afterwards — but perhaps it’s just as well. It’s not the polite Fijian way to rub salt into the wounds.

There’s no need to take my word that this was a cave-in. Just go to the anti-regime websites, where Bob Carr and New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully have now joined the long list of "shameless traitors" to the "democratic" cause.

Time was when both Labor and the Coalition demanded an immediate return to democracy in Fiji. But that bipartisan approach broke down long ago. The Coalition has been calling for re-engagement as it actively prepares to assume power next year. The Kiwis — once the real hardliners — also realised long ago that they had to start dealing with Fiji.

So they appear to have played the lead role in getting everyone back to the table. It’s no coincidence that the Sydney talks came less than a fortnight after NZ Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, was in Suva.

We all wondered at the time why Ratu Inoke was talking grandly about "a new page being written in the history of both countries". Well now we know.

But what does New Zealand’s role as lead broker say for Australia’s leadership in the region?

For one thing, Australia would have caved a lot sooner but for the pressure Bob Carr has faced from the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) to maintain a hard-line stance in defence of embattled Fijian union leaders like Felix Anthony and Daniel Urai.

Even at the 11th hour before the Sydney talks took place, ACTU President Ged Kearney was publicly insisting that Australia hold out. Was Carr going to take his orders from her and suffer the embarrassment of having to tell his NZ counterpart that all bets were off?

The humiliation for Australia, as opposed to the interests of the unions, would have been too great. But Kearney managed to extract an important concession that amply demonstrates union power over the Australian government. She insisted that Carr only lift the Australian travel bans on civilians working for the regime and its statutory authorities, not on any military personnel.

So Voreqe Bainimarama won’t be sighted on the Manly ferry anytime soon. But after the announcement of the exchange of high commissioners, Kearney said she was disappointed and urged Australia to keep up the pressure.

"We maintain that there must be clear demonstration that progress to democracy will include workers’ rights and freedom of speech before we would agree to any lifting of other sanctions," she said.

Kearney wouldn’t have seen the irony of an unelected trade union leader instructing an unelected politician (Bob Carr was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy and has yet to face the people) to keep ostracising another unelected leader who is returning Fiji to a purer democracy than ever existed before.

But then irony isn’t Labor’s strongest point; compare the weakest of minority governments with a primary vote of 30 per cent or less with Commodore Bainimarama’s 67 per cent approval rating — from a Lowy poll last year.

It’s a pretty safe bet that he’s looking forward to the next election in Fiji far more than Julia Gillard.

But one thing Canberra excels at is spin. Carr’s people were able to convince journalist Daniel Flitton to write the following story for the Fairfax press: "Australia has restored diplomatic ties with Pacific pariah Fiji as a reward for democratic reforms by the troubled island nation".

Pariah? Fiji is the current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, convenor of the Pacific Small Island Developing States in the Asia Group at the United Nations and a recent President of the UN General Assembly.

Some pariah. Reward?

The Bainimarama government is doing precisely what it said it would do in 2009 — return Fiji to democracy in 2014 on an equal vote, equal value basis for the very first time. It doesn’t need rewards from Australia.

Troubled? Almost 300,000 people — half the electorate — have now been registered to vote in that election, the Constitutional Commission begins public consultations this week and signs abound of a brighter economic and political future.

Small wonder that so many of Fiji’s traditional critics have gone quiet. Not that it stopped the exiled historian, Professor Brij Lal, from pontificating on Australian television about the rapprochement being driven by Fiji’s need for better ties with Canberra.

"Fiji has realised the futility of not having a representative of its largest neighbour and trading partner," Professor Lal said. "Fiji needs to re-engage with its regional neighbours, whether it likes it or not."

Someone seems to have put something in Brij Lal’s chai. The fact is that Fiji’s critics in politics and the media — along with anyone else who hoped for the government’s destruction — are having to eat a big slice of humble pie.

As the former Vice-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, observed last week, race relations in Fiji have never been better — and this from someone who was dismissed from his position by Commodore Bainimarama. Of course, now he is being shouted down for his impertinence on the anti-regime websites.

But the real tragedy is that Australia and New Zealand didn’t have the wit to engage from day one. to recognise that Fiji had an entrenched racial problem that was getting worse under Laisenia’s Qarase’s SDL and that the military’s intervention was understandable, even if it could not be condoned.

Instead of disengaging and sanctioning Bainimarama, they could have chosen the much better option of keeping him close and trying to influence outcomes — the Pacific way, if you like, of being seen to help Fiji through a difficult phase rather than punish.

As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, no senior Australian diplomat has been to see Voreqe Bainimarama for five and a half years. And yet the Americans talk to him, the French talk to him and much of the rest of the world beats a path to his door.

It has altered the entire geopolitical position in the region, weakened regional structures like the Pacific Forum, given China an important strategic advantage, alarmed the Americans to the extent that they changed their own hardline stance and driven the most influential island nation into the Non Aligned Movement and a host of other relationships.

And for what? For a principle that was highly doubtful — given the racism of the ousted Qarase government — and couldn’t be enforced.

It’s a failure of Australian leadership in the Pacific with a capital F. Failure to isolate Fiji except from some small Australian and NZ satellites like Samoa. Failure to have it removed from UN peace-keeping operations. Failure to persuade even its own citizens that Bainimarama was a pariah, let alone the whole of Fiji during the biggest influx of Australian tourists in Fijian history. Of the 336,000 Australians last year — triple the number 10 years ago — some were even lining up to shake his hand.

The biggest challenge for Australia as it tries to re-engage with Fiji is that Fiji no longer desires Australian government approval. Yes, the economic ties are important and the Fiji government’s new policy of being "friends with everyone" naturally extends to Australia. But Ratu Inoke was sending the bluntest of messages to Canberra and Wellington when he said that Fiji wasn’t overly concerned about better relations if that got in the way of the Fijian government’s reform programme.

The fact is that having an Australian high commissioner in Suva again won’t make a jot of difference to influencing events in Fiji. Let’s hope he or she makes the first trek to the PM’s office since 2006 and they begin the long process of rebuilding the friendship.

But they’ll find that Commodore Bainimarama isn’t overly concerned himself. He detests the Labor government in Canberra and privately hopes that it will be defeated in the Australian election next year.

Because he knows that only when Tony Abbott wins — and the Australian trade union monkey is off his back — will there be any real hope of beginning with a clean slate.

This is an edited version of this article that appeared in Pacific Scoop.

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