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FIJI: McCully leads Rudd in treatment of pariah regime

Contrasting foreign ministers ... Australia's Kevin Rudd (left) and Murray McCully of New Zealand.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Item: 7368

ANALYSIS: AUCKLAND: For outside onlookers at Fiji, the 2014 deadline for democratic elections seemed like a far-off date in the future, arbitrarily picked by military leader Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama.

He argued two years ago that such time was needed to “change” Fiji and cleanse the political system from corruption and entrenched racism.

Now, the 2014 deadline is closer – a mere three-year term of government for New Zealand and Australia – and some commentators are starting to think that Bainimarama might actually hold to his word. That he actually has a plan.

The question is why have Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, held back from engaging with Fiji, in order to more effectively encourage the promised return to democratic elections.

What usually holds diplomats and politicians back from visiting undemocratic countries is the danger involved. Sometimes necessity overcomes danger. In fact, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has visited plenty of undemocratic countries.

Between September 2010 and February this year, Rudd had visited Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Brazil, Chile, Bali, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Bahrain, China, South Korea, Japan, Belgium and Italy. Almost half of his tenure as foreign minister was spent overseas.

In fact, within two months of being sworn in, no less than four different ministers of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government visited China, an undemocratic country from which many more human rights abuse stories would emerge if it was not for censorship of the media.

Invitation to Fiji
Yet Rudd hasn’t been able to get to Fiji, despite an invitation from Bainimarama. In fact, the military leader has invited Rudd three times since the 2006 coup to see what the real situation was like.

Now it is not as if it is dangerous. Fiji earned $147.3 million from Australian tourism in a record-breaking third quarter of 2010.

"What's holding them back is their stubbornness and also the fact that they do not understand what the real situation in Fiji is like, which makes it difficult for them to come out of their shell," Bainimarama said at the time.

Last year Gillard did not make it to Vanuatu for the Pacific Islands Forum and sent then foreign minister Steven Smith, and only after strong encouragement from the opposition that he should go.

The Fijian media treated it with cynicism. True, Gillard stayed to fight for the last few seats that helped her cling to power, but it showed where Fiji and the greater Pacific really is in the priorities of the current Australian government.

Now, Rudd as foreign minister has gone on the attack again. While visiting Christchurch he told Guyon Espiner in a heated interview that Fiji must adhere to the standards and norms of the pif, the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

When asked why the Australian and New Zealand approach thus far has not worked with Fiji, Rudd dodged the question, saying it bought “into an assumption that the problem lies with the rest of us rather than with the Bainimarama regime.”

Rudd is clearly not interested in dialogue, unless there are more important gains to be made, such as Australia’s relationship with China.

Rudd did point out some home truths for Bainimarama:

“It is not right to sack your entire judiciary, that it is not right therefore to incarcerate ministers of religion, that it is not right to interfere with religious convention on denominations of the Christian religion, that it is not right to close down the media, that it is not right to suspend elections. Bainimarama is the one who must change here.”

But that is a tantrum we had five years ago.

The Pacific Institute of Public Policy has just issued a report on democracy in the Pacific. It says:

“The horse has already bolted, so better now to take Bainimarama at his word, to ensure that the promised 2014 elections are indeed free and fair.

“The continued bleating about the need for a ‘return to democracy’ in Fiji fails to grasp an important point: democracy never meaningfully existed in Fiji.”

Rudd’s problem is that he is not helping Fiji change. In his place, others are making gains.

US involvement
Adjunct Professor at Fiji's National University, Dr Richard Herr told Radio Australia that the US investing in Fiji was a sign that other democratic countries in the region were failing, and the US is concerned that other powers are gaining influence in the region.

Even Fiji’s Chief Justice of the High Court, Anthony Gates, an Australian citizen, said that Australia and New Zealand have hindered Fiji’s efforts.

"Australia and New Zealand have hampered our progress in restoring the judiciary at all levels,” he said.

"In the world, this assault on, and interference with, a neighbouring state’s judiciary is unprecedented."

Gates had made the decision in 2001 that the military coup by George Speight was illegal and the Constitution still stood. His decision was disobeyed by the government, which chose to hold elections instead. Six years later, Bainimarama’s coup was in a great part rooted in the problems of the aftermath of the 2000 coup.

Last year, the Fiji Times reported  WikiLeaks had revealed that former Australian Parliamentary Secretary of Pacific Island affairs Duncan Kerr believed that a softer approach on Fiji was warranted, and even encouraged the US to re-engage with Fiji.

The US heeded the advice, Australia did not.

At least the Fiji Sun seems to think that New Zealand and McCully have turned a corner.

It was reported today that New Zealand's Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, said bans on travel for Fiji MPs would have to be lifted if the Fijian regime could show proof that their plans for democratic elections were in tow.

This year’s PIF will be held in Auckland, days before the Rugby World Cup kicks off.

It wouldn’t be the first time that rugby healed political divisions. However, the change of approach is not just a coincidence with the important forum and a football competition.

More positive approach
McCully spoke more positively today on Fiji to Radio New Zealand International.

“We are talking to people and we are making a lot of good ground with people we don’t normally talk to,” he said.

“We are committed to that. We are looking at a whole inclusive process when we are looking at Fiji’s future.”

It certainly sounds more positive than Rudd’s comments. Perhaps it was because he took the time to visit Suva in August last year. Last month he went to Vanuatu for the PIF Ministerial Contact Group (MCG), where he met with Fijian Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

Australia sent its Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Islands Affairs, Richard Marles. But as the Fiji Sun reported, “He continued to parrot the demands that have taken Canberra nowhere except outside looking in as Fiji builds new international relationships and friendships.”

McCully’s “carrot” for Fiji is that Bainimarama needs to give "a pretty clear indication that they are headed for the polls within an acceptable timeframe".

Now putting aside what is acceptable and who deems it such, and that Bainimarama has been giving assurances for years that the 2014 deadline is on track, it’s no coincidence that McCully’s comments are new, and more engaging. Perhaps he knows a little bit more than Kevin Rudd.

That wouldn’t be a coincidence either.

About the authors

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Alex Perrottet

PMW contributing editor 2011-2012

Alex Perrottet is a journalist who has completed a Masters degree and Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student at AUT University.

PMC profile photograph

Pacific Media Watch

PMC's media monitoring service

Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators.
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Dynamic leaders needed urgently!

We live in a dynamic world & leaders got to a have a dynamic outlook. There is a billion ways of handling one situation. Try something if it fails try something else. Its absurd & plain silly when you have failed on a particular solution & you refuse to retract & take the next available alternative.

And I thought Foreign Affairs ministers were the most diplomatic people on the face of this earth....oh probably protocol-wise (*courtesies & faints*), foreign policy wise - Rudd & McCully badly need lessons on International Relations & Diplomacy in the Pacific.

Be vigilant, McCully

The home truths spoken by Rudd are spot on. Voreqe is the one who should change. McCully must not compromise his principles of democracy. Voreqe has many faces. McCully must understand the real purpose of the coup. Keep the sanctions.

Spot on, Alex

Spot on Alex - you read the position correctly and express the message of necessary re-engagement succinctly!

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