July 18, 2012

Fiji-Australia Relations Pre-Election Outlook

by Eddie Walsh
July 17, 2012

For more than two decades, Fiji has served as the coup capital of the Pacific. During the latest one in 2006, Commodore Frank Bainimarama removed Prime Minister Qarase’s duly elected democratic government. Since then, Australia has actively leveraged its diplomatic power and influence to urge the Bainimarama regime to hold free and fair elections. Fiji, on the other hand, has decried Australian interference in its internal affairs and argued that the Interim Government remains on path to restore democracy. As the much anticipated elections approach, it remains to be seen as to whether the regime will live up to its commitments and, if so, how Fiji and Australia will repair their fractured relationship. It is with these questions in mind that I recently spoke with Ambassador Winston Thompson of the Republic of Fiji to hear his outlook on Fiji-Australia relations.
In January 2012, we last sat down to discuss Fiji’s future following the lifting of martial law. At that time, you said that it was “too early to see a major change” in your diplomatic relations with Western governments. We have witnessed some changes since then. For example, in May, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, publicly acknowledged that your government has made positive progress on the path toward democracy. Australia then announced in late-June that it would be doubling its aid to your country by 2014. Given these new developments, I wanted to get your sense of where Fiji stands with respect to Western governments. From your perspective, where are we?
The last time we spoke, there wasn’t all that much positive in terms of developments since the 2006 coup and events that took place in 2009. Fortunately, even though there were no new developments, business relationships at the private sector level continued virtually uninterrupted. That kept the Fiji economy from falling over because the means of the trade are operated through Australia and New Zealand. Also, the aid that Australia was giving for humanitarian purposes continued. In fact, it has increased as you point out.
Since more visible progress in the return to democratic rule – the purchase of electronic voter registration systems, the training of staff, and start of registration for the 600,000 voters expected to be registered – Australia has shown more of a visible acceptance of how things are going. From that point of view, it is positive although not to the extent that we would like. They are probably not actively lobbying in the corridors of international power that Fiji should be excluded from international peacekeeping operations. But, as far as I know, the bans that Australia and New Zealand imposed on various categories of people continue. So, I think we get a sense that there have been some positive developments. Things are beginning to look more optimistic.
There have been a number of other developments in Fiji-Australia relations since we last spoke. One of the biggest is that Bob Carr took over as Australian foreign minister from Kevin Rudd. When you look at what’s driving the Australian approach to Fiji, how much do you think that leadership shift is affecting the relationship?
At the beginning, when there was a change of foreign ministers, the new foreign minister made statements that looked very positive in terms of new developments. But, within a couple of days, he sort of retracted them and went back to the standard version that had been put out before he took office. That position was reconfirmed a few days after Foreign Minister Carr took office even though at the beginning he had said it was time for a new look. He went over to New Zealand and from New Zealand he made the statement reverting back to the original position.
New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, recently acknowledged that some progress has been made in response to your question at Pacific Night 2012. In Fiji’s diplomatic engagement with Australia and others, do you get any sense that the ANZUS approach is measurably changing as a result of Fiji’s progress toward democracy?
We think that there have been quite tangible and significant changes toward getting back to elections with the appointment of the constitutional review commission, the voter registration system, and the changes in the public order act. All of those we thought were substantial movements. But, no acknowledgement was given that was moving in a positive direction.
We will need to do what we need to do irrespective of what these people are saying or doing. We think we have maintained the milestones we set for ourselves. They really should be acknowledged. But, if they do not, then that’s their problem.
So, you don’t think that your progress is leading to substantive changes in the approach taken by the international community?
Well, I don’t see much of a change in the international stance. Those who were friendly remain friendly. Those who were unfriendly remain unfriendly.
You don’t see any thawing in their approach having witnessed McCully’s public statements and Australia’s new aid promises? You don’t see these as indications that their governments are tacitly acknowledging your progress?
I suppose they have very reluctantly – it seems - admitted some progress. But, at the same time, they have not said that their position is going to be affected until they see in their view what they term significant progress.
We have fulfilled the milestones that we set out in terms of preparing for elections and carrying out the economic developments that need to be done. All of these have been done in a hostile context in terms of those who were in the best – closest – position to affect what we would do. And, we have maintained it nonetheless. On our side, we have lived up to what we said we would do. So, the accusations that came forward right from the beginning haven’t really changed.
So then what’s your outlook moving forward? Is it going to take the elections for Australia to really change their position? Or, do you see other opportunities – other milestones – before the elections where progress can be made in Fiji-Australia relations?
Well, (the elections) are the ultimate. Once they happen, they can’t deny it any further. But, I hope (progress can be made before the elections). We have the constitutional review commission being set up. They will be working over the next few months and toward the end of the year they will have a draft. By next year, there will be formal consultations with the people. I hope those will indicate that we are well on our way and there should be some modification vis-à-vis Australia and New Zealand, and consequently the U.S.
You say you hope to see progress. Are there specific milestones before we reach the elections in 2014 where you and other stakeholders in Fiji expect to see a moderation in Australia’s diplomatic approach?
The consultations will be free and fair and open to everybody. There will be no restrictions on anyone to make their views known. I think part of the Australian reaction has been this business of the treatment of the unionists. Their counterparts in Australia have prevailed upon the government of Australia to not to be so forthcoming in recognizing what progress has been made. When it’s seen that all of the players and politicians have complete freedom to make their views known to the constitutional review commission, how can you then say that things are not being done to move us toward free and fair elections?
Eddie Walsh is an accredited foreign correspondent. Mr. Walsh writes extensively and speaksregularly on Asia-Pacific Affairs. He currently serves as WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.

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