October 04, 2012

Megaphone diplomacy won't help Fiji

Updated 3 October 2012, 11:28 AES

The former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Sir Don McKinnon, says Fiji's politics continues to worry a lot of people.

Sir Don says what's most worrying is the lack of democracy in the country.

Speaking about the Pacific generally, Sir Don says poverty is a key issue in the region and wealthier neighbours like Australia and New Zealand need to do much more.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts

Speaker: Sir Don McKinnon, former Commonwealth Secretary-General

MCKINNON: Well, it is very much the lack of democracy and I don't say that in an abstract sort of a way. When people don't have any real say on how their lives are governed, they can get very agitated, they can get very despondent and it takes that much longer to bring those institutions back into well being the longer it is and it's been sometime since Commodore Bainimarama took over everything in Fiji and although he's probably trying to do his best, that particular state of affairs doesn't easily translate back into democratic activity.

COUTTS: Now what action can be taken, because they've tried a lot of different approaches, Australia-New Zealand, to talk to Fiji about its democracy and it keeps saying, we're towards 2014 elections. Is the approach by the Trade Union Movement in the United States at the moment saying and that's the American Federation of Labour Congress of Industrial Organisations looking at the preference program that Fiji might be cut out of. Is that the way to go, because it will actually hurt more workers than the government?

MCKINNON: Well, that's the problem. These things can hurt more, hurt the people far more than they hurt the leadership. The smart sanctions that have been there for sometime are quite useful, that is you really are honing in directly on the people who are responsible for governing Fiji at the present time, because they're doing so very much by the use of threats and therefore the ability of the people to set up their own institutions is somewhat remote.

Now 2014, of course, looked a long way away when all this happened back in 2007, nevertheless it is coming closer and I think really the present time, the important thing is to get close to the administration and engage with them on the basis of ensuring that those elections in 2014 will be considered to be free and fair, that all people get registered, they're entitled to be registered and then the election results should be able to show just what the Fijian people want.

COUTTS: But is it time to take a different tack with Fiji? The smart sanctions or the travel sanctions seem to be biting hard and still remain a concern for Fiji. But the suspensions from the Commonwealth and the Forum don't seem to bother them too much. They're just going it alone and doing their own thing through the MSG and other organisations?

MCKINNON: Well, the question is what do you ratchet it up to now, because most things have already been tried over the last seven years and not found to be at all productive. I don't say that you should just give up completely. I think there must be engagement and I think particularly engagement from Australia and New Zealand is important. It mustn't be seen to be patronising engagement. It's just a genuine desire. Look, you're going to be come back on the track sometime. Let's help you get back on the track and as I say the 2014 elections aren't that far away. Let's make sure that we have appropriate voter registration, that everyone is entitled to and see them through.

You've always got to remember that although this is a South Pacific sort of a venture for many Pacific Island states, Australia and New Zealand tend to take a bit of a lead and sometimes the other Pacific states have to be pulled along to and they sometimes are more inclined to give Fiji a bit more room to move than does Australia and New Zealand. So it is a matter of all speaking with the same voice here.

COUTTS: But I guess with the suspensions, what is being claimed now by some is that the suspensions aren't working, so why have them, so why not lift the suspension or at least bring them back to the negotiating table?

MCKINNON: Well, I think there's quite a lot of discussion going on now and just being at a negotiating table, I'm not sure would be the most productive thing. I think what is more important is that Australia and New Zealand and others get, and the Pacific Forum, get alongside the regime and just convince them that there are a whole bunch of things that have to be done to make sure that these elections in 2014 can take place.

COUTTS: Well, you were in instrumental in the Bougainville Peace Agreement. Are there similar strategies that can be implemented here?

MCKINNON: Well, mostly it is working with the people and I wouldn't put them in a parallel circumstances, but when people from Australia and New Zealand come in and start telling people what to do. You've got to do it pretty carefully, you've got to take into account the local culture, local mores and the way people do things.

For a long time, we sort of disregarded traditional leadership, tribal leadership. My sort of workings is not just in the Pacific, but round the Commonwealth, particularly in Africa. You can't ignore the tribal leadership. It's not elected leadership. It tends to be inherited leadership, but it does play a major part in many of these societies. And getting those issues back on track and acknowledging them, I think are very important.

COUTTS: And one of the main distinctions between that and Fiji I guess. Because there also is a concern that's being expressed that Fiji is seen to be doing, rather than doing. They're mouthing all the right words in some areas of the Constitutional Forum with Yash Gai and people having input into the rewriting of the Constitution. But there is a fear that there might be too much control from the interim regime on who can and who cannot run in these so-called democratic elections in 2014?

MCKINNON: And that's not unexpected frankly and I've dealt with parallel situations in other parts of the world where those that have the power and gained the power virtually at the point of a gun just don't like giving it up. But short of going to war, you really have to get alongside and convince these people that this is the way through this exercise. It's going to happen some day. In the case of Fiji, you're promised elections in 2014. Let's make sure they run properly and people are well prepared for them and any continuation of the current dictatorship just won't work. But you can only do this really at close quarters. Megaphone diplomacy tends to have negative results and it's not something that totally discounted, but it tends to be the last thing that you have to do.

COUTTS: And so what do you think is the next step forward for Fiji, what do you think those outside Fiji should be doing?

MCKINNON: You really want to see a commitment from Commodore Bainimarama that he is fully endorsing free and fair elections for 2014 and that he is prepared to have international assistance to ensure that the voter rolls are up to date and that all can go and hopefully you get a the good housekeeping seal of approval afterwards.

I think I managed two elections in Fiji from the Commonwealth pre-2007 and by and large, they went very well. But you still have to have a lot of people on the ground to make sure that can happen.

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