Opinion – By Peter Thomson
I want to make it clear where I’m coming from. I’m a fifth generation Fiji Islander, who since the coups of 1987 has become both a New Zealand and Australian citizen.
As a result of the recent decree in Fiji allowing dual citizenship, I’m in the process of applying for the reinstatement of my birthright, that is my citizenship of Fiji.
As such, I aspire to being a good citizen of the South Pacific region and it is my belief in the integrity of our region that fires much of what I have to say.
Canberra’s Fiji policy is wrong and it is most definitely having a major impact. It is spiteful policy, conceived in a mood of punishment and sustained by a sense of pique. It is damaging not just to Fiji’s business world, its national economy and the livelihoods of its long-suffering people, it is damaging to the very fabric of the South Pacific region.
One of the most cutting elements of Canberra’s Fiji policy is its ongoing campaign in New York to choke off Fiji’s role as an international peacekeeper. I’m including Wellington in this rebuke, for Canberra has a strong ally in former Prime Minister Helen Clark, now head of the United Nations Development Programme, and in the Wellington inheritors of her Fiji policy.
What a bitter betrayal that campaign represents for Fijians! When our countries were being invaded from the north less than 70 years ago, Fijians volunteered in their thousands to fight and die in our defence.
Now we see that with defence training denied them in Australia and New Zealand, the next generation of Fiji officers are being trained in Malaysia, India and China. In this Australia is squandering a precious asset – the individual goodwill that exists between military officers who’ve shared intense training experience, and the resulting personal and professional links that exist in the years ahead.
Fiji’s peacekeeping role in the world stands proud. Wherever peacekeepers have been required in recent times from Timor to Iraq, from Honiara to Kabul, Fijians have been there putting their lives on the line in the service of international peace. For their worldwide work as peace-keepers, Fijians should have our undying gratitude.
Instead we are witness to this campaign of sanctimonious betrayal by Canberra and Wellington. Why is this important today? Because remittances by Fijians performing these overseas peace-keeping roles are vital to Fiji’s economy; foreign remittances represent the third biggest source of export earnings for Fiji. So this is the first way that Canberra’s policy is damaging the economy of Fiji.
The second way Canberra is grinding the Fiji economy down, is by its so-called ‘smart’ sanctions. In Fiji it is the “travel ban” component of these sanctions that is the most widely known element of Australia and New Zealand’s punishment programme. Basically the application of the travel bans is that visas to visit Australia and New Zealand are denied to anyone who accepts a post in the governance of Fiji or is in anyway related to the Fiji military.
The bans are applied not just to the individuals concerned, their children and wider members of their family are made to suffer as well.
Good people in Fiji, apolitical people, would like to be of public service but cannot because of these travel bans. To say otherwise is a nonsense – there are people in this room who fall into this category and can attest to what I’m saying.
To accept roles in public service would be to cut themselves off from friends, family and business ties in Australia and New Zealand. We’re talking here about responsible, well-qualified citizens being constrained from serving on public bodies that work to prevent such things as passenger planes flying into the sides of mountains, or ministries responsible for the health of little children, or developing agriculture and infrastructure, or from keeping convicted criminals in jail.
Since 2006, Canberra seems to have aimed at a short-term coercive outcome from its Fiji policy. It seems to think that by eroding the regime’s ability to govern, it’ll force it to capitulate.
But Fiji still has a government and, however imperfectly it may be doing so, it is governing and will do so for the foreseeable future. And when you get down to it, how can Canberra complain about poor governance in Fiji when it’s doing all it can to bring such conditions about.
From a business perspective, we should be very aware that these so-called smart sanctions are schooling Fiji on how to acquire goods and services from alternate sources to Australia and New Zealand. Necessity is the mother of invention and once new habits and new business links are formed, they will become the norm.
This is the second way Canberra is damaging Fiji’s economy and is being bad for business.
The third way is Canberra’s demonising and white-anting of Fiji in the multilateral organisations of the world. Australia and New Zealand orchestrated Fiji’s eviction from the Pacific Forum and The Commonwealth and are working against Fiji’s interests at the UN.
Any country that truly cares for its neighbour’s well-being recognises that when hard times have hit your neighbour you do what you can to help them out in the fields of international assistance. But you name it, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, you can be sure there are representatives from Canberra and Wellington doing what they can to block Fiji’s access to resources.
The fourth way is the decision made by Canberra and Wellington at Cairns to exclude Fiji from the negotiations for PACER Plus, the regional trade agreement that will supposedly shore up the future of the South Pacific’s regional trading probity.
From the Pacific Islands perspective, Fiji is pivotal to these negotiations as the dominant island economy outside of PNG, and as the hub of trade, shipping, civil aviation and regional organisations in the South Pacific.
The legal document underlying these negotiations is the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, and it appears that Australia and the other state parties are in breach of their obligations under the agreement by summarily excluding Fiji.
Legal provisions aside, Fiji’s exclusion is quite obviously undermining the integrity of the negotiations, causing deep-felt resentments within the region and inevitably is going to be bad for regional business. The foreign ministers of the Melanesian countries have recently countermanded the Pacific Forum by calling for Fiji’s inclusion on the PACER Plus negotiations, raising the spectre of regional fragmentation.
In considering regional integrity it is important to note here that though the EU and US have traditionally been guided by Australia and New Zealand in South Pacific policy, that reliance is beginning to show signs of cracks.
In the case of Washington, Beijing’s progress and Canberra’s retreat in the Pacific Islands, must be causing deep concern amongst US Pacific policy-makers. In the case of Brussels, while Fiji is excluded from the PACER Plus talks, Fiji is included in the EU/ACP Cotonou Agreement trade talks.
The fifth way is the effect Canberra’s policy is having on Australian private investment in Fiji. As a foreign investor, who would have the gumption to invest in a country that your own government is so intent on choking off and isolating?
As someone who has spent the majority of his adult life promoting and facilitating foreign investment in Fiji, I see this aspect of Canberra’s punishment policy as a tragic set-back for our bilateral trade and investment ties, and put it to this Council that this failing alone is ample reason for a call to action.
At this juncture I could add Canberra’s alarmist travel advisories as a further attack on Fiji’s economy, but thankfully Australian tourists know better. They have voted with their feet and have not been advised out of taking their holidays at their favourite Fiji resorts.
In all these ways Canberra’s policy is pushing Fiji away from its traditional South Pacific ties into the orbit of the less judgemental Asian giants. The combination of weakening standards of governance in the Pacific Islands, with the rapacious resource demands of Asian commerce, and the drift towards Chinese dominance of the Pacific theatre, is one that Canberra’s Fiji policy does nothing but foster.
Where is the diplomacy and dialogue needed to create other choices? Initially I was pleased to read Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s post-Commonwealth-eviction statement calling for patience on Fiji’s position. However he soon undid any good when further in the statement he said that other countries should not attempt to help Fiji in the splendid absence of Australia and New Zealand.
Does he not see how incredibly chauvinist and damaging such a statement is, even if it is completely lacking in credibility in terms of realpolitik?
If you think the Asian giants are heeding the hands-off warning from Canberra, have a look at where Fiji’s new investments are coming from. See whose ambassadors are in and out of the Fiji prime minister’s office on a regular basis, while the Australian high commissioner sits on his hands in Suva under orders from Canberra since 2006 never once to meet with the Fiji prime minister.
Lack of diplomacy
Go and see who is taking the place of long-standing Australian, New Zealand and local Fiji businesses in the streets of Suva. Whether they know it or not, by default Canberra and Wellington are shopping Fiji to Asia.
If you question Canberra and Wellington about the lack of their diplomacy in Fiji and their inability to sustain dialogue with the government of Fiji, they’ll tell you it’s all the fault of Prime Minister Bainimarama.
They point to his no-show at the Port Moresby meeting and the way he’s dealt with their emissaries in Fiji. But in making this response they fail to recognise that they too are part of the problem.
If you go to Fiji waving a big stick, you can be sure you’ll be met by a Fijian waving an equally big stick. What good is that?
If Canberra cries innocence in the face of that accusation, ask them what their punishment policy of sanctions and evicting Fiji is, if it isn’t a big stick?
I now place before the Australia-Fiji Business Council the same challenge that I put to the New Zealand-Fiji Business Council conference in Auckland in June. I do so in recognition that this council is the most important Australian pressure group when it comes to a non-governmental voice on Australia-Fiji relations.
The proposal is that the Australia-Fiji Business Council calls upon the Australian government to accept that change is required to its Fiji policy, that it should drop all sanctions against Fiji, desist from working against the Fiji government internationally, and commence immediate dialogue with the Fiji government with the aim of shoring up the Fiji economy and assisting Fiji to true democracy as soon as prudently possible.
We are all democrats, but we must recognise that Fiji has a complex political heritage and that time is needed to carry out a comprehensive national dialogue that will result in a better practice of democracy in Fiji in the years ahead.
Well-intentioned as it might be, Canberra’s insistence on an immediate return to democracy is in effect a call for a return to the Fiji of old, where politicians were elected on the basis of racial rolls, ethno-nationalism was rampant, corruption was rife, and “coup culture” was ingrained.
In the end we’re left wondering what outcomes Canberra’s policy is realistically seeking. Is it to damage the Fiji regime to such an extent that it will coerce change?
If this so, how does it envisage change, in other words what will the outcomes be of this punishment policy? Good business outcomes generally equate to good business policy. Currently we are getting bad business outcome and we need to turn that around by getting better policy with longer term perspective on engagement, regional development and security.
One of the many outcomes we definitely do not want is for Fiji to become a broken client state along the lines of some other territories within our region.
Peter Thomson is author of the seminal book on Fiji’s 1987 coups d’état, Kava in the Blood. He was born in Suva and is a fifth generation Fiji Islander. He has extensive public service and business consultancy experience and was Fiji’s Permanent Secretary of Information under prime ministers Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Dr Timoci Bavadra. In 1987 he was Permanent Secretary to the Governor-General, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, and ran the secretariat that administered Fiji between the first two coups. He was a founder member of the executive committees of the Australia-Fiji Business Council and the New Zealand-Fiji Business Council. This article is condensed from a speech he gave at the Australia-Fiji Business Council conference in Sydney on September 14.