Pacific Scoop

Australia’s Pacific fantasy and a diplomatic bloody nose

Frank Bainimarama

Fiji's Frank Bainimarama ... dogged persistence. Photo: Graham Davis

Pacific Scoop:
Analysis – By Graham Davis

The Australian foreign policy establishment has been plunged into an agonising debate with the gradual realisation that Canberra’s long-standing hardline approach to events in Fiji has failed.

The bipartisan consensus between Labor and the Coalition that the diplomatic cold shoulder and targeted sanctions would eventually bring the Bainimarama regime to heel has been shattered.

And now a high-level public split has emerged that would have once been unthinkable between Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and the most prestigious Australian think-tank on Melanesian affairs – the Lowy Institute.

The head of the institute’s Myer Foundation Melanesian programme, Jenny Hayward-Jones, is a former diplomat who once shared Rudd’s enthusiasm to use every means, short of withdrawing humanitarian assistance, to bludgeon Frank Bainimarama into an immediate restoration of democracy.

But while Rudd is sticking to his guns – testily arguing that it is Bainimarama who has to change, not him – Haywood-Jones now accepts publicly that the tough love approach hasn’t worked.

In The Australian and elsewhere, she’s been calling for a new policy of engagement to help Fiji comply with Bainimarama’s long-stated intention to hold elections in 2014. It’s a humiliating about-face that has arguably come far too late.

Fiji has new friends and – judging from its recent criticism of Rudd’s alleged intransigence – doesn’t seem to care as much about re-engaging with Australia as some Canberra beltway insiders imagine.

Tough love
Australia grossly underestimated Frank Bainimarama on two crucial fronts. One was his resolve to enforce his own version of tough love – to end the entrenched racism that has bedevilled Fijian democracy with an enforced period of dictatorship leading to fresh elections on the basis of one man, one vote for the first time.

Canberra has never fully grasped that the local version of democracy Bainimarama removed at gunpoint in 2006 wasn’t true democracy at all but a bastardised version that gave the indigenous Fijian majority a mandate to permanently disadvantage the 40 percent of non-indigenous citizens. That has made the moral case for an early poll without fundamental change much less than convincing to anyone prepared to examine the facts.

The second mistake was to overlook the capacity of Australia’s smaller neighbour to outwit and outgun it in both regional and global forums. Far from being the Pacific pariah Australia has tried to cast him as, Bainimarama is the current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the ceremonial figurehead of a regional body that represents the overwhelming majority of Pacific islanders.

Yes, the long-established Pacific Islands Forum has more members – including Australia and New Zealand – along with a parade of Polynesian and Micronesian mini and micro-states.

But take out Australia and New Zealand and who really speaks for most people in the islands? The MSG, which represents the biggest populations -Papua New Guinea and Fiji -plus the Solomons, Vanuatu and the Kanaks of New Caledonia, who are increasingly independent of their French colonial masters.

Two years ago, Australia and New Zealand used their diplomatic strength in the PIF to muscle Fiji out, even as Suva continues, somewhat bizarrely, to host the Forum Secretariat.

Yet now, the so-called pariah Bainimarama sits at the apex of a group that was designed to complement the Forum, not compete with it – as it will inevitably do under his leadership.

Chinese ear
Never mind, the fault line that’s now become a chasm between the Melanesian “big men” of the MSG and the Polynesians aligned with Australia and New Zealand in the Forum. The MSG chair is sorely alienated from the Aussies and Kiwis and has a new and much more soothing voice in his ear – the Chinese.

Ever looking for avenues of influence, the emerging global superpower has strongly backed the MSG to the extent of funding its secretariat in the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila.

Simultaneously, Beijing has stepped up its support for Bainimarama’s regime with a string of development projects specifically aimed at tying Fiji more firmly to Beijing’s apron strings.

This is what is ringing alarm bells in Canberra and driving its volte face, the dawning realisation that isolating Fiji has not only been pathetically ineffectual but has been utterly counter-productive in giving the increasingly more assertive Chinese a stronger foothold on Australia’s back door.

Australian policy makers were in denial about this strategic threat for a long time, absurdly running the line that Beijing wasn’t seriously interested in Fiji. The rapid rise in the number of ducks being consumed in the Chinese restaurants of Suva suggested otherwise, not to mention Bainimarama’s frequent visits to Beijing and his fulsome praise for its assistance to Fiji.

Yet this is only half the story. Because the real strides for Fiji in recent months have come from a massive broadening of its support base in the wider international community.

Small nations like Fiji may be economically disadvantaged but their vote at the United Nations is as valuable as any other country that’s not a permanent member of the Security Council. Bainimarama saw the opportunity and seized it, hiring a triple Australian-New Zealand- Fiji citizen, Peter Thomson, as his UN ambassador with a brief to break out of Fiji’s traditional orbit and forge new relationships.

Diplomatic successes
More than a year into the job, Thomson has launched formal diplomatic relations with a string of countries, accompanied by painstaking explanations that the dictatorship he represents is merely a necessary prelude to a more inclusive democracy.

This push culminates in Fiji being formally accepted into the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement later this month, bringing it even closer to NAM members like India and Indonesia. Last month, Bainimarama opened Fiji’s first embassy in Jakarta and has accepted an Indonesian offer to assist it to prepare for the 2014 election.

In stark contrast to the public comments of Australian politicians, Indonesia’s President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, gave explicit support to Bainimarama’s so-called election roadmap. He said Fiji needed a home-grown democracy that would be sustainable.

“Democracy is a process, not an event, and certainly cannot be created through external dictate,” Yudhoyono said.

Even former Australian Foreign Minister,Alexander Downer concedes that Peter Thomson has been highly effective in pressing Fiji’s case at the UN and undermining Australia’s position.

Canberra’s long cherished ambition is for a temporary seat on the Security Council. Yet as Downer puts it: “ Fiji is working day and night in New York trying to sabotage our Security Council campaign. Rumour has it that they are having some success”.

It wasn’t meant to be like this, the minnow outmanoeuvring the whale.

New coalition
Jenny Hayward-Jones at the Lowy Institute is now calling on Australia to “build and lead a new coalition with traditional partners ( New Zealand, Japan, the US and EU) and non-traditional partners ( such as Indonesia, India, South Korea and Papua New Guinea) to work with Fiji on a package of assistance for electoral and constitutional reform consistent with Fiji’s 2014 election timetable”.

In other words, let’s help Bainimarama achieve what he’s consistently said he would do all along. And let’s lead a coalition that includes a number of countries already working with Fiji quite happily without Australian “leadership”.

This is the bankrupt nature of Australian policy towards Fiji.  First the moralising and hectoring, the overt attempts to damage the country and its economy, the dawning realisation of failure, the inevitable rollback, capitulation and the fantasy of leading from the front when events have long overtaken you.

Fijians of all races are entitled to wonder what on earth the last four and a half years have been all about when it comes to Australia. Except that the regional bully, not the local dictator, ended up with the bloody nose.

Graham Davis is an independent Fiji-born journalist and publisher of the political blog Grubsheet.


  1. Coralia, 11. May 2011, 8:11

    What Rudd, Gillard and Australia failed to recognize in the first place is that they’re dealing with a strategist! The fact that it was a military government should have rang a bell that it was a “no retreat no surrender” cause!

    You can fight & either win or lose a foreign policy war…no biggies! However every soldier that has ever walked into the battle field knows that he has to use all he’s got to win the war..losing in is not an option!

    So yeah Fiji had already won the mental war going in & the fact the government was led by military strategists who understood and knew the importance of planning attack & defense strategies before the assault was a trump card that Australia failed to recognize…

    The big lesson for Australia: Never underestimate your opponent!

  2. Ron, 11. May 2011, 10:38

    If this is winning for the people of Fiji, I’d like to see what losing is? With friends like Graham Davis and his emotive hysteria, the regime certainly doesn’t need enemies. God help Fiji and its people – they certainly need it. The hallmarks of an ego driven deranged dictatorship are all present.

  3. Coralia, 11. May 2011, 11:37

    I’m not talking about winning for the people of Fiji…I’m talking winning a diplomatic war…which no doubt Fiji has! The gist of the matter is Foreign Policy = Doplimacy = Politics. Relationship between operational people on the ground (AUSAid & the people of Fiji) is a non-issue.

    Politics and people are 2 different things…while Australia continues it social & humanitarian aid to Fiji (the people)…it has bludgeoned Fiji diplomatically (politics i.e.successfully lobbying Fiji’s suspension from the Forum.

    The word democracy in Fiji and across Melanesia so to speak is a delusional principle that’s not working on the ground, in fact what we need is home -grown democracy not imported Westminster style democracy that has proved beyond doubt that its been failing our countries miserably. This is not to say that people are weary of democracy; rather there are widespread disillusionment for current government systems and the antics of political “big man” that treat politics as a self-serving game. This is a dangerous trend that Canberra and Wellington seem oblivious to, as they continue to pour aid money into ‘good governance’ programs that fail to address the real underlying socio-political challenges that undermine parliamentary democracy in Fiji

    I agree with you Ron that YES Fiji is under an undemocratic dictatorial leader…but what can we do? There’s always 2 sides to a coin…Bainimarama has brought in changes that democratically elected government since independence could not bring about….it takes a dictator to bring about the changes that democratically elected leaders cannot implement. What we need in Fiji is support from countries like Australia to make this socio-political reform in our parliamentary democracy once and for all. We’re hoping for the best….& thank God there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel!

  4. Smith, 11. May 2011, 13:44

    Clearly you have not read the Lowy Institute paper Graham!!

    What “high-level public split”? The Lowy Institute and Rudd often hold different views on specific foreign policy matters. This is one of many.

    “A humiliating about-face that has arguably come far too late” – late for whom, you?

    You’re a great writer Graham but pity about the poor quality of substance!

  5. CM, 11. May 2011, 14:34

    What’s emotive or hysterical about this? Single out one error of fact that Davis cites? This is the trouble with the regime’s enemies. They’re the ones who get emotive based on their anger that Fiji is starting to turn the corner. Why has the Lowy Institute changed its tune? Because Frank is winning his war against racism and corruption and Australia and NZ are outside the tent.. “An ego driven deranged dictatorship?” Give us a break.

  6. Ben Flat, 12. May 2011, 10:20

    if you have failed to notice the ego juggernaut that is the Bainimarama regime then you are blind.
    Is he really winning the war against corruption? Sure, FICAC have a couple of big results recently but the regime itself has ushered in a new kind of corruption. It’s corruption of thought and freedom. Plus there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that Bainimarama’s regime are as corrupt as Qarase’s lot. You obviously haven’t dealt with Bainimarama’s goon squad or seen Frank and Inoke sucking up to the Indonesians. Sickening display of selling West Papuans down the river.
    The point is: is a military regime the right group of folk to be overseeing
    Here’s a challenge for you apologists: Name a military dictatorship that ever helped root out corruption and racism, or observed human rights.

  7. Paul, 12. May 2011, 10:55

    I dont support coups but at times a dictatorship is exactly what’ss required to rebuild a broken and failing the words of the Nobel winning economist Friedrich Hayek:

    “Well, I would say that, as long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism. My personal impression — and this is valid for South America – is that in Chile, for example, we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government. And during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers, not as something permanent, but as a temporary arrangement.”

  8. Dale Lanan, 12. May 2011, 15:23

    I’ll hope for the best and that the traditions and rights of original peoples are not slighted . I believe the elections will happen and military rule will end. What gives me pause is Indonesia’s treatment of Papua and the people there and the growing influence of China.. One man one vote when immigrants have been encouraged to come for jobs in the land previously dominated by its indigenous culture and inhabitants is likely seen like an undertow pulling past history out to sea.. It’s too easy for modern day business deals and stuff that can fully exploit natural resources or buy up everything that isn’t tied down and then some to influence the outcome of voting. The business world is global and the ability of small nations to stand their ground as democracy is suspect.

  9. Ben Flat, 12. May 2011, 21:58

    There is no guarantee that Bainimarama will hold elections before 2014. It seems like wishful thinking and slightly foolish to swallow his promise on that one.
    BTW CM, if the regime is making good on ridding Fiji of corruption, where is the transparency about what government is doing with public funds, about spending, military spending in particular?
    And racism:
    Where is the effort to wipe out racism in the military? Don’t see too many Indians in the ranks. Nothing much has changed on that front.
    There was widespread consultation in Fiji for the 1997 constitution. It’s not that long ago. Not a perfect electoral system but what electoral system is. It saw an Indo-Fijian PM voted in after all, can’t be too badly racist.

    Bainimarama is a deluded, arrogant, paranoid and dangerous fool. Wake up.

  10. Graham Davis, 13. May 2011, 17:11

    Smith, thanks for your comment. When I said the about face had come arguably far too late I meant for Australia, not me. It’s become very clear in my contacts with members of the Fiji Government that the more relationships they develop outside the region, the less tolerant they’ve become of the Aussies and Kiwis. There’s an angry, “stuff you” attitude that doesn’t bode well for the future, irrespective of any change in the Australian/NZ position. What Canberra and Wellington have to get used to is that a return to democracy in 2014 may not be to the kind of democracy they envisage. The SDL will not be allowed to contest any election. What does this mean? Possibly the emergence of a one party state after the constitution is changed with elections for a president, who may well turn out to be Frank Bainimarama. Yes, I’m not joking. He’s not the hated figure everyone imagines in Fiji and has the Indo-Fijian population firmly on side. It’s an intriguing prospect, that a return to an albeit limited democracy in Fiji may mean Australia and NZ having to deal with the guy they’ve treated as a pariah who has a lingering resentment towards them. Whatever you think about my views, the game is getting away from the Aussies and Kiwis. Do we want a Fiji that is hostile to us and closer to the Chinese, the Indonesians and anyone else who accepts their desire to do things their own way? You decide.

  11. Tavurvur, 17. May 2011, 1:31

    I must echo CM’s sentiments here, “What’s emotive or hysterical about this? Single out one error of fact that Davis cites?”. It is clear that Graham Davis is up to date with the events in Fiji as well as the region – and this is the first piece of journalism which I have read which provides a realistic and balanced lens to view the issue of Fiji and its subtext through. There are reflections within this piece of the Lowy Institute’s paper and AsiaLink Essay – but what is most refreshing is the perspectives of the locals which Davis has captured. I for one have had enough of so called “Pacific” and “Melanesian” experts with academic degrees/honours next to their names providing their constipated thoughts on developments in the Pacific. Talk to the people – listen to the people to understand what is really happening. Take a bow Graham.

  12. Vueti Viti, 17. May 2011, 19:33

    Tavurvur said: Talk to the people – listen to the people to understand what is really happening. Take a bow Graham.

    Yup…talk to the people indeed…and lo and behold…who has spoken?

    RATU TEVITA ULUI MARA…Voreqe’s right-hand man in Dec. 5, 2006 when VB staged his COVER-UP COUP, now in Tonga and spilling the first beans!

    Bainimarama can ONLY win with GUNS in his hands OPPRESSING the people of Fiji. The waiting game of solving problems the PACIFIC-WAY begins. One day Mafatu!!!