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Pacific media ‘experts’ jump on Fiji bandwagon but fall off the track

Murray McCully

NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully (right) with his Solomon Islands counterpart Peter Shanel Agovaka at the Small Islands States summit in Auckland yesterday. Photo: Victoria Young / PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Analysis – By Professor Crosbie Walsh

It has already started but before the 40th Pacific Islands Forum meeting closes tomorrow there’s sure to be more.  The media has Pacific Islands leaders apparently saying one thing while meaning another – quite unlike their host New Zealand that has never changed its tune. I find the inferences a little patronising.

It started with a Michael Field report on the Engaging with the Pacific and special Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting held in Fiji last week.

Field’s article was headed “Calls for Fiji to be Restored to Pacific Forum”. But, according to later reports, the leaders changed their position after meeting Prime Minister John Key at a pre-Forum meeting.

PIF 40 years logoKey said there was a “consensus view” and “Fiji is certain to remain excluded.”

This is a most strange and tactless comment. Key has still to meet with the Melanesian leaders who are supposed to be seeking Fiji’s readmission.  He had only met with representatives of the Smaller Island States (SIS) and presumed to talk on their behalf about a consensus before Fiji has been formally discussed by the Forum’s 15 members (minus Fiji).

His presumed outcome may be presumptuous but even if it is not, he should be aware that outward agreement can be deceptive in the Pacific, and sometimes goes hand in hand with hidden animosity. New Zealand should be conscious of its big bully image, especially in Melanesia.

The usual Pacific experts jumped on the bandwagon about the leaders’ apparent about face. Tamara McLean wrote of the smaller states backing off in fear they could lose Australian and New Zealand aid.

Promised aid
Key’s statement about a promised $7.9 million for solar equipment in Tonga, McCully’s $2.7 million to be spent on tsunami warnings, and Australian Prime Minister Jillian Gillard’s yet-to-be-announced aid distribution of $8 billion spread over five years, a big slice going to the Pacific, added to our understanding of why Pacific nations might be persuaded to change their stance.

Field and Anya Levy fanned the flames of the leaders supposed fickleness with: “History has shown small island states do not necessarily go into bat for Fiji with regional superpowers offering much-needed aid and trade opportunities.”

From the outset, I doubted the leaders had changed their position. It seemed more likely they had said something a little different from what Field reported. And so it turned out to be.

Further down the article Field writes: “”The grouping does not specially ask for Fiji to be returned to the forum fold, but in diplomatic language they recall “the importance of Fiji’s continuous engagement with the region and its full participation in regional development initiatives and programmes.”

Significantly, in what Field called an “an unusual statement … they also endorsed Fiji’s view that the international media do not report Bainimarama’s achievements.”

They said they “supported the need to publicise and disseminate more and accurate information on the Fiji government’s progress…” (I can only wonder who they were thinking of.).

The leaders had previously called for dialogue with Fiji and endorsed its Roadmap to Democracy and commitment to elections in September 2014.

Several Fiji ‘trips’
But to return to John Key. He also wants dialogue, and said New Zealand had shown willing with McCully’s “several trips” to Fiji. Huh!  I’m trying to recall when he made his last trip.

It was at least two years ago – and he threw away an opportunity last year when  Bainimarama extended an invitation to “come and see for yourselves.”  When McCully, from Auckland, repeated all the anti- stories about Fiji,  Bainimarama withdrew his invitation saying it was pointless since their minds were already made up.

It is unfortunate that the  minister  only knows what is going on in Fiji though hearsay, and even more unfortunate that he chooses only to believe what he wishes to believe.

Today, despite the widely acknowledged failure of our isolationist policies, our PM said: “We are in the right place.” Fiji will not be readmitted to the Forum until it has taken “solid steps towards democracy”.

He also said the SIS leaders (some? one? all?) had expressed doubts about whether elections would be held because Bainimarama “let them down a number of times.”  He referred to the promise of elections soon after the coup, before it it became obvious that much groundwork would need to be done if meaningful elections were to be held.

The groundwork started with the People’s Charter and Roadmap for Democracy initiatives and has continued with many infrastructural and institutional reforms.  The second occasion was when, during a visit to villages in Vava’u during the Forum meeting held in Tonga, tghen Tongan Prime Minister Dr Feleti Seveli persuaded Bainimarama to come up with a date, even if it needed to be changed later.

What was intended as a proposed date was taken to be a promised date.

Electoral reforms
And all this, of course, preceded the Abrogation of the Constitution and the obvious need for the major constitutional and electoral reforms that will commence next year.  It is difficult to know what further can be done about “progress” on elections that are not due until late 2014,  but the early lifting of PER would at least allow political dialogue within Fiji which would go a long way to restoring government credibility.

Unfortunately, in another twist of the tale, this remains unlikely while anti-government forces, backed unintentionally  by Australian and New Zealand support, continue with threats of violence and other actions intended to destabilise government, and delay or subvert the processes leading to elections.

Coincidentally, Fiji announced yesterday that tenders for an electronic voter registration system will go out soon with work commencing in January and ending at the latest by 30 June 2012.

The Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, said the system should eliminate voter and political party fraud, and prevent a repeat of the 2006 elections when the EU reported a voter turnout of 101 percent in a Vanua Levu constituency and a number of other registration anomalies including people being registered in more than one constituency.

Professor Crosbie Walsh is the retired founding director of development studies at the University of the South Pacific and publishes a specialist blog on Fiji affairs.