Pacific Scoop

Bainimarama blames Rudd’s ‘Pacific neglect’ for regional power vacuum

Voreqe Bainimarama

Fiji regime prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama ... believes Australian policy - especially shunning Fiji - has weakened Canberra's influence in the Pacific region. Photo: Graham Davis / Grubsheet

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Graham Davis in Suva

Frank Bainimarama – Fiji’s prime minister and the current chair of the four-nation Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) – has joined the chorus of criticism of Kevin Rudd in advance of Monday’s leadership vote in Australia, accusing him of having neglected the Pacific as foreign minister.

He said Canberra’s lack of attention to the region – and especially its policy of shunning Fiji – had weakened Australian influence in the Pacific and had created a vacuum that bigger powers were moving to fill.

Countries such as China and Russia were building relations with the smaller island states and strengthening their presence in Australia’s backyard.

US Ambassador to Fiji Frankie Reed

US ambassador in Suva Frankie Reed ... worried Australian "hard-line" stance is throwing Fiji into arms of Chinese. Photo: US State Dept

“They should be worried but they’re not,” he said. “ I don’t think they are taking it very seriously”.

In an interview with Sky News in Suva, Commodore Bainimarama revealed that both the United States and New Zealand had broken ranks with Australia and had renewed their official contacts with Fiji, severed after his coup in December 2006.

No Australian diplomat or minister has had a formal meeting with the Fijian leader in the intervening five years in protest at the removal at gunpoint of the elected government of Laisenia Qarase, which Bainimarama claimed was racist and corrupt.

Yet the United States no longer has such qualms, evidently concerned that Australia’s continuing hard-line stance has driven the Fijian leader into the arms of the Chinese.

Regular contacts
The US Ambassador in Suva, Frankie Reed, has resumed regular contacts and a team of FBI agents has been in the Fijian capital training local police.

“We have no problems with our relationship with the United States”, Bainimarama said.

“The American ambassador came to see me and attends all our functions. She’s friendly and our relationship is good”.

While the Fijian leader is banned from Australia – along with anyone associated with his regime – he was granted an open visa to visit the US last September and had engagements in Connecticut, Florida and Tennessee.

“It seems odd that I am welcome in the world’s greatest democracy and not Australia and NZ but I’ve come to accept it,” he said.

In the case of New Zealand, Commodore Bainimarama said the renewed level of engagement was more modest. The travel bans on him and members of the regime remained but unlike Rudd, the NZ foreign minister, Murray McCully, had been in contact with Fiji’s foreign minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

‘Kiwis more understanding’
“I think the Kiwis are more understanding than the Australians. I don’t really know why but there’s a large number of Fijians in NZ and I think they’ve put pressure on them to talk to us.

“I see representatives of some of the world’s biggest democracies – the Americans, the Indians, the Indonesians, the Japanese, the South Koreans and the French but not Australia. It doesn’t make sense”, he said.

While the Fijian leader declined to speculate on why American policy had changed beyond agreeing that an “about face” had taken place, concern has been expressed in Washington about Beijing’s ambitions in the region and especially its close ties with Fiji.

Describing China as a “friend” which had given Fiji “about $200 million in soft loans”, Commodore Bainimarama said Australia only had itself to blame for the increasing Chinese presence in the region.

“They are giving us support politically because everyone has withdrawn. They have recognised our sovereignty, which is very important for us,” Bainimarama said.

The Fijian leader said Rudd had been noticeably absent from regional capitals during his 17 months in the foreign affairs portfolio. He had made only one foray into the region, a single weekend trip to Papua New Guinea last October.

“We have never seen him around the smaller Pacific island nation states,” Bainimarama said. “He’s complained about everyone coming here but hasn’t come here himself.”

Russian interest
The Fijian leader contrasted Rudd’s lack of interest with the recent visit to Fiji by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who made the first ever journey to the region by a senior Russian official.

He said that unlike Australia, Russia appeared to recognise the growing importance of the smaller island states and wanted closer ties.

“Maybe he (Lavrov) thinks everyone has backed off and this part of the world needs assistance”, he said.

During his visit to Nadi at the beginning of the month, Lavrov held talks with Commodore Bainimarama and other Pacific leaders who are members of a new voting bloc at the United Nations that Fiji has played a major role in forging – the 11 member Pacific Small Island  Developing States ( PSIDS).

The Fijian leader castigated Rudd’s junior minister for the Pacific, Richard Marles, for having expressed concern that Russia was exploiting small states in the Pacific and was engaged in chequebook diplomacy.

“He (Marles) is a hypocrite. He’s talking about chequebook diplomacy? Hasn’t he been giving money to the Pacific island nations in the last five or ten years?”

Commodore Bainimarama denied that Lavrov had offered Fiji and the other PSIDS countries financial assistance to recognise its puppet governments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia – territory also claimed by Georgia.

“He gave Fiji a donation to help us with our flood appeal but that was it”.

‘Smart sanctions’
Australia cut off ties with Fiji after Commodore Bainimarama’s 2006 coup and imposed a set of “smart sanctions” – including travel bans – in support of its demand for an immediate return to democracy. The Fijian leader has steadfastly refused to comply, insisting instead on a new constitution to remove racial inequality, followed by elections in 2014 based on one man one vote.

Previous elections in Fiji have been weighted in favour of the indigenous majority.

As foreign minister, Rudd resolutely ignored pleas to re-engage with Fiji, including from two influential foreign affairs think tanks, the Lowy Institute and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

Last year, the head of the Lowy Institute’s Melanesian programme, Jenny Hayward-Jones, also accused Rudd of neglecting the region and called for re-engagement to encourage Fiji to stick to its promise to restore democracy in 2014.

Commodore Bainimarama said Australian policy towards Fiji under Kevin Rudd was governed by “pride, not good policy”.“

“He has personalised it, the way he called me a pariah and a dictator. He is a very ambitious politician and it’s been clear that he wanted to be prime minister again.”

Describing Rudd as the “main impediment” to better relations with Australia, Commodore Bainimarama said Canberra had continued to insist on an immediate election in Fiji even though it could never be truly democratic without fundamental reforms.

“We are beginning work in a couple of weeks on a new constitution. We are not going to have elections tomorrow. We’re not going to have elections next year. We’re going to have elections when we’re ready and that will be before September 2014, as I’ve said all along”.

Out of touch
Commodore Bainimarama said his election as chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group after Australia succeeded in having Fiji suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum – the other major regional grouping  – showed that Canberra was out of touch with sentiment in the region.

The MSG encompasses 95 percent of Pacific islanders, living in its member states of  Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu plus the Kanaks of New Caledonia.

“Only Canberra and Wellington see me as an outcast”, Commodore Bainimarama said. “Nobody else does.”

The Fijian leader accused Australia and NZ of driving a wedge through the Pacific by playing Polynesian countries off against their Melanesian neighbours.

He described the Samoan leader, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, as an “Aussie and Kiwi puppet” for his continuing attacks on Fiji.

Tuilaepa has accused Commodore Bainimarama of “lying” about his intention to return to democracy in 2014 and said he was “leading everyone down the cassava patch”.

The Fijian leader said he was not willing to trade insults with his Samoan counterpart but it was clear that he was doing the bidding of Australia and NZ.

“It seems that every time he runs out of money, somebody winds him up and he plays to their tune.

‘Fiji no good’
“He goes: ‘Fiji is no good, there’s a lot of problems in Fiji’.

“I don’t know why he spends a lot of time rubbishing Fiji but I have no time to be thinking about him,” he said.

Commodore Bainimarama said that while he “didn’t want to get involved in Australian domestic politics”, Fiji’s best hope for a change in Australia’s attitude rested with Tony Abbott winning the next election.

“I understand that Abbott is more understanding of the situation than Kevin Rudd and his team. And, yes, I would think there may be a change in policy.”

Commodore Bainimarama agreed that Tony Abbott’s reputation as a sportsman and champion boxer meant that he was more likely to get on with him.

“I would love him to bring about some change in policy, in the way we conduct our business. Yes, I will try to reach out to him if he wins. He’s welcome in Suva at any time”.

Graham Davis is a Fiji-born Australian journalist and publishes the independent blog Grubsheet. A shorter version of this article has appeared in News Limited papers, including the Daily Telegraph.

Interview with Sky News



  1. Thakur Ranjit Singh, 25. February 2012, 17:51

    Very well written and said, Graham Davis. Rudd’s removal or stab in the back could be likened to demise of Mahendra Chaudhry in Fiji. What defeated both Chaudhry and Rudd was their unacceptable leadership style. I had also written in the Pacific Scoop of 02 July, 2010 regarding this issue. Read the link below:

    I had said:

    “It appears the reason for Rudd’s fall from grace was similar to that of Fiji’s ousted Prime Minister, the head of Fiji Labour Party (FLP), Mahendra Pal Chaudhry. Rudd was accused of having introduced unpopular policy decisions, was heavy –handed, arrogant, did not heed advice, and possessed high-handed and undiplomatic management style.”

    I hope Kevin Rudd loses the war on Monday as he would be bad news for diplomacy within Australian Labour Party, Australia and in the Pacific, particularly Fij.

  2. #56 KEVIN RUDD’S PACIFIC NEGLECT (Pingback), 26. February 2012, 12:26

    […] The full version has appeared in the Fiji Sun and Pacific Scoop New Zealand. […]

  3. Coralia, 27. February 2012, 13:13

    Rudd & Tuila’epa are classic examples of people that do not qualify in anyway to hold a public office…its a tragedy that they hold such position in government that impede on the good works of building good relationships in a geographically challenged region that needs a high level of cooperation to overcome current development challenges.

    Cooperation & positive effective diplomacy is the essence to regional development in the Pacific. What we need are dynamic leaders that are open & receptive to changes & new ways of doing things for the betterment of all – not static, stubborn leaders that ignore the needs of others & dish out insults about their counterparts when they eventually have something to say about them.

    The Pacific would do well without politicians like Rudd & Tuila’epa – they are a drag to regional development.

  4. Tane, 28. February 2012, 22:41

    Nevertheless they are elected leaders unlike the tinpot dictator in Fiji!

    The only drag in regional development at the moment is the pathetic leadership of Banarama and his constant lies to the world about the real situation in Fiji. The economy is in a terrible state, the health system is non existant, the judiciary is run solely by Khaiyum, the education system is run on the smell of an oil rag at the same time when the cluless tinpot dictator is partying away with his drunkard cohort.

    People and especially tourist should be warned about the terrible state that the judiciary is in. You cannot make a complaint aginst anyone in govt and your complaint is highly unlikely to be followed through due to the high level of corruption within the system.

  5. MT, 29. February 2012, 1:47

    I for one am very glad that Australia is imposing sanctions in Fiji. Bainimara sang a different tune when Rudd was elected PM in 2007. He stated that Rudd would enable better relations with Australia and Fiji which much to his dismay has not been the case. Now he is singing another tune. He should realise that Australia’s policies towards an unelected Fiji govt is not going to change for some time until he returns Fiji to a democratic election which he has promised before and has not delivered. Australia will not kowtow to a lying dictator that is a Pacific neighbour. What passing fancy would Bainimara imagine that Rudd would wish to engage with him when he has consistently lied to his pacific neighbours at the same time bedding China. China as America understands will be forever present in Asia pacific and has been present in Fiji before Bainimarama was born. America’s main sanction on Fiji is a military sanction while Australia has several and i hope they increase them if Bainimarama doesn’t deliver in 2014. At what point is it to be understood by Bainimarama, China and Ambassador Reed that Fiji and it’s people want a democratic election, and a quick return to rule of law in Fiji which sadly is non-existent. Asking Australia to liase with China to ease it’s hold on Fiji is stupid and ignorant at the very least. Fiji is or was a sovereign state and Australia can only go as far in ensuring its ties and links with Fiji. For Bainimarama to take the stand that he did since 2006 and believe for one second till now that Australia will ease sanctions shows how ill informed he is of the role of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific.

  6. Thakur Ranjit Singh, 3. March 2012, 10:47

    MT, who told you that Fiji people want a quick return to democracy? This is the biggest hogwash I have heard. We had so many elections and return to democracy which never delivered us equal rights and social justice.. Fiji should take its time to look for a home -grown solution. They have stopped pausing and rushing to please Key or Gillard

  7. Tane, 3. March 2012, 23:51

    Fijians want to elect their ownn leader. At the moment they have a suppresive regime led by a dictator. An election does not guarantee a democracy but at least they can remove it at the next election. There will be no election in 2014, he has promised it before and never delivered. He is in office to save himself from being imprisoned for the crimes he committed prior to the coup.
    There is no place for the military in govt. The decree that he has created will gurantee him a win in the next election, is that the kind of democracy that you want?

  8. Coralia, 5. March 2012, 13:51

    @MT – I believe the sanctions by Australia were legitimate at first (yes at first!), but as in every situation, there comes a time when you have to stand back & reassess your position & see if you’re actually contributing to the course, or you’re stalling efforts or worse still you’re being a negative driving force in the situation…& this is actually what Australia is doing with regards to their hardline stance on Fiji. They’re simply refusing to change course despite all the assessments against their current stance by government funded think tanks like Lowy Institute & ASPI. The Australian government should really take a lesson from their good friend Jenny Hayward Jones.

    In fact there are a lot of factors that come into play here rather than the simple notion of Australia pushing for a “return to democracy” as you stated. These questions come to mind when I review the situation – Is Australia really standing up for democracy in Fiji (this is despite major allies relenting (U/S, NZ to some point)? Is losing facing on the foreign policy front that important to the Aus. Govt.? How are PICs faring in Forum discussions without Fiji? Is it fair on island states to negotiate PACER Plus with restricted participation from Fiji? – Why do you think PACER Plus is stalling? What is really in all of this for Australia?

    The coup is spilled milk – nothing Bainimarama can do to reverse the situation. But yes he has been taking positive steps for the move towards election in 2014 – the least development partners can do to help the situation is provide him with an enabling environment to allow him deliver the promised elections come 2014 & if he fails to do so then rain down thunder on his head. The faster development partners recognize this the more cooperative they become which bottom line leads to progress for Fiji – which is what everyone wants right??..

    Tane not all elected leaders have the capacity to lead – Kevin Rudd is a testimony to that after being dumped as Prime Minister amongst his fellow party members & yet again a few days ago in the Labor caucas. I really have nothing else to say about the rest of your comment – you’re beginning to sound exactly like Jack-in-the-Box Tuilae’pa… who’s winding you up?!

  9. MT, 10. March 2012, 12:14

    Thakur, of course you would not want a quick return to democracy because that would mean that the majority of Indo-Fijians or non-indigenous would not have equal representation in govt which has been the case. You are patiently waiting for the current regime to deliver you an election that would sway your way. The only problem is that the current regime has strong opposition, not so much from political parties who at the moment are currently silenced, but from the public. The fact that the regime and i will reiterate regime because it is not an elected govt has placed emergency laws and decree to counter and silence the Fijians means that any necessary and opposing views from Fiji’s citizens will never be heard nor will there ever be any progressive or meaningful discussions because the way Bainimarama is sounding at the moment reflects the loose and damn all attitude that he has been hectoring since 2006. Sad to say that the equal rights and social justice that you are hungering for has come at the cost of a coup mentality, the deaths of military and civillian personnel, the trampling of human rights and the silencing and censorship of media.
    Coralia, sanctions are put in place for a reason and your argument is that Australia’s sanctions is now becoming irrelevant which is exactly the term you would probably like to use. Engaging with a military leader who has lied consistently to Australia and New Zealand is a waste of time and is not condoned because it is only going to hinder the stability of a democratic Pacific. Do not think for one minute that engaging the current regime is going to put Fiji in a better situation in the next ten years because Fiji’s economy is quickly dwindling and is in even greater debt before 2006! To engage with this regime is to justify a coup and this would set irresponsible precedents for future generations. Tough decisions must be made now if Fiji is to move forward and with Bainimarama or the military at the helm, Fiji’s governance will always be a cause for concern in this century. Sanctions must remain in place and countries that engage with Fiji be they democratic or otherwise will come to realise that engaging with this regime will not further their cause in the Pacific.