Commentary – By Dr Scott MacWilliam
The meeting of Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Suva was indeed “historic” but not for the reasons outlined in the Australian media, where the occasion was a lead news item in the press, radio and TV.
Even Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific affairs editor, of The Australia, missed the significance of the meeting in his story yesterday which accompanied a front page picture of the two shaking hands in Suva in Friday.
Callick wrote that this was important because it represented “a step away from the foreign policy position of the Rudd-Gillard years”.
But sanctions, the cornerstone of the Australian (and New Zealand) stance toward the military regime, were imposed immediately after the 2006 coup by Alexander Downer, the Foreign Minister in the John Howard-led conservative coalition.
The Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard–led Labor dominated coalition simply adopted the policy which was in place after winning the 2007 election in Australia.
There was some softening in the Australian position after 2006, mainly in the form of increased aid granted at the same time as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank were persuaded to cut their support for Fiji.
However, the sanctions policy which has lasted until recently is better described as the Howard-Rudd-Gillard policy. Not for the first time, the Abbott government is distancing itself from its conservative predecessor.
Although the Fiji government will be well aware of this correct history, it will also know the underlying reason for the rapprochement being sought by the current Australian government.
What the Tony Abbott-led coalition wants desperately is for Fiji to assist with its “Pacific Solution”. By using whatever influence PM Bainimarama has in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the Australian government hopes that he will assist in finding more countries which will open refugee camps.
Fiji too is on the radar as a settlement target.
Any other assistance the Fiji government can provide in getting Australia, New Zealand and the United States an improved strategic and commercial position in the region will of course be welcome too.
Dr Scott MacWilliam is a visiting fellow in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Programme at the Australian National University. He is a regular contributor to Pacific Scoop and Pacific Media Centre Online. His article Who’s in Pacific control now? was published by Pacific Scoop yesterday before the Suva meeting report.