Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sprang a surprise on Australia's Fiji watchers last Friday. She not only pulled off what looked like a friendly meeting with Fiji's authoritarian prime minister but also revealed she would soon be normalising relations with Fiji, officially in the freezer since Commodore Bainimarama's military coup of December 2006.

I wrote here about the risks of the Australian Government waiting until after Fiji's promised elections in September to change course with its policy and suggested Bishop initiate contact with Bainimarama after he stood down from heading the military. 

bishop bainimarama australia fiji relations

But I did not think it likely that Bishop would move to normalise relations quite so early in the year. Despite her commitment in opposition, I thought the influence of cautious DFAT officials and the advice of New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who has been burned on several occasions for making overtures to Fiji, would act as a brake on her enthusiasm for normalisation.

Now that we are here, what does it all mean?

The details of Bishop's policy were reported by Rowan Callick (who accompanied Bishop to Fiji) in The Australian on Saturday. In addition to support for election preparations, Australia will introduce a 'twinning' arrangement in areas including foreign policy, finance and the Public Service Commission, with Fiji officials working in Canberra, and Australians in Suva (incidentally, an initiative I suggested back in 2011). Australia will also expand its seasonal workers' program to include Fiji. A review of the travel sanctions which so concerned the Fiji Government is underway and will be presented to cabinet.

In the defence sphere, Australia has invited Fiji to send a defence representative to Canberra, and wants to reinstate an Australian defence attaché in Suva.  Fiji will be invited to participate again in Australia’s Pacific patrol boat program. A defence co-operation program that includes joint exercises and staff-college training will be re-established.

These could be interpreted as rewards for Fiji, which in the view of many critics has not done nearly enough to deserve them. This interpretation, however, would be wrong.

By moving now, Australia sets its own terms for the relationship with Fiji, no longer hamstrung by waiting for an unreliable Fiji Government to act on conditions set by previous Australian governments and the Pacific Islands Forum.

Bishop's approach restores a political element to the relationship, which at the very least gives Canberra the ability to keep talking to Bainimarama, who has the last word on whether elections go ahead or not. Australia also needs a political relationship with Fiji for other reasons: so it can pursue important regional or international policy initiatives and so it can elevate requests for the Fiji Government's assistance when Australian investors or tourists need help.

If Fiji has an election that meets even a minimum standard of freedom and fairness, Australia would have no choice but to accept the result, which may very well be an elected government of Voreqe Bainimarama. Far better that Bishop establish a relationship with him now on Australia's terms than to seek to meet him for the first time after the election, when he, not Canberra, would set the terms.

Australia's new policy is  likely to be popular with many other members of the Pacific Islands Forum, which were uncomfortable with the impact of isolating Fiji and will welcome Australia's leadership. That the Ministerial Contact Group visiting Fiji last week recommended inviting Fiji to rejoin PACER Plus and Pacific Islands Forum Trade Ministers' meetings is an indication that the Forum is ready to move away from its own policy of isolation.

Bishop's policy undermines the Fiji Government’s favourite tactic of blaming Australia to avoid taking responsibility for Fiji's economic problems. This is important in the lead-up to elections where the Fiji Government should be held to account by voters for its own economic decisions, not the actions of foreign powers.

The decision on military cooperation has mutual benefits. It gives the influential (and ruling) Fiji military what it most craves: the opportunity to engage with a first-class military. This will help it upgrade the skills which have suffered since the 2006 coup so it can continue meeting the expectations of UN peacekeeping operations. It also means Fiji will be less likely to continue making overtures to China and Russia for military assistance, which will mitigate the concerns of Australia's defence and strategic planners about the influence of other major powers in the Pacific Islands region.

Most importantly, the policy gives Bishop a new range of policy levers. If Bainimarama does renege on holding elections, Bishop can express sincere regret that he proved to be untrustworthy and pull back on one or more of the new initiatives. Under the previous policy, Bishop had few additional sticks (short of economic sanctions which hurt poor Fijians and Australian business interests) that she could have employed to signal Australia's disappointment.

Bishop's strategy is the right one for Australia but it is important to be realistic about what it will achieve within Fiji. It is unlikely to induce Bainimarama to change his personality, keep the military out of politics, ease up on restrictions on the media and unions, and support enhanced human rights, at least in the short term. Australia's new approach, however, returns Australia to a position of strength in bilateral and regional discussions, where it can hope to exert more influence than it has in the last seven years.

Photo courtesy of the Fiji Ministry of Information.