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Australia's Fiji policy needs an overhaul

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COMMENTS

3 May 2011 15:26

I've been struck by two separate statements by Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd this year. In a television interview in New Zealand in March, he denied the need for a new approach to bring about democracy in Fiji. Rudd argued there was: 'a tendency in parts of the region for the question to be put in terms of what should Australian and New Zealand diplomacy be doing', buying into a 'Bainimarama assumption that the problem lies with the rest of us rather than with the Bainimarama regime'.

In a speech to the Press Club in February about Australia's interests in the Middle East, Mr Rudd said: 'a creative middle power recognises that we have to work in partnerships and coalitions to achieve change — including with non-traditional partners to establish better understanding of the issue at hand and to come up with better informed solutions...Australia always stands ready to propose new partnerships to tackle new problems, to tackle old problems in new ways'.

On Fiji, Mr Rudd is right that the problem lies with the Bainimarama regime. Fiji's economic problems, lack of freedom of speech and uncertainty about its future are down to Bainimarama. But in promoting Australia's credentials as a creative middle power on the world stage in the context of the Arab awakening, Rudd has inadvertently drawn more attention to Australia's diplomatic failings in Fiji.

In a Policy Brief on Fiji published today, I argue Australia should redefine its relationship with Fiji. Canberra's tough-love policy has failed in its central aim — to persuade the government of Frank Bainimarama to restore democracy. 

The Fiji Government has instead developed new allegiances and partnerships which undermine Australia's influence and leadership. Australia's allies have begun to quietly question whether isolating Fiji is the best way to restore democracy in Fiji.

A Foreign Minister who so enthusiastically backed the wannabe democrats in North Africa can hardly back away from holding the line on Australia's interests in seeing a return to democracy in Fiji. But with the current approach to Fiji manifestly not working, is there room for Australia to be the kind of 'creative middle power' Mr Rudd envisages?

I argue that Australia should build and lead a new coalition with traditional and non-traditional partners (such as Indonesia, India, Malaysia, 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. 

While Bainimarama has strongly resisted external pressure and rejected previous offers of assistance for holding elections, he has also been courting new allies and partners, including most recently Indonesia. He will be reluctant to reject overtures from a coalition that includes countries he has been keen to impress.

An approach like this is complex and needs to be developed carefully. The Australian Government would need to build more confidence in Fiji first — through more contacts between Australian and Fiji diplomats and through winding back travel restrictions to apply only to key members of the regime, removing a significant irritant in the relationship — and restore some much-needed trust and goodwill, to clear the way for a more effective approach. 

Canberra would also need to convince new partners that there are benefits to forming a coalition to help Fiji.

If Fiji proves open to accepting an offer of assistance from a new coalition, Australia could reward it by implementing other measures to enhance the capacity of leaders across all sectors in Fiji. I have suggested measures such as the establishment of an Australia-Melanesia-Indonesia leadership dialogue, public sector twinning arrangements and the inclusion of Fiji in the region's PACER Plus trade negotiations.

If the Australian Government does not take action now to rebuild its relationship with Fiji, it will lose any opportunity to influence Fiji's transition back to democracy and may find it more difficult to deal with the possibility that Bainimarama will be the popularly elected leader of Fiji in 2014.

Australia can renovate its relationship with Fiji with a sharper focus on its longer term interests rather than on calls for early elections.

It can do this without abandoning strong support for democracy. Fiji could reject a new creative overture but if it does, the Fiji Government's efforts to blame Australia and other countries for Fiji's problems will be less credible. The onus will be more explicitly on Bainimarama to prove to the international community and importantly to the people of Fiji that he has credible plans to restore democracy to Fiji. 

Kevin Rudd believes Australian foreign policy should make a difference. If Australia wants to maintain its credibility as the dominant power in this region and be a creative middle power on the world stage, it should start by making a difference in Fiji.

The full paper, 'Policy Overboard: Australia's increasingly costly Fiji drift', can be accessed here.

Photo by Flickr user UN Information Services.

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