Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Is the Bainimarama government colour-blind for all the right reasons?

Is the Bainimarama government colour-blind for all the right reasons?
Published 20 Apr 2016 

Two months on from Cyclone Winston and Fiji is increasingly being left to its own resources. This week NZ's HMNZS Canterbury sailed out, following on from the departure of Australia's HMAS Canberra, leaving the Fijian government to direct the relief effort. Its efforts so far reveal much both about the nature of the Bainimarama government today and its likely future directions.

The way Fiji First — headed by Prime Minister Bainimarama — responded to the devastation was in line with the agenda set out in the 2014 election campaign. Aided by Fijian media outlets Bainimarama was shown discarding his helicopter, opting instead to travel on horseback to provide aid for remote, cyclone-affected villages. These images showed Bainimarama as a friend who helps all Fijian citizens in need of aid, no matter their ethnicity or class.

This egalitarian positioning contrasts dramatically with Fiji’s past which saw Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians pitted against each other in communal electoral rolls with state resources often favouring one ethnic group. In contrast, the response to Winston sought to unify Fiji, to further progress the concept of a ‘singular’ Fijian nation in which all communities have an equal and well understood relationship to the state.

How deep do these initiatives go?

The Fiji of today needs to be understood in the context of its colonial past where ruling elites sought to artificially install a divide between the indigenous people and the indentured Indian population. Colonialism lasted until independence in 1970, but its influence continued on, resulting in each ethnic community developing a different orientation towards the role of the state. The often mentioned ‘coup culture’ in Fiji can be viewed as a manifestation of the tension created by different views on whom the state has power over, and how that power is exercised.

The 2013 Constitution attempts to resolve these tensions by promoting an equal sense of citizenship through a commonly held national identity. This has included proportional voting, referring to all citizens as ‘Fijian’ (and indigenous Fijians as ‘iTaukei’), and the compulsory teaching of both the ‘iTaukei’ language and Fijian-Hindi languages in schools. This notion of equality was reinforced by restricting or abolishing ethno-specific organisations that could influence the state, such as the Methodist Church and Great Council of Chiefs.

Fiscal policy been similarly focused. The recently introduced 2016 budget has increased spending in areas that affect people's interaction with Fiji as a national entity, such as national services like social security, or infrastructure including roads. The clear objective is to promote the idea of a ‘singular’ Fijian nation, where all groups enjoy equal access to state resources.

The military supports the 2013 Constitution and the possibility of military intervention in government appears remote while Bainimarama remains in power. Still, it may not entirely be out of the question should Fiji First lose an election and the notion of a singular Fijian nation – as embedded within the 2013 Constitution – is challenged.  It's yet to be seen if the government can balance promotion of a colour-blind policy in an environment where criticism of the government is seen as legitimate, or if it chooses to head off critics by accusing them of being un-supportive of a unity agenda. [fold]

What is clear now is that the government, while actively engaging the community through consultations on a wide range of national issues in a manner previously unknown in Fiji, remains largely unaccountable for its actions.  Consultations on such issues such as the national flag process, tender bidding for government projects, the hiring / firing of high level civil service staff (including judicial appointments) and agricultural take place in public, and often lead to policy outcomes, but why certain outcomes are chosen often remains a mystery. Sometimes reports are released, sometimes they aren't. It's hard to hold the government to account when the process between consultation and policy is cloudy.

How the general population perceives the government's vision of a singular Fijian nation is unclear. The election results suggest widespread support for the government agenda though, given Fiji’s recent past, no doubt many have reservations as to its longevity.  As the country has seen similar reforms in the past, which was perceived as a bid for Indo-Fijian domination, driving indigenous ethno-nationalism and heightening ethnic tension. With the Indo-Fijian population decreasing, and the government led by an indigenous Fijian, the potency of this current push for unity is likely to depend on the degree to which it is haunted by the country's past.

Photo: Simon Watts/Getty Images

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