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Don't ignore the voice of Fiji's people

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This post is part of the The Lowy Institute's Fiji Poll debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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12 September 2011 08:45


This post is part of the The Lowy Institute's Fiji Poll debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Politicians and political parties the world over dismiss opinion polls when the results are inconvenient and embrace them when the results show support for their policies. So I wasn't surprised to see some of the reactions to the results of the Lowy Institute's Fiji Poll.

I was personally dismayed to see so many Fiji people support the performance of Commodore Bainimarama and the direction Fiji is on. Before the results came in, I was hoping the Fiji people would record overwhelming dissatisfaction with Bainimarama. But that was not the reality. 

Faced with these results, the Lowy Institute had two choices – publish or decline to publish. 

We are an independent international policy think tank so we did not have a vested interest either way. If we declined to publish and thereby reveal the opinions of the Fiji people, would we be any better than the Fiji Government, which denies the Fiji people the right to express their opinions or to have their opinions aired in the public domain?

When the Lowy Institute launched the Fiji Poll in Auckland last Wednesday, the first reaction from the assembled audience was that the methodology was flawed. The methodology of the poll is set out on p.23 of the Fiji Poll and I provide more information below. Tebbutt Research, the company we commissioned to conduct the poll, has been polling for almost twenty years in Fiji and the methodology used for this poll was consistent with their previous polling.

But an important question occurred to me afterwards: if the opinions of the Fiji people were different, if they had recorded 66% disapproval of Bainimarama instead of 66% approval, would we have been questioned about the methodology? If this had indeed been the result, I suspect the Fiji Government would have dismissed it but the Australian and New Zealand governments and other opponents of Bainimarama would have lauded it. 

A few other important aspects about this poll have been missed in the initial reaction. 

This is the first opinion poll conducted in Fiji since 2008 and the first to canvas the views of the Fiji people about Fiji's international relations. Rather than dismissing it, as opponents of Bainimarama have done, why not seize on it as evidence that the Fiji people are interested in expressing their opinions, an opportunity denied them by their own government?

Some of the results are inconvenient to opponents of the Bainimarama regime, but not all are. As Michael O'Keefe pointed out in an opinion piece in The Australian, there is some positive news in the poll that cannot be ignored. What about the 98% of people who say they think it is important to have the right to freely vote in national elections, the right to freely express yourself and the right to a fair trial? What about the 96% of people who say it is important to have a media free from censorship? 

Should we be dismissing these opinions as those of a fearful and intimidated people whose views cannot be trusted or should the international community try to assist them? As Prime Minister Gillard said, this is a question about values and whether you believe in democracy. Our poll presents clear evidence that the Fiji people do believe in democratic values; they do not deserve to be summarily dismissed.

From Australia's point of view, should we write off the 76% of people who want Fiji to have a good relationship with Australia or should the Australian Government try to capitalise on this strong support for Australia?

It has been suggested by no less than Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa that the Fiji people were too afraid to speak against Bainimarama. I have to admit that I thought exactly the same thing when I saw the results. It perplexed me that, despite Fiji's economic malaise, increasing poverty and the Public Emergency Regulation which suppresses people's rights, the Fiji people were still willing to say Bainimarama was doing a good job. I thought fear must be the explanation. 

But if this was the case, why did only 1% of respondents refuse to answer and only 1% say they did not know? Furthermore, the people who participated in this survey were not advised that it had been commissioned by the Lowy Institute so they did not necessarily know the results would be published. And lastly, while an approval rating of 66% seems high, it is still lower than the 73% approval rating (in a poll conducted by Tebbutt Research using the same methodology used for the Lowy Institute Fiji Poll) that Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase achieved in June 2006. Bainimarama is less popular after five years in power than Qarase was after a similar period, a result which Fiji's SDL party can celebrate.

Rather than attack the methodology or the motivations of the Lowy Institute and Tebbutt Research, it would be more constructive for Bainimarama's opponents (of which I am one) to debate why the Fiji people hold the opinions they hold. Do these results reflect the lack of information available to the Fiji people? Do they reflect the media censorship which controls the flow and quality of information and the lack of freedom of speech imposed by the Public Emergency Regulation, which means opposing voices are not heard in the public domain? Do they reflect lower public expectations of government brought about by a series of coups?

There is surely a case for greater civic education efforts in Fiji – by non-government organisations and by the international community. The poll shows that the Fiji people are less willing to approve of the military playing a permanent role in politics than they are of the military's current role, and they are not entirely convinced the Fiji Government is making progress in moving the country back to democracy. This shows a people thinking about their situation and what is in their best interests. To ignore them would be a missed opportunity.

Poll methodology

The methodology of the Poll is explained on p.23 of the publication but a summary and further information is provided here:

The poll was conducted by Tebbutt Research, a Suva-based company which has conducted polling in Fiji since 1992, published annually in conjunction with the Fiji Times. The Lowy Institute reported the results of the poll. The results are the views of the people of Fiji, not the opinions of any member of staff of the Lowy Institute, nor any member of staff of Tebbutt Research.

The Lowy Institute has a strong reputation for high quality opinion polling, having conducted 7 annual opinion polls on foreign policy in Australia and an opinion poll in China on foreign policy.

As with all opinion polls commissioned and published by the Lowy Institute and opinion polling conducted by Tebbutt Research in Fiji, participants in the survey were not paid a fee. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in the major urban and peri-urban centres of Viti Levu, consistent with previous polls conducted by Tebbutt Research. Fieldwork was conducted by the Tebbutt Research field team in accordance with global best practice, specifically the ESOMAR standard.

1,032 people were interviewed on a face-to-face, door-to-door basis, with one respondent aged 18- per household. Start points were selected at random. Respondents were selected at random and respondents were selected at random from within the household, to quota. Data was post-weighted to the Fiji Bureau of Statistics population estimates. 

The breakdown of respondents was:

  • Ethnicity: 48% indigenous Fijian, 44% Indo-Fijian, 8% other.
  • Gender: 51% males, 49% females.
  • Location: 23% Suva, 25% Nasinu, 5% Lami, 15% Nausori, 12% Nadi, 15% Lautoka, 5% Ba.
  • Age: 18-20 (12%), 21-29 (23%), 30-44 (33%), 45- (33%).
  • Education levels: no formal education 2%, primary school 11%, middle high (10-11 years) 13%, upper high (12-13 years) 32%, technical or trade school 21%, some university 14%, university degree 7%.

The Lowy Institute has presented the results of an opinion poll of the Fiji people and has not manipulated them in any way. 

Photo by Flickr user Henry Work.

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