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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 23:46 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 23:46 | SYDNEY

Fiji ends public emergency regulations

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5 January 2012 09:05

Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama offered his country an interesting gift for the new year — a promise to lift the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) on 7 January. The PER has been in place since April 2009, when Bainimarama abrogated Fiji's constitution.

Although some suspicion has surrounded Bainimarama's announcement, the most likely explanation for it is the one he himself offered — that it is intended 'to facilitate the consultation process' on a new constitution. The Australian and New Zealand governments, as well as the Commonwealth Secretariat, rightly wasted no time in welcoming the development.

Bainimarama's decision is unlikely to have been motivated by a desire to re-engage with those in the international community which have put the most pressure on him. His promise, which will be the fulfillment of earlier commitments to end the PER once he felt the situation in Fiji was stable and following the introduction of the Media Industry Development Decree, is more likely to have been made because he feels his Government is secure and no longer faces any direct threat from opponents.

Having effectively cowed the Methodist Church, traditional chiefs, prominent critics, former politicians and more recently put pressure on union leaders, he no longer has any reason to fear the consequences of public assembly. Although Government censors may no longer patrol news rooms in Fiji after next week, it would be a brave editor who published overt criticism of the Government, given the strict punishments outlined in the Media Decree.

Importantly, the Fiji Government now feels secure enough to commence discussions on a new constitution. It needs to demonstrate to the nation that it is genuine about the consultation process that is promised to commence in February, explained here by Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, and to do that it has to lift the PER.

For its part, the Australian Government has consistently said it would not engage with the Fiji Government until it made some credible steps towards restoring democracy. It is not clear from the statements of the acting Foreign Minister or the Prime Minister whether a 'step in the right direction' is enough to warrant any new overtures from Canberra to Suva.

But it is the only 'step' we have seen from Suva for some time. Canberra should use the opportunity offered by the lifting of the PER to initiate some serious conversations with the Fiji Government about assistance for the consultation process on a new constitution. If Australia can offer funding to allow some international experts in constitutional development to provide much needed advice on this process, without strings attached, it could go some way towards encouraging a more open Fiji.

Canberra could also demonstrate good faith by opening talks about the restoration of respective High Commissioners, waiving sanctions on officials who want to visit or transit Australia to engage in talks on constitutional development or elections, and encouraging the participation of potential leaders in international dialogue opportunities.

If the Fiji Government follows through on its intentions to commence early consultations on a new constitution, a 'wait and see' approach from Australia now could see Canberra's influence further marginalised. Our Fiji Poll showed that 83% of Fijians thought Fiji should be left to sort out its return to democracy on its own, as opposed to 16% who thought that foreign countries should put pressure on Fiji.

A proactive approach from Australia that is calibrated to help the Fiji people decide their own priorities for constitutional reform might just help the formation of a more sustainable democracy.

Photo, of the Fiji press in 2009, by Flickr user Jachin Sheehy.

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