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Fiji: It's time to talk about values

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COMMENTS

5 February 2010 07:53

At our first Wednesday Lowy Lunch event for the year this week, I spoke about the year ahead in the Pacific. On Fiji, I said it was important Australia had a relationship that allowed our Government to protect business and consular interests, mitigate damage to the region and maintain links so that Australia could enjoy a deeper relationship with Fiji in a post-Bainimarama environment.

But I cautioned that we should not expect that greater engagement or any normalisation of relations with Fiji now would lead to any change in behaviour from the Fiji Government. 

Disappointingly for Australia and our claims to regional leadership, it is highly unlikely that any policy tweaking or new engagement — even though worth doing for Australia's own interests — will induce Bainimarama to change course. Bainimarama announced just last week that any elected government after 2014 would do its work on the military's terms, thus signaling that any future government had to be approved by him or the military. 

Afterwards, I reflected on what was missing from the debate on what to do about Fiji. Why are Bainimarama and his colleagues winning the public relations campaign? Why are Australian and New Zealand policies being portrayed as harming an innocent Fiji? Why do supporters of the regime get more public attention than its critics? 

Why is there no public discussion of the outrageous actions (helpfully recorded here by Amnesty International) being taken by the regime to curb the rights Fijians have always enjoyed? Why is the fact that no-one is being tortured and murdered a reason for supporting the regime? Why is it Australia and New Zealand that have to compromise, not Fiji?

The policies of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth have undoubtedly failed to achieve their objective – they have not induced Bainimarama to hold elections. They have also failed in that Bainimarama has somehow managed to get the upper hand. Rather than feeling isolated and humbled, he is aggressively pursuing an agenda that entrenches his power and marginalises or completely excludes anyone who might have different ideas about what is good for Fiji. 

Bainimarama may be committed to ending discrimination on the basis of race but he is demonstrating an even greater commitment to legalising discrimination on the basis of thought. Apart from a few courageous souls in Fiji, a few academics and the Australian and New Zealand Governments (when they are asked for comment), there are no voices screaming that something is very wrong here.

It makes me wonder if we have all lost track of values in the debate. The messages from Canberra, Wellington, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth, however well crafted, have focused on the need for elections. There is little public appreciation of what values are important to the region. Apart from elections, what does the region stand for?

I cannot think of a single Pacific Island government or indeed population that would support restrictions on the activities of their biggest church, noting the important role that faith plays in every Pacific Islands society. Nor can I think of a country in the region that would be happy with their security forces controlling the state. Or a country that would arrest academics and lawyers for making comments to a radio station. Or a country that would stop the payments of pensions to people who didn't wholly endorse their government.

Perhaps the people of Fiji would have more appreciation of the policies of Australia, New Zealand and every country in the region if those policies offered clear, consistent and coherent support for the values the region holds dear. If they are communicated by government and civil society leaders from Pacific Island countries and avoid Fiji's censors, they would be even more valuable.

Whether directly or indirectly after the 2014 elections, there is a prolonged period of military rule ahead in Fiji. The region needs a long-term strategy that will enable it to engage with Fiji without supporting the reprehensible actions of the military regime.

Photo by Flickr user Jachin Sheehy, used under a Creative Commons license.

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