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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 12:52 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 12:52 | SYDNEY

Fiji: An opportunity and an obligation

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COMMENTS

15 January 2009 14:51

I argued a couple of days ago that the flooding disaster in Fiji provided an opportunity to engineer a diplomatic thaw between Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. As the damage bill increases and more adverse weather conditions are forecast for the coming week, that opportunity is looking more like a responsibility.

In addition to the humanitarian cost, the cost of the disaster to Fiji’s vulnerable economy is mounting. Damage to infrastructure in Nadi, the home to the country’s international airport, has been estimated at FJ$100 million. Fiji’s valuable sugar industry has taken a massive hit. Small businesses have been destroyed and farmers have lost crops. The vital tourism industry, already feeling the effects of the global financial crisis, will suffer from cancelled bookings and damage to property.   

Australia and New Zealand have an important humanitarian responsibility – to offer immediate and significant assistance to families in Fiji. They also have a responsibility to assist Fiji with an economic recovery package. Fiji is an important economic hub for the region and a popular destination with Australian tourists. Fiji matters to Australia. 

A package like that offered to Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami is worth considering. The scale of the disaster in Fiji is less than that of the tsunami, but its effect on an already battered economy and people is nevertheless significant. A package in the range of at least A$15-20 million that addressed immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term economic recovery would send a valuable signal to the interim Government (and, importantly, to the people of Fiji) about Australia’s commitment to Fiji and the region.

Australian and New Zealand generosity in times of natural disasters in the Pacific has become so frequent that many Pacific Island governments have built an expectation of Australian and New Zealand assistance into their disaster planning. This assistance usually comes in the form of military assets to help assess damage and deliver relief supplies, financial or in-kind support to government agencies dealing with the crisis, financial assistance to the Red Cross and other NGOs and the offer of medical or emergency management experts. 

As recently as last month, the Australian government provided A$1 million in relief supplies and funding for NGOs responding to severe flooding in PNG. Australia also deployed an ADF C-130 cargo plane to deliver supplies to the worst-hit areas. 

Aid has been slow to reach flood-hit communities in Fiji so far. Fiji could benefit from ADF assistance in the form of helicopters and vessels that can reach communities cut off by flooding or damaged roads. Resources for evacuation centres would also be helpful. Some of this assistance could be delivered by the amphibious ships now moored in Woolloomooloo while the RAN is in stand-down mode, and which were purchased in part to respond to disasters in the region.

Canberra and Wellington have made small initial donations and say they stand ready to provide further assistance. Now is not the time to wait to be asked or to prevaricate because we prefer to avoid engagement with Commodore Bainimarama. A phone call from Prime Minster Rudd to the Commodore which suggested mutual differences be put aside temporarily in recognition of the scale of the disaster for Fiji, and which offered a generous package of assistance and cooperation with no political strings attached would be a smart move. 

The Commodore may well decline, but it would be genuinely difficult for him to explain to his people and his close advisers why he refused such a package at this time of great need. If accepted, such a package would help the people of Fiji, be popular with Australians fond of their holidays in Fiji, and may even get some diplomatic dialogue back on track in time for the 27 January Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting on Fiji.

Photo of HMAS Manoora courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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