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Fiji's elections: Four lessons for Australian diplomacy

Fiji's elections: Four lessons for Australian diplomacy

Now that Fiji has held its first elections in eight years, it is time to take stock of the lessons for Australian diplomacy. These lessons should inform Australia's approach to the Pacific island region, including in responses to future political upheaval, which is all but certain to take place. Four lessons to take away:

1. Set reasonable objectives

In the case of the 2006 coup in Fiji, then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer sought to pressure the Fijian military into rapidly holding elections. However laudable this objective might have been, it is manifestly beyond Australia's power to impose. After then Commodore Bainimarama reneged on the promise he made (under some diplomatic pressure led by Australia) at the 2007 Pacific Islands Forum meeting to hold elections in 2009, cooler heads should have prevailed. The change of government in 2007 was a missed opportunity to recalibrate Australia's position to reflect a more sober evaluation of what it could hope to achieve while still maintaining principled disapproval of an unconstitutional seizure of power.

2. Use effective diplomatic methods

Despite the rhetoric, it must be asked how 'smart' the sanctions applied to Fiji really were. Targeting everyone associated with the military and government had the predictable effect of discouraging civilians from working in the administration, even in technical roles that Australia otherwise supported. Targeting their families was effectively arbitrary punishment, and all the more objectionable given its lack of effect. A more principled, and no less effective, approach would have targeted individuals only associated with specific human rights violations. [fold]

3. Learn from Fiji's history

This may be one lesson the Australian Government belatedly got right. In almost completely normalising relations with Fiji on the mere basis that an election date had been announced, the Australian Government was gambling on an election being held and its result respected.

The election could have happened in one of two ways: either Fiji First (the party of coup leader Bainimarama) did not win a majority and the military respected that result, or Fiji First won the election outright. Betting that the Fijian military would respect the result of an election that its candidate lost was an uncertain proposition, judging by history. On the other had, following each of Fiji's coups, the unelected interim prime minister went on to receive a popular mandate (Rabuka in 1992; Qarase in 2000; Bainimarama in 2014).

4. Maintain a consistent set of policies

Despite the Pacific islands region's centrality to Australian security, development programs and international diplomacy, successive Australian governments have struggled to maintain a consistent or coherent set of policies. This is hardly surprising; the small size of the islands belies their complexity and leads Australian governments to devote inadequate attention to them. The last eight years of dealing with the military government in Fiji demonstrates that the policy stasis which results from putting relations with Pacific islands into the 'too hard' basket ultimately has to be broken.

Photo courtesy of Ministry of Information and National Archives of Fiji.

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