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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 05:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 05:43 | SYDNEY

My Fiji paper: A response to critics

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COMMENTS

21 June 2011 09:32

My Policy Brief on Australian policy towards Fiji has inspired a maelstrom of misinformation.

This may have come about in part because some individuals chose not to read the paper, but heard that I was critical of Australian policy for having failed to influence a return to democracy in Fiji and surmised that I had leapt onto a Bainimarama bandwagon — a false allegation that I dealt with here.

I intended my paper to be a contribution to thinking on Australian policy towards Fiji and to stimulate debate on what a more effective policy might look like, not to provide succour to the Fiji Government, not to 'abandon' any true believers or to engineer a mythical 'split' with the Australian Government.

I am puzzled as to why, when all I have argued for is a more effective Australian approach which puts more pressure on the Fiji regime to restore democracy and shores up international support for that pressure, opprobrium has been heaped on the Lowy Institute and myself by the very people who promote the restoration of democracy in Fiji.

I would prefer to use The Interpreter to debate the merits of the arguments in my paper but as both critics and apparent supporters of the paper have used their column space and bandwidth to misreport or misrepresent my arguments, I am using more of my bandwidth to correct the misreporting.

This comment from the Samoan Prime Minister (OK, I don't expect foreign leaders to read my paper but it would be nice if the people briefing him gave him accurate information), Jon Fraenkel's 18 May article in The Australian and a number of Fiji blogs have reinforced my concerns about the misinformation that abounds in this debate.

Dr Fraenkel and others have suggested I have abandoned opponents of Bainimarama in Fiji. I am somewhat astonished at the level of perceived influence this suggests the Lowy Institute has in Fiji. 

The Lowy Institute publishes research, generates ideas and convenes events to encourage discussion of Australia's role in the world. We do not serve a government, a political party, a corporation, a lobby group or a team aligned to one or another side of any argument in Fiji. We do not implement foreign policy, nor are we a player in Fiji. I have no personal or financial interests in Fiji. My professional interests are very simply focused on analysing the efficacy of Australian policy in the Pacific and offering ideas that might help policy-makers think about how to make it more effective.

Opponents of Bainimarama who do have vested interests in Fiji might be better served debating what they can do to restore democracy in their country and perhaps focusing on the real problem in Fiji, which is not the Lowy Institute but the illegitimate government of Frank Bainimarama. Outsiders, such as the Australian and other governments, can hope to influence change, which is what my paper advocates. But the ultimate responsibility for making it happen has to be taken by the citizens of Fiji.

I have been accused in various places of being an agent of the Australian Government and of Australian business. Neither is true. The Lowy Institute is an independent, non-partisan think tank that was founded by one of Australia's leading businessman, Frank Lowy, but receives funding from a variety of sources, including Australian and US-based foundations, the Australian and other governments and some Australian and international businesses. The Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute is funded by the philanthropic Myer Foundation

I was not commissioned to write a Policy Brief by Australian or Fiji business organisations or by any government. However, I believe that foreign policy analysts should consider that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a mandate to advance 'Australia's international strategic, security and economic interests, including through bilateral, regional and multilateral engagement on Australian Government foreign and trade policy priorities.' One of the reasons I did not advocate Australia impose full economic and trade sanctions on Fiji – which could certainly be a much more effective way of hurting the Fiji regime – is that I know the Australian Government would find it difficult to ignore the Fiji interests of two of Australia's big four banks, as well as other Australian financial sector and tourism investments, and to risk damaging the livelihoods of ordinary Fiji citizens.

I accept Jon Fraenkel's criticism that I did not provide a full assessment of where the situation in Fiji is likely to go. My assessment was that further entrenchment of authoritarianism and of Bainimarama's rule was likely, and I developed my recommendations as a way Australia could try to assist Fiji to avert this outcome. I set out to analyse how effective Australian policy had been in achieving the Australian Government's own objectives in Fiji. I outlined the very difficult environment in which Australian diplomats were trying to achieve these objectives.

I did not accept at face value Bainimarama's intention to hold elections in 2014. I argued the exact opposite — that we should be sceptical about the promise and put in place a strategy that puts more pressure on Bainimarama to hold elections that have a chance of being free, fair and workable.

Importantly, I also acknowledged the potential risks of following my recommendations. I said Bainimarama would likely reject an alternative strategy to influence him to restore democracy but that this rejection would have the benefit of solidifying crumbling international opinion against Bainimarama — one of the reasons current Australian policy is not as effective as it should be. 

I did not suggest abandoning sanctions, as the Samoan Prime Minister, for whom I have the utmost respect, seems to believe. I said travel sanctions should be maintained on Bainimarama and key members of the regime, but I did recommended that Australia adjust the travel restrictions so that non-political actors who might be strong supporters of democracy and friends of Australia do not get caught up in them, and so that Australia can create an environment where the Fiji Government might listen to Canberra. I also suggested Australia could consider imposing more effective sanctions in other areas against Fiji.

I do not believe Australia is omnipotent or driving events in Fiji, as Dr Fraenkel suggests in his article. The Australian Government, however, does believe it has influence in the region and pursues a policy approach designed to influence change in Fiji. If it did not believe this, it would not spend diplomatic resources implementing the policy and keeping the Pacific Islands Forum's position intact. 

I have acknowledged that the fault for the policy failings lie with Bainimarama. My concern, though, is that Bainimarama's actions and the greater ambivalence towards dealing with the Fiji regime on behalf of other governments are undermining Australia's influence.

But the challenging environment in Fiji is no reason to hold back on developing a more effective approach to influencing change. Effective and creative diplomacy the world over is conducted in order to influence change. Kevin Rudd, like Stephen Smith, Alexander Downer and Gareth Evans before him, goes to work every day because he believes Australian diplomacy can influence change. That is what inspired me to write my Policy Brief.

Photo by Flickr user Cak-cak.

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