Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:54 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:54 | SYDNEY

Another step backwards by Fiji


Jenny Hayward-Jones


22 January 2009 10:51

Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Commodore Bainimarama announced on Tuesday that he would not attend the special meeting of Pacific Island Forum leaders in Papua New Guinea on 27 January because his priority was to oversee relief efforts following devastating floods in Fiji. He has requested the meeting be deferred, to the great disappointment of the meeting’s host, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, who is trying to change Bainimarama’s mind.

This is serious. A meeting of 16 heads of government is not easily deferred, and if Forum Chair, Niue Premier Toke Talagi, has his way, it will continue without Bainimarama. 

Attending to a national disaster at home is normally a reasonable excuse for national leaders to cancel attendance at regional meetings. This regional meeting, however, is no ordinary one. It was planned, according to the 2008 Pacific Islands Forum communiqué, to consider special measures in relation to the situation in Fiji (consistent with paragraph 2(iv) of the Biketawa Declaration). Measures to be considered include Fiji's suspension from the Forum.  

The interim Government in Fiji was reminded over the last week of the value of regional partnerships, when Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and New Caledonia all announced donations to help the people of Fiji affected by recent devastating floods. Bainimarama could have explained to the people of Fiji that it was important he attend the meeting to ensure Fiji remained part of the Pacific family that was so vital to helping the nation recover from the floods. Fijians would probably understand that Bainimarama’s attendance was valuable, if only to thank regional partners for their willingness to assist in Fiji’s hour of need and perhaps seek additional help.

I argued in this post that Australia had to make efforts to put political differences with the interim Government aside and make a substantial offer to assist the people of Fiji to deal with the damage wrought by the floods, estimated now at A$44 million and rising. The Australian Government’s generous commitment of A$3million should provide some opportunities for much greater communication and cooperation between Australian and Fijian officials, which could assist in reconciling longer-term differences. The interim Government in Fiji, however, has to play its part too, and Bainimarama is not serving the interests of his country by staying at home next week.

Although it seems unlikely Forum leaders could reach agreement on suspending Fiji from the Forum, they will need to introduce some new means of putting pressure on the interim Government, even if only to demonstrate the credibility of the Forum. Bainimarama can only make Fiji’s case if he attends the meeting. He can argue for a new, realistic agreement with the Forum that extends the election deadline out to 2010 and guarantees additional assistance with political dialogue and electoral reform (and economic recovery). If he does not go to Port Moresby, Forum leaders will likely have little choice but to make demands that Fiji cannot meet.