Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 12:58 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 12:58 | SYDNEY


Graeme Dobell

22 July 2010 10:40

Here are three rules that apply to Australian diplomacy in the South Pacific.

The first rule states that an Australian comment on the South Pacific which expresses any form of judgement or criticism will be instantly denounced as bullying neo-colonialism. This rule often applies in relations with New Zealand as well, except the Kiwis would never consider they could be bullied by Australia. So in the New Zealand case, any Oz judgement will be denounced as ignorant and arrogant.

In the South Pacific, the only way to avoid the bullying rule is to lay on thick and fulsome praise for the history, culture and achievements of the Islands. Unstinting praise will gain a grudging Island acknowledgment that finally the Aussies are starting to understand. Unfortunately, even this approach does not work with New Zealand. Try gushing praise across the Tasman and the immediate response is, 'Now the bloody Australians are being sarcastic!'

The iron rule exaggerates for effect, a little – but only a little. The rule draws whatever truth it conveys from an eternal dynamic – the one thing the regional superpower can never expect in the South Pacific is 'thanks'. 

All this leads to a second rule of Pacific diplomacy. When attacking Australia as a bully, the Islands are entitled to put in the boot as hard as they like. Australia is so big, apparently, it doesn't feel pain like the little guys.

Rules one and two feed into a third rule: whatever happens, it's always Australia's fault.

Robin Nair's view from Fiji conforms to the first rule by finding Australia variously guilty of bullying, beating, unprecedented interference and punishment by stoning.

See the Graham Davis piece in The Australian today for more examples of these rules in action. Frank Bainimarama accuses Australia of 'siding with the bad guys in Fiji'. Further, according to Frank, it's all Australia's fault that its ambassador has again been tossed out of Suva. See rule three, too, for the Supremo's take on his threat to close down The Fiji Times, owned by Australia's News Ltd. The Times had failed to toe the line', so really it was the Australian management team that should be held responsible for the closure of the 140 year-old paper.

The Supremo also applies rule one to other Island leaders who see merit in Australia's position on Fiji. Thus, he describes Samoa's Prime Minister as a 'lackey' and a 'mouthpiece' of Australia and New Zealand. Frank's version of the Pacific Way is anything but pacific.

The Supremo's trumpeting of the effect of his 'Engagement with the Pacific' summit ironically adds weight to the argument Australia made to the Islands about the dangers of allowing him to host a full summit of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Despite Bainimarama's protestations of benign intent, the Supremo aims to inflict as much damage as possible on the Forum for having the temerity to challenge him. Ultimately, Australia would choose the integrity and preservation of the Pacific Islands Forum over the relationship with Fiji. Ideally, Australia would want both. But if the choice had to made, the regional institution would win over the military regime.

Robin Nair repeats the line now coming out of Suva that the military regime is considering withdrawing from the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth. If the Supremo does perform this giant dummy spit, the Suva logic is that this will be the fault of that bully, Australia (see rule three). Given that Fiji is presently suspended from both the Forum and the Commonwealth, the threat is reminiscent of the cartoon of the burglar, cornered by the police. The burglar holds a gun to his own head and says, 'Don't move, or I'll shoot!'

If Bainimarama withdraws from the Forum – and/or seeks to evict the Forum secretariat based in Suva – he will be trying to bring down the pre-eminent regional institution. That is exactly the case Australia has been arguing. The Forum is Fiji's greatest diplomatic construction. Yet the Supremo would rip up that achievement because he is angry at interference by Australia and New Zealand? Rule three again.

The Supremo no longer thinks of himself as 'interim' Prime Minister. He seeks to make permanent changes to Fiji, building on every decree he issues. Implicit in all Bainimarama does is an assumption about his right to a permanent role in Fiji's future. The promised election in 2014 is all in the gift of the Supremo. And if a vote does take place, the Army will retain reserve powers amounting to a continuing right of political veto.

Anyone inside Fiji silly enough to voice such thoughts is liable to be compelled to visit the military barracks above Suva. And no rule of law or customary civility reaches there, the HQ of the real bully of Fiji.

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