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Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 11:20 | SYDNEY

The chutzpah of the Fiji Supremo


Graeme Dobell

20 January 2012 14:25

The classic definition of chutzpah is the story of the young man who murders his parents and then asks the court for leniency because he's an orphan. Fiji's Supremo has chutzpah by the bucket-load. Brazen and bombastic, Frank Bainimarama has done it again with his bravura performance scrapping the Emergency Regulations, then almost immediately re-imposing them under a different name.

Jenny Hayward-Jones has tracked the ins-and-outs of this now-you-see-it, now-you-don't, now-you-rename-it act with her initial post and then this after the Supremo finished the trick. This column will reflect on the Supremo's latest machinations in the spirit of a great Rolling Stones song, You Can't Always Get What You Want, which is on the classic album, Let it Bleed. The song and the album title both catch the resigned essence of the approach that Australia and the rest of the South Pacific have had to adopt in dealing with Bainimarama for six years.

One verse of the song also resonates for your columnist, who has heaped his share of written opprobrium on the Supremo:

And I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singin', 'We're gonna vent our frustration
If we don't, we're gonna blow a 50-amp fuse'
Sing it to me, now

To venture a view of the pain Bainimarama is causing tends to guarantee 'a fair share of abuse' from the blowhards of the blogosphere. No complaints about that; always nice to be noticed, and if you skip through a battlefield, explosions follow. 

The anguish Fiji generates owes much to the strong emotions the military regime generates. Hitting the keyboard is one of the few political acts currently acceptable in Fiji. Yet Fiji has always been notable for the way its politics is played in a manner that is passionate and deeply personal. It's ironic that the nation which defined the Pacific Way in the conduct of regional affairs is so non-pacific in its internal affairs. 

The easiest way to explain this has always been the politics of race. As an Indian pol said to me in Suva a couple of decades ago: 'The trouble with Fiji is that we have too many Chiefs and too many Indians!' 

The humour in the line also had sting because of the bitter truth it expressed. But the politics of race is shifting in line with Fiji's demography. At the time of the Rabuka coups in 1987, the population was divided almost exactly 50-50 between Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Today, the trend line is heading towards two-thirds Fijians and one-third Indo-Fijians. Demography makes it easier to move towards democracy. The Supremo says he is going to do away with the politics of race and introduce one-man-one-vote. The weight of Fijian numbers should make that a less threatening prospect, even for the Fijian hardliners, strengthening Bainimarama's hand in moving to his promised election in 2014.

The Supremo has trained the region not to place too much reliance on his promises. But he has been making the 2014 promise for so long that even he would find it hard to chutzpah his way out of that pledge. Certainly, there are a lot of moves yet to be confronted, much less made. What sort of constitution? What sort of government? What sort of election?

The latest bit of showmanship from Suva suggests Bainimarama is finally starting to shift from being Mr NO! towards the day when he must propose rather than dispose. For the region, that means that over the next three years, the Supremo will move from being a greater to a lesser evil. Thus, Australia and the rest of the South Pacific can start to consider ways of dealing with Fiji that reach beyond the helpless Let it Bleed position.

Some previous thoughts on the course of Bainimarama's New Order are here and here, and the implications of the military as Fiji's strongest tribe.