Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:01 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:01 | SYDNEY

As the crow flies to Fiji


Graeme Dobell

23 August 2012 16:15

Having flown with the hawks in the cyber-debate on dealing with Fiji's military regime, this column confronts the task of eating crow in the wake of some clear wins for the doves.

The dove perspective has always been that isolating Fiji was never going to have much impact on the military Supremo. The hawk case for sanctions was that the long-term impact of the military's assault on Fiji's polity was so poisonous that the region had to fight with every means available, however tenuous. After six years, this has become an arid argument.

Time to give peace a chance. The Pacific Island summit next week will coo loudly in the direction of the Bainimarama regime. Recall that the Forum expelled Fiji in 2009 because Bainimarama broke his promise about the timetable for elections. Now the region wants to take the Supremo at his word and embrace his promise of a 2014 election.

Australia and New Zealand have done their bit of cooing and crow-munching by resuming top-level diplomatic relations with Suva. The hawkish cavil is that downgrading diplomatic ties was never part of the 'smart' sanctions policy; it happened because Bainimarama developed a nasty habit of evicting Oz or Kiwi High Commissioners any time he felt peeved. Indeed, back in 2008 Australia took fright at what it described as 'serious and credible' death threats directed at Australia's top diplomat in Suva. The really serious bit was that the threats were credible because they seemed to come from kava bowls used by regime heavies. 

Such history helps to explain why the hardline policies have remained in place. To know the Supremo is to distrust him and fear for Fiji. Yet being nasty to Bainimarma has become a sterile response that produces little satisfaction. Eat crow, garnished by sorrow for Fiji and spiced by distaste for the regime that rules.

The argument for this meal was elegantly outlined by Jenny Hayward-Jones in her policy brief last year arguing that Australia had failed to make a difference in Fiji and its policy was adrift:

Australia's tough-love policy towards Fiji has failed to convince the government of Voreqe Bainimarama to restore democracy. The Fiji government has instead developed new partnerships which undermine Australia's influence. Australia's reputation for regional leadership and as a creative middle power on the world stage is at risk of being diminished by the Fiji government's resistance to pressure.

The latest version of the dove diagnosis is in from Washington with Elke Larsen's commentary

Australia and New Zealand normalized relations with Fiji July 30 by agreeing to exchange high commissioners. Yet, despite the Australian and New Zealand governments’ claims in the press that the normalization is the result of successful steps toward democracy, in reality it is more an admission of the failure of their previous hard-line policies. Isolation had long proved ineffective in securing their goal of pressing Fiji’s military regime to reinstate democracy, and a softer approach to Fiji has become the best route available to influence change.

You can see why the hawks are spitting out a few crow feathers. A policy that doesn't deliver its stated purpose – a speedy return to democracy – is justly pronounced a dud.

The prescription failed, but much of the original diagnosis of the Supremo and his regime holds continuing relevance. A couple of years ago, this column starting talking about Fiji's New Order Regime, drawing parallels with the way that Suharto entrenched himself in Indonesia. The shape of Fiji's own New Order is coming into view, suggesting the complex challenges facing Australia, New Zealand and the Forum in seeking to engage Suva.

The goal is to get an open and fair election for Fiji in 2014. The tension inherent in that goal is to inject some freedom into the recipe that the New Order is preparing for Fiji's future; to get as much democratic space as possible in the structure that Bainimarama is summoning into being. And beyond 2014, the region seeks a productive relationship with Suva and a government that will claim a popular mandate. Australia is going to have to draw on its long experience of handling a New Order regime that dominates the electoral process just as it dominates the polity.

Photo by Flickr user patrick wilken.