Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 16:54 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 16:54 | SYDNEY

Fiji floods: A political test and a diplomatic opportunity


Jenny Hayward-Jones


13 January 2009 15:39

The recent devastating flooding in Fiji has challenged the military-led interim Government. Commodore Bainimarama declared a state of emergency and promised his Government was doing all it could to help those affected. 

The interim Government's response will be important in garnering popular domestic support this year, with Bainimarama having already failed to deliver on promises to hold elections in 2009. Expectations of an effective response will be high in Fiji, given the Commodore’s promises to deliver better government services and improve rural livelihoods, which will suffer from the floods.

The flooding, which killed eight people, made thousands homeless and is estimated  to have cost FJ$15 million, could also offer an opportunity for some reconciliation between the region’s major powers and the interim Government. Natural disasters elsewhere, though admittedly on a much bigger scale, have induced diplomatic thaws, such as the improved relationship between Turkey and Greece after Turkey's massive earthquakes in 1999. 

New Zealand’s relationship with Fiji, in bad shape following the interim Government’s expulsion of New Zealand Acting High Commissioner Caroline McDonald on 23 December, could certainly benefit from a circuit-breaker, and Australia and New Zealand have both made early donations of A$150,000 and NZ$100,000 respectively to assist Fiji’s Red Cross and national disaster management services respond to the flooding. 

But comments by both foreign ministers do not offer much hope for 'disaster diplomacy' succeeding in Fiji. Murray McCully and NZAID were careful to stress that New Zealand assistance would go directly to Fiji’s Red Cross rather than the Fiji Government. Stephen Smith’s reference to elections in his announcement about assistance today is also unlikely to make the interim Government reflect more seriously about improving its relations with Australia and New Zealand. 

Commodore Bainimarama could seek more cooperation and increased assistance from the region’s two major powers and, through the disaster, open new communication channels. This disaster should not be remembered in Australia and New Zealand only as the event which ruined holidays. The interim Government’s recent form, however, suggests the opportunity may not be seized on this occasion.