Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:11 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 21:11 | SYDNEY

Fiji: At last, a positive note


Annmaree O’Keeffe

2 May 2012 15:51

Despite some public sniping between Fiji's acting Prime Minister Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr at the start of this week's meeting between the Pacific Island Forum's Ministerial Contact Group on Fiji and senior members of the Fijian regime, the outcome of the meeting is promising.

It's been a long time since an Australian foreign minister has commented positively on Fijian political trends. But as Carr takes control as Australia's top diplomat, it is good to see him use the opportunity to look with fresh eyes at the Fiji situation, which has affected Australia-Fiji relations since Commodore Bainimarama took control of Fiji's Government in 2006. Participating as Australia's ministerial representative on the contact group has given Carr a firsthand view of what's going on.

And it seems the ministerial group is encouraged by what it saw. As the group noted in its concluding statement, there is a sense that Fiji is in transition, moving to put in place processes required for elections. The group also said there was a need to maintain an ongoing and constructive dialogue with Fiji.

The question now is, how will Australia use this opportunity to address more constructively its bilateral relationship with Fiji?

Australia's approach has drawn increasing criticism for being intransigent and lacking in creativity in finding a way to engage more constructively with the regime. As the Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward-Jones pointed out in her paper last year, Australia's tough love policy towards Fiji has failed to persuade the Bainimarama Government to restore democracy and has encouraged Fiji to develop new partnerships which threaten Australia's influence.

In response, the Government has insisted that if the regime took even the smallest step towards restoring democracy, it would respond positively. So the question now is whether the findings of the Ministerial Contact Group are enough for Australia to start looking at what that response might be.

It is certainly in Australia's interest to give serious thought to taking that move. It is whispered, but there is a growing view internationally that Australia has not given sufficient priority to the impasse with Fiji.

This impression was reinforced by Kevin Rudd's limited public commentary and involvement in the issue during his term as foreign minister. Rudd's public statements on Fiji were mostly condemnatory, and it was Parliamentary Secretary for the Pacific Richard Marles who represented Australia at last year's Ministerial Contact Group meeting. As energetic and dedicated as Marles is, he remains a junior minister. The signal of delegating responsibility for Fiji to Marles would not have been missed by the Pacific and the broader international community.

It now looks as though the Fiji policy baton has been passed back to the rightful person. Carr needs to be encouraged to grasp it firmly and use it to make the long-awaited positive response.

Photo courtesy of the Pacific Island Forum.