Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:56 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:56 | SYDNEY

Two steps forward for Fiji relations


Annmaree O’Keeffe

31 July 2012 13:59

First came the positive murmurings out of the May meeting of the Pacific Island Forum's Ministerial Contact Group on Fiji. The ministers, including our own Bob Carr, were encouraged by the changes they saw in Fiji.

Now, just three months later, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand have reached a watershed agreement which will see not only the re-instatement of their respective top diplomats but also an agreement by Australia and New Zealand to consider softening travel sanctions.

Currently, none of the countries is represented at High Commissioner level. Australia imposed travel sanctions in the wake of the 2006 coup. The restrictions apply to the leader of the Fiji regime, Commodore Bainimarama, his supporters and their families as well as members of the interim government, military officers and their families. They also apply to rank and file members of the Fiji military forces but not their families. These sanctions have bitten hard.

This week's major step forward by Australia and New Zealand in their re-engagement with Fiji comes just 10 days after Fiji decided to lift a ban on private meetings of more than three people without a permit.

It also reflects a trend by Australia and Fiji evident since earlier this year to step up engagement. In March, not long after Bob Carr became Australia's foreign minister, the Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward-Jones described it as the 'stars aligning' for Fiji policy. Readers familiar with Jenny's in-depth analysis of the six-year Fiji imbroglio will know that she has long advocated for Australia to revise its hitherto rigid policy position on Fiji. She argued that Australia's approach to Fiji has failed in its objective to restore democracy to Fiji and could even be helping to entrench the regime.

But in March, Jenny argued on this blog that 'for the first time in some years, the stars may be aligning for a change in the relationship: Bob Carr's appointment as Foreign Minister and a constructive and positive announcement from Commodore Bainimarama...on a constitutional consultations process.'

Since then the steps have been incremental but, as can be seen by this week's trilateral meeting in Sydney, they are significant. The re-instatement of high commissioners in Suva, Canberra and Wellington means communication channels at the highest levels are again opening. And if travel sanctions are softened, it will enable direct person to person contact to be resumed at senior political levels.

Australia's policy objective throughout the six years since Bainimarama took power has been to support Fiji's return to full democracy. But achieving that objective had been constrained until now by Australia's own policy, which has severely limited the opportunity for communication and dialogue. This latest development is essential for moving the democratic process forward.

Photo by Flickr user heyyu.