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Commentary

Australia’s Humiliating Backdown Over Failed Fiji Foreign Policy

By Graham Davis

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (Pacific Scoop, August 1, 2012) – So it has finally come. Oceania’s greatest power – Australia – has finally bowed to the inevitable.

That five-and-a-half-years of trying to destroy the Bainimarama government in Fiji has failed. That one of its island satellites has thumbed its nose at its big neighbour and determined its own course in the world.

That for all its economic and political power, Australia could not bring Fiji to heel. It ended in Sydney on Monday not with a bang but a whimper, with Australia being dragged reluctantly to the table by little New Zealand under the distant but relieved gaze of their giant ally, the United States.

How humiliating. How unnecessary.

No matter how much spin Australia and NZ put on it, that is the net result of the announcement that they are now prepared to restore full diplomatic relations with Fiji.

It has nothing to do with the continuing "smart sanctions". Those sanctions, however dumb, will mostly continue, except that civilian members of the Bainimarama regime will now be allowed to visit Australia.

What they’re restoring is something that Fiji broke off, not the Aussies and Kiwis, when it expelled their high commissioners for allegedly interfering in Fiji’s domestic affairs.

Expelled in retaliation

Fiji’s own representatives were expelled in retaliation. Now, all three countries will exchange high commissioners for the first time since 2009.

It’s an important step on the road to a better relationship. But let’s not kid ourselves about who has been calling the shots.

Fiji has bested its larger neighbors and there is no other conclusion that can reasonably be drawn.

Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, even went into the Sydney meeting with his Australian and NZ counterparts effectively saying that from Suva’s point of view, the outcome didn’t really matter.

Fiji had forged new relationships in the world and wouldn’t be deterred from its reform agenda irrespective of what happened.

Ratu Inoke has been criticized for not speaking to the Australian media afterwards but perhaps it’s just as well.

It’s not the polite Fijian way to gloat or rub salt into the wounds of two people standing next to him who looked as if they would rather have been anywhere else.

Anti-regime websites

No need to take our word that this was a cave-in. Just go to the anti-regime websites, where Bob Carr and Murray McCully have now joined the long list of "shameless traitors" to the "democratic" cause.

The fact is that as the weeks and months have progressed, the Australian position on Fiji was becoming more and more untenable.

Time was when both the major political parties – Labor and the Liberal National Party Coalition – shared the same hard-line stance, demanding an immediate return to democracy in Fiji.

But that bipartisan approach broke down long ago and the Coalition has been calling for re-engagement as it actively prepares to assume power next year from a hugely unpopular Labor government staring defeat in the face.

The Kiwis – once the real hardliners – also realized long ago that they had to start dealing with Fiji.

So they appear to have played the lead role in getting everyone back to the table. It’s no coincidence that the Sydney talks came less than a fortnight after NZ Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, was in Suva.

We all wondered at the time why Ratu Inoke was talking grandly about "a new page being written in the history of both countries."

History books

Well now we know. He was evidently being invited to a dalliance, if not a love-in, with the Aussies in Sydney, a city he has been barred from visiting since the coup of 2006. That’s one for the history books for sure.

But what does all this say about Australia’s leadership in the region, that it leaves New Zealand to be the lead broker in a solution to the Fiji stalemate?

One reason is that Murray McCully is Foreign Minister in a conservative government – the Nationals – that owes its power entirely to the NZ people.

Whereas Bob Carr is Foreign Minister in a centre-left Labor government in which every member owes his job to the trade union heavies who put them there.

They make or break prime ministers and MPs defy them at their peril. Just ask Kevin Rudd.

There’s really no way to see this other than Australia caving in to the inevitable. And it would have happened a lot sooner but for the pressure Bob Carr has faced from the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) to maintain the hard-line stance in defense of embattled Fijian union leaders like Felix Anthony and Daniel Urai.

Even at the 11th hour before the Sydney talks, Ged Kearney – the ACTU president – was publicly insisting that Australia not give in.

Suffer embarrassment

Was Bob Carr going to take his orders from her and suffer the embarrassment of having to tell his NZ counterpart that all bets were off?

The humiliation for Australia’s national interest, as opposed to the interests of the unions, would have been too great.

But Ged Kearney managed to extract an important concession that amply demonstrates union power over the Australian government.

She insisted that Carr only lift the Australian travel bans on civilians working for the regime and its statutory authorities, not on any military personnel.

So Voreqe Bainimarama won’t be sighted on the Manly ferry anytime soon. After the announcement of the exchange of high commissioners, Kearney said she was disappointed and urged Australia to keep up the pressure.

"We maintain that there must be clear demonstration that progress to democracy will include workers’ rights and freedom of speech before we would agree to any lifting of other sanctions," she insisted.

Kearney wouldn’t have seen the irony of a non-elected trade union leader instructing a non-elected politician (Bob Carr was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy and has yet to face the people) to keep ostracizing another non-elected leader who is returning Fiji to a purer democracy than ever existed before.

Weakest government

But then irony isn’t Labor’s strongest point; the weakest of minority governments with a primary vote of 30 percent or less propped up by a couple of independents and the Greens and getting its orders from its trade union bosses.

Yes, that’s Australian democracy right now. Last year, the Lowy Poll gave Commodore Bainimarama a 67 percent approval rating.

So it’s a pretty safe bet that he’s looking forward to the next election in Fiji far more than Julia Gillard or Bob Carr in Australia.

But one thing Canberra excels at is spin so at least Carr’s people were able to convince journalist Daniel Fitton to write the following lead paragraph in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: "Australia has restored diplomatic ties with Pacific pariah Fiji as a reward for democratic reforms by the troubled island nation".

Excuse me. Pariah? Current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, convenor of the Pacific Small Island Developing States in the Asia Group at the United Nations, recent President of the UN General Assembly.

Some pariah. Reward?

The Bainimarama government is doing precisely what it said it would do in 2009 – return Fiji to democracy in 2014 on an equal vote, equal value basis for the very first time.

It doesn’t need any reward from Australia.

Public consultations

Troubled? Almost 300,000 people – half the electorate – have now been registered to vote in that election, the Constitutional Commission begins public consultations this week and signs abound of a brighter economic and political future.

Small wonder that so many of Fiji’s traditional critics have gone quiet. Not that it stopped the exiled historian, Professor Brij Lal, from pontificating on Australian television about the rapprochement being driven by Fiji’s need for better ties with Canberra.

"Fiji has realized the futility of not having a representative of its largest neighbor and trading partner," Professor Lal said. "Fiji needs to re-engage with its regional neighbors, whether it likes it or not."

Oh really? Someone seems to have put something in Brij Lal’s chai.

The fact is that Fiji’s critics in politics and the media – along with anyone else who hoped for the government’s destruction – are having to eat a big slice of humble pie.

One thing is certain. They seriously underestimated Voreqe Bainimarama right from the start, the determination of a military commander to achieve his objective of busting the paradigms of the past and setting Fiji on a different course.

Yes, mistakes have been made along the way and clearly some things could have been done better. But the country’s overall prospects have rarely looked more encouraging and especially when it comes to Bainimarama’s multiracial agenda.

Race relations

As the former Vice-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, observed last week, race relations in Fiji have never been better.

And this from someone who was dismissed from his position by Commodore Bainimarama.

Of course, Ratu Joni is now being shouted down for his impertinence on the anti-regime websites, just like Bob Carr and Murray McCully and anyone else who dares to deviate from their relentlessly negative script.

The real tragedy is that Australia and New Zealand didn’t have the wit to engage from day one, to recognize that Fiji had an entrenched racial problem that was getting worse under Laisenia’s Qarase’s SDL and that the military’s intervention was understandable, even if it could not be condoned.

They could have imposed their sanctions, constantly preached the need to return to democracy and sacrificed none of their overriding principles that any coup is unacceptable.

Yet instead of disengaging, they could have chosen the much better option of keeping Bainimarama close and trying to influence outcomes – the Pacific way, if you like, of being seen to help Fiji through a difficult phase rather than punish.

As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, no senior Australian diplomat has been to see Voreqe Bainimarama for five and a half years. And yet the Americans talk to him, the French talk to him and much of the rest of the world beats a path to his door.

It has never made sense and worse, seems destined to be seen in retrospect as a mistake of historical proportions.

Geopolitical change

It has altered the entire geopolitical position in the region, weakened regional structures like the Pacific Forum, given China an important strategic advantage, alarmed the Americans to the extent that they changed their own hardline stance and driven the most influential island nation into the Non Aligned Movement and a host of other relationships.

And for what? For a principle that was highly doubtful –given the racism of the Qarase government– and couldn’t be enforced. It’s a failure of Australian leadership in the Pacific with a capital F.

Failure to isolate Fiji except with some small Australian and NZ satellites like Samoa. Failure to have it removed from UN peace-keeping operations.

Failure to persuade even its own citizens that Bainimarama was a pariah, let alone Fiji, as the biggest influx of Australian tourists in Fijian history – 336,000 last year, triple the number 10 years ago – saw some of them lining up to shake his hand.

And now the first official signs of capitulation.

The biggest challenge for Australia as it tries to re-engage with Fiji is that Fiji sees no need for Australian government approval anymore. It’s axiomatic that what a government thinks doesn’t really matter when thousands of its own citizens happily bed down in the "pariah’s" resorts every night.

Economic ties

Yes, the economic ties are important and, yes, the Fiji government’s new policy of being "friends with everyone" naturally extends to Australia. But Ratu Inoke was sending the bluntest of messages to Canberra and Wellington when he said that Fiji wasn’t overly concerned about better relations if that got in the way of the government’s reform program.

The fact is that having an Australian high commissioner in Suva again won’t make a jot of difference to influencing events in Fiji. Let’s hope he or she makes the first trek to the PM’s office since 2006 and they begin the long process of rebuilding the friendship.

But they’ll find that Commodore Bainimarama isn’t overly concerned himself. He detests the Labor government in Canberra and privately hopes that it will be defeated in the Australian election next year.

Because he knows that only when Tony Abbott wins – and the Australian trade union monkey is off his back –will there be any real hope of beginning with a clean slate.

And an Abbott victory is the safest of bets when even senior Australian cabinet ministers concede that it’s no longer whether Labor loses but by how much.

Just as it hasn’t been a good week for Australia in the pool at the London Olympics, nor was it a good week for Australia’s image with its Pacific neighbors.

On both counts, there’s been a distinct whiff of impotence and defeat.

Graham Davis is an independent journalist and contributor to Pacific Scoop. This article was first published on his blog Grubsheet.

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