Australia and Fiji go from duel to dance
18 Nov 2014|

Q: How do porcupines make love?

A: Carefully.

The joke sets up the Australia’s ‘new era of partnership and prosperity’ with Fiji. The goal is to avoid being impaled on the points while pursuing the pleasure. Fiji and Australia already have a lot of wounds to ignore as they embrace, carefully shifting from duel to dance. The dance will have elements of the old duel, with less overt slash and stab. But after eight years of nothing but duel, it’s back to ‘normal’ to explore what’s possible. Forget past pain to seek future gain. The new era of harmony, though, will be reached porcupine-fashion.

The embrace is cautious because the two nations have duelled for so long. Even as swords lower, the duel defines the starting point. The embrace of ‘normal’ is an attempt to think beyond the scars, yet the underlying reality of the duel persists. Much can be changed, and for the better. The new normal offers chances and the re-opening of channels that have been shut by both sides.

The dance beyond the duel is about rebuilding the relationship. The dialogue—and any understanding—matters for the South Pacific, not least for the discussion Suva and Canberra are to lead on the regional architecture. The regionalism conversation between the status quo and the revisionist power will be fascinating, whatever fruit it bears.

Having spent two years waiting for an entry visa from Fiji, Australia’s High Commissioner, Margaret Twomey, finally gets to dance. The wait says something about the diverse weapons deployed in the duel—from mind games to multilateral minuets. Australia announced in December, 2012, that Twomey would go to Suva, restoring diplomatic relations to the highest level.

Despite giving formal agrément to Twomey’s appointment, Fiji’s regime refused to let her fill the post, to punish Australia for lack of respect. As with the quick peace-prosperity-and-partnership visit to Suva by the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, Twomey’s short flight from Oz to Fiji means the end of a long road; no Damascene conversions by either side, but with all sanctions lifted a new journey waits.

Twomey knows Fiji well from her previous time as Deputy High Commissioner during the 2000 coup, when Frank Bainimarama began the long march to his New Order. Having created his version of Suharto’s Golkar Party, Bainimarama rules as elected Prime Minister. Australia has accepted, as formally as it needs to, Frank’s New Order (and I’ve stopped calling him Supremo).

With democracy restored by his own hand, Bainimarama can’t get too paranoid if Australian diplomats talk to all levels of Fijian society. In the Supremo era, diplomatic activity by the Oz High Commission in the hills above Suva (Australia’s finest embassy building in the South Pacific) was seen as plotting to overthrow the New Order. Tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed. Furious Frank Funks are still likely, but ‘normal’ surely means all parts of Fijian society can enjoy their normal rights.

Australia had a lot of experience dealing with Suharto’s New Order and can apply those lessons. One obvious rule is to watch what the leader says, but attach real weight to what he does. Canberra is attempting a dialogue directed at actions and outcomes, while knowing there’s a good chance of gaps between declarations and deeds. Canberra is used to kicks from Suva (see Furious Frank Funks); they won’t hurt much if good things are also happening.

Another set of rules concern power and the courtiers. The role of Fiji’s Attorney-General Aiyaz SayedKhaiyum, is already worth a book. Aiyaz has wrapped himself so closely around the throne it’s hard to say where the ruler ends and the Attorney-General starts. When Fiji’s Parliament sits, one form of spectator sport is to track whether Aiyaz is scribbling more notes of advice and instruction to the Prime Minister or the Speaker.

Restoring military relations will offer a useful space clear of Aiyaz and close to Frank. The New Order handbook says military-to-military is a vital regime window that helps set the relationship temperature. Having enjoyed the dubious delights of military education and training in China, Fiji’s officer corps is apparently looking forward to the professional and personal pleasures of the Australian Defence Force. At the ADF Weston Creek college, Sitiveni Rabuka and Bainimarama are both on the class honour roll—for achieving staff rank, not successful coups.

In an unusual twist to New Order habits, Australia may be more comfortable re-engaging Fiji’s military than Fiji’s police. That’s because the police answer to Aiyaz. The new dance with Suva has lots of complicated steps.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Dru.