Rapid changes in Fiji require a delicate balance of support

It’s been just over a month and a half since Fiji’s new coalition government, headed by former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka, was sworn in to parliament. The December election was a tight race, as many had predicted, and Rabuka’s former party, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), was dubbed ‘kingmaker’ when its eventual support for Rabuka ended Frank Bainimarama’s 16-year premiership. Australia’s relationship with the new government appears to be positive, but we must ensure our support continues to be Fiji-focused regardless of who’s leading the country.

Rabuka and his coalition have hit the ground running, making sweeping changes that have caused a few tense moments. He is loosening a restrictive media act, and Fiji Broadcasting Corporation CEO Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum (a brother of former attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum) has been removed. The government has welcomed back exiled officials and is reviewing diplomatic appointments to ensure they represent the needs of the government. Rabuka has also set up the Mercy Commission, which was written into the 2013 constitution but never convened, to review the cases of those who have been incarcerated for a very long time. That process may lead to the release from prison of yet another coup instigator, George Speight.

Some are concerned that in moving so quickly the coalition may leave itself open to having its changes invalidated if the correct legal processes aren’t followed. Others believe that the new government is going too far too fast. The commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Major General Jone Kalouniwai, publicly outlined his concerns with the new government, citing his responsibility to do so given the military’s self-proclaimed role as ‘guardian’ under the Fijian constitution.

After 16 years of one government, there’s little cabinet experience in the coalition. Rabuka has admitted that some mistakes will be made—or, as Home Affairs Minister Pio Tikoduadua said after a damage-control meeting with Kalouniwai, ‘We are all learning.’ It was a moment of tension, but Rabuka and Tikoduadua settled the simmering pot before it boiled over. With many campaign promises still to be delivered, however, there could still be more sticking points to come.

As would be expected, the opposition—namely, Bainimarama and his right-hand man Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum—wasted no time in ridiculing the government’s every move. Bainimarama could seize power through a motion of no confidence, so Rabuka will have to ensure he keeps SODELPA onside after initially rewarding the party with key ministries and positions. But Bainimarama’s absence hasn’t necessarily left the gaping hole that it could have. In fact, Rabuka has returned to power relatively seamlessly after 23 years.

Rabuka also inherited the role of Pacific Islands Forum chair, at least until the position transitions to Cook Islands in March. The short timeframe means expectations on Rabuka to achieve much in the position were minimal. But he was quick to make a statement by travelling to Kiribati in January on his first overseas trip that he was intent on bringing it back to the fold. In what can only be deemed a major win for unity in the region, Rabuka came home successful in facilitating Kiribati’s presumptive return to the forum. His success demonstrates that Fiji will be no less influential in the region under Rabuka’s leadership than under Bainimarama’s, and perhaps even more so.

Looking further out in the region, last week Rabuka announced that he will terminate the memorandum of understanding between the Fiji Police Force and China’s Ministry of Public Security that has been in place since 2011. He explained that there was no need for the policing relationship to continue because the two countries’ ‘systems of democracy and justice systems are different’. In the meantime, both Rabuka and Tikoduadua have expressed a desire to deepen Fiji’s relationship with Australia, New Zealand and the US based on their having similar systems.

At the same time, police commissioner Sitiveni Qiliho was suspended from his role, as was the commissioner of corrections, Francis Kean. Both have strong ties to Bainimarama—Kean is the former PM’s brother-in-law—and questionable backgrounds to say the least. China’s policing assistance in the Pacific, which Qiliho was closely involved with for the past six years, has vastly more authoritarian characteristics than that of Australia or New Zealand. The decisions to remove the two commissioners and tear up the agreement with China were partly to demonstrate this change to a domestic audience and partly to send a clear signal to foreign partners about where Fiji’s values lie, and that aid and assistance must align with those values.

It’s a welcome statement for Australia and New Zealand, which are also seeking to highlight the values shared among all countries in the Pacific neighbourhood. In a joint visit to Fiji this week by the Australian and New Zealand defence chiefs, New Zealand’s CDF, Air Marshal Kevin Short, reiterated the importance of respecting Fiji’s values and ways of operating. Australia will now need to ensure that the new Fijian government is not left unable to fill any capability gaps that might arise in the Fiji Police Force.

Even though the policing agreement has been terminated, China is unlikely to turn away from Fiji. Instead, Beijing will probably continue to aggressively pursue friendship and look for other areas to deepen the relationship with the new government. Even Tikoduadua’s decision to meet with Taipei before Beijing won’t halt the Chinese Communist Party’s advances. Rabuka’s government will have to find a way to hold to its values without sacrificing a large economic partner.

Australia and other democratic partners should focus on supporting the coalition government in its efforts to strengthen Fiji both domestically and regionally. When Rabuka travelled to Kiribati, he flew on a Royal Australian Air Force plane, and the iconic kangaroo roundel featured in the background of some fantastic photo opportunities that had a wide reach across the region. Actions like this demonstrate that Canberra is interested in supporting the success of the region without needing to be at the forefront of issues.

As Rabuka’s coalition powers ahead, intent on moving past the policies of the previous government, there remains a risk of discontent if the population feels left behind. Australia must remain focused on supporting Fiji as a whole, and find a delicate balance between supporting the democratising instincts of the new government and not sullying the record of the previous prime minister, with whom we built a close partnership, and who might return.