Sweet and sour goodies for Fiji (part 1)
27 Feb 2014|

Australia is setting out an array of goodies as it seeks to restore relations with Fiji, in anticipation of better days to follow September’s election. Canberra wants to achieve a diplomatic ceasefire, and to shift beyond the battle between Australia as the status quo South Pacific superpower and a revisionist Fiji that wants to remake the regional rules.

As my previous column noted, Australia’s interest is in preserving its central role in the South Pacific. Fiji, under Bainimarama, would prefer a region that treated Australia as an outsider, not an insider. Normalisation could damp the flames of that fight, even if the fire is far from extinguished.

The goodies Australia is offering Fiji serve two aims that aren’t necessarily complimentary: immediate goals for the future of Fiji and its politics and longer-term arguments about the shape of the Pacific system. Helping Fiji in the run up to the election will open the way for the broader regional game that will follow. The goal is to slowly turn a diplomatic ceasefire into some form of peaceful relationship, with both bilateral and regional dimensions.

The brawling between Australia and the military regime since the 2006 coup and the nature of the new government that’ll emerge from Fiji’s vote make this a hesitant and conditional project. The shift from isolation and sanction to normalisation and engagement is more than just a matter of changing course and altering language; the shift is from mind games to an attempt to find some meeting of minds.

Bainimarama assumes he’ll win the election handsomely. Canberra is merely resigned to such a win, while hoping that Fiji’s voters and the new electoral system will deliver surprises. The Supremo is used to giving orders, not taking them from the voters nor negotiating, as a civilian, with other civilian politicians. The machinery of Bainimarama’s New Order is about to have a crucial road test. If things turn out as Bainimarama anticipates, his hand at home and in the region will be strengthened and his options widened.

The election result and the government that emerges will decide the tempo and the temper of the Australian goodies. Looking at the inducements Australia is offering prompts the thought that this is an assortment of sweet-and-sour lollies. Each of the goodies has its attractions, but they all carry reminders of much sourness between two countries that have spent years kicking each other. To bed down a diplomatic ceasefire and start the march towards a peaceful relationship is going to mean moving beyond a lot of sour history. Not least of the questions is whether a mercurial Supremo emerges from a bout of electoral politics as a different sort of civilian Prime Minister; or whether a Bainimarama with a democratic mandate is empowered to push even harder for his New Order vision for Fiji and his new order for the South Pacific.

With all that in mind, consider, initially, these diplomatic goodies, and see the sour that goes with the sweet. Australia is offering to:

  • Support Fiji’s return to democracy and rebuild ‘the bilateral relationship into a dynamic and productive partnership’. This language is always accompanied by a gentle pull on the money lever with a reference to economic ties, tourism, and Australia’s continuing role, throughout the troubles, as Fiji’s largest bilateral aid donor.
  • To end what are now partial and discretionary travel sanctions on Suva’s elite. The continuing anger of the regime at the restrictions shows that they’ve had a symbolic value that nearly equates to their irritant quality. Fiji’s Attorney-General called the travel sanctions an ‘abomination’. This from a regime that overthrew an elected government at gun point, abrogated the constitution, subdued the judiciary, churches and civil society and has held its society in political limbo for eight years. Part of the sour in any deal is that Australia will have to swallow Suva’s view that it’s Canberra that has been guilty of abominable behaviour and it’s now for Australia to atone for its sins. Australia is going to cop it sweet. The new script is all about the future. During her Suva visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said since taking office in September the Abbott government has abandoned the black list and had ‘granted visas to virtually every person from Fiji who has applied. I think 56 visas have been granted in recent months and so, as Fiji progresses to an election, then we will progressively ease these sanctions and I think quite a breakthrough was reached in that regard’.
  • To fully restore normal diplomatic relations. Bishop said that normalisation isn’t conditional on Fiji admitting Australia’s nominated High Commissioner, Margaret Twomey. This comment points to a strange Suva saga. At a meeting in July, 2012, the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand agreed that the three countries would end the bout of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and reinstate their High Commissioners (Ambassadors).

Acting after receiving the normal and formal agreement from Suva, Australia announced in December, 2012, that Margaret Twomey would become the new High Commissioner in Fiji. She’s still sitting in Canberra waiting for Fiji to grant an entry visa. The farce has thus stretched from 2012 to 2014, a reminder that what the Supremo promises is not always what he delivers. The symbolism and substance of diplomatic exchanges is subject to Bainimarama’s temper. He says keeping the High Commissioner in the waiting lounge is a way of punishing Australia for its lack of respect and its campaign against Fiji.

Refer to that previous reference to the appropriate arcane diplomatic term (cop it sweet). The new script has an array of other goodies beyond diplomatic normalisation, which will be considered in my next column.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow.