#87 A CLAYTON’S RE-ENGAGEMENT

NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully and his Aussie counterpart Bob Carr in Suva (photo: Minfo)

There’s something distinctly perverse about Australia and New Zealand maintaining their so-called smart sanctions against Fiji when their personnel are taking part in the registration of voters for the promised elections in 2014.  Two electoral experts – one from each country  – have joined the team that’s about to sweep through Fiji, updating the electoral roll by electronic means that are said to be tamper proof. This surely implies an acceptance in Canberra and Wellington  – however qualified – that the Fiji Government is proceeding with the elections. It also implies a belief – however qualified – that democracy in Fiji is in the process of being restored. Yet the official policy of both countries remains the diplomatic isolation of Fiji and travel bans on those associated with the regime to force it to an immediate poll. As the calendar rolls over, an election “now’ or one in 28 month’s time is fast becoming a moot point. And Australian and NZ policy looks increasingly frayed and unjustified.

Different approach: US ambassador Frankie Reed with President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau (Photo: US embassy)

It’s especially so when their dominant partner in ANZUS – the United States – has chosen to reengage with Fiji, resuming high level contact across a broad front. Now that the Aussies and Kiwis have pried open the door with their decision to assist in the electoral reform process, some tough questions are being asked about the consistency of their overall approach. How credible is it to engage with Fiji at one level but refuse to do so on others? How credible is it to assist with one hand and punish with the other? Because however much it might make sense to the bureaucrats and their political masters in Canberra and Wellington, it makes little sense to anyone else, including their American allies. US officials may not say so publicly out of deference to their ANZUS partners but certainly express private dismay that Canberra and Wellington have so readily allowed access to Fiji for their Chinese rivals.

However much they speak of Fiji “not yet doing enough to be rewarded”, there can only be one plausible explanation for Aussie and Kiwi intransigence – political and diplomatic loss of face that the sanctions haven’t brought Fiji to heel. Bainimarama is proceeding with the timetable he announced all along – a national poll based on equal votes of equal value some time before September 2014.  Yes, pure democracy in Fiji for the first time instead of the racially-weighted version that existed before Bainimarama’s 2006 coup and that Australia and NZ implicitly supported.

Polite disengagement: Bob Carr and Fiji counterpart Ratu Inoke Kubuabola (photo: Minfo)

Oh dear, goes the thinking among the bureaucrats and their political masters in Canberra and Wellington. How do we adjust to the fact that the clocking is ticking away, an election is now only 28 months away and there’s ample evidence that Frank Bainimarama intends to keep his promise? Mmm. We can’t just back off, lift the sanctions and eat humble pie. What would that do to our regional and global standing – a tin-pot Pacific dictator making us look both stupid and impotent? Mmm. OK, here’s a plan. Let’s maintain the sanctions but start re-engaging in a minor way that might make any election fairer but doesn’t imply approval of the way in which it was brought about.  How does that sound? Mmm. Yes Minister. Of course, Minister.

No-one doubts the importance of Australia and NZ providing experts to assist in the voter registration program. It makes it much less likely that the regime’s opponents and the international community will be able to question the credibility of any election when it’s held. Yet the paradox is that while they are now working to ensure that the 2014 election is seen to be free and fair, Australia and NZ continue – through their travel bans – to degrade the quality of governance in Fiji.

Weakened governance: Frank Bainimarama (photo:Minfo)

No Fijian or foreigner who wants to retain access to either country can take up employment with the Fiji government or any of its statutory authorities. The bans have undoubtedly deprived Fiji of hundreds of potential recruits – among them, the country’s brightest minds – who need to visit Australia and NZ for family or business reasons or simply don’t want to be isolated from the region’s brightest lights. Those who take up board positions are similarly disadvantaged and the bans even apply to members of the judiciary. It’s led to an acute shortage of magistrates and judges in a willful betrayal of the principle of access to justice for all.

It is petty and unconscionable, not least because better governance – the constant development catch-cry in the Pacific – is being sacrificed in Fiji and for what? To save face in the corridors of “power” in Canberra and Wellington. The decision to engage in the electoral reform process is a welcome crack in the granite-hard façade. But just as Clayton’s Tonic is the drink you have instead of a real drink, Australia and NZ are engaged in a Clayton’s re-engagement with Fiji – the engagement you have when a full engagement is just too hard to swallow because it also involves having to swallow some pride.

This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun and the blog of the influential NZ academic commentator, Crosbie Walsh.