After all that hard work: Ratu Inoke Kubuabola and Bob Carr (Photo:Fairfax Media)

Relations between Fiji and Australia have taken a sudden turn for the worse and it now appears highly unlikely that the Government will accept a new Australian High Commissioner in Suva. Attitudes have hardened just as the diplomat chosen for the job – Margaret Twomey, Australia’s current ambassador to Russia – has been preparing to move to Suva to take up her appointment. Once again, the freeze has been prompted by Canberra’s continuing sanctions against Fiji and especially the comprehensive travel bans it has placed on Fijians associated with the military and the Bainimarama Government.

The Government is incensed that Australia has refused a visa to the CEO of the Fiji National Provident Fund, Aisake Taito, to enable him to travel there on official business. Mr Taito planned to hold a series of meetings with investment advisors and consultants to discuss ways to boost the superannuation savings of every Fijian worker. Canberra has said no. So the Government’s position is clear and unequivocal. This is no longer a case of punishing the Bainimarama Government. It is a dagger at the heart of every Fijian who relies on the FNPF to grow their hard-earned savings and ensure a secure and dignified retirement.

Banned: FNPF chief Aisake Taito (Photo:C4.5)

As unfriendly acts go, it doesn’t get much more blatant as Fiji sees it. Australia keeps saying that its so-called “smart” sanctions aren’t aimed at ordinary Fijians. Well this one is, Prime Minister Gillard. And rest assured, there will be consequences. Yes, it’s unfortunate given all the hard work to build bridges undertaken by Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, with his Australian counterpart, Bob Carr. But Fiji cannot and will not accept a situation in which its ordinary citizens are disadvantaged by a sanctions policy that is both capricious and unjust.

It’s worth examining that policy in detail to appreciate the outrageous nature of Australia’s behavior towards Fiji compared with its treatment of other countries and especially some of the most brutal regimes in the world. The policy is outlined in a document labeled the “Autonomous Sanctions Regulations 2011” that was promulgated just over a year ago. Various sanctions are applied not just against Fiji but countries such as Burma, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea and Zimbabwe. Yes, folks, this is what Australia really thinks of Fiji, to lump it in with the world’s biggest pariahs where human rights violations are routine and human life is cheap. Sound like us? It makes a dual Fijian-Australian citizen like Grubsheet cringe with annoyance and embarrassment.

The relevant Australian legislation

Incredibly, Australia’s sanctions against Fiji are more stringent and wide-ranging than anything it imposes against these genuine pariahs when it comes to travel to Australia. In fact, most Fijians don’t realise the full extent of those covered by the travel bans and are bound to be shocked and appalled when they find out.  As the relevant document puts it, the following are liable to be banned from travelling to, entering or remaining in Australia:

(a)          Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama.

(b)         A person who the Minister is satisfied is a supporter of the coup with which Commodore Bainimarama is associated, based on any combination of the person’s position, actions and statements.

(c)          A Minister of the interim government.

(d)         An officer of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces of the rank of Warrant Officer or higher.

(e)          An immediate family member of a person mentioned in paragraph (a), (b), (c) or (d)

(f)           A member of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces.

(g)          A person who the Minister is satisfied is a senior public servant appointed by the interim government.

(h)          A person appointed to, or otherwise engaged on, a government board or a quasi-government board by the interim government.

(i)            A member of the judiciary of Fiji.

These provisions – taken as a whole – apply to no other country. Yes, amazingly, they are more comprehensive than Australia’s travel bans on the citizens of such countries as Burma, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria.  In the case of Syria, 60,000 people have been killed so far as the Syrian Government engages in the brutal suppression of it citizens. Yet the only Syrians barred from Australia are those who are known to be responsible for human rights abuses and the use of violence against civilians.

Read the Fijian provisions carefully and especially Section B. If you even say – let alone write – that you support the events of 2006, you are liable to be banned from Australia. Yes, any ordinary citizen. But then Section E makes it clear that the ban also applies to an immediate family member of any person who says they support the events of 2006. So that if your brother or sister, father or mother were to say “ Oh, Frank was right to do what he did “ you too can be banned from Australia. Incredible but true.

This is not just an outrageous attack on ordinary Fijians by the Australian Government. It is an outrageous attack on the principle of free speech. We all know that there is widespread support in the country for the events of 2006. Indeed, the only opinion poll conducted since then by the Lowy Institute gave the Prime Minister a 67 per cent approval rating. But as the Australians see it, you can’t express your view that what Frank Bainimarama did was correct without risking a travel ban to Australia. And worse, if one of your family members does so, the ban also applies to you, even if you happen to oppose what he did. Can you believe it?

Never mind explaining itself to the Fijian Government, it’s high time for the Australian Government to explain this extraordinary policy to ordinary Fijians. And, yes, it’s also time to draw a line in the sand. For Australia’s arrogance, its determination to get its own way in Fiji, has gone way too far.

Its travel bans have degraded the quality of governance in Fiji by depriving us of our best minds. If you’re smart and want to help the country, Australia puts obstacles in the way of you doing so. If you want to take a senior civil service job or sit on a government board, you have to accept that you can never visit Australia, never go and see members of your family there or take in the sights of Sydney. Small wonder that so few people make the sacrifice because the price extracted by the Australian Government is so high. And of course that affects the rest of us when it comes to the quality of decision making and the provision of government services.

Even more incredible is the fact that the bans also apply to foreigners in Fiji who take government jobs, sit on boards or become judges. None of the Sri Lankan members of the judiciary can visit Australia. Even the CEO of Air Pacific, Dave Flieger, can’t visit Australia. Why? Because he has also taken the job of Chairman of Tourism Fiji, a government statutory body. Think about it. An American citizen who presides over the fortunes of an airline 46 per cent owned by the Australian national airline, Qantas, is banned from visiting Australia, which also happens to be Air Pacific’s biggest market. For starters, it’s an outrageous restriction on trade and the right of travel of an American citizen to one of its ANZUS partners. But it’s yet another way of Australia trying to damage Fiji’s economy and the lives of ordinary people, who rely on the proper governance of our public instrumentalities for their own welfare.

There’s a strange twist to this saga that provides an extraordinary insight into the current state of Australian politics. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has made it known that he personally opposes his own Government’s policy but can do nothing about it. Why? Because of the stranglehold of the Australian Council of Trade Unions on the fortunes of Julia Gillard’s Labor Government. The union factions within the ACTU actually decide who will be Prime Minister and Ms Gillard was installed after they lost confidence in her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. So as long as the unions decide that Fiji must be punished for the Bainimarama Government’s union reforms, the Australian sanctions will remain in place. Such is the nature of Australian politics and its damaging effect on the region. A group of unelected union officials dictating Australian policy towards Fiji. And they talk about a dictatorship in Fiji? The irony isn’t lost on Fijians even if it’s lost on the Australian Government.

Missing out all round: Margaret Twomey (Photo:SMH)

The great shame about Fiji feeling obliged to turn away the new Australian High Commissioner to make its point is that Margaret Twomey is such a terrific appointment. She knows Fiji well, having been Deputy Head of Mission in Suva several years ago and has many local friends and acquaintances. She understands Fiji like few other diplomats and is known to be sympathetic to its challenges. The fact that she was due to come to Suva from the prestigious post of Ambassador to the Russian Federation was also a reflection of the importance Bob Carr and the rest of DFAT place on a successful outcome in 2014. But alas, all that – it seems – will come to nought.

It’s doubtless a blow to both Bob Carr and our Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, who has worked hard to improve Fiji’s relations with both Australia and New Zealand. But from Fiji’s viewpoint, Australia needed to show that it was willing to accept the progress being made here – half a million people registered for an election based on equal votes of equal value for the first time and a constitution being formulated to introduce true parliamentary democracy for the first time. Instead, it continues to insist on lumping us in with the Burmese, the North Koreans, the Iranians, the Libyans, the Syrians and the Zimbabweans. And punishing us even more than them. Well OK, Cobbers, if that’s how it is with you, this is how it’s going to be with us. Back into the deep freeze while we engage with countries that treat us with a lot more respect.