The thaw in relations between Fiji and New Zealand continues with the announcement of a $2-million contribution towards preparations for the 2014 election. While the precise allocation has yet to be finalised, $500,000 will go the Constitutional Commission and the balance towards the process of voter registration and education.
The thaw has been gradual and incremental, beginning with tentative contacts months ago between the NZ Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, and his Fijian counterpart, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. Their most recent meeting in Suva at the weekend was the most positive yet, at least judging from the effusive comments of Ratu Inoke, who said it “would be etched in the history books of both countries”.
For the normally cautious Foreign Minister to have made such a grand declaration, the atmospherics behind the scenes must have been extremely cordial. But Mr McCully, of course, has to be a lot more circumspect in his public statements and confined himself to being “happy” with the reform process in Fiji. The NZ Foreign Minister is caught between a natural desire for better ties to address the realpolitik in Suva and a domestic audience that ranges from sceptical to outwardly hostile about any accommodation with the Bainimarama regime.
There’s already something of a backlash in New Zealand over the revelation that its secret service agents uncovered an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Bainimarama and his number two, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum. You’d imagine that most New Zealanders would applaud the news given the appalling consequences if such a plan were to ever succeed. But NZ is a hotbed of anti-regime activity and incredibly, some of these individuals were asking aloud why such plots are illegal when it’s perfectly lawful for a New Zealand citizen, Christopher Pryde , to be working for the regime as Direct of Public Prosecutions. Yes, the lack of moral clarity among such people is breathtaking.
But while Murray McCully has to keep one eye on the voters back home, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his push for better ties with Fiji. What he didn’t say after his meeting with Ratu Inoke spoke just as loudly than what he did. Because he could have easily chosen to be drawn into last week’s unfortunate public spat between the Government and the Constitutional Commission over the question of immunity for regime figures when democracy is eventually restored. With the CONCOM head, Professor Yash Ghai, muttering about the risk of the Government’s plans “perpetuating a coup culture” and the Attorney General accusing the Commission of “undermining the justice system”, there are clearly some difficult days ahead. But the NZ Foreign Minister chose to cast it as a blip rather than a crisis – a sign in itself of how far the relationship has shifted. ”We weren’t going to see things (in Fiji) move overnight, but we are seeing things move in the right direction”, he said.
By not publicly taking sides, New Zealand is displaying a determination to keep the wheels on the reform process. Mr McCully said he’d be watching the situation closely, but he was happy with the process thus far. ”We’ve been given an assurance by the attorney general … that there would be freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the media to report on the work of the commission,” he said.
Yet for all the positive tone of his visit, the Foreign Minister made it clear that none of it signaled any imminent normalisation of ties between NZ and Fiji. The so-called “smart sanctions”, including travel bans, continue and Fiji will still be suspended from the Pacific Forum. Mr McCully said that were there to be any change on this, New Zealand would only be acting in concert with Australia. Yet with every month that passes – and the 2014 election looms closer – that back down becomes more and more inevitable.
All of which goes to explain the current atmosphere of near hysteria on anti-regime websites at any weakening of the Australian and NZ position on Fiji. The wave of frenzied capital letters and exclamation marks in the comments columns are a clear sign that the Government’s opponents know it is coming. But they intend to scream all the way to election day and beyond.
This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.