Sophocles referred to the phenomenon in Antigone, Shakespeare in Henry IV and Anthony and Cleopatra – the age-old tendency to inflict retribution on the bearer of bad tidings. And, boy, is the messenger copping it right now over the opinion poll that shows two thirds of Fijians solidly behind the supposedly hated dictator, Frank Bainimarama.
When it commissioned the poll, the independent Australian think-tank – the Lowy Institute – could scarcely have imagined the results. But having received them, it stuck to its plan to unveil them as regional leaders gathered at the recent Pacific Forum in Auckland. This is very much to its credit, given the Institute’s consistent condemnation of Bainimarama’s 2006 coup. As the head of its Melanesian program, Jenny Hayward-Jones, explained, the aim was to give the Fijian people a voice where none existed at the ballot box or in the censored local media. The problem is that when they spoke, it wasn’t what the regime’s legion of critics wanted to hear. And so we have the delicious irony of so-called democracy campaigners crying foul and peppering the Lowy Institute with more craters than on Manuel Noriega’s face.
“The timing is bad” – cried human rights campaigner Shamima Ali – presumably on the basis that any poll that doesn’t show abject loathing for Bainimarama isn’t helpful to her cause. Then up popped disaffected academic Professor Wardan Narsey with the remarkable proposition that those questioned were too uneducated to understand what they were being asked. Well, do you approve or don’t you? It hardly requires the grey matter that put men on the moon. Then there were arguments about methodology, despite the supervision of Newspoll founder Sol Lebovic, arguably Australia’s most respected pollster. And finally, the most ludicrous proposition of all – that those being polled were gripped with terror by the knock on the door and meekly gave the dictator a tick for fear of a cuffing up at the camp.
This came from Australia’s Pacific Islands Minister – the very junior Richard Marles – whose job it is to adhere to the hard line on Fiji set by his boss, the Napoleonic Kevin Rudd, for whom foreign policy nowadays takes a back seat to seizing back his old job from the walking disaster that is Julia Gillard. Coming from such a luminary, it didn’t take long for the “fear factor” to become the dominant narrative, repeated again and again, most recently by Canberra academic and anti-regime campaigner, Jon Fraenkel, writing in The Australian.
Here’s the link to a well argued riposte to Fraenkel’s “do nothing but maintain the hard line” argument from Anthony Bergin, Richard Herr and Mark Johnson on behalf of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. They – like Grubsheet – support Australian re-engagement with Fiji to help it back to democracy in 2014 and want Canberra to pursue re-engagement at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth. Fiji-born Johnson – one of the founders of Macquarie Bank – helped finance the Lowy poll. Fraenkel came back with this disingenuous letter to The Australian that’s totally at odds with his previously stated positions, which are to oppose re-engagement and call for stronger sanctions against Fiji. He also – quite outrageously in our opinion- questioned Mark Johnson’s motives in putting up the money for the Lowy poll.
As Jenny Hayward-Jones has wearily pointed out, only one per cent of those canvassed refused to answer the questions. Ergo, 99 per cent of respondents were willing to express an opinion. How – by any twist of logic – does that indicate a climate of fear? Hayward-Jones has also pointed to further evidence of the bleeding obvious -that if Fiji was, for argument’s sake, North Korea, you’d expect an even bigger endorsement from its cowered subjects for their glorious “dear leader” Frank. As it was, a third of those polled didn’t think he was doing a good job. In other words, not-so-good or bad. This was a poll of more than a thousand people. That means well over three hundred of them were prepared to risk being piled into the back of military utes for re-education up at the camp. Anyone with experience of ordinary people in Fiji knows they’re not short of an opinion. So let’s face it, guys, the “fear factor” argument doesn’t stack up.
This is the bankrupt nature of Australian policy towards Fiji, the refusal to listen to anything but the chorus of protest from the regime’s opponents. “Of course, the people of Fiji hate the dictatorship. How could it be otherwise?” Well, how about examining the evidence. The shame of it is that while someone like Jenny Hayward- Jones is willing to do so – whatever her distaste for the dictator – the likes of Richard Marles and Jon Fraenkel are not. These are the putative standard bearers for democracy. Yet as Hayward-Jones so aptly puts it, they’re refusing to listen to the voice of ordinary Fijian people. These people have spoken, but no-one is prepared to listen. It’s hardly a great advertisement for democracy if you’re sitting in a squatter settlement in Suva.
Incidentally, Grubsheet and Jon Fraenkel are at it again, this time over our request that Fraenkel explain the circumstances of his involvement with the so-called Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement and his association with 2000 coup maker Simione Kaitani. The email exchange is at the bottom of this posting. Fraenkel is refusing to play, accusing us of being “ridiculous” for attacking those who support democracy in Fiji. No, Jon, we’re for democracy too but not your brand of democracy, which is the restoration of the old order. We’re asking why someone like you – who is on the public payroll in Australia and poses as an independent commentator – also poses with coup makers and is an active player in Fijian domestic politics. We’ll leave it to our readers to decide who looks more ridiculous under the circumstances.
We’re also providing a link here to a speech we gave in Nadi the other day at Fiji’s inaugural literary festival, at which we had some sharp things to say about the foreign media’s coverage of events there. We added our voice to calls for the lifting of censorship and did it in front of the government’s chief spokesperson and censor, Sharon Smith-Johns. She was unfazed but said the regime still wasn’t prepared to trust the local media after the Fiji Times had recently tried to publish a story and cartoon raising questions about the safety of the national airline, Air Pacific. Had it been published – Smith-Johns said – it had the potential to destroy public confidence in Air Pacific and with it, the entire Fiji economy. No-one in the room – Grubsheet included – had any retort.
Much as censorship is indefensible, there’s still clearly a problem with editorial leadership in Fiji. The source for the safety allegations was the union currently in dispute with Air Pacific. So to paraphrase the luscious Mandy Rice-Davies, “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Here’s a link to the Smith-Johns speech. Her Air Pacific comments came in the question and answer session afterwards.
The Fiji Times doesn’t help its cause with headlines like this, baldly stating that deposed prime minister Laisenia Qarase has been acquitted even before his current trial on charges of abuse of office gets properly underway. Is it incompetence or part of a concerted campaign on Qarase’s behalf? Either way, it’s not going to put the regime in any frame of mind to lift censorship. And that’s bad for everyone in the Fiji media.
EMAIL EXCHANGE WITH JON FRAENKEL ( Best read from the bottom up)
On 15/10/2011, Graham Davis wrote:
You have not answered my questions, Jon, and, furthermore, launched a personal attack on me. On any fair appraisal, this constitutes a refusal to explain the extent of your political involvement – as author of Tevita Mara’s ten point plan – and your very public association with a participant in the 2000 Fiji coup.
You are an academic on the public payroll casting yourself as an independent commentator. The question of whether you are an active participant in Fiji domestic politics is clearly a matter for legitimate scrutiny in the public interest.
On 15/10/2011, Jon Fraenkel wrote:
You are supposedly a journalist, publish what you are given: ‘You make yourself look quite ridiculous by these continuing
> attacks on those urging a restoration of democracy in Fiji’, Its not a refusal. Jon. .
On 10/14/11, Graham Davis wrote:
Thank you, Jon,
This wasn’t an attack. I am a journalist who has given you an opportunity to put your side of the story.
I take this as a refusal to do so.
On 14/10/2011, Jon Fraenkel wrote:
> You really do make yourself look quite ridiculous by these continuing
> attacks on those urging a restoration of democracy in Fiji.
> —–Original Message—–
> From: Graham Davis
> Sent: Friday, 14 October 2011
> To: Jon Fraenkel
> Subject: Fiji
> Hi Jon,
> I’m writing a piece that refers to you and wonder if you can give me
> responses to the following:
> 1/ What were the circumstances that led you to co-author Roko Ului’s ten
> point plan for the immediate return to democracy in Fiji.
> 2/ Was this at your instigation, his or other members of the Freedom and
> Democracy Movement?
> 3/ What is your relationship with the FDM? Are you a member?
> 4/ How long have you known Roko Ului and what is the nature of your
> relationship with him?
> 5/ What were the circumstances of you being photographed with Simione
> Kaitani at one of Roko Ului’s rallies.
> 6/ What is the nature of your relationship with Kaitani?
> I’d appreciate a reply as soon as possible.