( REVISED ON MARCH 7th WITH NEW MATERIAL)
Grubsheet’s interview with the Fijian leader, Frank Bainimarama, was shown at the weekend in Australia and New Zealand on Sky News and in Fiji in a news special on FBCTV. In it, Bainimarama says Australia is now alone among its ANZUS partners in refusing to engage with Fiji. And he reveals fresh details of his plans to return the country to democracy in 2014.
Below is a link to the full version of the interview on Youtube:
Since the interview was broadcast, Grubsheet has come under attack from regime critics for allegedly overstating the extent of American re-engagement with Fiji. They would do well to ponder this article in the Australian Financial Review by Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which underlines American concerns about Australia’s mishandling of the Fiji issue.
In the Grubsheet/Sky interview, Frank Bainimarama accuses Australia – under former foreign minister, Kevin Rudd – of having neglected the Pacific region. He’s far from alone, with both ASPI and the other major Australian foreign affairs think tank, the Lowy Institute, making the same claim. It’s worth taking a look at the following Australia Network interview with Lowy’s Executive Director, Michael Wesley, who explains in illuminating detail why the strategic tussle between the United States and China is so important for everyone living in the region. It’s a compelling argument for the incoming Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, to re-engage with Fiji as soon as possible.
No surprise, of course, that the regime’s opponents in Australia do everything they can to derail any renewed contact. Chief among these is Dr Jon Fraenkel of the Australian National University, who poses as an independent commentator on Fiji but is a partisan political player as co-author of a ten point plan for a return to “democracy” promoted by the renegade military officer, Ratu Tevita Mara. The inverted commas are because Fraenkel’s notion of democracy includes the restoration of the hereditary Great Council of Chiefs. He also refuses to explain the circumstances of the accompanying photograph in which he poses – alongside the historian, Bril Lal – with Simione Kaitani, one of the perpetrators of George Speight’s 2000 coup.
Here’s a link to an extraordinary interview Fraenkel has given to Radio New Zealand, claiming Frank Bainimarama’s plans for a return to democracy – outlined in the Grubsheet interview – are “vague”. He blithely ignores the fact that the PM specifically said that the 2014 election would be free and fair, be conducted on the basis of one man, one vote, be preceded by the formulation of a “credible constitution”, be open to all, that he was considering standing himself and that even the man he ousted, Laisenia Qarase, was free to put his name forward.
There was nothing vague about Bainimarama’s comments, judging from this article in Pacific Islands Report, the daily news sheet produced by the East West Centre at the University of Hawaii, that’s become a principal tool of reference for Pacific watchers throughout the world. It honed in on the substance of Bainimarama’s comments. Radio New Zealand chose to hone in on Jon Fraenkel’s lamentable spin.
To its credit, Radio NZ at least carried several stories from the Bainimarama interview, his first one-on-one for 18 months. Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, chose to ignore it altogether and not a word appeared on the domestic service or its two regional offshoots, Radio Australia and Australia Network. It wasn’t as if the PM’s comments weren’t newsworthy so what gives? Part of the answer came in a remarkably one-sided piece from Fiji by ABC correspondent Philippa McDonald, who had asked for an interview with Bainimarama herself and had been refused.
McDonald’s story – carried on all ABC outlets, domestic and foreign – concentrated on the regime’s supposedly harsh treatment of certain leaders of the Methodist Church, union leader Daniel Urai, and Mere Samisoni, the former SDL MP and racial supremacist who once famously declared that Fiji was for indigenous Fijians and if the other races didn’t like it they should leave. All are facing a variety of charges in the Fiji courts, Samisoni for plotting to overthrow the government.
In his Grubsheet/Sky interview, Bainimarama specifically referred to the Methodist Church -accusing some of its leaders of fueling racial division – and certain trade unionists ( including Urai), accusing them of trying to sabotage the Fiji economy by enlisting Australian trade unions to try to persuade Australians not to visit Fiji. None of this was included in McDonald’s report. The church leaders, Urai and Samisoni were all cast as innocent victims of a military dictatorship, “prominent” Fijians speaking out against the regime.
The Fiji Government, for one, is incensed, not just by McDonald’s report but the fact that the PM’s interview was “spiked” by every ABC outlet. Was it because Bainimarama was highly critical of Australian foreign policy? In the normal course of events, it shouldn’t have mattered. The ABC – by an act of the Australian Parliament – is meant to be apolitical and report without fear or favour. Yet recent events may well have compromised that independence or at the very least, given it the appearance of having been compromised.
The ABC was involved in a Herculean battle with Sky News to retain the $20-million plus contract from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide the Australia Network television service – its soft diplomacy arm. That contract – to the ABC’s consternation – had been put out to public tender by the former foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, who wanted better value and wider coverage to meet his ambitious foreign policy objectives.
Two separate independent inquiries evidently recommended that the contract go to Sky. But in the event, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, intervened and ordered that the contract be awarded to the ABC in perpetuity. That decision – while it enraged the government’s critics and even led to accusations that the process was corrupt – is said to have been greeted with a wave of relief within the ABC, which faced staffing cuts had it lost the contract to Sky. Is this part of the payoff, that the ABC is more compliant when it comes to its coverage of Australian foreign policy? It sure looks that way when it declines to report newsworthy comments by a regional leader and current chairman of the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
Radio Australia – which regards itself as the preeminent broadcaster in the region – had only just got permission to switch its FM transmitters back on in Fiji after a government-enforced blackout. It will be interesting to see if – in his displeasure – Frank Bainimarama revisits that decision. But if the ABC chooses to ignore him when a host of other media outlets – including the NZ public broadcaster – give vent to his views, then it can hardly complain when the recent thawing of its relationship reverts to a sudden chill.