Bob Carr : Under big bruvver (and sista) watch (photo:News Limited)

“What a difference a day makes”, goes the old song, and never more so than when politics gets in the way of diplomacy. The incoming Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, arrived in New Zealand yesterday for talks with his Kiwi counterpart evidently signalling an imminent change in Canberra’s hardline stance against Fiji. News Limited papers in Australia had reported that Carr was set to perform a dramatic about face, ending Fiji’s five years of diplomatic isolation, and also carried explicit calls for a change of policy from the Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesman, Julie Bishop. The Carr story must have come from him or those around him. And the word on the diplomatic circuit also had it that change was in the air, prompting Grubsheet to confidently predict a rollback too. Yet by the end of his meeting in Auckland last night with his NZ opposite number, Murray McCully, Carr’s position appeared to have softened like butter in the sun. It was premature, he said, to flag any change of policy and he was seeking more information about the situation in Fiji.

What prompted the about face of the about face? At face value, the evident change of  heart is unlikely to have been prompted from the Kiwi side. Murray McCully had long ago quietly broken ranks with Carr’s hardline predecessor, Kevin Rudd, and begun to engage with Fiji in a personal capacity, resuming direct contact with Fiji’s foreign minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola. While Wellington maintained its travel sanctions on members of Frank Bainimarama’s regime, the atmospherics had been steadily improving. So much so that Bainimarama himself said in last weekend’s Grubsheet/ SkyNews interview that the “Kiwis were being more understanding than the Australians”, perhaps because of pressure from the large number of Fijians living in NZ. Australia was now alone, he said, in refusing to have anything at all to do with Fiji.

The answer lies in the furious backlash yesterday to any suggestion of a change in policy on the part of the regime’s critics. And especially the trade unions in Australia, who wield absolute power over the Labor Government and determine its policies. The Labor factions routinely make or break individual MPs, who defy the unions at their peril. That might was never more obvious than in the disposal of Carr’s predecessor, Rudd, whose defiance directly brought about his political demise. And those hands are now around Carr’s throat, as his comments in Auckland last night clearly indicate.

Carr told the ABC that before there was any fundamental change in policy towards Fiji, he’d be seeking more information from the Australian Council of Trade Unions ( the ACTU ) about the human rights position of workers there. He wants to further investigate claims that any union official who speaks out against the interim government still risks life imprisonment.”Certainly one of the tests we’d consider in the future is the right of organisation in the workplace,” The ABC reported Carr as saying. “That’s a fundamental human right. I’d expect to have more conversations with unionists, in particular the ACTU.”

Dan Urai and Felix Anthony

Those comments effectively dash any hope for a fundamental change in Australia’s attitude to Fiji in the foreseeable future. Why? Because the ACTU’s position on Fiji is among the most militant and hardline of all. It even includes calls for a tourist boycott of Fiji, something that would destroy the local economy altogether if Australian holidaymakers were to heed it. The ACTU waded into Fiji at the request of a brace of local unionists – most notably Daniel Urai and Felix Anthony – who once supported Frank Bainmarama but turned on him when he set out to curb their power to shut down essential services like the national airline, Air Pacific. The Fijian leader has accused certain unionists of trying to sabotage the national economy,  a fair point- arguably -when Air Pacific carries the bulk of Fiji’s tourism traffic. Both men have been detained for various periods and Urai now faces a charge of sedition, which carries a life sentence. Bainimarama evidently didn’t count on Australian unions seeing his decrees to curb local union power as an attack on worker’s rights generally. Nor, it seems, did he count on them doing much more than creating a bit of noise.

It’s now clear that the ACTU has both the will and the power to maintain Australia’s hardline stance on Fiji. Never mind the decision by the United States to re-engage with Fiji because of concerns about the growing Chinese presence in the region or the calls by Australian think tanks such as the Lowy Institute for Canberra to follow Washington’s lead. Fiji policy in the Australian government looks set to be driven by the “bruvvers”, the unelected union bosses who determine every aspect of Australian policy while ever the Labor minority government clings to power. Bainimarama may not have helped his cause by telling Grubsheet in the Sky interview that Fiji looked forward to a better hearing from opposition leader Tony Abbott. Australian union leaders equate Abbott to the Antichrist and dread his almost certain victory at the polls next year.

Paul Howes- finger on Carr(Photo: SMH)

Lest anyone doubt the resolve of these people who bring Fiji to its knees, it’s worth reading this article in News Limited papers in December – the eve of the holiday season – by Paul Howes, the Labor king maker and ultra powerful National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, the biggest Labor faction. It was Howes – who also happens to be Vice President of the ACTU – who ended Kevin Rudd’s tenure as Australian prime minister 21 months ago, famously appearing on television immediately afterwards to gloat about the elected leader’s demise.

In the article, he calls on Australians to think twice about holidaying in Fiji because of what he calls “the threats to freedom” there. So you can bet your bottom dollar that he will have told Bob Carr to think twice about re-engaging with Fiji. When Carr peers over the horizon at his new responsibilities as foreign minister, he’s also peering over the carcass of his predecessor, who didn’t have the wit to realise who really calls the shots in Australian Labor. Having won three elections as Labor premier in New South Wales to become the state’s longest continuous serving leader, Carr isn’t likely to make the same mistake.

All this as the Fiji Government rides a wave of positive publicity over its constitutional blueprint, announced yesterday, leading to the elections it’s promised before September 2014. Frank Bainimarama announced the formation of a Constitutional Commission headed by a Kenyan-born constitutional expert, Professor Yash Ghai, that also includes a high level of public consultation before it reports in 12 months time. Ghai’s appointment was universally welcomed, with the Lowy’s Institute’s Jenny Hayward-Jones, describing him as the foremost global authority in his field. She described yesterday’s developments as “very positive”, as did Murray McCully, the New Zealand Foreign Minister. Bob Carr merely described them as “interesting” – a clear sign that those hoping for a change in Australian policy needn’t hold their breaths.

This article has subsequently appeared on Pacific Scoop New Zealand.

To understand the potency of the union campaign against Bainimarama’s government, one need go no further than Phillipa McDonald’s recent report for the ABC’s Lateline program. Daniel Urai is portrayed as a blameless hero, with no acknowledgement that Urai specially urged Australian unions to punish Fiji  for its alleged anti-union activities by specifically targeting the fragile economy. There was the barest acknowledgement – in the interview with the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum -of the need for the regime to protect essential services to save the economy from serious damage or collapse. Similarly, the former SDL MP, Mere Samisoni, is portrayed as a harmless elderly lady being pursued by a heartless regime when she has been one of the most strident advocates for indigenous supremacy –  a racist position that would never be tolerated in Australia

Further reading: The NZ blogger and former Fiji academic, Crosbie Walsh, says that by not responding more positively to Fiji’s concrete steps towards restoring democracy, New Zealand has again missed an opportunity to be part of the process, choosing irrelevance instead.

Jenny Hayward-Jones – writing in the Lowy Interpreter – predicts that the stars are aligning for a change of policy after what she describes as the most positive development from Fiji in years – Frank Bainimarama’s announcement of the constitutional blueprint.