Wadan Narsey is one of Fiji’s most gifted academics, an economist with an international reputation now living in Australia. He was once a member of parliament for the largely Indo-Fijian National Federation Party and is on the public record complaining vociferously about racism in Fiji. Yet he harbours a particular loathing for the racially-inclusive Bainimarama government and argues that its pursuit of equality doesn’t excuse what he terms the “illegality” of the 2006 coup.
Professor Narsey has long been a trenchant critic of the regime, a position he shares with his brother-in-law and fellow Australian exile, the historian Brij Lal. Yet the more Fiji moves towards the restoration of democracy in 2014, the more strident he seemingly becomes. His latest outburst is extraordinary even by his own hard-line standards – equating Australian and New Zealand citizens who choose to work for the Fiji Government with paedophiles and terrorists. Yes, incredibly Professor Narsey argues that they be treated in precisely the same way, declared criminals in their own countries for their roles in an “illegal regime”.
In an interview with Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat, Professor Narsey called on Canberra and Wellington to make it illegal for their citizens to work overseas in support of undemocratic regimes. Without naming them, he referred to several Australians and New Zealanders working for the Fiji Government. They presumably include such figures as the Director of Public Prosecutions, New Zealander Christopher Pryde, and the Permanent Secretary for Information, Sharon Smith Johns, who’s a dual Australian-Fijian national. Then there’s Fiji’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Peter Thomson, who’s in the unusual position of having triple Australian, New Zealand and Fiji citizenship. Under the Narsey plan, presumably His Excellency the Ambassador would be punished twice, from both Canberra and Wellington. Such people, of course, fall outside the current travel bans that are part of the so-called “smart sanctions” imposed on Fiji by Australia and NZ and can travel back and forth to their own countries at will.
Professor Narsey said both nations already treated citizens who traveled offshore to engage in paedophilia or terrorist activities as criminals and supporting “illegal” governments ought to be regarded in the same way. But he went on to make a distinction between those trying to restore lawful government and those justifying unlawful behaviour in a way that raises serious doubt about the practical application of such a policy. “I have no problems with those people who are trying to do positive and constructive things, you know, to try and get the country back to a lawful and democratic government,” he said. “But where I have a problem is where quite a few people have gone there and justified illegal things such as the overthrow of a lawful government, or they have taken part in processes which have compromised the judiciary or have compromised the ministerial portfolios.”
How, pray tell Professor, would Australia and NZ decide which of its citizens fell into either category, the goodies or the baddies – for argument’s sake – working for the same regime? With Fiji now on a path to restore democracy – voter registration and discussions on a new constitution – surely anyone working for the regime can legitimately claim to be trying to “get the country back to lawful and democratic government”? For an academic who prizes himself on razor-sharp analysis, Professor Narsey’s argument is decidedly woolly and ill conceived. It’s also far from democratic itself, a clear attempt to infringe the rights of individuals to take up positions with a sovereign government that enjoys both global and regional recognition, however much it may not be to Professor Narsey’s taste.
For all that, Grubsheet did find one point of agreement with the Professor. While he castigated Australia and NZ on the one hand for not being tough enough on regime employees, Professor Narsey castigated them on the other for being too tough on the families of those employees. He described the current travel bans on family members as an infringement of their basic human rights. “I mean you are not responsible for your relatives, you are responsible for your own actions”, he said. Quite so.
It’s puzzling to many Fijians, and Indo-Fijians in particular, that Wadan Narsey – like his brother-in-law Brij Lal – doesn’t seem to share their enthusiasm for the Government’s multiracial agenda, choosing instead to take a purist legal view of the events of 2006. One fellow senior academic puts it down to family resentment about the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution that Brij Lal co-authored. Others point to Wadan Narsey’s conviction that the regime played a major part in his removal -in shadowy circumstances – as Head of Economics at the University of the South Pacific. Professor Narsey himself has spoken publicly of having to “cope with a few friends who do not appreciate enough that the goodness of the cause is not a sufficient reason to justify fundamentally illegal and unfair methods”. All well and good except that the milk has been split and in 27 months – if all goes according to plan – a fairer democracy based on equal votes of equal value will be restored. If nothing else, Professor, it’s surely time to change the punitive rhetoric. Because talking about any civil servant in Fiji in the same breath as a paedophile or terrorist is ludicrously over the top.
This article has subsequently appeared in the Fiji Sun.