The Australian’s Greg Sheridan (Photo:ABC)

The mainstream Australian media has been woefully blind to the real situation in Fiji, dazzled, as it is, by the constant bleat of the Bainimarama Government’s opponents. Pitifully few Australian journalists ever visit Fiji, even from media organisations such as the ABC which broadcasts its message of doom into Fijian homes on a 24/7 basis. All of which makes it a delight to read something pragmatic and sensible rather than the dirge inspired by the Aussie media’s close links with a handful of NGO, “human rights” and media types in Suva and the diaspora.

To follow is a thoughtful piece by the Foreign Editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, that flies in the face of a recent call by the paper’s Asia Pacific Editor, Rowan Callick, for a tougher response towards Fiji by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bob Carr. Clearly, there’s a battle of ideas going on at the top echelons of Australia’s only national newspaper and the journal of record of the country’s decision makers. Let’s hope Sheridan wins.

Isolating Fiji, Sri Lanka or Myanmar would serve no useful purpose

BY:GREG SHERIDAN, FOREIGN EDITOR From: The Australian February 07, 2013 12:00AM

FEW subjects are more difficult for a democratic politician, especially a foreign minister, than how to deal with an authoritarian regime that violates norms of democracy and human rights.

There is the ultra-idealist response: denounce every transgression and have nothing to do with the transgressors. Then there is the ultra-realist response: conduct the business that is in your national interest regardless of the internal actions of the regime.

No democratic nation really adopts either extreme. There is always a balance. Nor can we really ask for consistency from a government. Each case has to be decided, in the round, on its merits. There are some consistent questions, however, that can be asked of any situation: How severe are the abuses? Is the regime moving away from abusive practice or intensifying it? What effect will our actions have? How severe should our response be? What response is likely to be effective? There is one other question that it is entirely legitimate to ask: What national interests of ours are involved in dealing with the regime?

Foreign Minister Bob Carr recently told an audience of his diplomats: “We are running a foreign policy for a nation-state, not for a non-governmental organisation.”

Carr is an interesting mixture of idealist and realist. I don’t agree with every one of his foreign policy calls, but in this area I think he has got the balance, which involves weighing up complex and contradictory factors, pretty well right.

I think this is the case specifically with three nations that are important to Australia: Fiji, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Take Fiji. Recently Fiji’s strongman, Frank Bainimarama, appointed a constitutional commission under the leadership of the distinguished Yash Ghai to write a new constitution. When Bainimarama saw what it had produced, he tore it up. The international community (I know the word’s an oxymoron, but let it pass) generally condemned Bainimarama without qualification. The most common criticism was that the Fijian leader could not tolerate the constitution’s proposed separation of the military from politics.

Carr’s response was more modulated, more nuanced. He noted, rightly in my view, that the commission had proposed numerous undemocratic elements for a new constitution. One was the revival of the Great Council of Chiefs, which has been the source of so much destructive Fiji nativism, directed primarily at Fiji’s Indian minority. Another was the commission’s proposal for an undemocratic body to sit alongside parliament as a kind of advisory group, also charged with the task of appointing the president.

Carr was then criticised by commentators, many perfectly sensible people, on the basis that he was being too soft on Bainimarama. I think it was more a case of what Amanda Vanstone sagely identified on ABC’s Q&A on Monday as a politician injecting unwelcome complexity into a complex question where many NGOs, activists and some in the commentariat want simple responses.

New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Murray McCully was far more robust in his criticisms, so there was some difference between Canberra and Wellington.

But Carr was right on the substance and in the larger strategic picture. It would do the Fijian people no good at all to isolate Fiji, to send it into the arms of China, to destroy its economy, to further polarise and radicalise its society. The government there has done a lot of undemocratic things and these deserve to be criticised, but on the international scale of human rights abuses it is at the absolute gentlest end of the spectrum. Things could be much, much worse.

The Australian government’s policy on Fiji has evolved. A few years ago Canberra was pursuing a more confrontational approach to Suva. One senior American official commented to me at the time: “I can go to meetings in Pyongyang but I can’t visit Fiji because of Australia’s opposition.”

That situation, frankly, was nuts. Carr tries hard to encourage the Fijians to fulfil their pledge of an honest election next year. It may be a flawed election. Fiji may become a flawed democracy. But that may be the best outcome available in the real world.

If we wrecked the Fijian economy with sanctions and produced another failed state, that would be disastrous for the Fijians and pretty bad for us. Carr has also eased up on the travel bans on non-military members of the Fijian government. This is absolutely right. He stresses to the Fijians all the time that Australia’s priority is a clean election in Fiji. Even if this is not altogether satisfied, I would still strongly favour a policy of continued engagement.

A different set of arguments applies to Sri Lanka. Here we are somewhat at odds with the Canadian government of Stephen Harper, which is threatening to boycott the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka unless there is full accountability for crimes at the end of the civil war there. Australia makes no such boycott threat. Quite the reverse. Carr has offered to send some of the people who organised the Perth CHOGM to Colombo to help with logistics.

On this, the Australian government is right and the Canadian government is wrong. In conversation with the Sri Lankans, Carr raises accountability for the events at the end of the civil war, but it is not the only issue he pursues.

Sri Lanka is far too big and important to be isolated, but if Western governments boycott CHOGM and do build some isolation around Colombo, they will only drive it deeper into China’s arms and offer it no incentive to keep improving its human rights situation.

Moreover it is unequivocally a good thing that the Sri Lankan government defeated the Tamil Tigers, one of the most murderous and vicious of all terrorist groups, which enslaved children, murdered civilians and pioneered the suicide bomb. What will help Sri Lankans now is engagement and assistance from outside friends.

And apart from all the usual interests Australia has in South Asia, there is the question of unauthorised boat arrivals emanating from Sri Lanka. We clearly need Sri Lankan co-operation on this. Some NGOs may not like Carr’s approach on Sri Lanka, but it is right, morally and in terms of Australia’s national interests.

On Myanmar, Australia has been ahead of the US and Europe for years and much closer to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Now Carr is making a big effort lobbying the EU to abolish, rather than suspend, all its Myanmar sanctions.

Isolation as a policy was a disaster when applied to Myanmar, and in its milder form wholly counterproductive with Fiji. It would be equally ill advised if applied to Sri Lanka.

Australian government policy, shaped in this case by Carr, is morally conscious but pragmatic, realistic and right.