Chiefly seat smashed: GCC HQ

The hereditary chiefs of Fiji are no more -at least in a formal sense – having been removed at the stroke of a pen from determining the country’s affairs. More than 130 years of tradition was wiped from the history books in a surprise announcement by the Fijian leader, Frank Bainimarama, who described the Great Council of Chiefs as an anachronism which no longer had a place in modern Fiji.

No-one was expecting the announcement and it sent shock waves around the world. Here’s an account of what happened in the London Daily Telegraph,the organ of choice for those former British colonial servants who once ruled an empire on which the sun famously never set. It also made the pages of The Scotsman.

Sir Arthur Gordon. Later Lord Stanmore

It was a former British governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, who set up the Council of Chiefs -as it was known then – in the 1870s to represent the interests of indigenous Fijians in colonial Fiji. For more than 100 years, its power was unassailable. In fact, it would have been inconceivable just a few years ago that the GCC could have possibly been challenged by anyone, let alone disbanded, such was its power and influence in modern Fiji.

But just as Britain’s hereditary House of Lords felt the chill wind of reform under Tony Blair,  Bainimarama took on the Great Council of Chiefs, marginalised its members and then destroyed it. Will ordinary Fijians rebel? That’s the million dollar question. But if they don’t, Fiji’s chiefly system is dead. The hereditary peers of the South Seas will keep their titles and their traditional duties but be irrelevant when it comes to deciding the nation’s affairs. The revolution will have happened just because someone had the audacity to defy them.

Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu (Photo:Cakaudrove Province)

In their weakened state, paramount chiefs like the Tui Cakau, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, have been remarkably muted in their response. He told Radio Australia that the decision was “sad”. Predictably, there’s been a tougher response from the exiled Ratu Tevita Mara and Laisenia Qarase, the newly emboldened leader of the SDL, who both said Bainimarama had no right to summarily emasculate the chiefs without broader consultation. But will there be any kind of grassroots revolt? It will be intriguing to see how ordinary Fijians react at village level in the Vanua.

Julie Bishop ( photo: juliebishop.com)

In the meantime, more evidence that official sentiment in Australia is shifting inexorably towards re-engagement with Fiji. The Opposition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, has written an article for The Australian  again calling on the government to abandon its current hardline policy. Although there seems little prospect of that happening in the foreseeable future ( see previous postings), Australian domestic politics dictates that the days of Fiji’s isolation are numbered. For months, the opinion polls have had the Labor government’s primary vote flat lining at around 30 per cent. And if that continues, Labor is doomed. Frank Bainimarama will be counting down the days to Tony Abbott becoming prime minister.

Further reading: The NZ blogger and former Fiji academic, Crosbie Walsh, describes some of the Prime Minister’s recent pronouncements – including the abolition of the GCC – as “disturbing” and questions whether they are preempting discussions on a new constitution.