There’s elation in Fijian Government circles over the highly successful outcome of this week’s visit to Papua New Guinea by the Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, at the head of the biggest Fijian trade and investment mission ever to visit another country. The original aims of the visit were ambitious enough – to lay more of the foundation for the creation of a single, integrated market for the countries of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Yet the results exceeded even the most ambitious expectations of the PM, his Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, and the trade delegation of 65 Fijian business leaders from 47 companies.
Commodore Bainimarama described himself as being “on a high”. And the normally ultra-calm and measured Permanent Secretary for Trade and Industry, Shaheen Ali, said he was “overwhelmed” by the “marvelous” outcome of the visit. Within hours, some of the Fijian companies were already receiving orders and entering into agreements with PNG suppliers and distributors. And by day two of the mission, two more Fijian businesses had registered as foreign investors in PNG. This is in addition to the F$180-million investment by Fiji’s national superannuation fund, the FNPF, in Bemobile – a major telecommunications provider in PNG and Solomon Islands – and the management takeover of its operations by Vodafone Fiji.
The Fijian Government sees itself as equal partners with PNG in ultimately leading the other MSG countries into an economic union to improve the lives of every Melanesian. There’s a notable absence of rivalry of the sort we’ve witnessed over the years in Europe, where Germany, France and Britain have consistently maneuvered for advantage in the European Union. As Fiji sees it, Papua New Guinea has the biggest market – seven million people compared to around 900,000 here – plus the massive wealth that flows from its minerals and energy sectors. And Fiji has an established manufacturing base, a skilled and educated workforce and is positioned at the crossroads of the Pacific. In other words, their assets are complimentary. Each country has its particular challenges – Papua New Guinea with corruption and lawlessness and Fiji still grappling with finally putting to rest the divisions that have hampered its development since Independence. Yet there’s a strong feeling on both sides that working in tandem in a joint leadership role is the best way to improve the lives of their own citizens and their Melanesian brothers and sisters in the smaller MSG states.
There’s no doubt that Melanesian solidarity generally was a big beneficiary of this visit. As Commodore Bainimarama put it, PNG -Fiji ties go way beyond the mutual respect and cooperation that is the traditional benchmark of diplomacy. The peoples of both countries genuinely like each other, enjoy each other’s company and share a vision of a stronger Melanesia building a common economic and political future for all its citizens. And of course, both Governments bear significant grudges against the most dominant power in the region, Australia, which they regard as generally arrogant, overbearing and indifferent to Melanesian sensibilities. The same applies to New Zealand, albeit to a lesser extent.
As Grubsheet has written before, Australia’s mishandling of its Pacific neighbours – and especially Fiji – is a mistake of historical proportions. Its failure to fully engage with them, let alone comprehend their challenges, and its propensity to prescribe and even hector, has driven influential Pacific countries like Fiji and PNG further into each other’s arms and the arms of others outside the region. The Australian trade union heavies and their stooge of a Prime Minister who currently determine Pacific policy – and the foreign affairs establishment which implements it – seem to have little concept of Melanesian sensitivities and protocols. It’s well known in Suva than even the mention of Australia can trigger a surge of anger in Prime Minister Bainimarama, who feels sorely aggrieved that Canberra chose not to even sit down with him, let alone try and comprehend his reforms. During this visit, the PM kept his counsel, adhering to the diplomatic convention of not criticising another country on someone else’s soil. In fact, it was the Papua New Guineans who made unflattering public comments about Australia. PNG’s Trade Minister, Richard Maru, accused Canberra of using his country as a “dumping ground” for its goods and said it wasn’t in Australia’s interests for the Melanesian countries to become self sufficient in anything. If that was what was being said publicly, then we can be sure that the language behind the scenes would have been a lot more colourful. The shared grievances of both governments about Australia would have been fully aired.
Certainly, there was general astonishment about the way in which this visit appeared to have been downplayed by Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, which also has a significant presence in PNG. Aside from one story that correctly cited a series of “historic” agreements, the rest of the visit was generally ignored. Indeed on the first day, Radio Australia’s current affairs program, Pacific Beat, chose to lead with an item criticising Fiji’s constitutional process rather than give weight to the region’s two biggest and most influential island countries forging closer ties. It merely reinforced the notion in Fijian minds of the ABC’s chronic bias against the Bainimarama Government and Radio Australia as a lapdog of Canberra’s foreign policy. By any normal journalistic standard, this was a big Pacific story of significant interest to the populations of PNG and Fiji and, to a lesser extent, those of Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Kanaks of New Caledonia, who make up the rest of the MSG. It was buried.
Is Australia sensitive about the fact that its so-called smart sanctions against Fiji haven’t turned out to be smart at all? You bet. American diplomats report that far from modifying their policies in the face of defeat, the Australians have stepped up their efforts internationally to isolate Fiji. Was Commodore Bainimarama’s visit a collective two-finger salute to Australia? Well, maybe just a little. Yet the overriding sentiment in official circles in Suva nowadays is that Australian attitudes are irrelevant. In any event, Blind Freddy can see that Julia Gillard’s Government is toast -with a 29 per cent primary vote in the most recent opinion poll – and that Australian policy towards Fiji is bound to be more realistic, if not more favourable, when the Coalition’s Tony Abbott storms into power in the Australian election in September. A full year out from the promised Fijian poll, Abbott and his likely foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will have ample time to end Labor’s vendetta and rebuild the relationship.
There were many highpoints of this visit, not least the Bemobile signing -Fiji’s biggest foreign investment on behalf of all Fijians through the FNPF in one of the most dynamic sectors of the global economy- telecommunications. The Government’s critics continually harp on about the FNPF putting the retirement savings of ordinary Fijians at risk. Yet with Vodafone Fiji running Bemobile, the potential to grow that investment seems rock solid. In Fiji, there are more mobile phones than people – a penetration rate of 105 per cent. In Papua New Guinea, the penetration rate is 35 per cent. That’s a lot of potential customers and a lot of mobile phones.
Among other highlights of the visit:
· The announcement that citizens of both countries will no longer require visas to visit each other. This is on top of existing plans to achieve a seamless flow of labour between the MSG countries.
· The provision for retired Fijian civil servants – who are obliged to vacate their jobs at 55 – to work in Papua New Guinea to boost the local skills base.
· The plan for a permanent Fiji Trade Mission in Port Moresby and the continuation of the joint effort to break down the remaining impediments to trade and investment, with a view to developing a common market.
Most important of all – at least in the shorter term – is the financial support Papua New Guinea has offered Fiji to conduct its election in September 2014 and introduce the first genuine parliamentary democracy in the country’s history of one-person, one vote, one value. According to officials travelling with Commodore Bainimarama, the PM couldn’t believe his ears when the amount of the PNG contribution was announced out of the blue by his opposite number, Peter O’Neill. “What did he say?”, he asked. At first, the Ministry of Information flashed a media release that the amount was 15-million Kina. But it soon became clear that the fifteen was actually FIFTY. A sense of astonishment, delight and gratitude swept the Fijian delegation and text messages lit up in the corridors of power in Suva. More than 40-million Fijian dollars! By any standards and especially in the Pacific, it is an astonishingly generous amount.
This contribution has sealed the Fiji-PNG relationship and laid to rest the concerns of some that PNG was more intent on cementing its own interests during this visit than pursuing a genuinely equal partnership. It means that Fiji no longer requires other outside assistance to finance the poll, and especially from those countries or groups of countries like the European Union, which appear more interested in using the money as political leverage than in assisting Fijians to determine their own future. Instead of having election observers from the EU – as happened controversially in 2006 – the Prime Minister wants election observers from PNG and the other MSG countries. He accused the EU observers of endorsing a “flawed” election in 2006 and said Fiji wanted an observer group with “integrity”. This will not be music to the ears of Fiji’s voluble EU Ambassador, Andrew Jacobs, who before the PNG announcement, was telling people that Fiji would need to approach the EU for assistance and accept certain conditions that are now decidedly moot.
With Commodore Bainimarama having now travelled across the world to New York to chair a meeting of the G77 Plus China and the rest of the Fijian delegation making its way home, it’s clear that this visit has been an outstanding success. History may also judge it as the week that Fiji and PNG cemented their common future and came to realise more fully the potential they have – working together – to establish the MSG as the pre-eminent regional grouping and its integration as the best way to improve the lives of all Melanesians. One thing is certain. The axis of power in the Pacific is gradually shifting, whether Australia, NZ and their Polynesian client states such as Samoa like it or not.
This article has subsequently appeared on Pacific Scoop NZ.