"Fiji Islander" Mick Beddoes (Photo:FijiVillage)

The debate over the use of the term Fijian to describe all citizens rages on, with some very strange twists. The strangest to Grubsheet was the spectacle of Mick Beddoes, the Kailoma (part European) head of the United Peoples Party, rejecting the use of the word for anyone other than i’Taukei. While at the same time, one of the most senior indigenous chiefs in western Fiji, Ratu Tevita Momoedonu, said he favoured Fijian being used to describe all citizens irrespective of race. Ratu Tevita did so in a submission on behalf of the people of Vuda, one of the most influential groups in the Vanua. Having provided Fiji with two of its most outstanding leaders of the modern era – Timoci Bavadra and Ratu Josefa Iloilo – Vuda has again displayed a level of progressive leadership that sets a standard for the whole country.

What is one to make of these two opposing submissions to the consultative hearings of the Constitutional Commission?  Both these men come from western Viti Levu – Beddoes from nearby Sabeto – but they may as well have come from separate planets. Why is a mixed race politician defending the position of indigenous supremacists who argue that the Bainimarama regime has no right to unilaterally call everyone Fijian. And why is one of the most senior indigenous chiefs disagreeing with him and bestowing the appellation on all citizens? It’s certainly food for thought as to which of these individuals represents the old Fiji and which one represents the new.

Vuda chief Ratu Tevita Momoedonu (Photo:Fiji Times)

In his submission – reported by the Fiji Times – Ratu Tevita said all Fiji citizens should be known as Fijians and the indigenous people should be known as  iTaukei, precisely the Government’s stance. But in his submission, Mick Beddoes said that only the i’Taukei should be called Fijian and the rest of  the population should be called Fiji Islanders. This is precisely the stance of Mr Beddoes’s political allies in the SDL, the former governing party removed by Frank Bainimarama in the coup of 2006.

In an interview with Radio Australia, Mr Beddoes said his principal objection stemmed from the fact that no public discussion had accompanied the change – that it was simply imposed by an unelected government. “The introduction of the name Fijian comes from armed insurrection, I mean it comes from a military intervention into the political process of the country, and …. they’re trying to change the political direction of the country through means of arms, which is really not acceptable on any level”, he said.  Mr Beddoes said any decision to use the term Fijian for everyone needed to wait for the restoration of democracy. “ It’s up to the people. If they want to be called Fijians, that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that provided the conversation is held and the people agree collectively in an inclusive manner in that yes, that’s what we want.” he said.

The Constitutional Commission (front row) after being sworn in (Photo:Coup 4.5)

All well and good. Except when you look at the numbers. We know from polling commissioned by the Citizens Constitutional Forum that only 20 per cent of  i’Taukei want all Fiji citizens to be called Fijians. Given that the i’Taukei make up roughly 60 per cent of the population, that means 40 per cent already oppose the change. Which means that it would take only slightly more than 10 per cent of the remaining 40 per cent of non-indigenous citizens like Mr Beddoes to oppose that change and it would be scuttled. And with it any chance of non-indigenous Fiji citizens benefiting from the common name that the Bainimarama regime wants adopted to give Fiji a common identity and present a unified face to the world.

Now you might call that democracy but is it an enlightened choice that ordinary people are making of their own free will? Because the truth is that an insidious campaign is being waged to persuade indigenous people that adorning their fellow citizens with an English language description that has been exclusively theirs somehow represents a threat to their identity. It’s an appeal to base racism and the antithesis of inclusion – a form of descriptive apartheid that makes no rational sense whatsoever.

Vuda leads: the late Tui Vuda Ratu Josefa Iloilo (Photo:News4U)

No Australian or American would permit the sequestering of these descriptions of place for one race or segment of the population. If you’re from Australia or America, you’re entitled to call yourself Australian or American. Not just the indigenous people of those nations but every citizen. Anything else would be inconceivable. An Australian islander? An American continental? Democracy or no democracy, it would be unacceptable. So why should it be any different in Fiji?

A Fijian is from Fiji. It doesn’t matter what race he or she is. It’s a statement of attachment to place. An i’Taukei, on the other hand, is a custodian or owner, carrying the clear implication of a greater sense of belonging. It is the correct way to describe an indigenous Fijian. And it imbues the i’Taukei with a status of first among equals as the First Fijians.

To be fair, Mick Beddoes parts company with the SDL in several areas of his own submission, advocating, for instance, that the English, Fijian and Hindi languages enjoy equal status when SDL submissions thus far have advocated Fijian as the sole official language. And he opposes the SDL insistence – also in those submissions – that Fiji be declared a Christian state, declaring that religion and state are separate. Yet as well as insisting that only i’Taukei be known as Fijians, Mr Beddoes places strict conditions on dual citizenship.

Respected son of Vuda: the late Timoci Bavadra (photo:Corbis)

He says no Fiji citizen who is also a citizen of another country should be allowed to vote in any election, they must declare all earnings in Fiji and pay tax on those earnings and “not actively seek paid employment that would displace a local from work”. Hardly a statement of equal opportunity. For a start, it’s tax without representation – a breach of one of the fundamental principles of citizenship. Imagine the furor if the same restrictions applied to Fiji citizens who happen to have gained citizenship of Australia, New Zealand or the United States? But again – in the mind of Mr Beddoes – Fiji is different.

Doubtless Mick Beddoes will again attack Grubsheet for highlighting the contrast between his apparent desire to accommodate indigenous opinion and the enlightened stance of Ratu Tevita Momoedonu, who was speaking on behalf of the people of Vuda at a Constitutional Commission hearing in the chiefly village of Viseisei. But it’s high time that someone asked him when he is going to start standing up for the interests of those he’s traditionally represented. If Mr Beddoes is the best that the Kailoma and European communities in Fiji can throw up to put their case, then perhaps it’s a good thing that racially-based voting is being abolished. Because rather than confronting the exclusionary policies of the more extreme elements of the indigenous majority, he seems determined to accommodate them. He looks less like a leader than an appeaser. Vuda leads. Sabeto follows.