As my old Grubsheet sparring partner, Dr Marc Edge, observed in the wake of the attack on me by the Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, on Sunday, “there is no such thing as bad publicity”, and so it has proved to be. I would like to say that I can scarcely believe the ineptitude of the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, in encouraging the PM to elevate me in such a way but it is par for the course in a government careering towards defeat. The combination of the AG and his young Qorvis adviser, Christian Theuer, can always be relied on to produce a self inflicted wound in the heat of wanting to lash out at criticism and so it has proved to be.
It wasn’t just the Prime Minister’s demonstrably petty and self-demeaning statement that made the front pages of the two national newspapers, the Fiji Times and Fiji Sun, and led every television and radio bulletin in Fiji. In the wake of the attack, Grubsheet’s readership has soared. So that many more Fijians have gone to read the very articles that were the subject of the government’s ire – the revelation that the Military Council wants changes in the government including the removal of the AG, the fact that the cabinet is split and that the Prime Minister’s designated successor is Inia Seruiratu.
In the PM’s rambling and frankly weird statement, his attempt to smear me personally by suggesting that I was less than robust physically, was ready for retirement or liked drama so much that I’d invent it if it didn’t exist, failed to address the main issue in this particular drama. Was what I had reported true? And at no point in the statement did the Prime Minister deny the truth of anything I’d written. And the reason for that is that he can’t. Because the information came from impeccable sources and is fact. Not gossip, as he portrayed it, but FACT.
Worse, the PM’s suggestion that I’d gone into retirement (I clearly haven’t) also backfired by drawing attention to another very uncomfortable truth. The PM and I are the same age – 66. So that if I am ready for retirement, what about him? “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear”, said the White Rabbit has he went down the hole with Aiyaz.
But it gets even worse. Because it now appears that the AG may have misled the Prime Minister in the first place by telling him that I had reported that he would not be standing as a candidate in 2022 and that Inia Seruiratu would lead FijiFirst into the election. How do I know this? Because I am in contact with the Prime Minister and he told me that he made the statement believing that I had said that he would not be contesting the election. And that he had been deeply concerned at the effect this would have on FijiFirst supporters and the party’s vote. I have suggested to the PM that he actually read my reports instead of relying on the AG because at the very least, he has been given the wrong impression and at the very worst, he has been deliberately misled.
Here’s precisely what I wrote in The Military’s Secret Blueprint for Change on September 10:
Aside from the country’s ability to weather the Covid-19 crisis, many eyes are already turning to the 2022 election, which makes the Military Council document that much more relevant and important. Of course, much depends on whether SODELPA again chooses Sitiveni Rabuka to go head-to-head against the Prime Minister who, for the moment at least, is indicating that he will lead FijiFirst into the election for another term. We will know in a couple of months whether there’ll be a rerun of the “Clash of the Titans” when SODELPA chooses who will carry its banner into the election. And a great deal is at stake for everyone in Fiji.
And here’s what I wrote in The Succession: Frank names his choice, on Friday:
As for the timing of any changeover, Frank Bainimarama has the authority in the government, the military and the wider community to choose the moment of his own departure. But in the meantime, many of his supporters believe that he needs to send a strong signal to the voters of Fiji that FijiFirst has learnt the lessons of the last election and has embraced a change of direction to make it less vei beci and less viavialevu in its conduct. There is nothing to stop him from enunciating a succession plan now. But if he sticks with the AG, it is almost certain that his place in history will be sullied by defeat in 2022 and the ignominy of having not known the right time to make the changes that were needed.
Clearly that last line drove the AG into a frenzy and I know what would have happened because I worked with him for several years. He would have told the PM that he needs to respond to me. And he would have then instructed Christian Theuer to write the statement, with them both deciding that the best form of attack in this instance was personal smear based on age and temperament. Because they cannot attack me on the facts.
Then the Prime Minister would have been persuaded to deliver the statement on the basis that I had been saying he wouldn’t be standing in 2022 and this needed to be corrected on the public record as a matter of urgency. It did not need to be corrected because I’d never once said it. But all judgment went out the window in the AG’s rage with me for saying that he needs to go. And once again, the Prime Minister’s judgment failed in listening to his “trusted” lieutenant and embarking on a course of action that has been utterly self defeating for his own reputation and any attempt to silence me.
Let’s be quite clear: On the AG’s advice, the Prime Minister shot himself in the foot and damaged the government by highlighting the very information he would have preferred that I hadn’t reported. Since my story on him having chosen his successor was published on Friday morning, 18,448 Fijians have read it (as of Monday night). This is 4,000 more than the entire population of Ba -Fiji’s fifth largest city or town ( 2020 population 14,596) – so the potential political impact is obvious.
On Friday, Grubsheet had 6,362 visits but this fell to 1,844 on Saturday. But when the Prime Minister attacked me on Sunday, the readership soared to 4,177 in the immediate aftermath and another 6,065 Fijians read Grubsheet yesterday (Monday). You can clearly see the spike in the accompanying graphs. Hand on heart, I can honestly say that any irritation I might have felt about being cast as an ageing drama queen quickly gave way to satisfaction that the Fijian leadership is by far my best marketing tool.
As I have said repeatedly, the AG – who directs and approves every Qorvis-written utterance that the Prime Minister makes – isn’t any better at PR than he is at winning votes. He is always elevating his opponents by attacking them and in the process, ensuring that whatever they say gets the widest possible audience. How else would my ugly mug have been in every media outlet in Fiji for the past two days if he hadn’t encouraged the PM to attack me? You just can’t buy that kind of publicity in any other way and I got it for free. So I owe the AG and Qorvis a hearty vote of thanks.
As for the Prime Minister, I have told him that he continues to have my full support but that he would be better advised in future to actually read what I’ve said rather than rely on others. The truth is that I feel a great deal of empathy for the PM at the present time. He awoke yesterday to news in the Fiji Sun of a ten per cent drop in his popularity in the space of a month to the worst level since the return to parliamentary rule in 2014. And that his arch enemy, Sitiveni Rabuka, has had a corresponding increase in support, so much so that for the first time, most Fijians think SODELPA will win government in 2022.
Things are getting desperate when there is such a dramatic fall in support and no amount of blaming Covid-19 for its troubles is going to save FijiFirst. As I have said: I have the greatest respect and affection for the Prime Minister and am willing him to win. But he cannot do so by relying on the flawed judgment of the AG, who has already taken him to the brink of defeat in 2018 and will take him over the precipice in 2022 unless there’s an urgent change of direction. Much of the PM’s own cabinet wants it. The military wants it. And we now know from the latest Fiji Sun poll that the people want it too.
The Prime Minister’s greatest nightmare is to be beaten by Sitiveni Rabuka. His mana would be destroyed, along with much of his legacy. With his ascendancy in the polls, SODELPA would be mad not to choose Rabuka to lead it into the next election when it meets in November to decide the leadership ( Aseri Radrodro is almost three times less popular). So that would mean Sitiveni Rabuka and Lynda Tabuya – Rabuka’s running mate – up against Frank Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. And we already know in which direction the voters are heading.
For the PM, the collapse of his popularity reflected in the Fiji Sun poll and Rabuka making big gains should tell him one thing: that the nightmare of losing just got a lot closer. And it’s time to choose a better running mate himself.