Australia-Fiji Relations Deteriorate

Fiji's Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola (L) shakes hands with Australia's Foreign Minister Bob Carr on July 30, 2012. (Photo: Fairfax Media)

At the Australia Fiji Business Forum in Brisbane, Fijian Foreign Affairs Minister Inoke Kubuabola took a swipe at the Australian government's continued efforts to undermine Fiji's return to democracy. Ratu Inoke highlighted that Australia has imposed sanctions in the form of travel bans since the December 2006 coup when the elected government of Laisenia Qarase was deposed in a military coup. Australia and Fiji have on a number of occasions expelled diplomats, and in May 2013 Fiji refused to accept the diplomatic posting of Australian High Commissioner Margaret Twomey. Fijian authorities have also accused Australia of blocking the Australian Development Bank loan to the country and lobbying the United Nations against utilizing Fijian peacekeepers in conflict zones.

Australia was instrumental in expelling Fiji from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 after the Fiji government went back on its promise to hold general elections under the defunct 1997 constitution. Also, there were claims that Australia was behind moves to split the Fijian military and engineer a counter-coup against Fiji's prime minister and military leader Voreqe Bainimarama.

Relations between Fiji and Australia have not improved as Fiji has moved towards non-traditional partners—Indonesia, China and Russia—and engaged with the Pacific Island nations as the leader of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. As a countermeasure against Australia, Fiji has since 2009 held a number of high-profile meetings in Fiji with its Pacific Island nations titled "Engaging with the Pacific" where participating nations discuss bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

At the Brisbane meeting last month, Ratu Inoke criticized Australian government's policy of sending refugee claimants to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This is the first time since the Fiji coup in 2006 that a Fijian minister has directly criticized the internal policy of Australia towards another Pacific Island nation. Ratu Inoke's criticism was based on his concern that potential refugees to Manus Island will impact the island's culture because many of the boat arrivals to Australia come from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Sri Lanka. In response, the Australian government has rejected Ratu Inoke's criticisms and called for the release of the draft constitution.

The constitution review process has been marred by controversy. Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced on March 9, 2012 that Fiji would hold consultations on the new constitution starting in May 2012, and further announced the names of three Constitution Review Commission (CRC) members, including constitutional expert Professor Yash Ghai, who has been involved in supporting a non-communal and non-ethnic constitutional outcome since the first military coup in Fiji in May 1987. The other CRC members included Professor Satendra Nanadan, head of literature and language at the University of Fiji, and Taufa Vakatale, who served as a minister in the Rabuka government from 1993 to 1999.

A draft constitution was released in December 2012, but the Fiji government argued that the draft was influenced by unions, political parties and non-government organizations because the review process was funded by the Australian government. As a consequence, the Fiji government suspended the draft and drafted its own. The suspicion of Australia increased when union delegates from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) were denied entry to Fiji in December 2011 for "security reasons." Fiji authorities continued to argue that the unions were attempting to come to Fiji to influence strike action against the Essential Industries Decree 2011, which bans union collective bargaining.

Back in Australia, pressure from the anti-Bainimarama pro-democracy movement increased as Fijian dissidents rejected the Fiji government's drat constitution and the consultation process as a sham and joined hands with ACTU in a broader campaign against the Fiji regime. The ACTU advised union members to think carefully before taking a holiday to Fiji.

In Fiji, the current regime's insistence that the Peoples' Charter represent the guiding principles for submissions to the government on the draft constitution seems problematic because it imposes preconditions, and as such the process cannot be expected to be free and fair. As it stands, there is no formal framework within which contending political views can be reconciled, and this poses a serious problem for Fiji's interethnic relations in the future.

Instead of building consensus, the Fiji regime has established unmovable political preconditions based on the Charter, which has restricted free and frank exchange of political views. The fact on the ground is that indigenous Fijians are the majority, and any attempts at subordinate majority views via electoral engineering will only increase conflict.

It will be important to see whether indigenous Fijian concerns regarding their land and cultural institutions have been taken into consideration in the final draft of the new constitution. Meanwhile, tensions between Fiji and Australia continue until the dates for the election are finalized.

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