January is an odd time for high level visits to the Pacific. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to focus on the region at the start of the year indicates he listened to the criticism of his failure to attend the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Nauru last September.
This visit began and ended with security. The Vanuatu leg of the trip provided a clear illustration that, when it comes to security, what Canberra understands (and wants) does not necessarily line up with the needs of Pacific island countries.
Vanuatu and security
Vanuatu is seeking support for domestic security issues, such as increasing its police force. This is more of a priority than a security treaty with Australia, as Canberra had proposed during the Vanuatu prime minister’s 2018 visit to Australia – it was rejected at the time. Ahead of Morrison’s visit, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, Ralph Reganvanu, reiterated there was no appetite in his government to enter into an exclusive security agreement with any country.
Vanuatu’s longstanding membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (formed during the Cold War by states who did not wish to be aligned with either of the then superpowers) is part of what informs this position.
Something like the Australia-Solomon Islands security treaty – which envisages rapid deployment of Australian troops (subject to consent by both governments) – would be highly problematic for most people in Vanuatu, a country that places high value on its hard-won independence and sovereignty.
Fiji and a thawing of relations
The visit to Fiji was particularly significant given strained relationships between the two governments since the 2006 coup. Some in Australia’s foreign policy community believe the freeze pushed Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, to build relationships with China, Russia, and others to the detriment of Canberra in terms of influence.
That’s why securing the Black Rock redevelopment deal last year – a site that’s to become a regional hub for training of defence and security personnel – is a success for Australia. Having Morrison there to break ground on the project may indicate all is now forgiven on both sides.
However, a visit by the leader of the region’s largest democracy and the apparent credibility it gives to Bainimarama’s government will be a disappointment to those who have ongoing concerns about human rights and democratic governance in Fiji.
The Fiji trip unveiled a Fiji-Australia Vuvale Partnership, touted as elevating the relationship beyond diplomacy. The agreement includes a commitment to annual leaders’ meetings, something that already exists between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Other than that, we have yet to see what it will look like in practice.
Further to last year’s announcement of the creation of an Office of the Pacific in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Morrison used this trip to announce Ewen McDonald (currently Australia’s High Commissioner to New Zealand) as its head.
McDonald will work on ensuring Australia’s engagement with the Pacific informs the work of all relevant government departments. This will include Fiji’s joining the Pacific Labour Scheme and steering the revisions of import restrictions on kava that were announced in Port Vila. Currently, the maximum amount of kava that can be brought in to Australia is 2kg per adult due to concerns about substance abuse in Australian Indigenous communities.
What was said (and just as importantly what wasn’t) during this week’s visit to the region indicates Australia needs to do more listening and learning. For too long, people in the Pacific have felt their voices have not been heard when it comes to how Australia engages in the region.
In Vanuatu, Morrision demonstrated particular tone-deafness on the issue of ease of travel. Across the region, people are frustrated about the difficulties they face in getting visas to visit Australia.
The Australian government announced a frequent traveller visa card on the margins of last year’s APEC summit. This is intended for politicians, sports people and business leaders. But its narrow scope doesn’t cut it as far as people in Vanuatu are concerned. Officials transiting to attend international meetings or families visiting students at Australian universities, for instance, aren’t included.
Morrison also isn’t listening when it comes to Australian broadcasting to the Pacific. He announced A$17.1 million dollars to fund TV content for broadcast to and in the region. This money is to be funnelled to commercial providers via Free TV Australia, snubbing the established Pacific expertise of the ABC and SBS/NITV. Not to mention their reputation in the region.
This ignores specific representations from the Pacific which have stressed time and again what they want is high quality content to raise the level of public debate about the issues they care about.
Scott Morrison did “show up” though, as he had planned. It’s a first step. Whether Australia-Pacific relationships are now on the right path, we have yet to see.
Former coup leader Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama has won re-election in Fiji. But he did so in a country where press freedom is severely limited, and authoritarian rule is used to curb dissent – even from the once highly influential Methodist church.
The election, held on November 14, saw fairly weak voter turnout – though its conduct was fair according to an international observer mission co-chaired by Jane Prentice, a federal Government MP from Queensland.
A more complicated story lies behind the Multinational Observer Group’s preliminary view that the election is “on track to reflect the will of the… voters”.
Bainimarama seized power in a coup in 2006 before holding an election in 2014. He invited the group to observe to satisfy the international community of Fiji’s return to democratic stability. His Fiji First party will form government after winning 50.02% of the vote.
The Social Democratic Liberal party (SODELPA), led by Sitiveni Rabuka, another former Prime Minister and coup leader, won 39.85% of the vote. The National Federation Party will take the remaining three seats in the 51 member parliament.
Rabuka once characterised democracy as a “foreign flower unsuited to Fijian soil”. The key point here, as I have argued, is that restrictions on free speech means that there is no way of testing popular Fijian opinion.
The Multinational Observer Group described the election as only a “step” towards democracy. Four of the opposition parties say the provisional results don’t match what their scrutineers observed. SODELPA argues that the complicated voter registration process meant that 30,000 citizens were turned away from polling stations. They were allegedly told that they were not properly registered. In a strong democracy, the claim would at least be possible to verify.
Poor weather, which saw voting suspended and rescheduled at 23 polling stations, undoubtedly played a part, but voter turnout of between 53% and 61% across polling stations is a sign of democracy not working to its potential. The Fijian media is unlikely to analyse voter turnout, nor any aspect of the election’s conduct.
The Fiji Times’ limited and shallow coverage of the election campaign reflects its turbulent relationship with the Media Industry Development Decree and other laws and practices that restrict impartial political journalism.
The Fiji Times no longer leaves blank spaces where banned stories would have been published. However, the newspaper and its editor have been found guilty of contempt of court for publishing an article critical of the judiciary and, while ultimately acquitted, the newspaper was charged with sedition in 2018.
The requirement for journalistic “quality, balance, (and) fair judgement” and penalties for non-compliance are set out in an act of parliament. The act is selectively enforced. The Fiji Sun is polemical and partisan. SODELPAs “false propaganda” is the newspaper’s “analysis”’ of the 10 percentage point drop in support for Fiji First from the 2014 to the 2018 election.
Under normal circumstances, the unprecedented number of government initiatives rolled out across the country in the last four years should have been enough to carry Fiji First to a bigger victory.
There can be no independent scrutiny of the Fiji Sun’s claim that the “abnormal” circumstances of the 2018 campaign included SODELPAs “strong pro-indigenous campaign (being) riddled with lies”.
It is true that the Fijian economy has grown at an annual average of 3.6% over the past five years. It is also true that investment in education, health and transport infrastructure have improved people’s standards of living.
Yet, there are no conventions of caretaker government to moderate the use of incumbency for political gain. The Multinational Observer Group has indicated it is likely to recommend “against government ministers and senior officials conduct(ing) a range of high profile activities, such as concluding commercial contracts, opening buildings and dispensing government grants and funds during the campaign.”
Restrictions on freedom of association have been used against trade unions which object to Bainimarama’s authoritarian style. They have been used against the Methodist Church which preaches a strong indigenous nationalism and has been a key influence in previous election campaigns.
Bainimarama’s Fiji First’s indigenous policy is based on multiracial equality as a path to the disruption of aristocratic self-interest. It is the only party to have significant multiracial diversity in its parliamentary membership.
SODELPA makes the case for custom and tradition in public life. For a formal political role for the Great Council of Chiefs and a comprehensive review of the 2013 Constitution.
It may have been a free vote. But the conditions for an informed vote – scrutiny and robust debate – were not present. Bainimarama had military support; significant under a constitution that gives the military overarching authority for the “well-being” of Fiji and all its citizens. This perhaps helps explain the argument that: “one reason for the return of elections is that Bainimarama is confident of winning them”.
Bainimarama’s position is secure. Fiji’s political stability is assured – but only for the moment. Democratic institutions are not strong. One cannot be sure that they enjoy durable public support. Fijian politics beyond Bainimarama is uncertain, unpredictable and insecure.
Fiji faces a general election on Wednesday, just as Australia’s main political parties devote more attention to the western Pacific, driven by worries about China’s growing influence in the region.
For most Australians, the nation is a handy holiday destination – closer than Bali or Thailand. Last month, its palm-fringed beaches were in the global spotlight when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex took a trip to the former British colony.
Anyone with a longer memory will perhaps associate Fiji with coups – two in 1987 and one in 2006. There was also a putsch – a civilian overthrow of the government – in 2000.
This week’s general election is only the second since Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, who often goes by the name Frank, appointed himself prime minister after the 2006 coup. He was eventually elected in 2014 and is expected to be re-elected this week.
For Australia, the strategic importance of the western Pacific is coming into sharp focus.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced $3 billion in infrastructural spending in the region. He has committed the Australian Defence Force to military training in Pacific nations.
Australia has an abiding interest in a south-west Pacific that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically.
In a speech to the Lowy Institute last month, Bill Shorten committed a future Labor government to an independent foreign policy with a strong Pacific focus. It would support Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga to develop their military capabilities.
On Fiji, he said:
We want to mend the relationship with the RFMF [Republic of Fiji Military Forces], to ensure that the ADF [Australian Defence Force] is best-placed to develop the Fiji military’s professional capabilities and to ensure Fiji’s security needs.
For Fijian voters, the military is never far from politics.
However, as he disliked the Constitution put to him by an independent review in 2009, Bainimarama decreed his own in 2013. Section 131 (2) of that Constitution gives ultimate political authority to the military:
It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians.
The military has tended to be the arbiter in national affairs since the first coup in 1987.
As Bainimarama put it before the 2006 coup:
[Prime Minister Laisenia] Qarase is trying to weaken the army by trying to remove me … if he succeeds there will be no one to monitor them, and imagine how corrupt it is going to be.
The coups and the putsch were ostensibly statements of indigenous nationalism – indigenous Fijians asserting their rights over the generally wealthier and better educated descendants of Indian indentured labourers brought to Fiji by British colonial authorities between 1879 and 1916.
However, Fijian politics is vastly more complicated than an indigenous non-indigenous binary. The contentious point, according to Professor Brij V. Lal of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, “is not really about having a Fijian head of government,” but rather which Fijian leader would be acceptable to a particular group of Fijians at any given time”.
The prime minister’s main rival clears legal hurdle
Bainimarama’s main opponent is an indigenous former prime minister and coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka. Bainimarama is also an indigenous Fijian.
Rabuka faced electoral fraud charges that could have seen him declared him ineligible to stand at the election. Rabuka’s acquittal in the Magistrate’s Court was appealed by the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption, and dismissed by the High Court only on Monday afternoon. At his campaign launch in 2018, Rabuka ominously remarked:
I am here to do what I can for as long as I ever can for the good of the country.
However, indigenous nationalism and how the right to self-determination might be played out is important. It is interwoven with class, religion and an urban/rural divide to add to the fragility and complexity of Fiji’s conditional democracy.
Just as it did in 2014, Bainimarama’s Fiji First is campaigning on a range of issues including the building of a multiracial society. Practical measures to improve access to education and healthcare are also important to Fiji First.
Land ownership and rental returns are key political issues
Rabuka’s Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) argues for the restoration of distinctive indigenous voice in public life. It seeks the restoration of the Great Council of Chiefs and of chiefly influence over the distribution of rental incomes.
SODELPA will also begin extensive public consultation on the drafting of a new Constitution.
Ultimately, indigenous prosperity depends on the strength of the national economy. This, in turn, depends on political stability. Contemporary Fiji enjoys neither. While there are signs of improving economic growth, the Fijian people face two obstacles in ensuring that the outcome of Wednesday’s election reflects their collective will.
Firstly, registering to vote then casting a valid and informed vote is difficult. Secondly, as Fiji’s history since 1987 shows, and as the 2013 Constitution confirms, the election’s outcome is ultimately subject to military approval. It may not, then, be in Australia’s best interests to support a stronger Fijian military.
Democratic stability serves Australia’s interests. In Fiji, democracy can be strong only when the military is weak.
The ALP asylum seeker policy appears to be a winner with Australian voters overall, with Kevin Rudd now being favored over Tony Abbott to deal with asylum seekers. However, the Pacific region isn’t impressed.