Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

New Zealand needs to change tack on Fiji

December 18th, 2008

Gordon Campbell

Commodore Bainimarama – Image Selwyn Manning


In every crisis there is an opportunity, and Commodore Bainimarama has given the new National-led government the chance to rescue New Zealand from the dead end policy stance of the Clark government. Later today, we will find out whether Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has been able to grasp the opportunity. Until now, we have been unable to devise a policy towards Fiji that is in anyone’s interests – let alone our own, and in the process we have been helping to undermine the strategic balance in the region. More on that later.

The trigger for possible change has been the imminent threat to expel Caroline McDonald, our acting high commissioner in Suva – which would be the same fate that befell the man she replaced. This comes hard on the heels of the expulsion of the TVNZ journalist Barbara Dreaver. Just over the horizon lies another crisis in waiting – namely, the likely prosecution of former prime minister Laisenia Qarase for allegedly encouraging foreign forces from Australia and New Zealand to invade his country in December 2006.

The immediate cause of the furore over McDonald is largely of our own doing. In line with our “smart sanctions” stance towards Fiji, New Zealand refused to renew a student visa at Massey University for George Nacewa, son of the official secretary to Fiji’s President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo. In the three years, that Nacewa has already been in New Zealand, he seems to have played a valuable liaison role with Pacific Island students, and was on the Massey Wellington Student Association executive council.

Singling him out this far down the track of his studies looks petty and vindictive. One could also argue – as Nacewa has done – that his father is a public servant who serves the President, and not the military government. Going after the study plans of the children of the secretarial staff of the ageing and respected President seems a particularly stupid way of trying to inflict pain on the military leadership. George Nacewa is not Baby Doc, or Uday Hussein. McDonald’s possible expulsion has become Fiji’s response to what – to use the Maori Party’s language – was hardly a mana enhancing gesture by us towards the President of Fiji.

In recent years, the wider problem has been the lack of any positive plan for engaging with the current regime. McCully now has his chance to put that right, and to demonstrate that the new government can bring a fresh approach to the crisis in relations. It needs to do so. Because in April this year, when John Key gave his sole speech on foreign affairs he outlined a policy on Fiji and the Pacific that was virtually identical to that of the Clark government. In fact, apart from a few lines of National Party boilerplate about aid to the Pacific being a hand-up rather than handout, the speech was notable for how little of substance it contained about what is supposed to be New Zealand’s main sphere of influence.

In the wake of Key’s election victory, the prestigious Jane’s Foreign Report ( 13 November 2008) disinterred Key’s April speech, and cited it in less than flattering terms, under the sub-head “ The Man Who Would be Queen” – a reference to Bainimarama’s jibe that Helen Clark saw herself as the Queen of the Pacific.

“ In the past, New Zealand and Australia have emphasised the importance of what they consider to be good governance in the Pacific region. Key’s speech indicates he intends to strengthen this policy, but it is one that has alienated some Pacific states. In August 2006, then Australian defence minister Brendan Nelson revived a long standing notion of an “arc of instability’ in the region, in a speech that did not go down well with Pacific leaders, who in turn accused Canberra of behaving in a neo-imperialist fashion….At the same time, China and Taiwan’s influence in the Pacific has risen. Both have been economically active in the region, with their ‘chequebook diplomacy’ proving more fruitful in winning support than New Zealand and Australia’s more critical approach to governance.”

In his April speech, Key had hit a neo-imperialist note – accidentally, one hopes – in this passage :

The issue of political instability and, in the case of some nations, political failure is now a real challenge in the Pacific. The immediate answers to some of these problems are not obvious. But what is certain is that these nations need us to work in partnership with them to help resolve these problems.

Unfortunately for Key, Pacific nations may not agree that they need the Great White Chiefs in Canberra and Wellington to help them run their countries properly – or at least not as much as we think they do. While Key’s sentiments have some truth in regard to the Solomons, they do not apply to Fiji – which, as Jane’s Foreign Report indicates, has now found other friends. China and Taiwan are both pouring financial aid and diplomatic effort into what has hitherto been a US lake, looked after on its behalf by Australia and New Zealand. Eight countries in the Pacific now have formal diplomatic relations with China, and six have similar connections with Taiwan.

As Jane’s Foreign Report concludes laconically –

The concern for New Zealand and Australia is whether the duelling Asian actors [ China and Taiwan ] will continue to prioritise diplomatic recognition ahead of other considerations. For instance, rather than adding its voice to the condemnation of the Bainimarama administration, China has instead increased the amount of aid it gives Fiji, from approximately $US1 million in 2005 to $US160 million in 2007. Such moves arguably undermine regional efforts to tie aid to improvements in governance.”

You bet they do. All that we may be achieving – as the global financial crisis undermines the tourism industry on which Fiji still depends – is to push the regime further into the arms of the Chinese. The financial crisis is in that sense, a godsend, if we are prepared to treat it as a compassionate reason to change tack. Some small progress has been made since the coup in late 2006, but these have been tiny steps. Belatedly for instance, New Zealand has tried to disengage our earlier fervent support for the now largely discredited Qarase regime from our current support for democracy in general, and for early elections. The risk is that the looming prosecution of Qarase will entice us to go to bat for him all over again.

A quick update on the Qarase prosecution is contained in this interview with Fiji’s Police Commissioner Esala Teleni, published earlier this week on the Fijilive news website :

Fijilive : So after you came into the job, I guess one of the first things you had to deal with was the complaint against the former PM for allegedly encouraging foreign military intervention at the height of the takeover. What is the progress of that investigation?

Teleni : Yes, the complaint was lodged by the military when I was still in the military. The investigation has been completed and the case is now with the DPP and my understanding is that DPP and Director CID are consulting with each other on this case.

Fijilive : So it’s not at a stage where charges could be laid?

Teleni : That will be for the DPP and director CID to decide. The Police have not got a positive response from Interpol (in interviewing people supposedly spoken to) so I think they have decided to take whatever they have to DPP for his advice and they will continue to consult. But I can confirm investigations are ongoing.

It is fondly to be hoped that we will not support Qarase to the hilt. Besides the allegations of corruption still swirling around his administration, it could be very hard to argue with the facts of the case against him. The Fiji High Court ruling in October contained this damning passage, at paragraphs 142-143 :

(142) A Fiji briefing document from the Foreign Ministers Meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum entitled “Security Situation in Fiji” was put to Mr Qarase, and its contents was accepted by him. It referred to the tangible perception that the Government would seek foreign military intervention in case of escalation. Mr Qarase denied inviting military intervention by foreign powers. A clip of a BBC radio interview with Mr Qarase was played to him in which he had said:

“Well, I have been enquiring, particularly from my neighbours
here, Australia and New Zealand, but they have been saying “no”
flatly. So that option is not there.”

[143] Mr Qarase denied having invited intervention. He said he had made an inquiry on the extent and type of assistance. He had in mind something like the New Zealand peace keeping in Tonga or the Australian Forces in the Solomons. Mr McCoy then played another clip in which Mr John Howard the then Australian Prime Minister on 5th December 2006 said Mr Qarase had rung him asking for military intervention. Mr Qarase again denied asking for military intervention.

In other contexts, calling for a foreign invasion of your country would be regarded as tantamount to treason. Yes, serious human rights abuses have occurred under the Bainimarama regime. The point is whether New Zealand policy is accomplishing anything of use. IMHO, the extensive Fiji High Court ruling in October on the removal of the Qarase government is essential reading, and difficult to dismiss as a whitewash.

The dismissal of the Qarase government by President Iloilo was judged by the High Court to have been a lawful exercise of the reserve powers granted him under the Fiji Constitution – given the level of social disruption and allegations of corruption, the apparent willingness of the embattled prime minister to invite an invasion, and the fact he had fled the capital for his home island.

The immediate point being – does New Zealand want to continue to claim the situation to be unlawful, to attack the President and his staff, and to try and pressure Bainaimarama into acquiescence to our own timetable for their elections ? That has not been fruitful so far. It is a course that puts us at loggerheads with the regime, with the President and the courts in Fiji, and eventually with the Fijian people. The economy of Fiji is teetering, and the financial crisis will hit its most vulnerable people extremely hard, just at a time when we have virtually sidelined ourselves. It would hardly be surprising if Bainimarama turns to China and Taiwan for the assistance he will need – and looking ten or twenty years down the track, is that the regional power outcome that we really want to encourage ?

Bainimarama, for all his faults and prickliness, is not Mugabe. All involved, including Qarase ( see para 124 of the judgement) agree that the President was acting in good faith – however much some birdbrain in New Zealand thought it would be a great idea to include the President in the net of smart sanctions. In closing, the High Court decision contains this interesting passage :

[158] The President assessed that Fiji was at a crossroads and had reached a grave crisis. A military intervention had already occurred at the end of a long tunnel of civil strife. If he returned the nation to the status quo ante what might have been the result? We do not have the various intelligence and political assessments before us which might have been available to His Excellency. When he had the freedom to act again as President on 4th January 2007 he had to act swiftly and decisively.

Was the action lawful – or as lawful a course of action as extraordinary circumstances would permit ? Again, the High Court continues :

[159] Cromwell, though a usurper himself, percipiently observed of the urgency of such a moment: “If nothing should be done but what is according to law, the throat of the nation might be cut while we send for someone to make a law.” …

The President’s decision in short was to exercise prerogative powers to rule directly until suitable elections could be conducted…

[162] We find that exceptional circumstances existed, not provided for by the Constitution, and that the stability of the State was endangered. We also find that no other course of action was reasonably available, and that such action as taken by the President was reasonably necessary in the interests of peace, order and good government. Rather than impairing the just rights of citizens we conclude that the President’s actions were designed to protect a wide variety of competing rights from displacement by avoiding conflagration.

[163] We also do not find that the President’s actions consolidated any revolution. The Constitution remained and remains intact. The government exists in the interim by way of direct Presidential rule with His Excellency being advised by a Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers. There have been criticisms of the inclusion of Commodore Bainimarama as Prime Minister…Ideally his advisers should be drawn from across party lines and from a wide political spectrum of civil society. It is clear from media reports many politicians have been reluctant to assist. These persons might otherwise have advised the President on the wise way to achieve a smooth return to democratic rule through universally approved elections. In addition, neighbouring states have imposed travel bans on persons wishing to assist the President on the ground that their actions would bolster an illegal regime. Such action would not have assisted the President in obtaining a broad cross-section of persons from Fiji public life so as to forge a way out of the crisis. Non- participation, whilst a free and democratic choice, does not always assist the democratic aim:

In other words, New Zealand’s policy of righteous isolation may be making things worse in Fiji, not better – and making it less likely, not more likely that the Bainimarama regime becomes widely representative. Later today, Murray McCully will reveal whether our new government has enough sense to change course, and extricate New Zealand from this mess.


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    1. 14 Responses to “New Zealand needs to change tack on Fiji”

    2. By stuart munro on Dec 18, 2008 | Reply

      I agree. Labour’s Fiji policy was another example of a failure of instinct. To prop up NZ’s current reactive stance on Fiji our government has acted in an increasingly petty and vindictive manner.
      Bainimarama was not an enthusiastic entrant to the coup game – he sat out two without becoming involved, and his own was rather bloodless and not without a constitutionally valid cause.
      Our current sanctions reflect spite more than the liberality that must prevail between mature neighbours.

    3. By Brian Marshall on Dec 18, 2008 | Reply

      I agree too.
      Not sure how we can help Fiji back to democracy by travel bans or smart sanctions. Lets engage with the leadership. It can only help.

      Not often I agree you Gordon as much as this, but in this I feel you’ve summed it up very very well.

    4. By Ian Llewellyn on Dec 18, 2008 | Reply

      I have never seen a better crafted explanation to make it acceptable for the military to storm a parliament by gun point, sack those you do not like, and beat up those who disagree with you.
      Oh sorry, I am wrong, Lord Haw Haw was far more persuasive..
      Stuart, really Bainimarama as the reluctant hero to save Fiji, his coup was alright because he didn’t take part in the last two? and it was “rather bloodless” and was “not without” some constitutional validity
      Sure guys I can accept an argument that NZ’s diplomatic strategy in regards to Fiji could change, but to dress up a thug who seized power at the point of a gun as just a misunderstood guy who did the right thing is seriously wrong

    5. By Tom Semmens on Dec 19, 2008 | Reply

      I am not sure what part of “military dictatorship” you don’t understand Mr. Campbell. One is used to hearing apologist special pleadings in support of the brutally repressive butchers of Bejing from the greedy business elites of the right, but it is disappointing to see the same mindset from the left, only this time dressed up in a grostesque mask of “anti-imperialist” political correctness.

      There is never an excuse to overthrow a democratic government.

      There is never an excuse for apartheid.


      New Zealand is argualbly the oldest fully representative democracy of any nation state. To surrender to the apologists of Fiji racial totalitarianism would be a betrayal of what our fine democracy stands for.

    6. By stuart munro on Dec 20, 2008 | Reply

      You don’t seem to have bothered to keep yourself informed. Bainimarama’s coup was in response to some parliamentary actions designed to pardon the instigators of previous coups. If you don’t like coups, you should support him.
      Hitler was democratically elected. Care to recant?

    7. By Tom Semmens on Dec 21, 2008 | Reply

      Stuart, errrrr… I am not sure what point you are trying to make.

    8. By stuart munro on Dec 22, 2008 | Reply

      Your statement “There is never an excuse to overthrow a democratic government.”

      Is a fair genralisation, but like all generalisations, it goes too far.

      Perhaps one way to look at democracy is as a non-violent transition system for states, and as such there is a lot to be said for it.

      But there is a tendency to place too much importance on elections, and not enough on performance in government.

      A government that does not either enact the wishes of it’s constitutents, or instead act in their enlightened best interests, is not behaving democratically.

      Whether such systemic dysfunction merits overthrow is always a matter to be determined by the polity concerned. But there must be a point at which even a democratically elected but non-performing government should be overthrown.

      The argument about Bainimarama is whether his coup was an instance of this kind. Were the Fijian situation stable prior to his action, I suspect even a constitutional change as serious as that for which he ousted the government would have better been solved by something more nearly approaching due process.
      As it stands, his government is only nominally less legitimate than the one it replaced.

      The difficulty is, having chosen to back the wrong junta, NZ is now contributing to Fijian instability, and our long and amiable relationship with that state seems almost irrevocably lost.

      Was barring some student’s education really worth it? I don’t think so, and I think the sanction regime we were running should have been properly labelled. They were not smart sanctions, they were smart-***se sanctions.
      As might have been expected given the authorship.

    9. By Tom Semmens on Dec 22, 2008 | Reply

      Well Stuart, when Fiji invades Poland then over-runs Tonga then destroys New Caledonia and follow it all up with an all out unprovoked and genocidal invasion of Australia then yes, perhaps we should declare a policy of unconditional surrender…

    10. By stuart munro on Dec 23, 2008 | Reply


      You take an external view of the Nazi rise to power. There is a fairly broad consensus that the treaty of Versailles, by beggaring the German economy, almost guaranteed WWII. This being so, the ousting of the Weimar Government was almost obligatory.
      The parallel with Fiji is not strong, with the rule of law continuing and paramilitary activity at a minimum.
      The Nazi parallel was stronger with prior coup governments and the expulsion of Indians.
      It is more Idi Amin that springs to mind though, what with post colonialism and Asian expulsions.
      Rather than encourage Fiji down the path of isolationism, we should have engaged with them. That they still respect our culture enough to educate their children here should have been taken as a compliment, and a commitment to a constructive future.

      Alas, NZ governments don’t do constructive.

    11. By Vee on Dec 24, 2008 | Reply

      Guys I am surprised at you – do any of you live in Fiji ?

      I dont believe Stuart you in particular are buying into the argument that proposed “contentious” legisations by the Qarase Govt was reason enough for the 2006 Coup. There can be nothing right about a coup bloodless or not! Why the hell does the rule of law exist at all if coups are fine ?

      Do I need to tell you again that Bainimarama was being investigated for treason, murder (ordering the killings of CRW soldiers after Speights Coup)and theft (Military Regimental Funds) prior to the elections in 2006 and Commander Andrew Hughes was poised to make some very revealing arrests in Dec 2006 ?

      Also at the time with all the orchestrated bluster about legislation he didnt like etc. , Bainimarama was using taxpayers money to promote his own political party – NAPF.

      In addition to the above we now know that Qarase Govt was committed to the following things prior to Dec :

      1) the downsizing of the military to a number of approx 1300 and increasing the police force number. This was actually already signed to be done through budgetary allocation. Frank appeared before the cabinet sub committee on budget to plead his case and to ask for time. There is also the white paper on the restructuring and reorganising the military and police. It basically watered down the powers of the commander. Frank was not happy with this. The implementation of the white paper was being delayed as it required further discussion and organisation.

      2) the Fijian Affairs Board had been restructured following the recommendation of a committee chaired by Ratu Cokanauto and implementation of the recommendations were being implemented before the Coup took place.

      3) changes had been made, and were in place to be made to the NLTB to make it more proactive and to be able to improve its services .

      4) the Bose ni Vanua was already in place since 1987 but with no official status. The BLV or GCC is an official body recognised under the constitution. Efforts were being made to recognise the Bose ni Vanua perhaps as a useful arm of the GCC as it is is a recognised and useful body at provincial level.

      When Frankie took the country by force in Dec 2006 under the doctrine of necessity – even though he was the one creating the “necessity”, he said none of his officers would benefit.

      Guess who have ensconced themselves all in positions of power and won’t let go ?

      The military now controls the investigative body (through Teleni – who has now destroyed all evidence on the investigation into Bainimarama’s worng – doings)

      The judiciary is controlled though Gates, Shameem, Rokomokoti & others, and the enforcement agencies, land and finance agencies though himself, Roko Lui and Driti and other coup perperprators.

      Now they are abolishing the provincial councils and appointing all of the above to Commandant-like Gulag organisations.

      And Gordon how well do you know Bainimarama? I have known this Navy cadet he was a young man. He has not changed his stripes and never will.

      NO ONE CAN REASON with him!

      He has a one track mind and it is based on illogic, bluster and trickery. You cannot negotiate with him as he is afraid of his own shadow.

      The interview with Teleni is laughable as he has just made proclamations that he is appointed by God personally, and organised a rally complete with the 10 (altered) Commandments , to say so with taxpayers money.

      And rubbish to the foreign invasion garbage too. Also Qarase did not “flee”. He was threatened with his life and that of his family as was Commander Hughes of the Police. The Court Judgement justifying the coup by using a perceived crisis to allow the Military carte blanche over Fiji’s power base is PURE bollocks.

      What your article fails to point out Gordon (perhaps as you dont live in Fiji) is that Nacewa Senior has been the de-facto President of Fiji for 2.5 yrs now. He has been Iloilo’s ears, voice and pen and personally responsibile for the vile decisions made by that office.

      The sanctions placed by NZ and Australia are working ! That is why Bainimarama in his hotheaded bloodshot way of thinking is so irritated … it does not matter what you give to the guy, he will only think he is entitled to more. McCully was right to say : ” “The New Zealand government can’t deal with these discussions with a gun pointed at its head,”

      I tell you what would really work – if NZ said to all the Fijian living in NZ , get the hell out of here, there would be an immediate uprising here in Fiji- thats how many of us would be affected- and Bainimarama would be gone overnight.

      People here are living in fear of the gun and the secret society that has become a part of our lives since the army took the country. Who the hell wants to live like this? —- this is the same set of silly circumstances that has caused the interim AG to believe that spies are listening to him on his phone … hello ! They are all paranoid ….. they all have 2 – 5 bodyguards each (what does that tell you?)

      See this story – this is only the tip pf the iceberg – – you guys dont know what is happening here with hundreds of people being taken up to the military camp for “interrogation” and threatened with the lives of their dear ones. This is the post traumatic syndrome that has occured with the once revered Fiji army treating its own people as if it were the Hisbollah !.

      As for THAT court-ruling, all those judges are coup apologists … and they did not answer nor address Nye Perram’s arguments in any way preferring to twist the arguments all based on a perceived crisis in the “President’s (Nacewa’s) mind.

      So back to when Key says “The immediate answers to some of these problems are not obvious. But what is certain is that these nations need us to work in partnership with them to help resolve these problems. ” is not neo-imperialist …. he is merely stating the truth – Fiji would sink if all of the Fijians living in NZ (legally and illegally) go back to Fiji – we need NZ and NZ needs us. Ditto Aust.

      What Bainimarama and his cohorts have to learn is – they arent just an island. They need to co-exist with the rest of the world – and unfortunately for young George and the Navy cadet, they must learn that there will be casualties – its all part of the human game of negotiation.

      My sources say they all thought China and Korea would provide the panacea but as we know they are finding it harded than they thought as these countries are tough negotiators and will want our very soul.

      We are finding it very hard in Fiji – so many of us have lost our jobs and our trust, BUT we are prepared to sit this out until we come to a hopefully bloodless solution. We want our rights and elected representatives back warts and all ! For this option is much better than this military nightmare that has presented itself.

    12. By Jack on Dec 28, 2008 | Reply

      So, here you are recognising the legitimacy of the coup, and recognising Bainimarama as Fijian President? I have to agree with Tom and Ians responses to Stuart anyway, you both have a severly flawed argument in many ways, yes the denied visa is a bit over the top, but other than sanctions, how else would you like Bainimarama to learn from his action? It’s not a rhetorical question i would genuinely like an answer.

    13. By Bruce Wearne on Dec 29, 2008 | Reply

      Gordon Campbell’s article, for all its Kiwi post-colonial Hobbesian might is right rhetoric, conveniently forgets the signed Wellington agreement which the Commodore also signed with the lawful Prime Minister of Fiji. His failure to honour his own promises makes him a person who simply cannot be trusted. Campbell’s apologetic for the now legalised Interim PM ignores the diplomatic offense that occurred when Fiji’s (lawful) Military Commander thumbed his nose at New Zealand, and this apology for the High Court judgment implicitly endorses that diplomatic disaster. Not very supportive of respect for New Zealand, Gordon! And all this talk about Qarase’s treason is simply inflammatory and self-serving. The problem with this article’s interpretation of the High Court judgment is that it conveniently ignores the responsibility that the President can now hardly avoid – he is the one whose appointment of the “Interim Regime” has legalised the ongoing unlawful threats made by the Military Commander before and after the 2006 election. Gordon Campbell’s “left” apology for might is right simply fudges the question of the “trustworthy” President’s reserved power. If you follow the ruling carefully you will see that he has been judged to have lawfully allowed himself to be unlawfully deposed in order that he would be able to take up his position again when the coup leader called upon him to do so and so constitutionally use his reserve power to justify the takeover. Sorry Gordon your post-modern re-telling of the story ignores the fact that the High Court ruling effectively legalises the Acting Chief Justice’s own illegal appointment and now, having shut out the lawfully elected PM, the GCC and parliament in “recess”, makes himself the one to step into the President’s shoes if the President was to be incapacitated. New Zealanders who want to see a just South West Pacific need to stop and reflect upon the way the Commodore has conveniently abused the trust of the New Zealand Government. Instead of Gordon Campbell’s neo-Hobbesian post-colonial rhetoric, they would do better to listen to the Young People’s Concerned Network

    14. By sam on Dec 31, 2008 | Reply

      who cares what you think gordon you boring old twat, ive never read an article so staid, stale and stuck in the past.
      get a real job with a real paper or spare us your “theories”

    15. By Ian Llewellyn on Apr 14, 2009 | Reply

      I didn’t like the personal abuse.
      But do you now accept that maybe the descent into martial law in Fiji was not a good thing. No matter how it is justified by righting wrongs, the Fiji case seems to prove that sometimes the means does not justify the ends.
      Especially when the ends now just appears to be an attempt to justify the means of seizing power, holding on to it and squashing all dissent

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