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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