Yesterday’s report announcing today’s proposed meeting in Wellington between the Fiji Prime Minister and Commodore Frank Bainimarama was headlined Australia Sidelined at NZ Fiji Summit.

Is the Wellington Summit evidence of Australia’s ongoing loss of moral authority among our nearest Pacific neighbours? Over the last few years, Australia and New Zealand have adopted different paths in their dealings with our near Pacific neighbours. Australia seems to favour the role of “head prefect bully” while New Zealand aims to be the “mentoring headmaster”.

New Zealand’s acceptance of “guest workers” from the region and Australia’s unreasoned rejection of same is just one concrete example. For weeks now Mr Downer has been predicting an “imminent” or “within a fortnight” coup in Fiji.

As if they were reading from the same musical score, DFAT’s favourite son in Fiji, Police Commissioner Hughes, stated at a news conference on 22 November, 2006 that: “We’re right on the brink of it (…not the coup but charging Commodore Bainimarama with sedition).” And a supportive Minister Downer stated: “The rule of law should apply; it’s just a question of applying the laws.”

Trouble is: one of Commodore Bainimarama’s main gripes is precisely the fact that the Qarase government has failed to apply the law against the 2000 coup and mutiny leaders. Having put his own life on the line to defend “law and order” during the coup and mutiny, the Commodore’s concerns may be understandable.
Indeed, the Qarase government has drafted a bill to permanently indemnify the coup and mutiny leaders.

Further, the Commodore claims that the Qarase government is corrupt – echoes of recent statements by Howard and Downer concerning the Solomon Islands government.

In contrast to the statements by Downer and Hughes, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark yesterday quietly but firmly rejected demands for the arrest of Commodore Bainimarama while he was in New Zealand. Instead she has succeeded in brokering talks between the Commodore and the Prime Minister at Government House in Wellington where resides New Zealand’s Indian/Fijian-born Governor-General.

With the worsening situation in Fiji the New Zealand High Commission and its staff was moved from Suva to Nandi. By contrast, Australia was embarrassingly “sprung” by the Fiji military sneaking unspecified personnel and large locked silver boxes into Fiji without apparent compliance with immigration and customs laws.

As a spokesperson for the coalition of NGOs in Fiji stated on New Zealand radio this morning, Fiji has the appropriate national institutions to resolve its problems in its own way. What may be required (as NZ seems to be attempting) is some means of allowing the domestic dispute-resolution process to take place and for a sustainable conclusion to be reached, rather than to impose short-term “law and order” solutions.

Clearly the Commodore has strong domestic support, especially among the military. The Fiji Prime Minister would not have flown specially to Wellington for the meeting were it otherwise. Imprisoning the Commodore may sound logical in Australia, but to date we’ve been lucky (once again) to have retained “neutral” armed forces.

If nothing else: DFAT ought to have learnt from the AWB debacle that unprincipled short term measures can result in long-term “shadows” cast upon Australia’s international reputation. For the time being DFAT must wait in the shadows of the Wellington Summit before deciding upon the Agenda for Friday’s proposed Pacific Forum Foreign Ministers meeting in Sydney…if the ministers turn up.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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