Being foreign affairs minister is a pretty thankless job, because problems generally have a long lead time. Things that go wrong on your watch are likely to be the fault of some remote predecessor, but you’re left with having to clean up the mess.
But it’s the job Bob Carr has always wanted, so there he was yesterday in Fiji, with a “ministerial contact group” from the Pacific Islands forum, to assess the country’s progress, or lack thereof, towards democracy.
Fiji has been ruled by its military leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, since he seized power in December 2006. As is common with military coups, he promised a speedy return to democracy, but that and subsequent promises of liberalisation have been repeatedly falsified.
The coup was an embarrassing failure of Australian policy. Australian officials had assured everyone that everything was OK and there was no need to contemplate military assistance to Fiji’s elected government.
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Bainimarama had flagged his intentions months beforehand, but Australia’s efforts were geared towards encouraging the government to compromise rather than to stand up to him.
This displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. Once a military commander has shown a taste for interfering in politics, there is no middle ground: they need to be removed. The idea that Bainimarama could be left in place and bought off with concessions and that Fijian democracy would survive was sheer fantasy.
Without laboring the point, Fiji is not a big place, and the resources at Bainimarama’s command were tiny. It is unthinkable that he would have persevered with his plans if he knew that an Australian military response would be forthcoming. But when the coup came, prime minister John Howard went out of his way to rule out the option of Australian intervention.
Australia has one of the world’s largest military forces, grossly out of proportion to any actual need. (We’re about 14th in the world by total military spending, or 12th per capita.) If we’re not going to use it to protect democracy in the region, at the request of a friendly government, what use is it?
But the time for that has now passed. Carr’s predecessors have allowed Bainimarama to get away with tearing up his country’s constitution, with the only result being a set of mild and ineffective sanctions. Now the plan is for “constructive dialogue”, encouraging Fiji to follow through on a promise to hold elections by September 2014.
The contact group declared diplomatically that they had “a sense that Fiji was a country in transition, moving to put in place processes required for elections”, and they “welcomed assurances” that the polls would go ahead and would be free and fair.
But that seems a remote prospect. Realistically, a dictator who has spend more than five years in power is not going to suddenly develop a thirst for democracy. The only way Bainimarama is likely to hold fair elections is if his neighbors apply serious pressure — a good deal more serious than they have so far shown any stomach for.
I suspect Carr is well aware of that, but feels that at present he doesn’t have much choice and “constructive dialogue” — which at least puts Australia on the record supporting democracy — is about the best he can do.
And by the time 2014 rolls around it’s likely that Labor will be out of office and Fiji, once again, will be someone else’s problem.