New Zealand and Fiji: Moving Forward

23 September 2011

A speech given to some friends of Fiji, suggesting that the New Zealand Government should be taking steps to thaw our relationship with the Fiji military regime.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I greatly appreciate this opportunity to meet with you this evening.

As you probably know, the ACT Party was founded some 15 years ago with a primary focus on helping all New Zealanders enjoy a better life, and to do that through less intrusive government. 

And when I say we were founded to help all New Zealanders, I mean all New Zealanders — those on high incomes and those on low incomes, those whose ancestors arrived here centuries ago and those who’ve only just become citizens.

That’s meant that most of our focus over that 15 year period has been on economic and social policy — on how to ensure that all New Zealanders are able to afford decent housing and decent healthcare; on how to ensure that all New Zealanders can choose high quality education for their children; on how to ensure that all New Zealanders are safe in their homes and in their streets; on how to ensure that all New Zealanders are equal before the law, with no special privilege based on race.

Economic and social policy is still our primary focus because we’re very much aware that a great many New Zealanders are finding it hard to get ahead, indeed, even hard to make ends meet.

As a party, we’ve not had a strong focus on foreign policy.  We’ve supported the basic thrust of New Zealand’s foreign policy under successive governments — a commitment to constructive engagement with the world based on respect for all peoples and the rule of law.

But tonight I want to talk about New Zealand’s relationship with Fiji because I’ve come to the conclusion that current policy is not serving the interests of Fiji or the interests of New Zealand.

Some years ago, but after the Bainimarama coup in late 2006, I first heard a Fijian of European ethnicity argue that both Australia and New Zealand had it wrong — that by isolating the Bainimarama regime we were not helping Fiji and we were not acting in our own national interest.

More recently, I’ve heard that view expressed by a number of Fijians of Indian ethnicity.  And I’ve heard it expressed by some New Zealanders who know the Pacific well.

So what is New Zealand’s official stance towards Fiji at present?  As you all know, of course, it’s to have as little to do with the Bainimarama regime as possible.  We’ve not imposed economic or trade sanctions on the country, but we’ve placed a ban on visits to New Zealand by anybody associated with the regime, including in particular the Fiji military, and placed travel restrictions even on New Zealand residents who once had links to the regime.

We’ve made it abundantly clear that we don’t like military coups and we want Fiji to return to a democratic government as quickly as possible.  When Fiji failed to hold elections in 2009, when first promised, New Zealand pushed for the country to be excluded from meetings of the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, and to this day Fiji remains on the outside of both bodies.  We’ve made it clear that we don’t accept Bainimarama’s commitment to have elections by 2014 as in any way adequate, and the implication is that actually we don’t trust him to hold elections in that year anyway.

Let me make it clear that the ACT Party does not condone military coups either.  Military coups almost always result in the suspension of the civil rights that we in New Zealand take for granted — freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly — and the Fiji military coup has been no exception in that regard.  There are reports of imprisonment without trial, of people dying in unexplained circumstances, of newspapers being closed down, of trade unions being banned.  For the avoidance of doubt, let me say it again: the ACT Party does not condone military coups!

But let me make several points.

First, New Zealand does not ban visits to New Zealand by the leaders of all the countries which fail to live up to New Zealand’s standards of democracy.  Over the years, we’ve had more or less normal relationships with countries having a very wide range of government systems — from western-style democracies, to “guided democracies”, to countries which oscillate between democratic government and military rule, to countries which are more or less benign dictatorships, to countries which are brutal dictatorships.

Second, it now appears clear that most of Fiji’s immediate neighbours want to engage constructively with the country, notwithstanding the absence of any resolution to that effect at the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum summit in Auckland in mid-September. 

At the very beginning of this month, at a meeting in Fiji, the representatives of 11 of Fiji’s Pacific neighbours — including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga — issued a communiqué which reaffirmed “Fiji’s Strategic Framework for Change as a credible home-grown process for positioning Fiji as a modern nation state and to hold parliamentary elections”, and noted the importance of Fiji’s “full participation in regional development initiatives and programmes”.

Third, although it’s always difficult to measure public opinion accurately when people are afraid to speak freely, a survey of Fijian opinion conducted last month by the respected Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy found that 75% of Indo-Fijians and 60% of indigenous Fijians felt that Bainimarama was doing a good or very good job as Prime Minister.  The same survey found substantial majorities holding a favourable view of the government’s performance in delivering education, transport and health services, in ending racial inequalities and divisions, and in improving land ownership laws.  Even discounting for the influence of the military regime on people’s willingness to answer such surveys honestly, it seems likely that the Bainimarama regime enjoys quite considerable popular support within Fiji.

Fourth, it’s important to remember that in the 24 years since 1987, Fiji has had five military coups and five general elections.  The Bainimarama coup of late 2006 was simply the most recent of those coups.   There are no doubt many factors which contribute to military coups, but in Fiji’s case the environment at the time of the latest coup was bleak.  The National Council for Building a Better Fiji noted in early 2008 that

“Today… Fiji’s people are, by and large, disappointed and disenchanted.  The dream of a tolerant, united and prosperous nation has been replaced by a different reality: a reality characterised by political instability, repeated coups, economic stagnation, increasing religious and racial intolerance, a rising tide of serious crime and violence, widespread poverty, the emigration of many talented citizens and, for many, hopelessness and despair.”1

The Council noted that a major source of the underlying problem was the electoral system.  It noted that the constitution reserved “places excessively and unfairly as Communal seats that make up over half the House of Representatives.  This entrenches a coup culture through race based politics that impedes our national development.”2

As far back as 1996, the Constitution Review Commission chaired by the late Sir Paul Reeves asserted that “the people of Fiji need to make a conscious choice about whether they wish to take a decisive step away from the communal system that has made ethnic policies inevitable since before independence.”

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that a great deal of the political instability suffered by Fiji since independence stems from the fact that Fiji’s constitutional arrangements have been designed to entrench the power of indigenous Fijians and, within that community, the power of the traditional chiefs.

Commodore Bainimarama is himself an indigenous Fijian of course.  He heads an army which is almost entirely made up of indigenous Fijians.  Of the 21 Permanent Secretaries in the Fijian Government, all but three are indigenous Fijians.  All but two of his ministers are indigenous Fijians.

But what Bainimarama claims to want is a “colour blind” Fijian constitution, a country where every citizen is equal before the law.

The “People’s Charter for Change, Peace and Progress”, published at the end of 2008 after an extensive round of consultations throughout Fiji, stated that its overarching objective was “to rebuild Fiji into a non-racial, culturally vibrant and united, well-governed, truly democratic nation; a nation that seeks progress and prosperity through merit-based equality of opportunity and peace”3

It noted that “our nation needs to urgently remove all unjustifiable systems, policies and programmes which are based on racial discrimination or narrow communal considerations.”4

It noted that “Fiji’s electoral system is racially discriminatory and undemocratic…  The current communal system of representation entrenches inequalities by not providing one value for one vote, has contributed to the ‘coup culture’, and the consequent ethnic-based politics that has impeded our national development.  We commit ourselves to a free and fair electoral process that promotes one people, one nation, and one identity.”5

A constitution where every citizen is equal under the law is exactly what the ACT Party stands for in New Zealand — one law for all, irrespective of race, irrespective of when people arrived in New Zealand — so not surprisingly I find that commitment one which I strongly endorse.

Indeed, I have read the “People’s Charter” and found hardly a word in it which I would change.  In fact, I wondered whether the authors of the “Charter” had been reading the ACT Party’s manifesto when I read that “the Government plays an over dominant role in the economy with politicians and officials second guessing the business decisions of private sector entrepreneurs (through investment approvals, planning approvals, and price control approvals) rather than in planning and implementing their own primary responsibilities, especially in the provision of basic public services”6!

Ironically, with a high rate of emigration by Indo-Fijians (with many coming to New Zealand to our great advantage) and a relatively low birth rate, the Indian share of Fiji’s population has been falling steadily for many years, and now stands at only about 34%.  In other words, an electoral system firmly based on the principle of one-person-one-vote would leave indigenous Fijians in full control of the legislature if they were to vote along ethnic lines.  But of course such a system would not allow the traditional chiefs to retain their previous primacy.

Let me conclude by saying that I don’t want to pretend that dealing with a military dictator is easy.   And nobody should be comfortable with the fact that Fiji has suffered five military coups in just 24 years. 

But New Zealand and Fiji have been friends for a very long time.  Our soldiers have fought alongside Fijian soldiers.  Our rugby players have played against Fijian rugby players.  We have been tourists in each other’s country.   Our business people have done business together.  Fiji is a vitally important piece of the South Pacific jigsaw.  The survey conducted last month by the Lowy Institute revealed an enormous amount of goodwill towards New Zealand on the part of ordinary Fijians.  It’s not in Fiji’s interests and it’s not in New Zealand’s interests to keep Fiji in a state of isolation.

Nobody likes to lose face by changing direction — not military rulers and not democratically elected Foreign Ministers. 

But if ACT gets back into the next Parliament in sufficient numbers, we’ll certainly be encouraging whomever the Foreign Minister is to re-engage with Fiji, in the interests of both Fiji and New Zealand.

1 People’s Charter for Change, Peace and Progress: Building a better Fiji for all, Suva, 2008.

2 Moving Fiji forward through electoral reform, Suva, 2008.

3 Op. cit., page i.

4 Ibid., page 5.

5 Ibid., page 11.

6 Ibid., page 25.

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Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.