Byron Clark The Spark March 2009
In what John Key has described as sending “a strong message” Pacific Forum leaders voted earlier this year to suspend Fiji from the Forum unless the interim government sets an election date before May 1. The suspension means that Fiji cannot attend meetings between forum leaders, ministers or officials; it will also be excluded from benefiting from any regional initiatives run under the forum. Both Mr Key and forum chairman Toke Talagi said the decision was made by consensus, a surprising result given smaller Pacific nations were expected to vote against suspension, with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare stating in his speech (released to the media before the meeting) “I am of the strong view that adopting an isolationist approach would be unhelpful.”
Fiji has already lost the benefits of one “regional initative” - participation in the seasonal work scheme allowing Pacific Islanders to work in New Zealand. Fiji was suspended from the scheme by the previous Labour government. So far this sanction has done little - if anything - to destabilise the military regime, instead it has effected ordinary Fijians. The Fiji based Coalition for Democracy and Peace, consisting of citizens’ groups and non-governmental organisations, had said that the poor are the ones most affected by sanctions imposed by New Zealand. Even when New Zealand sent aid to Fiji (via the Red Cross) in the wake of horrific floods, local Fijians said a better way for the New Zealand Government to help them would be to let them work in New Zealand, rather than give aid money. A petition was circulated asking Prime Minister John Key to issue special directions for one-year work visas for flood victims, and for an equivalent to the Pacific Access Category for Fijian citizens already in New Zealand.
Its doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Australia and New Zealand used their influence as imperialist powers in the region to sway the votes of other forum members. New Zealand governments -both the current National led government and the previous Labour led one- have taken a strong stance against Fiji’s interim government. The line from the Beehive has commonly been that Fiji should “Return to democracy”; this phrase can be seen in government media releases, or editorials in the mainstream media, but what “democracy” does Fiji have to return too?
Fiji has since colonial times had a racially segregated voting system, 46 of the 71 seats in parliament are ‘communal’ electorates in which voters vote according to their ethnicity. The electorates are based on provinces, not population distribution, leading to further inequality of representation. Crosbie Walsh of the University of the South Pacific wrote of the 2006 election;
” [T]here were on average only 9,437 registered voters in [Ethnic] Fijian, 4,607 in General Voter, and 5,373 in Rotuman communal electorates. This compared with 16,065 for Urban Fijian electorates and 11,014 for Indo-Fijians. Urban Fijians and Indo-Fijians were grossly under-represented”
Walsh goes on to note that the over-represented electorates are among the least “developed” making voters prone to influence by chiefs and church ministers. Those electorates where people were under represented had in the past produced multi-ethnic parliamentary leaders from the Labour Party; Dr Timoci Bavadra, the first Labour Party prime minister, ousted by the “Rabuka” coup in 1987, and Adi Teimumu Vuikaba Speed, Deputy Prime Minister in the Mahendra Chaudhry Labour-led government ousted by the “Speight” coup in 2000.
New Zealand’s attitude toward Fiji after these coups was remarkably different from their stance toward the current regime. After the 1987 coup New Zealand engaged with the coup installed government for 5 years following the removal of the elected leader Timoci Bavadra and the 1970 Constitution, it also engaged with the government installed after the 2000 coup, despite it being ruled illegal by Fiji’s high court (unlike the current interim government). Today New Zealand continues to support the undemocratic monarchy in Tonga, despite a strong movement there calling for democracy. The difference in stance toward Fiji seems to be that the previous coups both represented the overthrow of governments led by a party formed along class lines rather than ethnic ones, with a strong union movement as its base. The 1987 and 2000 coups were both led by racially motivated leaders pledging to protect native Fijian interests (in reality meaning the interests of Fiji’s elite).
The current interim government however, is pledging to hold elections once there has been electoral reform, disestablishing the racially segregated voting system and instituting one person one vote. This may yet be shown to be empty rhetoric, indeed some of the actions of the interim government seem rather undemocratic and should be of concern, but New Zealand’s stance is clearly not based on democracy. Could it be that New Zealand took a soft attitude to the governments installed after previous coups because it does not want to see a left-leaning government in Fiji influencing other countries in the region, not to mention the large Pacific diaspora in New Zealand? This doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination either. There are also powerful New Zealand interests in Fiji, which is New Zealand’s largest export market amongst the Pacific Islands. New Zealand’s attitude to Fiji is not based on humanitarian interests, but on the interests of capital.