Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fiji in from the cold - and courted for the asylum seekers ‘Pacific Solution’


THE AUSTRALIAN yesterday featured an “historic come-in-from-the-cold” meeting in Suva between Foreign Minister Julie Bishop with Fiji military-backed regime chief Voreqe Bainimarama in a report by Asia-Pacific affairs editor Rowan Callick.

She revealed to Bainimarama that the past 56 requests for exemptions under the relaxed travel sanctions policy had been granted (except for one on a technicality), with Callick summing up the “warm” meeting like this:
In the Coalition’s most decisive step away from the foreign policy position of the Rudd-Gillard years, it is restoring links with Fiji across the whole of government, including, crucially, defence ties.

Ms Bishop’s meeting with Commodore Bainimarama went for an hour, running overtime.
According to Callick’s report, Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuobola, has been "to Australia often, and the government’s second most powerful figure, the Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, was allowed to travel to Australia over Christmas". Callick wrote:

The last meeting between Commodore Bainimarama and an Australian Foreign Minister, Labor’s Stephen Smith, degenerated into recriminations. The most recent meeting with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully was also difficult.
Rowan Callick has been a valued occasional contributor to Pacific Scoop, and another contributor, academic Dr Scott MacWilliam, a long time resident of Fiji based at the University of the South Pacific as an associate professor but now at the Australian National University, points out that the punitive “sanctions” Canberra policy towards the Bainimarama regime in 2006 was actually introduced by the previous John Howard-led Coalition government – not by Labor.

Dr MacWilliam says the Tony Abbott-led Coalition now “wants desperately … for Fiji to assist with its ‘Pacific Solution’.

“By using whatever influence PM Bainimarama has in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the Australian government hopes that he will assist in finding more countries which will open refugee camps. Fiji too is on the radar as a settlement target.”

Dr MacWilliam, whose article on the “Pacific Solution” and Fiji was published on Pacific Scoop yesterday, writes in a note to Café Pacific today:
Dr Scott MacWilliam ... Fiji on the radar
for "Pacific Solution". Image: PMC
  1. The meeting of Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was indeed historic but not for the reasons outlined in the Australian media, where the occasion was a lead news item in the press, radio and TV.
  2. Even Rowan Callick of The Australian missed the significance of the meeting in his story which accompanied a front page picture of the two shaking hands in Suva. Callick wrote that this was important because it represented   “a step away from the foreign policy position of the Rudd-Gillard years”.
  3. But sanctions, the cornerstone of the Australian stance toward the military regime, were imposed immediately after the 2006 coup by Alexander Downer, the Foreign Minister in the John Howard-led conservative coalition. The Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard–led Labor dominated coalition simply adopted the policy which was in place after winning the 2007 election in Australia.
  4. There was some softening in the Australian position after 2006, mainly in the form of increased aid granted at the same time as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank were persuaded to cut their support for Fiji. However the sanctions policy which has lasted until recently is better described as the Howard-Rudd-Gillard policy. Not for the first time, the Abbott government is distancing itself from its conservative predecessor.
  5. Although the Fiji government will be well aware of this correct history, it will also know the underlying reason for the rapprochement being sought by the current Australian government. What the Tony Abbott-led coalition wants desperately is for Fiji to assist with its “Pacific Solution”. By using whatever influence PM Bainimarama has in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, the Australian government hopes that he will assist in finding more countries which will open refugee camps. Fiji too is on the radar as a settlement target.
  6. Any other assistance the Fiji government can provide in getting Australia, New Zealand and the USA an improved strategic and commercial position in the region will of course be welcome too.

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